What is Cadence? Why do we care about it? How can we improve it?

These are three questions that I want to answer today from the mountain bikers point of view.

What is cadence?

Cadence is the number of revolutions your crank and pedals make each minute. In short and simple terms, it’s how fast your feet are moving as you ride.

Most cyclists gained a lot of familiarity with what cadence is after Lance Armstrong took his Tour De France wins. Lance blew away the competition with a high cadence that helped him to maintain a fast and consistent speed through climbs and time trials. Most of the TDF riders rode at a cadence of 60-80 RPM. Lance, on the other hand, rode at an astonishing 90-110 RPM. Since then, cadence has become one of the most talked about disciplines of road cyclists and triathletes.

Why should mountain bikers care about cadence?

Roadies and triathletes don’t have to dodge trees, rocks, and jump over suicide squirrels, right?

Right. But in addition to maintaining consistent speeds, it is also about using more slow-twitch muscle fibers as you ride. Slow-twitch muscle fibers do three things that hold incredible value to all mountain bikers:

  1. Slow-twitch muscle fibers burn fat as fuel allowing you to continually lean down and continue working for longer efforts
  2. They have a much higher endurance level and are more resistant to fatigue
  3. And slow-twitch fibers recover more quickly when given short rest

These slow-twitch muscle fibers are needed for any ride, but especially rides over 2 hours and endurance events. Cadence will also help with extended climbing and maintaining speed in long inclines and open field sections. Instead of coming out of the saddle and pushing the big gear as hard as you can, pick a gear or two easier and increase your pedal rotation speed. This helps to conserve endurance and energy for later in the ride or race.

On the other end of the spectrum we have fast twitch muscle fibers that require high amounts of glucose energy (of which you have a basic limit of 2000 calories), take longer to recover, and fatigue very quickly because of the high level of output.

Think of it like the difference between a marathon runner (slow-twitch) and a sprinter (fast-twitch).

Using a faster cadence, you reduce the amount of fast twitch muscles being used, decrease the watt output per pedal stroke and normalize the total watt output to a more sustainable level. Using a cadence that is too low will result in building up lactic acid in your legs before it’s really necessary. Lactic acid is what creates the burning sensation in your muscles. Using a cadence that is too fast will exhaust your legs from wasted energy on excessive spinning.

Our goal is to find that “sweet spot” in the middle that has a cadence of around 85-95 RPM and is pushing a big enough gear to maintain speed.

How do we improve our cadence?

First off, get a cadence sensor for your cycling computer. If you are new to cadence training, you aren’t going to have a clue what RPM you are pedaling at without one. Being able to quickly look down and find out where you’re at is a must to improve this technique. My personal choice and suggestion is the Cateye Strada Double Wireless Cycling Computer. It’s easy to install and even easier to use.

A lot of improving cadence is muscle memory. You train your legs to spin at faster speeds for much longer periods of time. So we are focused on setting a new rhythm that increases our pedal speed. Here are three ways to do that.

Spin Intervals
Hop on your bike and get a nice 5 minute warm up. Once you’re warm, push your cadence to 90 RPM and hold it for 1 minute. After 1 minute, cool back down at your normal cadence then push your cadence to 100 rpm and hold it for 1 minute. Again take a 1 minute break at your normal cadence and then push up to 110 RPM and hold for 1 minute. Now that you’re really warm, the fun starts. Take your cadence to 90 RPM and hold it for 1 minute, and after 1 minute go directly to 100 RPM and then on to 110 RPM. After spending 1 minute at each RPM level, take a 2 minute break at your normal cadence. Then jump back in and spend 2 minutes at 90, 100, and 110 RPM. You can keep going, or start a cool down session at this point.

What is Cadence? What is proper cycling form?

Try to keep even pressure in all 4 directions to create a smooth circle or square motion..

Focus on technique
While riding, focus on making a smooth circle or a box with your feet. So as the pedal rotates, you are pushing down at the front, pulling up when it is in the back, and moving it forward and backward along the sides. Check out the image to the right for a better look at how that is done.

Road Riding
As much as it does pain me to say this again, riding on the road is one of the best ways to improve your mountain biking. Long distances in the saddle without trees, creeks and rocks to avoid gives you more focus to put on holding and maintaining a higher cadence. If you’re still relatively new to cycling at all, find a long flat road and ride at a cadence of 80 RPM. Then the next week bump that up to 85 RPM. Keep increasing that number until you get comfortable with keeping your cadence at 95-100 for an entire ride. Then increase the gearing so that you have to fight keeping it as high as 85 RPM and work back up the ladder.

Repeat these techniques and you will be blowing your cycling buddies away. If you want to get faster, this is one of the strongest training methods available.

This post is not to say that a high-cadence is better than a slow cadence. Every cyclist has their own “sweet spot” that they perform best at. This is simply to start a discussion about one way that you can improve your mountain biking. Be sure to share this with your riding buddies and let us know your thoughts on how cadence affects your mountain biking.