Sport Scientists Neal Henderson and Mac Cassin explain why learning to pedal very quickly will make you faster and more efficient on all terrain.
What's your peak cadence? 90? 140? 200? In this episode, our Sports Science team explains how High-Cadence drills improve your efficiency and performance at all cadence speeds and how to incorporate these simple, and relatively easy, exercises into your regular training.
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Neal Henderson 0:00
Hello, and welcome to another episode of The Knowledge Podcast by Wahoo. I'm Neal Henderson.
Mac Cassin 0:05
And I am Mac Cassin. Now way back in episode six, we talked about training with low cadence. So today we're going to be talking about the opposite, which is training at high cadences.
Neal Henderson 0:14
All right, I like this Mac, when we talk about high cadence. There are a lot of different ways of defining that, I guess, right? There are some subjective aspects here, but we're gonna get in into the details. So cycling cadence is really one of those variables that we can use to really dramatically affect the internal or physiological and muscular stress and strain of a given absolute external power output. Man, that was a total word sandwich, can you pick that apart, get the beef and the lettuce and the bread all separated?
Mac Cassin 0:47
So what you're saying there is that a watt isn't necessarily a watt, if you're writing it, 200 Watts, if you're writing it, at 40 RPM, that's different internally, compared to writing it 200 watts at 100 RPM or 120. RPM.
Neal Henderson 1:01
Yes, for sure. So the water is still a lot, but how you get to that what with the variation in cadence can have a dramatically different effect on the muscles and or your physiology, in most cases, it's going to be some effect on both. So when we talked about the low cadence work, we have a higher force production. And we have a lot of cases of a lowered cardiovascular response, a lower heart rate, a lower breathing rate, when we go to high cadence, almost the opposite happens, rarely, the force per pedal stroke is reduced. And the breathing rate your respiration rate is significantly higher, as is your heart rate for that same power output.
Mac Cassin 1:43
This is an interesting thing where you get into a lot of there a lot of studies that have been resulting have been I'd say exaggerated to not be representative of the real world one examples a few years ago, one coming out showing that really low cycling cadence is optimal. Because it had the lowest oxygen usage to produce the same amount of power people riding, I think it was like 40 to 60 RPM, they were using less oxygen, and put out the same amount of power compared to riding at 90 or 110 rpm. Now that's great. And that's true. But that doesn't just because you're using less oxygen doesn't by default, make it the best way to ride your bike.
Neal Henderson 2:19
Correct. So if you look at like, oh, something like the to the max, like your power revealed to Max, I don't think most folks actually have hit their highest Max aerobic power value at 40 to 60 rpm.
Mac Cassin 2:33
If you and if you're one of those people, then
Neal Henderson 2:35
you have some opportunity,
Mac Cassin 2:36
please come to Boulder and let us run experiments on you. Because that is rather, that'd be a unique thing to see.
Neal Henderson 2:42
Yeah, very, very nontypical response. In most cases, it's going to be at a much higher RPM. And even if you look at something like sustained power output, as the hour record, great example, there's only a handful of records ever set less than 100 rpm. And most of those, you know, one of those is from like 1896, or something like that one that Almost doesn't count. One of them was from Obree and Superman's position using a monster gear. And one of them was Oh, who's the ...
Mac Cassin 3:10
Neal Henderson 3:11
No... It was 99 rpm. And it was at the UCI headquarters in Agla.
Mac Cassin 3:16
Matthis Brandle? Yeah, yeah,
Neal Henderson 3:19
He started out with an average of over 100. And he just faded a little bit towards the end and dropped that average under 100 rpm. 99. Specifically,
Mac Cassin 3:28
So we're talking about this high cadence 100 Being a high cadence, not something that we would, and from what we've seen for the training we've given people, that's not something absurd for people, we're just starting out to ride Yeah, hundreds probably going to be pretty difficult. And this is the best segue into explaining why high cadence training is beneficial is if you look at people, when they first start riding a bike, they tend to ride at 50 to 60 RPM because that's the most efficient in terms of their muscular coordination to be able to turn on and off the right muscles at the right time. As you get more neuromuscular coordination from trying to pedal faster and faster, that coordination improves. So you can pedal at a higher rpm
Neal Henderson 4:09
with similar efficiency.
Mac Cassin 4:12
Yes, exactly. And so, on a bike, you're attached to your crank. So it's really hard to not pedal in a perfect circle, you have to be breaking some stuff for that to be the case. So you get really, it's easy to overlook the importance of that coordination. And I liken it to, you know, when you are first learning how to type or even just right, right, that's all requires. Maybe that's a bit finer motor skill, but it's still you can see a drastic difference from when you first started learning how to type but most people can do now which is just blasting out sentence after sentence really quickly. And that's down to neuromuscular coordination.
Neal Henderson 4:46
Yep. Another great example of that is when somebody fatigues and you've probably heard this on a TV broadcast, you know, they're peddling squares out there. Well, again, the cranks going in a circle the foots going in a circle. Everything's pretty much a circle or maybe a little bit of an have you counted the ankle motion of what's happening, but really, there are no squares, it's just that the mechanics and the neuromuscular firing are now becoming disrupted because of fatigue. And so it's not as smooth, there's some co-contraction going on, the rider is working against themselves, and they are not firing smoothly and synchronously in a nice pattern. And so it may look very choppy, but still going in a circle,
Mac Cassin 5:25
Still gonna circle, again, that decreases the efficiency. So like you said, you're working against yourself, it's not a great way to ride a bike. And now we're not going to go out and say that everyone should write at 90 RPM, or 100 RPM, or 80 RPM, because we acknowledge it's it is going to be different and unique for every individual.
Neal Henderson 5:43
And for the kind of terrain that you're on the kind of bike you're on the terrain that you're riding that bike on. So clearly, there are differences of, you know, just generally a road, you know, flat road versus even a climb on a paved road, you're gonna see some differences there, right?
Mac Cassin 5:58
Yep. And that gets down to some of the inertia of going on. And we've talked about that. And what other episode about trainers? Yes, I'm talking about the impact of inertia. But yeah, riding at 100 RPM on an uphill is different than riding at 100 RPM on a downhill because of the inertia component. So all that being said, during high cadence training can increase what you've considered a comfortable cadence. And that can be important for viewing really long events where muscular fatigue is going to be a big factor, you don't want to spend the whole day riding at 60 RPM because, by the end, your legs are going to be every shot.
Neal Henderson 6:33
Smoked. Yeah, yeah, the fatigue is going to be much greater, when you're pushing that higher force, every pedal stroke, you're gonna likely be recruiting more of your fast-twitch muscle fibers, which are clearly using a little bit more carbohydrate compared to fat at a given intensity. All those kinds of things are just not great for the long haul.
Mac Cassin 6:49
When we say hi gains training, I guess there are a few different ways that we go about looking at it one is gonna be called sustained cadence hold. So writing at a pretty high RPM, but not necessarily high power. And then the big one is cadence build. So why don't you walk us through what a proper cadence build looks like?
Neal Henderson 7:05
The cadence build is about trying to increase where your absolute peak RPM is, the way we typically do this, you can do it inside on a train, or you can do it outside on a road I'll talk about it on a trainer first is you want to have a very low resistance, literally, something like in the 50 may be at most 60% of FTP, you start at a normal cadence, which might, in the beginning, be you know, 70 or 80 or 90 rpm, and you build over the course of typically 2030 seconds, maybe a minute, if you really have done a lot of these, you can use the one-minute long build, most people are going to have most success initially using a shorter duration. So just 20 or 30 seconds, and every second or two, you try to increase your cadence a little bit. And so you start at that initial cadence, say around 90, and you build up every couple seconds, and you go to the point where you can no longer go at a higher cadence. A lot of folks, when they first do this, might only hit 120 rpm, and they tap out and I can't do anymore. It's like, okay, well, let's recover for a few minutes. If we give ourselves a three, four, or five-minute recovery, and then do the same thing again, in those five minutes, the next time they do it, they might hit 128 rpm, and they haven't really changed dramatically anything other than being able to have a little better coordination of that. And so one of the things that sometimes help is thinking about your stabilizer in your core as you're on the bike and thinking about then the speed. So again, it's not a forced thing, it's really speed, and trying to not work against yourself smooth is fast is one of these things on a built
Mac Cassin 8:44
And with that, again, we're you're starting at a really low power output. But naturally, as you increase your cadence your power is going to up go up a little bit, but it should, at no point should resistance, the force required that should not be the limiter.
Neal Henderson 8:58
The speed, not the force. So if you're outside on a bike, a flat road is good, or maybe even a slight downhill uphill really just doesn't work so well. So flat or slight downhill like a one or two-degree kind of downhill. And then these we typically start in the small chainring kind of in the middle of the cassette. And a great way of doing this is to actually shift up into an easier gear every four or five seconds, until the point where you feel like you almost have no resistance and you're just again building that cadence to your absolute peak. And most folks find that after a couple of sessions that can be getting into the 140s and 150s is not at all uncommon. I'll be honest, I have a little bit of a high bar of expectation for people I know that most humans if they spend time doing this can get in excess of 180 rpm, and even for pretty skilled athletes of all different types. I usually say 200 RPM is where I'll say you you have an adequate peak RPM need the necessarily Keep working on developing it higher than 200 rpm. But it's always a good goal to strive for, for most folks, even though some folks may not get there most folks can.
Mac Cassin 10:09
It's worth noting when we're talking about this in a race scenario, are you ever going to need to hit 200 rpm but that's not the point. Your training should be representative of what your event is. But by no means is there an exclusivity that you should only ever do what your event is going to do in training. And that's something where a lot of people will say, Well, I'm never going to write at 100 RPM out of my event, why do I need to bother writing above 100 rpm, and training?
Neal Henderson 10:39
Well, sometimes things happen. I mean, a great example, is a triathlete that I coached for many years, Cameron die, who is a very, very good triathlete and great on the bike. And he was actually at an event at St. Anthony's triathlon. And he actually had his derailleur go in and go into the crash mode. And so he was stuck in his rear cassette and the biggest gear, and he either had his small chainring, or his big chainring, and the big chainring was turning in the, you know, 70 RPM range. And then the small chain ring was over his comfortable, typically 92 RPM, he was closer to 100 104 rpm. And he would go back and forth between those bits spent a lot more time in that smaller chainring and actually had a very good run off the bike that day, just not unsurprising, if you know a little bit about what we call power separation, which we can talk about another time.
Mac Cassin 11:28
So many topics to cover. And like we talked about, at the beginning of this changing that cadence to higher is going to put a higher cardiovascular demand, you're going to be breathing higher. And so one of the sessions that I like to progress people up to is essentially a vo T workout. But that never touches vo to power, where it's one minute on one minute off at about threshold to a little bit below. But at the highest sustainable site 121 30 For some people 140 And you get a really good aerobic vo to workout without the explicit muscular strain of doing map power efforts. Now you need to have enough coordination to be able to do repeated efforts like that. So again, we wouldn't say go straight into that. But it does become a really useful tool where your legs might be fatigued for whatever reason from a muscular standpoint, but you still want a good cardiovascular load high cadence on-off can solve that perfectly.
Neal Henderson 12:22
Definitely. And all of this takes practice. So you need to spend some days some workouts some sessions some portions of workouts where you work on that high cadence for anyone out there who is a junior or coaches juniors, you know, we have gear restrictions in our younger in our junior categories for racing. And so again, if everyone's on the same maximum gear, well then who pedals fastest actually has the greatest potential to win? There are for sure a few other factors in there, but definitely having that higher ceiling of cadence can be helpful.
Mac Cassin 12:56
Yeah, I think what there must have been in 2015 Maybe Adrian Kosta won the steamboat pro one two time trial because he averaged 124 RPM?
Neal Henderson 13:05
Yep. On the 52-14. 96-inch gear, which
Mac Cassin 13:08
Yeah, and because that's that elevation to that's up like, really high. So
Neal Henderson 13:12
yeah, the high cadence up at that elevation is even more cardiovascularly taxing for sure.
Mac Cassin 13:17
But again, that's what he was limited to as a junior, that's what he trained in, he was able to do, it wasn't the most efficient now he probably would have gotten faster if he had a bigger gear.
Neal Henderson 13:24
Yeah! Given his choice, if it was allowed. But for the age that was the limit on the gear allowed. And so he still had great success had to work it though
Mac Cassin 13:33
Had to work at it. And with all this training, you're normal. If you do a lot of this high cadence training, you might find if you're someone who rides at like 7075 RPM, you might find your trend upwards to 80. But if you're at 85, you might find that there isn't really a change in what you're most efficient at lower rpm. You can become more efficient. It's not like the goal should always be to increase what your average cadence is, it's not like FTP or map where you always want to chase get better get higher get, like for that it's just you'll tend to people tend to be pretty good at narrowing in on for certain efforts, what the most efficient cadence is for themselves. So if you're right now, like doing your efforts to 85 RPM, have never done high cadence training, go do some of it and find that you still like writing at 85, that's totally fine. It doesn't mean that you saw no benefit.
Neal Henderson 14:22
Correct, there can still be improvements in your actual efficiency at the same, you know, Cadence if your cadence doesn't change if you are firing the right muscles at the right time and not getting that CO contraction. So you can actually see some changes in actual mechanical efficiency, and lowered oxygen cog cost with those kinds of improvements in inefficiency. So the benefits are not just that you have a higher number than you can hit at your peak or that you can sustain for some certain duration, a higher absolute value, it's that even at the same prefer your normal preferred cadence that you might just be a little bit more efficient. So lots of different ways that you get to benefit from working on that high cadence.
Mac Cassin 15:01
How often should you do this? Well, it's it doesn't have to be like a cadence build session with three to 6/32 cadence builds during a regular zone to ride, you can do that once a week without it really adding any significant extra fatigue. But you get this great neuromuscular bonus adaptation. So doing it frequently I had for a while before I learned more from you, I remember I'd have that on my schedule, like every week, and I hated it because my power would be below. And my heart rate would have these big spikes because I'm doing these crazy cadences. And it just is like, Oh, what's why? Why this is so frustrating, but it certainly didn't hurt over the years. And it's something that if you do have just a long ride, just throwing one in at the end, or even for warmup, I know a lot of people like to just throw it in for their warm-up
Neal Henderson 15:48
Yeah, kind of an activation exercise before you do some higher intensity work. That's a great way of doing it towards the end of a long day. Also, a good thing for a little reset a with a training group we used to have Friday was often our neuromuscular session or NMF, neuromuscular Friday, and it was more an activation, try to kind of get everything ready for heavier sessions on the weekend, whether it was races or harder training sessions. And so there are benefits to being able to get that activation and keep those neuromuscular coordination levels high and build them up.
Mac Cassin 16:19
Just to throw one more thing in here because I think we get this question a lot. Like in our training plans that we write, we usually have a neuromuscular session on the same day as a strength session. And that's because you get a great marriage of the neuromuscular adaptations, you get some of the muscular strain from the strength, and then if you can follow that up with neuromuscular coordination on the bike, it helps there. It's also good because generally speaking, as we said, these neuromuscular sessions aren't crazy demanding. So doing them on the same day as strength is much better than doing strength and like a VO2 workout.
Neal Henderson 16:51
You'll have much more success and so if you can address both the speed side of things and the force side of things, then your potential for power output is greater. That is it for another episode of the knowledge podcast by Whahoo. We hope you've learned a few useful things to help you be able to pedal faster and make you a better athlete.