The Knowledge by Wahoo

When to Train with Low Cadence

Episode Summary

The Knowledge is a new podcast from Wahoo. It provides straightforward, science-based, useful information from world-class experts to help endurance athletes maximize their performance. Sports scientists Neal Henderson and Mac Cassin discuss a single training topic in each episode and provide key takeaways to apply to your training.

Episode Notes

Neal and Mac are back with another episode of The Knowledge Podcast brought to you by Wahoo. Today's discussion is about cadence, specifically Low Cadence, and how it can oddly enough make you faster. Mac Cassin defines optimal cadence or preferred cadence and what that means from a physiological and neuromuscular standpoint. What does Neal Henderson have to say about all this? Find out in this episode of The Knowledge Podcast by Wahoo. 

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Episode Transcription

Mac  0:00  

I just had severe flashbacks to one of our track camps where we did rolling the gear kilos. We did eight of them and below. I'd thought I'd suppress that memory but it just came back. So thank you for that Neal.


Neal  0:12  

Yeah, that's shuttering kilos in a big gear like that is that's a nasty nasty mean workout, man. Glad I wasn't there.


Hello, and welcome back to another episode of the knowledge podcast brought to you by the wahoo sports science team here in Boulder, Colorado. I'm Neil Henderson had a wahoo sports science


Mac  0:38  

And I'm Matt Cassinsenior sports scientist here at Whoa, today we're gonna talk about cadence, specifically low cadence, and how it can help you oddly enough to get faster.


Neal  0:47  

But it might not make you stronger, would it?


Mac  0:49  

We'll touch on that later.


Neal  0:51  

ahh Okay,


Mac  0:52  

First of all, we should probably define what do we mean by low cadence for most of this topic we're really talking about relative to what is referred to as an optimal cadence or really preferred cadence. And when you look at that there's a shift in a physiological standpoint, and on a neuromuscular side, when you shift significantly above or significantly below that optimal cadence.


Neal  1:15  

Okay, so that optimal cadence Is there much information on like, where that where the ranges for that, like, Is it 40 to 140, or from 60 to 80, or 50, to 100? Anything like that?


Mac  1:29  

Yeah, so it really depends on the intensity of that effort. But generally, you know, everyone's heard, like, Oh, 90 RPM is the best cadence to ride at. And that's sort of what is generally the goal. Now, a lot of people 8085 is what's optimal for some people, when they're newer to riding, you know, they're, they'll ride a lot slower, when you see a regular person in three clothes, riding on a bike, usually pedaling pretty slowly. And part of that's just from neuromuscular coordination, you know, an adaptation to being more efficient at pedaling faster. And so that becomes an upper limit where no matter how coordinated you are, you know, no one's optimal cadence aerobic Lee is going to be at 130 RPM, both and when you talk about sprinting, you know, most people can produce peak power at around 130 pm. And so you can do training at much higher cadences than that. And you can do training at a much lower cadence than that.


Neal  2:21  

Yep. And there's also some fun, you know, evidence from like our record, again, it's a specific task where anybody attempting that is on a fixed gear bike, so they have to start in the same gear, they finish. But there are only three instances that I know of over the past 100 years of an hour record being set at anything less than 100 RPM, one of them was in the early 1900s. So you know, they were still figuring stuff out back then. One was Graeme Obree. In one of his special positions, I believe in the Superman position, or the egg position, I forget which one, but ..


Mac  2:54  

I think it was the egg position because he was essentially out of the saddle, so he could get away with some yo or RPMs.


Neal  2:59  

Slightly different things. And then Matthias Brandvlei, when he set the record at the UCI headquarters in Aegon the 200-meter track, or G forces, he actually faded in pace a little bit. And so his average was 99. So, you know, we could almost round it up to 100. But interesting there on a sustained our effort seems like maybe a little over 100 on a fixed gear on a track would be the right thing to do.


Mac  3:20  

Sounds about, right.


Neal  3:21  

So low cadence then specifically is, you know, then pushing down below that 20% below the optimal cadence, which, you know, for a lot of folks what we're talking 40 5060 RPM, right?


Mac  3:34  

Yep, right around that range. For some people, it's going to be, again, if your optimal cadence is 75, then, you know, to get a sort of low cadence training stimulus, that's going to be 45 rpm. And conversely, if you're able to go out at 100 RPM for a full hour, and that's your most effective for that duration, then yeah, 60 RPM, even 70 RPM is probably going to be a good low cadence stimulus.


Neal  3:54  

I mean, is it just like, you go out and ride around, you know, sustaining low cadence like that to get faster? Is that what we're talking about?


Mac  4:01  

That's not quite what we're talking about. It's a little more complex than that. And we can, we'll touch on that in a little bit.


Neal  4:08  

Okay, so like, let's maybe kind of pull this apart a little bit. So we often talk about power is one of the most important things in cycling and you know, power is a product of the torque being applied to the crank, and then the cadence or speed of the movement of that crank. And so our big goal is to produce more power sustain it for longer, possibly, right. So if we can manipulate these two variables of torque and cadence which we can, then we can try to create a stimulus to change the current capacity to improve power output. So, holding a constant power, I could actually create a stimulus with a really high cadence or really low cadence to elicit some sort of specific adaptation is that really what we're talking about Mac is that a way to think about this?


Mac  5:00  

Yeah, exactly. And the hiking side of things has a, you know, that's a kind of a different realm of stimulus. And we'll definitely be talking about that in another episode. But yeah, again, for that same power output, doing it at your preferred gains your optimal cadence versus doing it at a much lower cadence, it's gonna cause a different physiological adaptation. And one of the interesting things that a lot of studies have shown is that when you decrease cadence below that significantly below that optimal cadence, is you get a change in what's called joint-specific power production. And so when you're talking about cycling, you've got mainly three joints you're being used, so you've got your ankle, you got your knee, and you got your hip. And the strongest muscles are at your hip joint there, your glutes, and when you drop cadence, there's actually an increase in glute activation. So you can get more training stimulus to your largest muscle group, by doing some lower cadence training, even if the power is the same, your TSS would be the same, or that's the same, but the actual adaptation or how your body is handling producing that power changes.


Neal  6:03  

That definitely sounds like a true benefit to me in terms of training, then, and dropping that cadence, being able to activate glutes more so for the same power, and basically redistribute the power production to the back of things, those big, big power producing glutes. Alright, that's definitely an important aspect here to consider. There's also something to think about in terms of what's going on with the muscle fiber type that we have distributed within the muscles that are being recruited. So the slow cadence is going to recruit more glute, we're also going to see a little bit of a difference in that we're going to recruit more of our faster twitch muscle fibers at a lower cadence simply because the torque or forced demand is higher, it's not the speed of the contraction that's causing this it's actually the force-torque requirement that recruits then these fast-twitch fibers. And what we do see over time is that there is some conversion of what we call an undifferentiated fast fiber or type 2x glycolytic, fast fiber to a type two B or fast oxidative glycolytic, or fast trained fiber, which if we have more of those type two B's, we're definitely going to be able to sustain that kind of higher force and power production for a longer period of time. That's definitely from the kind of combination of a neuromuscular and physiological benefit.


Mac  7:30  

Yeah, and so when we're talking about fast-twitch fibers, why those are less efficient is they just have lower capillary density, and they have fewer mitochondria, so they don't produce power, aerobic Li as efficiently and it can be difficult. If you're just riding at your normal optimal cadence, it's difficult to get those muscles to recruit without, you know, really having to increase the power demand. Because, you know, like you're saying, it's the torque requirement, that actual force is what's causing these muscles to be recruited. And so you can get away with essentially less overall strain, recruit those more. And that's how you're going to shift them you're going to develop better capillaries, they're more mitochondria. That's how you get that shift. And really, what that means is, even if your event doesn't require any fast oxidative fibers, as you might think you don't need to sprint or anything, you know, making those fibers more aerobic is going to definitely increase your muscular endurance when those things can kick in and help at intensities over really long durations.


Neal  8:27  

But that's super important. What do you think about the neuromuscular aspect of things, then, if we start using some big gear training, are there any neuromuscular benefits like say, coordination that you think would be potentially something that would help us as we try to go again, at a normal cadence and produce and sustain higher power is there something there that could be beneficial,


Mac  8:51  

Yeah I know one of your absolute favorite workouts to give people for good reason is, is standing starts or at least slow-rolling starts where you're going to be, you know, most of the way down your set and usually be in like the 14, you come as close to a stop as possible. And then you just give 20 seconds and just try to get up to speed as quickly as possible. And at that beginning,  it's all high torque stuff because it's a high torque, it's in really low RPM, you're getting really specific and coordinated engagement of the different muscle groups as you go through your pedal stroke. And when you combine that with the maximum force and recruiting all those muscles, it can really help lay down foundations of neuromuscular coordination where even when you then transfer to higher Keynes's or normal cadences, the way your muscles are contracting, it's more efficient, they're not working against each other as much. And so, not only do you get great, you know, bump in in p power and high torque, all that benefit, you get a great neuromuscular stimulus, and it is, if you do it, right, it's a very hard session.


Neal  9:51  

Yeah, I mean, it doesn't take a lot of these to really create a difference four or five, maybe six of this kind of 15 to 22nd maximum Start accelerations are very, very effective within one hour, you know, you warm up, you do those efforts with 568 minutes between them, and you're done. And the work is done for the day. And you're gonna have some residual fatigue from that. But the benefits in reducing CO contraction, improving economy, and efficiency will transfer beyond just that kind of instantaneous peak power development but will improve your ability to sustain even a lower power output over time more effectively and efficiently. And that's really some of the names of the game. Why this is beneficial for endurance athletes, not just kind of like sprint or track athletes.


Mac  10:39  

There's a bit of a technical aspect here. So if you don't, I've never seen a standing start on the track, like go to YouTube and search Chris Hoy or something. It's basically equivalent of doing a deadlift on the bike, but we had a sprint coach who my favorite terminology for it is, it's like aggressively putting on pants, you're keeping everything in line, and you're bringing your hands towards your hips. And it's a really linear movement. And that's, that's one of the important differentiators than just, you know, going up a really steep hill and throwing the bike back and forth. By keeping it that really linear, it's much more similar to when you're sitting down, which is how you're going to be pedaling most of the time.


Neal  11:16  

You know, with anything that's good for you too much of it is a bad thing. So let's start off with something a little bit more controlled intensity. And really, I'll even think about going below the low FTP closer to a tempo effort of maybe 80 85% of your FTP power. But think about short intervals 234 minutes long. And again, in that what is relatively low for you might be 60 RPM, someone else that might be 45, or 50 RPM for somebody who if they rev all the time, over 100 RPM 75 RPM, might really be enough of a stress to get started there. But doing a few repeats like that, where you're accumulating 15 to 20 minutes of total work in those two to four-minute long efforts with typically equal recovery would be great, I could do this on a slight incline. If you're outside on a climb, you wouldn't want to be on a super steep climb. Typically, it might be too many trainers also a super great place to be able to do this specifically, whether you're in an erg setting, which keeps in mind if you're manipulating cadence in erg mode, it's going to take about 10 or 15 seconds for the resistance to adjust. So as you slow your cadence down, just count to 15. And then you should have the appropriate resistance to hit the power target at that cadence,


Mac  12:36  

My preferred method there is I just shift a couple of gears. I know I'm an erg mode, but it's just trying to keep the wheel going at the same speed. So it's like being out on the road, if you want to be in a lower cadence out on the road, you shift into a bigger gear and vice versa. So it's another option.


Neal  12:52  

You can do it that way. The other thing you could do is like a level mode or course mode where you have to shift the whole time to get whatever resistance you need. And you might need to adjust what level you're on. Depending on the kind of trainer you've got, you know, keep that in mind with what you've got, you might need to, you know, tweak, tweak where you do some of these training sessions, or once you've done a few tempo sessions. And first off, well not First off, since we already talked about the first off part of the thing. But second, you don't want to do these sessions back to back, you might only want to do two a week and have a few days between them because they are more stressful not just on the muscles, but also on your connective tissue. So give yourself a few days between this kind of session. Once you've done a couple of the tempo intensity sessions, then I would move up to something closer to FTP plus or minus, you know, five or 10%, from your FTP for again, just a few minutes to three, four up to five minutes. With equal duration recovery between your efforts still, again, maybe somewhere 20 at most, around 30 minutes of training like that is quite beneficial.


Mac  13:55  

It's really important as you're doing these to keep your torso your upper body as stable and rock-solid as possible. You don't want to be like the climbers that you'd see in the tour from the 70s, who were just bobbing left and right left and right every pedal stroke because that's really just inefficient, it's a waste of energy. And if you can't do it, it's a pretty good indicator that you need to do some more core work. R


Neal  14:16  

Right. So think about engaging your core before even shift into that big gear so that you can maintain that stability as you're pushing and being able to drive into the pedals. Once you've done a few of those sessions up closer to your FTP then you know I would often include some map intensity targets that are at a three to one or two to one rest to work ratio. If it's you know, a series of say six times 30 seconds at 100% of your map target at 50 RPM with 90 seconds of easy recovery at a normal gear let's just say at 90 RPM for those 90 seconds between each effort, maybe a couple of sets like that would be Really a quite quality big gear session?


Mac  15:03  

Well, what we can both agree on is probably the primary benefit here is going to be that increased muscular endurance that when you go out on a normal ride, you know, you're gonna feel better. At the end of it. If you really focus on developing that muscular endurance through this low cadence, high torque training.


Neal  15:19  



Mac  15:20  

In summary, we can kind of say that, you know, low cadence is, is really beneficial for a number of different reasons, you want to make sure you start with lower intensity and shorter blocks if you've never done it before to avoid injury. And just like the rest of your training, gradually increase the power or the duration or both. And then start mixing in those really high torque starts and seated efforts. And before you know it, you're going to be faster, but maybe not stronger,


Neal  15:48  

More power to your Mac! And that's it from here at the knowledge podcast. We'll catch you next time helping you learn about how to get faster and have more fun while doing it.