Monday, January 20, 2020

Are you a spinner or a grinder?

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ChartAsk many cycling experts what the ideal cycling cadence is, and they will state confidently that it’s 80-90 revolutions per minute (RPM).  But does everyone keep to that advice?  And should we anyway?

According to my very unscientific poll conducted on Twitter, it seems that around half (51%) of all triathletes questioned fall naturally into a cycling cadence of 80-90 rpm.  The next most popular category with 31% was a slightly faster 90-100rpm.  Only 15% of respondents naturally ride at 80 or lower and only 3% at more than 100rpm.

So why is 80-90 rpm often considered the optimal cadence for cycling?

According to many, this cadence range provides the most efficient use of the muscles and aerobic system – put simply, it’s the cadence at which you can maintain the highest power output for the longest amount of time.

A cadence above 80rpm also lessens the strain placed on the muscles and joints – think about it in the same terms as weight lifting.  Would you strain your muscles more with a single rep of a 120kg squat or 10 reps of a 30kg squat?

That said, one cadence range does not necessarily suit all – as my research showed. While Lance Armstrong certainly hasn’t done badly for himself spinning away at a relatively high cadence (90-110rpm), you certainly couldn’t call someone like Thor Hushovd a slouch, yet he generally employs a lower cadence and higher power outputs.

Compare Thor and Lance’s physiques and it’s not difficult to see why their styles and cadences differ greatly!  It’s about making the best use of the resources (muscle structure, aerobic system) that you have available to you.

Finding the optimum cadence for triathlon

With cycling in triathlon sandwiched between a highly anaerobic swim (or a balls-out run in the case of duathlon) and a run, it’s not surprising that triathletes tend to lean towards higher cadences, utilising more of our slow-twitch muscle fibres and relying more on our aerobic capacities to sustain respectable power outputs.   A study from 1992 found that after 30 minutes of hard cycling at 50rpm and 100rpm, the glycogen levels in slow-twitch fibres were roughly equal.  However, in fast-twitch fibres, glycogen was depleted substantially more at the lower cadence – again in simple terms, your muscles fatigue less at higher cadences.

In fact, there is research out there to suggest that 80-90 rpm is not the most efficient cadence on the bike (multiple studies put the most ‘efficient’ rpm at 50-60) BUT – and this it where is perhaps gets interesting, our perceived rate of exertion is higher at lower cadences – i.e. even though we may be more efficient, it ‘feels’ like we are working harder.  In a triathlon – especially a longer distance even – that can have a significant bearing on how we mentally manage the race.

That contradiction certainly strikes a chord with me.  Having competed with a cadence sensor for 4-5 races now, I can safely say that I feel most ‘comfortable’ at 89-94 rpm – that’s the rpm where I don’t feel that I am over-fatiguing my muscles (i.e. avoiding a lactic build-up), but that I am still making good progress.

The final benefit for triathletes (I am sure there are more, but three’s enough for me!) of cycling in the 80-100rpm range is that by using more slow-twitch muscles, we are also preserving our glycogen stores and thus using fat as a key fuel source.

So should we always train in the 80-100 rpm range?

It could be tempting to read the findings above and surmise that 80-100rpm should be some form of rigid training window that we should not deviate from.  But to do so would leave us restricted in our ability to race fast.

While I said above that I naturally fall into the 89-94rpm range in a race, there are certainly times when I wish I could grind out a bigger gear more effectively – usually when I’m into a strong headwind or on a steep climb.

While I’m no qualified sports coach or scientist, this suggests to me that there is a place in my training schedule for increasing my overall leg strength.  And one way of achieving that without heading to the gym is to occasionally work on low cadence (sometimes called over-geared) turbo sessions.  Understanding all that’s been said above, it makes sense that grinding out a higher gear at lower cadence will give my muscles a bigger workout and will hopefully lead to me developing greater overall muscle strength and therefore a better wattage output in a race.

Outside, it’s clear I need to do more hills!  Like an over-gearing session, I need to increase the load on my muscles and increase my ability to sustain a better speed up hills without fatiguing so much.

So that’s low cadence; what about high cadence training?  Well, yes, that has its place too.  Some believe that training over 95rpm (some cyclists still insist on spending all winter in the small chain ring!) will make your pedal stroke more fluid and thus efficient.  There are also the same benefits described above, where the body is encouraged to use fat as a fuel source over glycogen.

So there you go.  It seems that most of us (80%) already cycle in what might be considered a suitable cadence range (80-100rpm) for triathlon.  Our individual cadence preferences are just that – individual to us.  Personally, I’ve seen that my average cadence has increased over the last year or so – perhaps as I’ve become more accustomed to the demands of triathlon racing, or perhaps just naturally.  But mixed-cadence cycling was a big part of my winter turbo training, and I have to think that has been one contributor to my better cycle splits so far in 2011.



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Matt Fisher runs - so it's all his fault! He pretends to be a triathlete, but really he is a husband, father and company VP. But he has raced for the GB Age Group squad a few times and is a two-times qualifier for the IM70.3 world champs