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Cadence use in long course triathlon

Posted By: KP
Date: Saturday, 14 March 2009, at 10:56 a.m.

I was recently asked about cadence preferences in long course triathlon:

What is the best cadence?

I think that varies from athlete to athlete. My highest sustainable power at all distances (30min to 5hrs) is done with a relatively high cadence (95 up to 105 and some 110). It is also most comfortable (for me) biomechanicaly. I will change up my cadence (use some 90- 95) during an IM to stretch and sit differently on the saddle -- get some brief rest.

I read a great post that I agree with by my pal Rick Ashburn a year or so ago. I don't think he would mind me sharing it here: his message was that (paraphrasing) all else being equal or under lab conditions, lower cadences tend to be more metabolically efficient, yet higher ones offer better fatigue resistance, at a given average power output.

"Some speculation centers on the fact that power output isn't constant because muscles work in an "on-off" cycle. Lower cadence means the on-off periods are each longer, and the "on" power is higher than the "on" power at higher cadences. So, the low cadence rider is riding with higher and lower peaks and valleys, and that this can result in quicker fatigue. This is analogous to the fact that somebody who rides highly variably at a given average power will fatigue more quickly than a constant-riding rider at the same average power, in a time trial."

"On the efficiency side of things, lower cadences are thought to be more efficient since less energy is lost to the simple matter of making the legs go in circles. This is as clear an example as any that efficiency is not the be-all end-all of performance. It pays to sacrifice efficiency in the interest of finishing faster or staving off fatigue in some situations. My view is that this is one thing (cadence) people need to go out and figure out for themselves."

I agree that there is no one rule. Optimal cadence is probably different for each of us. Be careful not to out think yourself. As I see it, my cardiovascular system can outwork my legs. Coach Ken Mierke shares his thoughts: "If your legs hurt more than your lungs, increase cadence. If your lungs hurt more than your legs, use a lower cadence." "High-cadence pedaling works your cardiovascular system more, but reduces the relative intensity of the leg muscles. The key, then, is pedaling with enough cadence to keep your watts-per-pedal-stroke at a level that your muscles can handle, but at a cadence that will not overload your cardiovascular system. The optimal balance is different for every rider."

I believe it is useful for an athlete to adapt to a wide range of cadences.
The right cadence for a given application will become apparent.

coach KP

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