Last week we talked about the mechanics of cadence: working with your gears to make your legs spin faster (more efficient) or slower (more power). The next questions are: How efficient? How powerful? The answer lies in the balance between muscle power and cardiovascular stamina.
Obviously, when moving your pedals a chain of well-developed muscles will help. Strong arms, a strong core, strong thighs, leading to strong calves are needed to power you up hills, or to speed your descents at a dizzying rate. (“Strong” doesn’t mean “giant,” however. Anyone can cycle and in doing so, will develop stronger and stronger muscles.) So, you may be telling yourself, drop the cadence by increasing my gear ratio to the hardest I can do and still move forward.
The problem with the power-through approach is that muscles get fatigued easily. The science behind muscle fatigue is complicated, but the gist is that your muscles can work under only so much load before running out of fuel and building up too many metabolism byproducts. The less of a load your muscles have, the longer you can go without refueling and rest.
That implies the correct answer is to focus on spin, or higher cadence, over power. Higher cadence requires that you move your legs rapidly around the pedals. (Which is one reason why the “clipless” pedals that you perplexingly “clip” into are so important: they give you power during the entire pedal stroke.) Spinning generally requires less muscle power and so generates less muscle fatigue. That means you can go further longer, though possibly at a slower pace. And that is where the balance comes in; spin at the pace which keeps you moving at your desired rate without exhausting your muscle power.
High cadence requires strong cardiovascular health. That means strong lungs and a strong diaphragm. Getting a large volume of oxygen pumping through your system by increasing lung capacity and throughput. The science may be hard, but this is something anyone who can sit on a bike can accomplish (not sure about the advise to avoid sodium as salt is a requirement for cyclists, I’ll look into it).
The single most important thing you can do to improve your cardiovascular health is to quit smoking.
If you’re embarking on this for the first time, see your doctor for guidelines for improvement. After that, the next steps are to cycle more. Breath deeply. Get your heart rate up. Increase the duration and intensity of your workouts.
The final question for today is what should your cadence be? On a flat road with no head- or tailwinds, presuming you’re in decent shape and have ridden for a while, but haven’t focused on cadence, you might try shooting for between 80 to 90 rpms. Your cadence meter will let you know. Up hills, that will drop to 70 or below. Downhill, it might not raise much, because gravity may overwhelm your efforts. Once you get stronger, you can try for around 100 rpms on the flat. There’s no set rule, and what is a fast cadence for some riders might be slow for another.
This post is for my friend Ty Whitehead. He was seriously injured on a ride this weekend. Please keep him in your thoughts that he recovers quickly and completely.