Do you know what your optimal triathlon cadence is? It’s highly individual due to your sport background, genetic blend of muscle fibres, and physical conditioning. Training with the appropriate cadence for your needs will help you benefit the most from your cycling sessions, and finding your racing cadence will help you run more efficiently off the bike.
What Is Cadence?
Cadence is the number of revolutions your pedals make per minute. You can measure it manually by counting how many times one leg pushes down within 10 seconds and multiplying that by 6. Of course the easiest way to do this is to use a cadence sensor on your bike.
Cycling at a lower cadence requires more muscular strength, while using a higher cadence shifts the load onto your cardiovascular system. It’s kind of like the difference in feel of going up a flight of stairs versus running across your yard.
People with a more muscular build tend to be more comfortable “mashing” at a lower cadence, while those with a more slight build like to “spin” at higher cadences. Also, those who have little to no cycling background tend to ride at lower cadences, while those who have been cycling competitively before going into triathlon gravitate toward higher cadences.
But both cadence types have a use in training as well as racing.
Going below 90 RPM is considered low cadence. Generally, using a bigger/heavier gear when cycling slows your cadence because you need to put out more power to push those pedals. This results in greater load on your skeletal muscles. Pedaling an excessively heavy gear can lead to muscle fatigue, which is bad news if you’ve still got to run after getting off the bike. However, riding at a lower cadence keeps your heart rate low and helps you avoid “burning matches”. This allows you to burn fat for fuel so you don’t bonk, which is useful in long distance triathlon.
Pedaling with a RPM of 90 or more puts you in high cadence territory. Using higher cadence uses momentum to keep the pedals turning, taking the load off your muscles. It’s also easier to accelerate to respond to surges when you’re riding in a group (which isn’t really useful in non-drafting triathlon, but great if you’re in a pack in a fondo or cycling race).
However, riding at high cadence drives your heart rate up and puts the load onto your cardiovascular system and you end up going through your glycogen stores faster.
Training at different cadences helps you develop both cardiovascular as well as muscular strength, which is why our cycling training sessions here at MX Endurance employ a range of cadences depending on the goals of each session. Also important regardless of cadence is training a fluid pedal stroke, applying even pressure all throughout.
To find your racing cadence, it’s all about experimentation. Using a heart rate monitor and/or power meter to correlate cadence to effort will come in handy so you can dial it in on race day. Running off the bike after riding at different cadences will help you find that sweet spot where you are able to ride at a good pace and still have energy left for a good run afterwards.