Category Archives: cycling position

Optimal Pedaling Cadence

This is an excellent excerpt reprinted with permission from Burke’s book, High-Tech Cycling-2nd Edition.

High-Tech Cycling book cover“Most studies examining pedaling cadence have focused on pedal optimization in terms of economy/efficiency and local muscle stress. In this section, we will summarize the findings of the numerous laboratory studies that have attempted to identify which cadence is optimal. Unfortunately, few investigations have analyzed the question in well-trained cyclists riding their own bikes, making it difficult to apply the findings to actual cycling.

Optimal Cadence and Oxygen Cost: Economy/Efficiency
The two main messages to emerge from the numerous studies published since the beginning of the 20th century are as follows:

  • Low cadences (50 to 60 rpm) tend to be more economical/efficient than high pedaling cadences (> 90 rpm)
  • Paradoxically, most individuals prefer to pedal at high, theoretically inefficient/uneconomical cadences (examples include Boning, Gonen, and Maassen 1984; Cathcart, Richardson, and Campbell 1924; Chavarren and Calbet 1999; Coast, Cox, and Welch 1986; Croissant and Boileau 1984; Gaesser and Brooks 1975; Garry and Wishart 1931; Gueli and Shephard 1976; Jordan and Merrill 1979; MacIntosh, Neptune, and Horton 2000; Marsh and Martin 1997; Marsh and Martin 1998; Seabury, Adams, and Ramey 1977; Takaishi, Yasuda, and Moritani 1994; Takaishi et al. 1996; Takaishi et al. 1998).

A detailed look at the published studies suggests that both general conclusions need to be approached with caution. Several factors may alter the optimal and preferred pedaling cadence, including absolute and/or relative power output (i.e., watts or percentage maximal oxygen uptake [V·O2max], respectively), duration of exercise, test mode (cycle ergometer tests versus riding a bicycle on a treadmill), fitness level of the subject (cyclist or noncyclist), and the high interindividual variability, even among trained cyclists of similar fitness levels, reported by most authors.

In general, during laboratory tests performed by noncyclists at constant power outputs (usually = 200 W), pedaling at low rates (~ 50 to 70 rpm) resulted in lower oxygen uptake (V·O2) than pedaling at higher rates (> 90 rpm). In any case, such a generalization is of little practical value. First, one questions the benefit of optimizing pedaling cadence in subjects whose power output rarely surpasses 200 W, those who cycle for fitness or recreation. Second, elite cyclists are the ones interested in optimizing cadence and making it more economical/efficient, and they are able to generate much higher power outputs during long periods. The average power output of Bjarne Riijs during the 1997 Amstel Gold Race, a World Cup classic lasting over seven hours, was close to 300 W (data from www.srm.de). During the most important stages of professional road cycling races, riders are often required to generate power outputs of over 400 W (Lucia, Hoyos, and Chicharro 2001a), not to mention the one-hour record in a velodrome (Bassett et al. 1999).

Bassett and colleagues (1999) estimated that the mean power outputs required to break the one-hour world records in a velodrome during the last years (53.0 to 56.4 km) ranged between 427 and 460 W. The average power output of Miguel Indurain during his 1994 one-hour record averaged 510 W (Padilla et al. 2000). Probably most pro riders are so economically below 200 W, that pedaling cadence hardly changes anything. Below 200 W, Lance Armstrong’s human engine is probably similar to that of the last rider in the overall classification of the Tour de France in recent years, and pedaling cadence does not have a significant effect on either one. The picture is likely to be different above 400 W, but there are scarce data in the literature related to the oxygen cost of generating power outputs over 400 W for 20 or more minutes (Lucia, Hoyos, and Chicharro 2000), and no data exist on how pedaling cadence could alter this variable. This is the type of information needed in cycling science.

We should therefore be cautious when applying the findings of previous research concerning cadence optimization to highly trained cyclists. The most economical of cadences tends to increase with absolute power output, that is, with watts (Boning, Gonen, and Maassen 1984; Coast and Welch 1985; Hagberg et al. 1981; Seabury, Adams, and Ramey, 1977). For instance, Coast and Welch (1985) showed that the cadence eliciting the lowest V·O2 at 100 and 330 W was 50 and 80 rpm, respectively. Thus, absolute power output is a key factor of cadence optimization and precludes any simple answer to the problem. On the other hand, trained cyclists are more effective than recreational riders at directing pedal forces perpendicular to the crank arm (Faria 1992). Such an ability carries a biomechanical advantage and probably allows trained riders to pedal at high cadences with no major loss of efficiency.

Instead of speaking of an inverse relationship between cadence and economy/efficiency, maybe it would be more correct to speak of a U relationship during constant-load exercise. There may be an optimum pedaling cadence below and above which oxygen cost increases significantly. Yet, can we assign a value to this theoretical optimum cadence at the bottom of the U? Probably not, given the great variability among cadence studies involving trained cyclists yielding the lowest V·O2, from ~ 60 to ~ 90 rpm (Chavarren and Calbet 1999; Coast and Welch 1985; Hagberg et al. 1981).

It is generally accepted that the theoretical optimal cadence in terms of oxygen cost for most humans is generally lower than that preferred by trained cyclists (> 90 rpm). This generalization requires some specification. First, the gap between the most economical or efficient and preferred cadence is usually narrower in trained cyclists. For instance, Hagberg and colleagues (1981) found both to be close to 90 rpm in trained cyclists. Second, few data in the scientific literature concern the preferred cadence of trained cyclists during actual cycling, although it is consistently assumed to be higher than 90 rpm. Indeed, the latter is only really true for one-hour records in the velodrome. Besides, fixed gears are used in velodrome events. Fixed gears are designed so the rider is constantly forced to move the pedals and might elicit different physiological responses than normal, free gears.

Only one report addressed the preferred pedaling cadence of professional cyclists during three-week races (Lucia, Hoyos, and Chicharro 2001b). Among other findings, the mean preferred cadence of the subjects was shown to range from 70 to 90 rpm, and high variability was shown between subjects and the type of terrain (flat versus uphill). High interindividual variability has also been reported for the preferred cadence of trained cyclists (72 to 102 rpm) during laboratory testing (Hagberg et al. 1981).

Finally, irrespective of the cadence adopted, the oxygen cost of pedaling is largely determined by the percentage distribution of efficient type I fibers in the main muscles involved in cycling—the knee extensor muscles, particularly the vastus lateralis—at least in trained cyclists (Coyle et al. 1991, 1992). We could speculate that, in subjects with a particularly high percentage distribution of type I fibers in the knee extensor muscles, the choice of theoretically inefficient/uneconomical cadences (too low or too high) would have a lower impact on the metabolic cost of cycling than would that choice in cyclists with a smaller proportion of this fiber type.”

Triathletes and Injury Prevention

Having spent many years training for fitness, it wasn’t until the last few years I became aware of how delicate a balancing act it can be of knowing how and when to push yourself toward greater fitness and avoiding injury.

I have had many injuries and hope I’ve learned how to approach training with the long tern goal of staying healthy and injury free. I would often push myself too hard when I did not need to or it was not the right time to push. Maybe I did not give myself enough of a rest, either between intervals, sets, or laps. It absolutely is a science and the more I read and study, the more I am able to understand when and WHY I do the things I do.

With the idea of sharing that, I posed several questions to my physical therapy group that helps heal me, Elite Physical Therapy in Charlotte, NC. Kelly Floyd started this the group and Joe and Lesley have joined in the last year. They are immensely qualified and have vast sports experience themselves as well as treating patients of all ages and ailments.

I treasure their input and advice. Here’s some advice I hope you can learn from as well.

What are the training rules of thumb and why are they important to follow?

Always break a sweat before stretching. Think of your cold muscle as a piece of bacon out of the freezer. You bend it and it breaks! Heat it up and it bends much easier!

It all starts with the core, the area of your body from your diaphragm to your groin. When running, jumping, cycling, swimming, or weight training, sitting, standing, bending, you name it, keep your spinal alignment perfect. Your spine is made to be stabilized, not twisted and bent. That’s what our other joints are for.

When increasing your mileage/running time or weight lifting, especially if you have not trained in a while, live by the 10% rule. Don’t increase your training initially by more than 10% per week. For example if you have been running for 10 minutes 1 week, don’t increase to 20 minutes the next. Try up to 5 minute increases each week. We sometimes tell our patients that if they are running every other day up to 4 days per week, try adding 1-2 minutes onto each run for the week for a total of about 5 minute increase in time per week.

As for weight training, try to only increase your resistance if your form is perfect for 2-3 repetitions in addition to your planned repetition stopping point. For example, if you had planned to do 10 repetitions with 50 lbs, if you could perform 12 repetitions with 50 lbs with perfect form, you would be able to lift the next time with 10% more weight (55 lbs) at 10 repetitions.

As to not sound redundant, most of the overuse injuries can be prevented with a gradual training program and adequate rest. But for those athletes just starting out without knowledge of their own body, it’s best to see a sports medicine specialist (physical therapist, orthopedic surgeon, athletic trainer, some well-respected personal trainers, contact local triathalon clubs for information on these specialists). These specialists can assess your muscle imbalances and functional strength, assist with appropriate shoe-wear, nutritional requirements, and make necessary training corrections in mechanics to optimize your training.

Are there any training practices specific to triathlon athletes should adhere to?

Triathletes need to understand that the specificity of their training comes from performing 3 consecutive events sustaining a relatively high intensity. Therefore program optimization would be to carry this idea into your cross training as well. For example, Pick 3 consecutive exercises, (push ups, pull ups, squats) and maximize your effort on all 3 for a certain period of time. This type of training develops anaerobic power, or the ability to work through the burn, utilizing large muscle groups. Another example would be to get on a spin bike for a mile as fast as you can, then the treadmill for ¼ mile as fast as you can, then do 1 minute of step ups onto a 8-16 in. box as fast as you can.

Your practice sees many athletes after they have injured themselves. Given your experience, what are some things triathletes can do to prevent injury?

Hydrate! Your muscles need the correct electrolyte balance for optimal contraction. If you are lacking fluids pre- or post- training, your muscles lose efficiency to contract and then you may sacrifice proper technique, cramp, or strain a muscle.

Rest and Nutrition! Sleep is a triathlete’s best, but often unappreciated friend. Plan your training to allow for maximal rest the day or night after your hard training day. Also, periodizing your programs will permit proper work to rest training days working up to the event.

Shoe-wear! A lot easier to say than do, but a proper shoe-wear assessment by a physical therapist, podiatrist, or pedorthist can be a life-saver as your mileage and intensity increases. Also, make sure you have 2 pairs of shoes to rotate at least 48 hours between because the EVA rubber in the shoe heats up and needs time to cool down to regain its properties.

Professional Movement Assessment! Along the same lines as a shoewear assessment, a physical therapist can assess the entire body from heel strike to leg swing, from pedal stroke to breast stroke to determine faulty kinetic links in your triathlete body. Many times overuse strains and sprains can be prevented before heavy training begins by a full body athletic movement assessment.

What role does technique play in athletic performance and injury prevention?

Technique can affect efficiency and spinal control. Many overuse injuries come from your muscles’ inability to slow a body part down. This is called an eccentric contraction, and this type of contraction is where muscle strains show their ugly heads…usually right when you are pushing to the next level of training. The overuse injury can often be avoided by improving your efficiency of movement, in other words optimize your muscle’s overall ability to contract, especially eccentrically.

As for spinal control, excess spinal motion leads to uneven wear on your spine’s joints. It also leads to unwanted motion that your extremities need to control. Say you use your quadriceps muscles 10% more when cycling by leaning side to side vs. keep your spine still. You are already fatiguing yourself for the run portion, and the extra 10% muscle use can affect your technique in the last leg of the race

What are the most common injuries you see in triathletes and how can they help prevent them?

Overuse injuries- The “ itis’s “(tendonitis, bursitis) Usually at the foot, ankle, knee, hip, shoulder. Usually caused when training is increased too dramatically too soon, or when the body has not rested the necessary amount.

Stress Fractures- especially of the navicular in the foot and top of tibia in the leg. In women stress fractures may be more prominent, especially in the leaner female triathlete, where the body fat percentage is low.

Joint Pains/Muscle strains- Cause by muscle imbalances, overtraining, poor knee alignment, hip abductor weakness, incorrect shoe-wear, improper postural habits while cycling.

I wholeheartedly recommend them and if you have questions feel free to contact them at:

Elite Physical Therapy
2630 E. 7th Street, Suite 206 •Charlotte, NC 28204
Office: 704.333.1052 • Fax: 704.333.1054
Email: elitept1@bellsouth.net
Website: www.elitept1.com

Here’s alittle about them:

“Kelly Floyd, president and owner, graduated with a Masters in Physical Therapy from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Kelly is an active triathlete and former collegiate basketball player as well.

Joe and Lesley Tedesco graduated with their Doctorates in Physical Therapy from Duke University and are also Certified Athletic Trainers. In addition, Joe is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist. As former athletic trainers for the University of Florida, Joe cared for the men’s basketball team and Lesley worked with the women’s volleyball team. Both have experience initiating functional training programs to professional, collegiate, and high school athletes.

At Elite Physical Therapy, we emphasize a hands-on-approach to treatment of orthopedic dysfunction of the spine and extremities. Our services also include movement assessment rehabilitation, injury prevention programs, therapeutic massage and/or strength and conditioning consultation for all sports and fitness levels.

We believe in community outreach and promise dedication to excellence using effective programs to keep our community’s athletes healthy now and in the future!”