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"Practice makes perfect" except when you practice imperfectly

Cadence and performance in elite cyclists.

Foss Ø, Hallén J.


Many studies have attempted to describe the optimal cadence in cycling. However, the effect on performance has received little attention. The aim of the present study was therefore to examine the effect of cadence on performance during prolonged cycling (approximately 30 min). Fourteen male elite cyclists performed two or five time trials at different cadences [60, 80, 100, 120 rpm or freely chosen cadence (FCC)]. The total work was the same between the time trials, and the subjects were instructed to complete each time trial as fast as possible by adjusting the workload with buttons mounted on the handlebar. Accumulated work and cadence was visualised on a monitor. Oxygen uptake was measured continuously and blood lactate concentration every fifth minute. Compared to 80 rpm, finishing times at 60, 100 and 120 rpm were 3.5, 1.7 and 10.2% slower (P<0.05). Finishing time at FCC (mean 90 rpm) was indistinguishable from 80 and 100 rpm. Gross efficiency at 80 rpm was 2.9, 2.3, 3.4 and 12.3% larger than at 60, FCC, 100 and 120 rpm, respectively (P<0.05). The maximal energy turnover rate was 1.7% higher at 100 than at 80 rpm (P<0.05). This could not, however, compensate for the 3.4% lower efficiency at 100 rpm. This study demonstrated that elite cyclists perform best at their most efficient cadence despite the maximal energy turnover rate being larger at a higher cadence.

COMMENT: Many have argued for years that the fact that cyclists tend to race at cadences above cadences shown to be most efficient by studies "proves" that effiency is not important to racing performance. This study proves that cycling efficiency is important to performance, at least for time-trial type efforts.

So, why do cyclists tend to ride at higher cadences than are most efficient? It is probably because higher cadences, while a little less efficient, allow the cyclist to more quickly respond to surges by opponents in races that are much more tactical. That doesn't mean that higher cadences are optimum for time trial performances, where responding to others and quick accelerations are not needed, as demonstrated by this study.

We believe that optimum cadence depends upon several factors. 1. the muscle fibre make-up of the athlete. 2. the power being put out (more power means a higher optimal cadence). 3. the length of time the race lasts (the longer the race the lower the optimal cadence. Because every athlete is different we believe it imperitive that each athlete experiment with this and find out for themselves what is best for them rather than trying to copy some pro.

This study also helps explain why that 8% improvement in cycling efficiency measured by Dr. Coyle in Lance Armstrong (Improved muscular efficiency displayed as Tour de France champion matures.) after he was World Champion helped transform him into the dominant cyclist of his era and, in view of the Luttrell study (Effects of short-term training using powercranks on cardiovascular fitness and cycling efficiency.), which showed an overall 10% improvement in cycling efficiency from training with PowerCranks compared to controls, helps explain, in part, the huge performance improvements reported by PowerCrankers.

Link to study: PubMed