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I tend to spin rather slow when I am riding. 50rpm is a comfortable rate for me to spin for as long as I want to ride. 90rpm seems to be the rate at which I expend maximum power... I can't spin this longer than about 2 1/2 minutes on a -2% (downhill) grade, but going uphill I can sprint at least 15 seconds on a +12% grade starting at 90rpm (corresponding to close to 30mph), before I start to slow down appreciably, and correspondingly I have found that I perform much better on hills due to the lower cadences required.

Now my concern is higher cadences are generally recommended (I especially see this when people are asking about higher gear ratios to go faster), and I have been told that 50rpm is way too low for a cruising cadence. But if I do something like interval training to increase my cadence I am concerned that this will affect my climbing strength. Is this something I should worry about, or is there a specific approach that can result in me being able to tolerate higher cadences, without losing power at the low end?

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    What you have been told is true, and the secret to climbing quickly is maintaining a high cadence. (I just wish I could!) But the trick is to spin with the right level of resistance such that you don't lose your strength. There isn't really any magic bullet here. – PeteH Oct 25 '14 at 8:35
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    You may want to read this related bicycles.stackexchange question and its answers: bicycles.stackexchange.com/questions/12518/… – R. Chung Oct 26 '14 at 1:44
  • @R.Chung I knew there was one somewhere! – andy256 Oct 26 '14 at 3:10
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The general advice is that we should aim at 90 for an average cadence, and pushing slower than that can produce knee pain and injuries, and back pain and injuries.

However, everyone has their own best cadence. For example, I have not raced and find 110rpm is good for me on a flat-ish ride. My brother who has raced stays at around 120rpm on the same terrain. I find I'm changing gears if my cadence drops to 100, unless I'm on a long hill greater than about 6%, when I drop below 100rpm with my 39x26 lowest gear.

Climbing ability is a combination of your strength, endurance, and the gearing. Cadence enables the delivery of higher power. As one example, look at runners - sprinters aim for high step rates. For a cycling example, look at sprinters on the track or at the end of a road race. They also aim for high cadence. Going back to my personal examples, I can push to 180rpm in a sprint, and my brother passes 200rpm. Cadence is where the power is. If the cadence is too low on a hill, then we need better gearing to get back to where the power is.

Cadence is also where the muscular endurance is. For a given speed, at 50rpm your legs are pushing twice as hard as my legs at 100rpm (all else being equal). So my legs are generating half the power per revolution than yours. Cutting a long story short, the legs working harder will tire more quickly.

Cadence is supported by your cardiovascular capacity. A good cadence is where your performance is within your Aerobic capacity. This is essential for endurance.

So, to answer your headline question -no, increased cadence should not hurt your climbing strength.

The reason for the caveat is your mention of interval training. Interval training is about increasing your power and lactate threshold, not cadence. It does this by going faster for short periods, requiring you to work at or above your aerobic capacity. While valuable for developing endurance, it is not about training for cadence. Cadence training requires pushing a light load (for example rollers or riding behind or scooter) for long periods.

BTW, using the calculations provided by R Chung in this answer, suggest that your sprint on a 12% hill is producing close to 2kW. If your figures are correct, then that suggests you should be racing :-)

  • At 90rpm I feel like it's taking as much effort to move my legs as is being used to move the bike. – Michael Oct 25 '14 at 19:03
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You will not lose climbing strength if you work on your cadence; they are two different aspects of riding.

My recommendation to increase cadence range is the following:

1) On a slight incline, choose a gear that is medium effort. 2) Over 30 seconds, increase your cadence until you are at your maximum smooth cadence (no bouncing). If your effort is too light, you need a higher gear; if it's too hard, you need a lower gear. 3) Hold for 30 seconds 4) Slow your cadence down for 30 seconds.

Repeat three times. Do this once a week. This is primarily a neuromuscular exercise, so you don't need to do this too much.

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A simple way to think of cadence is the higher, the more cardio. The lower the cadence the less used cardio and more power used in the legs. If you're used to a lower cadence, it means you aren't used to working your cardio as much. Anywhere near the 80 range is a perfect balanced work out for your muscles and cardio. Plus, too low of a cadence can bad for your knees. I'm a junior racer so I have to get the junior cassette so I won't blow out my knees.

  • Yep, good way of describing it. +1 – andy256 Oct 26 '14 at 3:07
  • With regard to knees, R. Chung's linked answer seems to bear out my observation that spinning too fast at lower power hurts my knees (compared to spinning slower at lower power). – Michael Oct 26 '14 at 3:29
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    @Michael Not sure how you get that conclusion. But he does clearly say that experienced cyclists pick a cadence that works for them, and my answer says everyone has their own best cadence. So find what works for you. The charts the linked answer shows are valuable: they show that almost none of the pro riders in the study climbs hills of >5% below 60rpm. Most were around 80-90rpm, and the greatest power output was around 80-90rpm. Such facts can inform our training and goals, but the fact remains that we are all different, and have to do what's best for us. And changes should be made slowly. – andy256 Oct 26 '14 at 13:13

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