Study after study finds that lower cycling cadence is more efficient. So should you stop trying to pedal at 90+ revolutions per minute and instead diesel along at around 60rpm? Maybe it's not quite that simple.
We all saw that article: High cadence pedalling is inefficient for amateurs, says new study. Oh how we all laughed that the study used inappropriate people (non-trained cyclists) and thus the conclusion can’t be considered relevant for us lot who are out bashing it up and down the lanes, on the turbo, or wherever.
But let’s get this over and done with, I’ll just come right out and say it: the study is correct. “What? I pedal best at 90 odd revolutions per minute and feel like it’s best at this cadence,” I hear you shouting at me. And, do you know what? That’s exactly how I feel too!
Interestingly, efficiency in cyclists has been studied for a long period of time. I’m keeping this honest; I don’t know the exact answer to my next statement, but I’m going to suggest that cycling efficiency must have been first studied in the early part of the twentieth century.
Searching quickly on PubMed, I find this article (in German): “Relation between force and force perception as a basis for the selection of energetically unfavourable pedalling frequencies in cycling” (Stegemann, et al, 1968. Click on the link for details of the study, or check out the list at the bottom of the page).
My take away from that title alone is that cyclists prefer pedalling at a moderate to high cadence, and that this is somehow unfavourable, and that force perception (how it feels at the pedals) is how we (in part) choose cadence. If I’ve summarised that article correctly, then it should mean that prior to this article being written researchers already knew that moderate/high cadence was inefficient. I know, I’m going out on a limb with this, but bear with me please.
Suzuki showed that in people who had predominantly slow twitch muscle fibres (as you’d expect with endurance athletes) efficiency dropped from 23.3% at 60 rpm to 19.6% at 100 rpm.
Coast et al showed that in trained bicycle racers riding at around 85% of VO2max (probably around the effort you could sustain maximally for approximately two hours) the best cadences across a range of measures (efficiency, lactate, HR, perceived exertion) were either 60 or 80 rpm.
Sidossis showed that the oxygen cost of unloaded cycling increased as pedalling cadence increases at 60, 80, and 100 rpm. This means you’re having to expend more energy when you pedal faster.
These research papers, plus many others, all show essentially the same thing: gross efficiency at a given power output is higher at lower cadences, with most research showing about 60 rpm as the most efficient.
Okay, all these studies are old, maybe newer techniques will show that higher cadences are more efficient in trained cyclists.
Leirdal and Ettema looked at a variety of cadences at around 75% VO2max, including the athletes’ freely chosen cadence. Bingo! They found exactly the same: efficiency was highest at lower cadences including 10 rpm below the athletes’ freely chosen cadence. Whichever way it’s diced, lower is more efficient.
In case anything changed out in the field, Nimmerichter et al looked at 60 rpm versus 90 rpm at a fixed power output, on level roads and uphill, using really well trained cyclists. Unsurprisingly, 60 rpm in both conditions was more efficient than 90 rpm.
If you’ve ever been on a club run or been coached, you’ll probably have been told to keep your cadence in the 90s. Spin to win. Are there any positive reasons to do that?
Interestingly, yes! The above studies – and others – show that as your power output increases so does the most efficient cadence (but it’s still lower than freely chosen cadence).
Anything else? Yes. Beneke and Alkhatib showed that higher cadences reduce carbohydrate oxidation. This means that a reliance on carbohydrates is reduced, sparing those all-important carbs for when they’re really needed – smacking it to the top of a hill, beating your mates, or accelerating and ragging it to the finish line over the last couple kilometres of a road race.
Indeed, in road racing or a smash fest with your mates, you might find that the pace (on the same terrain) changes rapidly. If you’re riding in a big gear at low cadence in order to maintain a high efficiency, you just can’t react to those accelerations and you’re quite possibly going to be booted out the back of the peloton while you try to wind up the gear you’re in. Even if you change down and try to bring your cadence up, there’s a good chance you’ll struggle.
Lastly, I think we also need to go back to the German study. Our perception of the workload (power output) is reduced at higher cadences due to the smaller forces needed to get the pedals over. At lower cadences you need a higher force to maintain a given power output compared to a lower force at higher cadence. It’s like lifting a smaller weight more times than lifting a bigger weight fewer times. We know from the Beneke work that carb usage goes down at higher cadence but efficiency is decreased. It just feels easier to maintain the same power at a higher cadence.
Ultimately, though, efficiency in this respect just isn’t important. Yes, you might well expend more energy by pedalling faster (that’s probably no bad thing for most of us, especially if you want an extra piece of cake), but it’s more important to feel that the power is manageable (forces are lower), and to spare that all important carbohydrate, so let’s spin to win!
Stegemann J, Ulmer HV, & Heinrich KW. (1968). Internationale Zeitschrift fur Angewandte Physiologie. “Relation between force and force perception as basis for the selection of energetically unfavourable pedalling frequencies in cycling”.
Nimmerichter A, Prinz B, Haselsberger K, Novak N, Simon D, Hopker JG. (2015). International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance. “Gross efficiency during flat and uphill cycling in field conditions”.