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Pedal Slow to Ride Fast

  • By Paul Moore
  • Published September 4, 2009

Photo: John Segesta

By Lance Watson

Many novice cyclists ride at a low cadence. Over the past two decades, the mantra of most respected cycling coaches has been to “spin, spin, spin” in order to increase efficiency and speed. By this they mean that instead of turning the pedals at 70 revolutions per minute, as many beginners do, athletes should try to move their legs a little more quickly.

This is good advice. Spinning with a smooth average cadence of 85 to 95 rpm on race day is an effective way to maintain a consistent heart rate and conserve glycogen while minimizing lactate accumulation.

I have taught many age-group athletes who have spent years riding at 70 to 80 rpm to spin at a higher cadence. Once athletes make the change and become comfortable at the higher cadence, they become faster and more efficient riders. Athletes are thus able to perform at higher sustained wattage for longer periods of time. However, training athletes over multiple seasons at higher cadences has resulted in a phenomenon I didn’t expect: In some cases, performance started to taper off, and power output dropped.

Photo: John Segesta

To solve this problem, I returned the athletes to regular, sustained, lower-cadence riding sessions to increase strength. This training was interspersed with training at and above optimal race cadence.

As the season progressed, the athletes were able to ride at 90 rpm on the same gear that they previously were riding 70 rpm on earlier in the season. They increased their wattage output significantly in the lower cadence range first and then in the higher cadence range. Lower-cadence riding builds strength by using more muscle fibers for every pedal stroke, while the higher-cadence practice lets the athlete translate that strength into sustained endurance performance.

Any cycling coach will tell you that workouts on hills make you stronger. Fighting gravity, riders will climb for prolonged periods of time at a lower cadence, feeling increased resistance on the pedals. An efficient climber who rides at 90 to 95 rpm on a flat course may climb at 65 to 80 rpm uphill, depending on its grade.

If you can’t find a hill that allows you to do sustained climbs over a steady gradient, get yourself a high-quality stationary trainer that will give you enough resistance to put maximum force into the pedals at a low cadence on a very hard gear.

Standing Climbing

Have you ever stood on the pedals, climbing a hill for 20 minutes straight without sitting? Probably not. Standing while climbing isolates the quadriceps much more than seated climbing, which you can practice best on a trainer. Standing on the stationary bike forces you to drive the pedals straight down, as the bike is held upright in place. Start with Level 1 and repeat the exercises in each level for two to three workouts before progressing to the next level. With all the workouts, make sure you do a very good warm-up and cool-down of 15 to 30 minutes.

Level 1: Holding a cadence of 60 to 65 rpm, stand for five to eight repeats of three to five minutes, for a total of 15 to 30 minutes of interval time. Recover between intervals for one to two minutes at 90 rpm. Your heart rate (HR) for the intervals should be 10 to 15 beats per minute below your 25-mile bike time trial heart rate, or lactate threshold (LT).

Level 2: Stand for repeats of two to three sets of 10 to 15 minutes each for a total of 20 to 45 minutes of interval time. Staying on the same gear (i.e. 53×14 or 53×16), ride the first third of the interval at 55 to 60 rpm with your heart rate at 10 to 15 beats below LT, the middle third at 60 to 65 rpm with HR at eight to 12 beats below LT, and the last third at 65 to 70 rpm with HR at six to 10 beats below LT. Recover between intervals for five minutes at 90 rpm.

Level 3: At level 3 you are ready for sustained standing and pedaling. Consider doing 2×20-minute climbs, or even a 30- to 45-minute, non-stop standing climb. Ride the first two thirds at a cadence of 60 to 65 rpm and then accelerate to 70 to 75 rpm while standing for the final third. HR can build to eight to 12 beats below LT. Recover between intervals for five minutes at 90 rpm.

Seated Climbing

Seated climbing on a steep grade emphasizes the low back muscles, gluteus muscles and hamstrings. Prop up your front wheel with a block of wood or a phone book to simulate a hill. This shifts your center of gravity back and helps you isolate your climbing muscles.

Be careful when starting this progression if you have a history of low-back pain. In that case, start easier and gradually build pedal resistance. Perform the tasks in each level for two to three workouts before progressing to the next level.

Level 1: Staying seated, complete this set of intervals once or twice: 8-6-4-2 minutes at 65 to 70 rpm with two minutes of recovery at 90 rpm after each interval. Recover an extra five minutes between sets. HR for the intervals should be 10 to 15 beats per minute below LT.

Level 2: Sit for one to two 15- to 20-minute low-cadence intervals. The first five minutes should be at 60 to 65 rpm, and the remainder of the interval should be at 50 to 55 rpm. Lower your cadence by increasing the resistance on your trainer or by pushing a harder gear on your bike. HR for the intervals should be eight to 12 beats per minute below LT.

Level 3: At level 3 you are ready for some long, sustained, seated strength riding, followed by shorter intervals at even lower cadences. Perform one interval of 15 to 20 minutes as indicated in level 2. After five to 10 minutes of recovery riding at 90 rpm, perform four to six two- to three-minute intervals at 40 to 50 rpm. HR for the intervals should be eight to 12 beats per minute below LT.

The Mixer: Standing, Sitting and Race Cadence

After you have mastered seated and standing resistance riding, it is time to put it all together. The most important thing is to create a meaningful progression of strength-oriented resistance riding with gradually escalating heart rates as you get closer to race season. If you find riding either seated or standing harder, then emphasize your weakness. Here are four great mixers:

Two to three sets of: three minutes seated at 60 rpm, three minutes standing at 60 rpm, two minutes seated at 50 rpm, two minutes standing at 70 rpm, one minute seated at 40 rpm and one minute standing at 80 rpm. Shift gears up and down to adjust cadence to maintain a relatively static heart rate of eight to 12 beats below LT. Take three minutes recovery at 90 rpm between sets.

Two to three sets of: 10 minutes seated at 55 rpm and five minutes standing at 70 rpm. Stay on the same gear and let the HR increase for the standing portion to six to 10 beats below LT. Take three minutes of recovery at 90 rpm between sets.

Ten to 15 minutes with one minute standing at 70 rpm and one minute seated at 90 rpm. This continuous set can be intense, and you can let HR climb all the way up to LT.

Two to three sets of: five minutes seated at 60 rpm, five minutes seated at 70 rpm and five minutes seated at 90 rpm. Let HR build through the set from six to 10 beats below LT all the way up to LT.

Spending many hours at race-specific cadences and heart rates in training is critical for racing success. Just as important is building some early-season strength to put some power into the pedals.

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Paul Moore

Paul Moore

Paul Moore is the Online Editor for Triathlete Europe. When not glued to a computer he can be found writing books - most recently Ultra Performance: The Psychology of Endurance Sports and The World's Toughest Endurance Challenges. Both are available on Amazon. Paul has also written Ultimate Triathlon: A complete training guide for long-distance triathletes which is also available on Amazon.