Should I Care About Cadence?

Thanks to the Co-Habitant's love of gadgets, I now have a new cycling computer with an extra feature that measures cadence (the rate at which the cyclist is pedaling). He thought it would be neat to know what mine is, because of my apparently peculiar tendency to not get out of breath while cycling. Even if I am going quite fast (I got my speed up to 20-25mph on flat ground over the course of last summer), my legs get tired, but at no point am I out of breath. For a while, I thought that this was normal and that cycling was inherently an anaerobic activity. But some road cyclists have since told me that if my heart rate is not elevated, then I am "doing it wrong" and need to measure my cadence.

Well, all right. So I have the special computer now and can measure it. I switched to a lower gear and pedaled as fast as I could to see when my heart would start to beat faster. It happened after I reached a cadence of 90 and stayed there for 3.5 minutes. I am out of shape now compared to how I was over the summer, so back then I am sure it was higher. Because I don't like feeling out of breath, my natural rhythm on the trainer is a cadence of around 75-85 - at which point my heart rate is just a tiny bit elevated and I can keep pedaling for quite a long time while absorbed in a movie.

So: normal or unusual? As often happens, attempts to look it up have produced wildly different answers. I have a fairly low resting heart rate (in the 50s bpm), which might also account for why I am not usually out of breath when cycling. But for the most part, I would just like to understand what I should be aiming for in terms of cadence, and whether it is even important to a non-competitive cyclist. For those of you who ride a roadbike: Do you know what your cadence is, and do you care?


  1. Among other benefits, cadence should help ...

    1) Reduce strain injuries to your knees;
    2) Spread the work over easier gears; and
    3) Increase distance of your rides.

    In my experience, a cadence of 90 is about normal, but I think that's a relatively modern thing. Lower cadences (60s) were more prevalent in years past, although even twenty-five years ago I remember reading that high cadences and fixed-gears would help develop smooth pedaling technique.

    I believe Lance Armstrong was among the first professional cyclists to prove that "high tempo" riding (very high cadences, above 100) would win road races. It was interesting to watch his primary competitor, Jan Ulrich, struggle up mountains at 80 rpm while he was zooming by at 110 rpm. This style has since been adopted by other riders with good success.

    My resting heart rate was extraordinarily low in my fitter days, but I never had a problem finding myself out of breath. If you do, you might try, for example, maintaining the same cadence in higher gears over the same terrain. Or, just find a decent hill nearby, preferably at least three miles long and at least four percent grade, and enjoy a friendly bout with gravity.

  2. I ride approximately 8,000 to 10,000 miles a year and frankly couldn't care less about cadence, speed or heart rate. I do not have any sort of computer on my bike, not even an odometer and can therefore only guess at my distances. Sometimes I ride quickly, when the mood seizes me, other times I dawdle along in a reverie. I am never out of breath.

    I used to run marathons many years ago, and in reasonable times, too, so I have some idea of how to train, if i want to. My guess is that i probably gain some fitness benefits from all the cycling I do, but that is not why I am out there - I just like the sheer simple childish joy of riding my bike.

  3. In my experience, if you are in a hurry, you should pedal faster. In other words, increase your cadence.

    Otherwise, pedal at a comfortable rate. Your cadence may vary.

  4. Resting heart rate in the 50s? Excellent!!

    Why would you want to get out of breath?
    I personally don't care about cadence although it may be very important. I do want to increase my distance but I do Not want to push it so that I will purposefully get out of breath. What is the rational for that?

  5. I often wonder about what my cadence might be, and have pondered a computer just to satisfy the curiosity. I do get out of breath, though that may be partially due to being asthmatic and constantly having to climb hills.

  6. The short answer to your question is ... It depends. Cycling computers have typically been roadie gadgets. If one were just tooling around a most flat town for relatively short distances, the device isn't necessary. That said, I think it (the computer) could help someone to get a better understanding of cycling technique. And they have gotten so small and inexpensive, it couldn't hurt to have it on one or two of your more performance oriented bikes.

    Although I no longer consider myself a 'roadie', I do find that maintaining my condition and minimizing injury makes all types of cycling more enjoyable.

    You mentioned thinking that you were riding anaerobically because you weren't out of breath. Be assured that no matter what a persons physical condition, they will be very much out of breath when the muscles run in oxygen deficit. Your body attempt to remedy the condition by increasing respiration rate.

    In addition to cadence, you might also find the heart rate function useful for training.

    I follow this blog regularly, and based on what I've read, I think you would definitely benefit from the computer. With a resting pulse of only 50's and never getting out of breath, you might have the genetic makeup to be a very strong cyclist. I look forward to reading future posts about your experience with the computer.

  7. I suffer from the same "malady" - even though I'm pedaling along at a high cadence, I am seldom out of breath and seldom experience elevated heart rate except when I'm really hammering up a steep incline over, say, a mile or more. On the infrequent occasions when I ride with a partner or two, it's a condition that makes the other riders crazy: while they are huffing and puffing along, I'm still talking normally. I, too, attribute this in part to a low resting heart rate, and probably some genetic predisposition to greater lung capacity (an assessment with which I'm certain my students would concur...!)

  8. Elevated heart rate only matters if you're riding for exercise. Also, if you elevate you're heart rate you're more likely to break a sweat also. something you don't want to do in the winter.

    As for cadence, find one that is comfortable and you're not mashing own on the pedals. Due to some weird quirk, whenever I try to use a higher cadence I start to get a pain in my knees.

  9. For a reality check, ride a couple of miles at 10mph at 90rpm and then compare to how you feel after riding a couple of miles at 70rpm at the same 10mph.

    I think you'll find that AT THE SAME SPEED, the faster cadence tires you less and is easier on the knees. The reason your experience seems different is on the road, at the lower rpm, you'll actually wind up riding slower, resulting in an apples-to-oranges subjective comparison.

    Racing has nothing to do with it. It's about taking advantage of where the human engine performs best.

  10. A high cadence helps keep the duty cycle short and the legs fresh. Helpful whether being competitive or finishing a long distance event.

    On the flats, hardly an issue. Ramping up the distance of your rides, intensity or climbing will test your slow cadence.

    If your goal is speed, it sounds like your muscle fitness lags behind a strong aerobic capacity. At this point in the season it's about base building anyhow.

    For road rides I try to stay 90-95 rpm, with large efforts of 40-50 and 150. Each range taxes the body differently.

    Here's a great cycling term: souplesse.

  11. examinedspoke - cycling up sustained hills turned from torturous to interesting when I finally trusted the advice to switch to a gear that would allow me to spin. It was counterintuitive for me, but turned out to be one of those "a-ha!" moments : )

  12. "cadence" schmadence is all about the fun now isn't it?

    IMO cadence matter only when you ride indoors to elevate your heart rate to keep in shape.

  13. Velouria

    If you can go 20-25 miles on the flat and not be out of breath or feel any ill effects (sore Knees) then forget "the right way" and keep doing what you are doing. Back in 1999 when Mr Armstrong started using smaller gears and super fast cadence to take advantage of his great aerobic capacity and compensate for his decreased muscle power after the battle with cancer the "experts" thought his style was wrong..... until he started kicking peoples ass up hills and in time trials. Go with what works and feels right for you and forget the rest.

  14. meh i used to care about cadence when I did a lot more training on my fixed gear. I would try to keep it around 90-100, and my gearing made it so that at around 90-100rpm I was moving at around 20mph. I have since lost the sensor for my cadence computer and I have started doing a lot more training on my geared bike (1980 Gazelle!). It is good to have a computer that tells cadence at first, so you can get to know how different cadences feel like, but I really don't miss it. When I ride by myself or up a hill, I usually pedal at a higher cadence than when I ride in a group. When you are drafting, you can often ride a harder gear at a low cadence, and just pedal softly and you will keep moving, but use very little energy.

  15. Arevee said...
    "With a resting pulse of only 50's and never getting out of breath, you might have the genetic makeup to be a very strong cyclist."

    A cycling coach told me that once. Shortly after I began cycling, I was riding this along the Danube cycling trail long distance, and a man in his 60s stopped me to ask how I can be going so fast on such a "crappy bike". Turned out to be a retired coach for the Austrian team and we got to chatting. I tried riding his roadbike and he measured my pulse afterward, pronouncing me a natural cyclist and saying that I owe it to myself to get a "real bike" (roadbike) and join a woman's team. Of course what he didn't know, is how clumsy I am and how terrified of other cyclists being too near me. I'd be a nightmarish liability for any cycling team : )

  16. "Because I don't like feeling out of breath, my natural rhythm on the trainer is a cadence of around 75-85 - at which point my heart rate is just a tiny bit elevated and I can keep pedaling for quite a long time while absorbed in a movie."

    This is normal for a healthy, young adult, and this level of exercise is perfectly good for you.

    Humans naturally dislike feeling out of breath. In places where "everyone" cycles, like Copenhagen or any city in the Netherlands, the average top speed of bike traffic is about 10 to 12 mph, because that's the speed you can achieve on an upright city bike without feeling at all out of breath or sweaty.

    Traditional exercise dogma demands that we achieve a certain heart rate to be in the "aerobic" range, but medical research has often failed to prove the superiority of equivalent amounts of exercise at moderate and higher heart rates.

    For example, a recent study showed memory benefits for middle-aged people who began walking 40 minutes, 3 times a week:
    Moderate walking was superior to yoga or mild resistance training.

    There was also a big study, published in JAMA (good source) that compared physical activity level with risks in a huge group of Nurses:
    They found that "Faster usual walking pace was independently associated with decreased risk. Equivalent energy expenditures from walking and vigorous activity resulted in comparable magnitudes of risk reduction."

    So basically, walking slowly for 1 hour is as good as walking fast for 40 minutes, or running for 20 minutes. It's the amount of total activity (or energy expenditure) that matters.

    If you are pressed for time, or if you want to "train" to win a race, riding 10 miles in 30 minutes on your road bike is better than riding 10 miles in 1 hour on a 3-speed roadster, but both will be equally good for your cardiovascular and general health.

    So yeah, riding at a moderate pace on your trainer for 2 hours while you watch a movie is probably just as good as riding really fast for 1 hour. Do what you find enjoyable.

  17. Joseph - I agree with this, and have been a "long distance walker" since a very young age, but never a runner or an athlete of any other kind.

    But the kind of cycling I am talking about here is not transportation cycling (during which the last thing I care about is cadence), but road cycling. I am not competitive, but I hope to increase my endurance and be able to travel super long distances.

  18. No and no. I ride to get places and for fun.

  19. For comparison purposes:

    I apparently have very little natural cycling ability as far as strength and aerobic capacity goes. I've always gotten winded very easily, and I sweat like a field hand at the drop of a hat. The fastest sustained speed I've ever been able to manage on flats is 17 mph, and that's when I was younger and somewhat more fit.

    That said, even I find that a faster cadence in a lower gear is generally easier on the body than pushing slowly in larger gears. But these days I'm not trying to ride as fast as possible, so honestly I'm more interested in what will keep me on the bike for greater distances. I'm riding 100 miles/week now, and managing to do almost all my errands on the bike vs. the car.

    I envy your your genetic gifts.

  20. I have a vastly different cadence depending on which bike I'm riding.

    If I'm on the old three-speed, my cadence is SLOW.

    If I'm on a road bike, I'm guessing it's something over sixty and less than a hundred but I've never managed to count, I just know that it's often (definitely not always) faster than once a second, and that I often don't shift to a higher gear until I'm just short of free-wheeling.

    A high cadence is much less strain on your knees and that's a fact. But it doesn't necessarily raise your respiration/heart rate unless you're working hard to get that cadence. I'm usually not riding with speed in mind, so there's plenty of times I'm riding with a high cadence (for me) and not breathing hard. Sometimes I like to work hard and/or I'm late and need to go fast, and in those cases I'll be breathing heavier.

    And on long uphill stretches (on tour or whatever) I've found myself stopping so I can catch my breath, and looked down, and my heart was beating so hard to try to keep up that I could see my heartbeat through my clothes. Cool, but kinda freaky. I sorta make this face: o_O

    But if I try to pedal with that cadence on my old three-speed, the saddle just kinda bounces in the springs. *lol* That bike is just not build for speed or a fast pedaling cadence. Every now and then, though, I catch myself leaning over the handlebars so I can use my butt muscles and pedaling like a bat out of hell...but it's fairly rare.

    Also, my road bike has rat trap pedals and toe cages, and that makes a huge difference. If I'm not worried about my feet sliding off the pedals, I can pedal a lot faster.

    In general I try not to worry about it. I attempt to pedal in such a way that it's not hard on my knees, and that's something I can *feel* as opposed to something I'm going to measure by counting my cadence, if that makes sense. I can tell when I'm stressing out my knees, and then I down-shift.

    Of course, this goes a bit towards explaining why I often *think* I have strong legs, and then I go to yoga and find that I am dead wrong. ;^)

  21. The Austrian Coach was probably right about you. If you were ever curious to try it you shouldn't let your lack of bike handling skills and your reluctance to ride fast in a group deter you. That's the sort of thing a good Coach can teach better than anyone, unlike natural ability which only luck and genetics (and of course Satan if you are willing to bargain) can provide.

    I'm not as fast as I used to be(and I never was)but if I work at it a little, my legs get huge again and I look pretty ferocious but I am always going to have the same potential for greatness that I started out with. Like none. You sound like you got a bigger dollap of that in your make-up you lucky thing.


  22. Knowing how to spin and when to spin can be a help. Most of my current riding is on IGH bikes where I only have a few gears to choose from, so being able to tolerate a varied cadence is a plus.

    Many years ago when racing a cadence of 90 or so was considered quite high, obviously Lance changed that, also the geometry of race bikes has changed too to accommodate that, riders now sit further forward than in days past.

    I prefer to exercise just to the point of feeling a bit of physical stress, not to exhaustion.


  23. 2whls3spds said..
    "I prefer to exercise just to the point of feeling a bit of physical stress, not to exhaustion."

    On this point I think we all can agree!

    A little burn is fun but past that is pain. Past that I'm not interested. :((

  24. Spindizzy - That's why my favourite places to cycle are on long, open roads in the middle of nowhere, like a rural highway in an area with fairly few cars going by. Parts of Maine are especially good for that. I can go as fast as I want without worrying about traffic and blind turns.The Danube trail in Austria is good for that as well and it goes on forever, but I haven't found anyplace close to Boston that makes me feel similarly safe.

  25. Cadence? eh, who knows.
    Getting out of breath however..
    I almost NEVER get to the point where I would describe myself as "out of breath" but I regularly feel my heart and respiration rate increase.
    I tried training with a heart rate monitor when I was running, and it always seemed that my HR was higher than it should be. I would run moderately and it would indicate that I was running at 80% max, and I would do speed training and it would tell me that I was running over my predicted "max" heart rate. And this was my 2nd marathon of the year, so I had a pretty high baseline of fitness. I think that everyone is different, and women are even more different from most physiological research and that you need to do what works for you, not what the "guidelines" say.

  26. I think its a personal thing. Lance Armstrong pedalled at a higher cadence in time trials (about 90-100 rpm) than almost anyone else to keep his legs fresh. If we were all like Lance we'd pedal at 95 rpms, but we're not. I tend to hit my "zen zone" at about 80 rpms. If you like 75-85, that's cool. As for going up hills, I think the trick is to maintain your cadence at whatever you're comfortable with. A slight increase in cadence might help but going to too low a gear and spinning too fast just won't feel right.

  27. 75-85 is such a good starting point for a recreational cyclist. Don't fret.
    As the ride gets longer, as the season gets longer, as your life gets longer, , there is a natural tendency to gear higher and pedal slower. Which must be resisted. Call us again when you're 40.
    Lower pedal speeds mean bigger gears and higher torque loads. The high torque tires a rider quickly. High gears build bulky muscles, which are hard to lift over the hills. For most all cycling purposes the higher the rpm the better. 75-85 more than good enough.

  28. "Call us again when you're 40."

    I wonder whether the medium of "blogs" will even exist by then : )

  29. Oh gosh don't worry about it! Maybe they're jealous that you don't get out of breath easily? I once tried 'spinning' and it was so boring I just went back to riding as usual.
    If you don't like feeling out of breath and it isn't your goal to ride for a super cardio work out, then why worry about it? None of my bikes are really meant for that kind of riding and I have to stop/start alot on my roads due to conditions.
    I've never paid any attention to cadance. If I have an opportunity to ride fast and hard without stop/starting I can get my heart rate up, but otherwise only after a big hill climb is my heart pounding-a feeling I hate. I've always been active(but not an 'athlete'), never smoked, so I have to ride pretty hard to get my heart rate up-so you may be the same.

  30. I agree with Walt and the others who politely dismiss interest in it. I have always had around a nice 8 mile each-way commute (and I don't indulge in competitive bicycling) so my motivation has always been to balance my effort with the bike's momentum to AVOID breaking into a sweat or raising my heartbeat. I have gently, over a number of years, built my tolerance so i can do this, without a gadget.

  31. If you're in a gear where you can't pedal faster than ~60, you're probably hurting your knees. At the same time, it doesn't hurt your knees when you choose a slower cadence.

    If you care about efficiency, aim for 120 rpm. I read an article in a medical journal that said that 120 is optimal for a wide range of humans.

    If you care about getting there sooner, you're almost always better off shifting down and spinning faster (up to 120 that is).

  32. OK - here's my simple use of my new cadence meter. Cadence is used to select the correct gear. ( I do have 20 to pick from)

    I can see how much to increase cadence to get up hills in a lower gear. This makes it easy to pick the correct gear. The cadence sets me up for efficient pedaling and the gear follows.

    For me the "best" rpm is 80 RPM on the flats and 86 rpm going up a modest hill, 96 rpm on a steep hill. You rpm will vary. The meter is a big improvement over just pedal 'til it gets hard, then shift.

  33. Cadence is actually something I've been thinking about recently while playing around with the saddle and handlebar adjustments on my (road) bike.

    I generally try to keep my cadence at 60 or higher just because that's sort of the sweet spot for how much energy I want to use over the time of the ride, where I want my pulse and sweat level to stay, and how fast I want to go, usually in that order of importance. As I ride more often during some parts of the year, I find I use higher gears to achieve the first two, and thus end up going faster.

    But back to cadence and bike fit. The faster cadence I use, the more weight ends up on my hands because my legs are doing less work with each rotation, so this makes me want to shorten the distance from saddle to handlebars. The tipping point of this for me seems to be around 80, so if I wanted to maintain a higher cadence over an entire ride (as opposed to just on the hills) I would adjust the seat. I guess this is why people have multiple bikes, so they can tune different bikes for different rides and just pick the bike based on the ride they want.

  34. In my opinion, the higher a cadence you choose, the more bike-specific clothing you might need. A cadence of 60 is much more forgiving in clothing choice than a cadence of 120 rpm. :)

    For a non-competitive cyclist, cadence is seldom an issue. Life is not merely a performance metric. Just because we can measure something doesn't mean we should. In an uncanny function of irony, measuring something tends to take the joy out of it.

    Both of my primary bicycles have been converted to freewheeling singlespeeds of 72 and 66 gear inches. I find this is a happy compromise between the speeds I wish achieve on flat roads and the hills I need to climb.

    As a result my body learns to ride with different cadences depending on terrain, wind, incline and traffic. It also frees me to concentrate on traffic, my breathing and connectedness to the world around when I cycle.

    When I come to hills, I sit and grind on the gear until I need to stand. It provides me with variation and a certain satisfaction by using a single gear in a world of expensive 30 speed roadies.

  35. I used to have a computer with a cadence counter. But even though I ride less than I used to, I think I have a pretty good idea of the cadence at which I'm riding.

    For most cyclists, higher cadence at a lower gear is better than mashing a higher gear because the higher cadence will do a better job of building endurance while putting less strain on knees and other vulnerable parts of the body.

  36. I forgot to say on the other post that I gear up on the small chain ring. 5 minutes, switch up, 5 minutes, switch up, etc. for about 20 min. Then I move over to the big chain ring, 5 minutes, up, 5 minutes, up. Then I start winding down to cool down. 5 minutes, down, 5 minutes down. This keeps one challenged and from getting bored. I tend to ride for 40-50 minute stints, this way you get a good workout and go less crazy. Happy riding!

  37. I am a mountain bike (cross country/city) enthusiast, but I grew up riding road bikes. I would recommend focusing on your pedaling technique more than cadence. Riding a single speed bicycle helps to train. Consciously focusing on lifting the upcoming leg more than the downward powering leg first, for a while, helps open a paradigm. When lifting each leg becomes the unconscious command to "pedal", you can focus on forcing down the pedals and even employing the bar to amplify your power at lower cadences. If your arms are more tired than usual, you may have gained something intuitively, and will probably have covered your route more quickly than usual. Cadence gadgets are fun though. I like pedaling around 60-80 for an easy pace or a long moderate flat ground ride, but can instantly spin up to 150. Try Metronomeonline com for an auditory cue to different cadence rates.


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