High vs Low Cadence


Cadence feature

Triathletes have been debating the issue of cadence in cycling since Jan Frodeno arrived at IRONMAN World Championship 70.3 Canada in 2014 with a completely different approach to racing: high cadence and the resulting speed that followed. Since

then, cadence has been discussed with some vigour. Triathlon coach and multiple age-group world champion Andre Bekker believes there is no discussion to be had and worries that many triathletes seeking quick results are being taught differently.


Let’s start with the words of Richard Dawkins, Professor of Public Understanding of

Science at Oxford University: “In the presence of science and overwhelming

evidence to support the claims, people still believe what they want.” And then

those of Jan Frodeno: “I enjoy watching people speculate and make a fuss around something that doesn’t exist.”

Both these statements are key to the case I’m putting forward.

The challenges faced by athletes stem directly from a school of thought among certain triathlete coaches.

To quote Alistair and Jonathan Brownlee: “In order to improve, we specialise in all three of the different disciplines.” But the majority of athletes (yes, I am generalising here) believe that triathlon is one sport and therefore believe that…

• you don’t need to address the basics in each discipline

• you need to take shortcuts (I was at a coaching course where this was in fact emphasised)

• you should not overthink things, i.e. follow the path of least resistance

• you should go with what works naturally for you.

If you, as a coach or an athlete, buy into any of the above statements, this article is NOT for you. However, if you are all about improving and growing, you need to consider the Brownlees’ approach and do so with an open mind.


BACK TO BASICS

It’s vital to understand the basics of the tool you intend to use in IRONMAN racing: a bicycle. In the juvenile to junior cycling categories, the UCI restricts the gears you’re allowed to race with in an effort to ensure you develop into a smooth, effective bike rider. This strengthens muscles and tendons, laying down a solid muscular foundation on which to add strength and power.

Riders nurture high cadence, which directly impacts efficiency on a muscular and cardiovascular level. With the additional exposure to fixed-gear track bicycles, they further enhance their peddle stroke, harnessing the left/right balance. The use of restricted gears lasts until the rider is 16.

Cycling efficiently is a learnt skill, nurtured over years through consistency and dedication. This is extremely important to note. Being comfortable on a bike is just that, being comfortable. It does not translate into being efficient.

Efficiency eventually leads to being comfortable after heaps of hard uncomfortable hours.

Under-23 age level is the first time a rider gets to choose the range of gears they want to compete with. At this stage a solid foundation has been laid for strength work to commence.

With this backdrop to the journey of a pro cyclist, we see a strange phenomenon among tri coaches and triathletes who think there is a ‘silver bullet’, a short-cut to efficient timetrialling or cycling. It’s widely advocated and supported, with all sorts of theories to back its validity, and is known as the high force/low cadence approach

or HFLC.

In order to better illustrate the context, let’s use an example many will be all too familiar with. As an untrained individual wanting to start weight training, you walk into the gym and head directly to the weight section.

Do you pick up the biggest, heaviest weights and risk the possibility of injury, or do you enlist the help of a coach whose objective is first and foremost to help you with your form and efficiency, and help you progress to heavier weights?

The picture is clear: we cannot start our cycling journey with pounding the gears or making comfort the priority.

Inefficient power output, strained muscles and injuries are all outcomes of this approach; the net outcome being that you will be slow with little-to-no room for improvement. You will have to get stronger in order to get faster.

So what does pure time-trail specialisation look like? The last two record holders both focused on cadence first: Sir Bradley Wiggins (107) and Victor Campenaerts (105). The

power followed, it can’t be any other way. World track cycling coach Dave Street says, “Marry the gear to the cadence.” In other words, first cultivate cadence, then marry the gear that will work with your “natural” cadence.

There’s no such thing as an optimum cadence, it’s your best suited cadence after you’ve put in the hard yards, with specific high cadence programmes.

There can be no power without cadence, it’s beyond dispute; the higher the cadence the faster you go. Period.


CADENCE AND SPEED ARE SYNONYMOUS

The fact that youngsters work so hard over the formative years to develop a high cadence proves how important it is. As Lionel Saunders commented: “I realised that if I wanted to go faster on the bike, I needed to go back and address my cadence.’


SO WHY DO SOME TRIATHLETES AND COACHES THINK HIGH FORCE/LOW CADENCE IS APPLICABLE TO TRIATHLON?

• Most triathletes are new to cycling and consider this an easy route.

• Short-term goals i.e. “All I want to do is finish an IRONMAN.”

• HFLC is hard work, so it must be right.

• Lower heart rate equals a lower metabolic cost.

• The power approach produces quantifiable results in the short term.

• Training tools focus on power rather than cadence i.e. when you go out of

the targeted power zone, resistance increases.

• A great deal of coaches are new to triathlon coaching and the sport itself.

The result is a philosophy that is not based on an understanding of cycling and cadence.

In addition, there are a lack of programmes available that focus on the efficiency of cycling. It’s a slow process and gains are not immediately visible. The ‘power’ approach, on the other hand, produces quantifiable results in the short term. Coaches who don’t come from a cycling background lack the intrinsic understanding of cycling and the process required to set a foundation on which the athletes performance can be built. Old-school power-based coaches believe historical experience and trophies trump

efficiency. When you focus on power rather than cadence, it destroys form.


PHENOTYPE

Then there is the issue of phenotype, with some coaches insisting that bigger people should apply HFLC. Have you ever heard a coach say: “It looks ridiculous when a 100kg athlete spins at a high cadence!”

Funny thing is track cyclists and sprinters weigh more than that and their cadence is often close to or above 200.

“I have big quads and cannot spin.”

No! You are looking for reasons to take a short cut.

In her article ‘What Should Your Ideal Cadence Really Be?’, Selene Yeager highlights new research published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise that suggests “pedalling at a cadence of about 80rpm lets riders produce high amounts of power

without losing efficiency, which they often do at higher cadences. Ideal cadence is highly variable, however, and depends on muscle fibre type, cycling experience, and cardiovascular fitness.

“Training yourself to be more comfortable at higher cadences can help spare muscle glycogen and prevent fatigue during longer rides.”

Former pro cyclist Hunter Allen, who co-authored Training and Racing with a Power Meter with Dr Andy Coggan, and developed WKO, an advanced cycling metrics programme used by almost all top coaches, has this to say: “If you’re new to the sport or not in your best cycling shape, you will pedal more slowly because your cardiovascular system can’t handle the higher heart rate that comes with high cadences

and will prefer to rely more on your muscle strength. As you get fitter, you will tend to shift the work to your cardiovascular system and therefore pedal more quickly.”


ACCORDING TO HUNTER, THE FOLLOWING IS THE IDEAL PEDALLING CADENCE RANGE FOR EACH TYPE OF RIDER:

 Fast twitch/Less cycling fit: Your preferred pedalling cadence is definitely

slower, likely in the 75 to 85 rpm range.

 Fast twitch/More cycling fit: You’ll be more efficient at moderate cadence

range, about 85 to 90 rpm.

 Slow twitch/Less cycling fit: Your preferred cadence will be in the moderate range of 85 to 90 rpm.

 Slow twitch/More cycling fit: You’ll be more efficient at the higher end of the pedalling cadence spectrum: 95+ rpm.

Note how different Hunter’s numbers are to that of the study which concluded

that 80 is an optimum cadence. That is because the article that cited the study is based on the “recreational cyclist“ and Hunter is looking at the big picture i.e. that cyclists prioritise smooth effective peddling strokes first.

This is the crux of the problem: inefficient power derived from the short-cut approach of HFLC. A cadence of 80 is not a benchmark; it is still low by any measure.


DEBUNKING SOME MYTHS

 MISCONCEPTION: The bike section is a means of getting from the swim to the run. It’s not a bike race. It’s not necessary, or even desirable, to have the “perfect cyclist’s technique”.

Debunked: Efficiency and technique are vital in the bike leg of IRONMAN.

You’ll spend more than 50% of your total time on the bike, so it stands to reason

that you should make every effort to be efficient and smooth, producing as little

muscle fatigue as possible.

 MISCONCEPTION: To reduce cardiovascular strain, a triathlete should work on developing strength and muscular endurance in the legs. This is achieved by pushing bigger gears at lower cadences. This will produce the same speed, at lower revolutions, and is less stressful on the heart and lungs.

Debunked: Your cardiovascular system can recover a lot quicker than your

body can dispense of muscle fatigue.

Bigger gears are not only inefficient but also slow and hugely taxing on the muscles, specially in new and untrained athletes. Smooth, functional high cadence is a prerequisite for efficient riding. Athletes that have not spent years developing the smooth style will effectively be doing weight reps.

Furthermore, the chances are that the untrained athlete will counterbalance

or overcompensate each peddle stoke with rocking their hips and not staying

balanced. Inefficient power is “power not translating in to moving forward; it is

wasted due to bad form”. The fitter you get the lower the metabolic cost.

Inversely, high-force riding will produce a lower heart rate, but your heart is not functioning in a smooth effective rhythm.


 MISCONCEPTION: You’ll gain advantage on the run. Your cardiovascular system is aided and the run muscles – calves, hamstrings and hip flexors – will be fresher.

Debunked: Focusing on soft, smooth peddling will aid the athlete in the run because an efficient bike leg will result in reduced physical demand.

Hamstrings, calves and hip flexors are all part of your body and need to be balanced and preserved for the run leg. The best contribution to a cadence discussion I have heard was from an age grouper who said: “I was a low-cadence kind of guy for a while, and found at around the two-hour mark, I would fatigue, no matter how much I trained.”


CADENCE NUMBERS

BY KONA PODIUMERS SINCE 2014

The 70.3 World Championship Canada in 2014 saw efficiency enter the IRONMAN arena in the form of Jan Frodeno and Javier Gomez, when high cycling cadence/speeds and high running cadence were introduced.

Since then, no IRONMAN World Championship – 70.3 or full – has been won by a peddle cruncher.

High cadence running and cycling athletes include Sebastian Kienle (85 cadence), Patrick Lange (86 cadence), Lionel Saunders (87 cadence), Ben Hoffman (89 cadence) and Jan Frodeno (88 as high as 92 average cadence). As Frodeno said: “This is not a discussion. This is what’s required to go fast.”

The stated cadence numbers are found in many public forums as well as activity tracking applications but can be elusive.

Let’s return to Professor Dawkins: “People will believe what they want in spite of evidence to the contrary.”

Now let me quote a coach: “While Jan is crushing the field at Kona with low cadence high force, you foolishly keep on believing in cadence.“

The latter has been repeated by many observers who simply ignore the facts. Dawkins is very clear on this type of behaviour, describing it as “dysfunctional behaviour, a malfunction of the brain”.

In short, it’s a human phenomenon.

At this point I need to explain the difference in the actual recorded average cadence of Jan Frodeno of 88, compared to his being on record that his natural cadence is around 92.

A rather large discrepancy.

But we need to consider what happens at an IRONMAN event that directly influences the average cadence.

These include:

• when the recording device is started average cadence of Jan Frodeno of 88, compared to his being on record that his natural cadence is around 92.

A rather large discrepancy.

But we need to consider what happens at an IRONMAN event that directly influences the average cadence.

These include:

• when the recording device is started

• slow or no peddling when leaving and returning to transition

• drinking water, taking supplements or eating that disrupts pedalling

• less pedalling downhill

• less pedalling on corners

The above factors all contribute to Jan’s recorded number of 88. While he focuses on his natural, most efficient workload, the key word being “work load”, it however translates to a cadence around 92.

To conclude the numbers, it’s safe to say that if, for example, Ben Hoffman’s average cadence is 89, his working cadence is well above 91. The same can be said for all the cadence numbers quoted for the pros. This is HCLF, and it’s beyond discussion.


EXPERT ANALYSIS

You couldn’t ask for an opinion from a more qualified person than Hunter Allen, who explains his views on HCLF as follows: “After analysing over 200 power files from both winning and losing (poorly completed, if completed) triathlons, I have learned that the best triathletes use a cadence of 90rpm or greater during their event. This is because it keeps them from creating too much force (think: pushing harder on the pedals) while pedalling and shifts the strain to the cardiovascular system thereby preserving precious muscle glycogen for the run.

“When I analyse a power file from a triathlon, the first chart that I look for is the Quadrant Analysis chart, which shows the relationship between cadence and force during the event.

Those competitors that keep the majority of their power in Quadrant III and Quadrant IV, which are both low force and cadence around 90rpm, have consistently better runs and run times, than those that pedal with a higher force and slower cadence.“

It’s important to understand the difference between philosophies that are backed by a scientific approach and those backed by ‘experience’. This is the way we used to do it and it works, because I have coached countless athletes to WC titles. What Allen Hunter is saying is that each athlete has been analytically examined using data with

the outcomes being undisputable.


POWER

It’s vitally important to understand that power training is necessary, but only when you have covered all the bases.

Firstly, athletes should strive to achieve HCLF, a smooth peddling style, an aligned and balanced body position and movement. Only then should power be added as the last ingredient to complete the full scope of a well-trained athlete.


RUNNING AND CYCLING

The correlation between cycling and running cadence has a direct impact on

your running form and the effort exerted in the run. As an introspective exercise,

compare your cycling cadence with your slow or no peddling when leaving and

returning to transition

• drinking water, taking supplements or eating that disrupts pedalling

• less pedalling downhill

• less pedalling on corners

The above factors all contribute to Jan’s recorded number of 88. While he focuses on his natural, most efficient workload, the key word being “work load”, it however translates to a cadence around 92.

To conclude the numbers, it’s safe to say that if, for example, Ben Hoffman’s

average cadence is 89, his working cadence is well above 91. The same can be said for all the cadence numbers quoted for the pros. This is HCLF, and it’s beyond discussion.


EXPERT ANALYSIS

You couldn’t ask for an opinion from a more qualified person than Hunter Allen, who explains his views on HCLF as follows: “After analysing over 200 power files from both winning and losing (poorly completed, if completed) triathlons, I have learned that the best triathletes use a cadence of 90rpm or greater during their event. This is because it keeps them from creating too much force (think: pushing harder on the pedals) while pedalling and shifts the strain to the cardiovascular system thereby preserving precious muscle glycogen for the run.

“When I analyse a power file from a triathlon, the first chart that I look for is the Quadrant Analysis chart, which shows the relationship between cadence and force during the event.

Those competitors that keep the majority of their power in Quadrant III and Quadrant IV, which are both low force and cadence around 90rpm, have consistently better runs and run times, than those that pedal with a higher force and slower cadence.“

It’s important to understand the difference between philosophies that are backed by a scientific approach and those backed by ‘experience’. This is the way we used to do it and it works, because I have coached countless athletes to WC titles. What Allen Hunter is saying is that each athlete has been analytically examined using data with the outcomes being undisputable.