How Cycling Cadence Works

Optimal Cycling Cadence

Cyclists look for the right cadence, one that works with their personal physiology.
Cyclists look for the right cadence, one that works with their personal physiology.

Cyclists are sometimes identified as "mashers" or "spinners." A masher is someone who likes to race by pedaling hard on high gears with low or moderate cadences. A spinner, on the other hand, races on low gears with high cadences.

One might assume that there's one optimal cadence -- or an ideal cadence -- that perfectly balances power and endurance that every cyclist should strive for, allowing the human body to be its most efficient. Interestingly, some studies that examined cadence concluded that a lower cadence -- about 60 rpm -- is the most physiologically efficient, even though the best cyclists pedal at higher cadences -- usually over 80 rpm. However, more recently, some have decided to test this again, accounting for some flaws in the earlier studies. These follow-up studies found that, with a high power output, 80 to 100 rpm cadences can be the most efficient [source: Cheung].

According to one theory, the aerobic performance is best at these higher cadences. This could be a result of the body delivering more blood to and from the heart while pedaling at such a high rate. This means that blood will have higher oxygen levels, improving aerobic performance [source: Peveler].

So, some argue that this is because optimal cadence can be different depending on the individual. Lance Armstrong, for instance, achieves very high cadences on lower gears because of his high aerobic capacity [source: Ertl]. In his discussion of optimal cadence, Dr. Stephen Cheung likens it to walking -- the ideal walking cadence can depend on the individual's body size and simple preference [source: Cheung].

The optimal cycling cadence also has a lot to do with the two types of muscle fibers: slow-twitch fibers and fast-twitch fibers. Mashers use more fast-twitch fibers, which offer a lot of power but fatigue quickly. Spinners, on the other hand, use more slow-twitch fibers, which don't fatigue as quickly. Slow-twitch fibers also don't produce as much lactic acid or burn as much glycogen as fast-twitch fibers [source: Williamson].

Although optimal cadence can depend on the person, cycling coaches generally encourage mashers to push themselves to a higher cadence on a lower gear. Next, we'll go over some helpful drills for just that purpose.