Sprint Triathlon Training – Go Faster with the Correct Cadence

In bicycling, cadence refers to how many times the pedals spin per minute.  You can count your own cadence the same way you would count your pulse.  All you need is a stopwatch.  Count the number of times that one leg pushes down on the pedal for 10 seconds and multiply by 6.  You can count for a full minute if you like as well.  Here is a chart showing your cadence in revolutions per minute based on your 10 second count:

  • 10    60 rpm
  • 11    66 rpm
  • 12    72 rpm
  • 13    78 rpm
  • 14    84 rpm
  • 15     90 rpm
  • 16    96 rpm

Will a faster cadence make me faster on the bike?

In the long run the object of sprint triathlon training or even Ironman triathlon training is to go faster on the bike while still having energy for the run.

Bicycling speed is a result of your cadence (how fast the pedals are spinning) multiplied by the “gear inches” or how far your bike travels with each rotation of the pedals.  If you maintain your cadence at 90 for example, and you want to go faster, you will need to use a harder gear. This requires training to teach your muscles how to push that harder gear without getting fatigued.  But it is the only way to go faster once you have reached your own top cadence.

Ultimately your speed on the bike comes down to just two basic components that you can control…your cadence and the gear you are using.  I hope that you can understand how training your body to use a higher cadence will help you go faster on the bike leg of your training.

What’s the best cadence?

There is no “best” cadence…it depends on your personal physiology, your training background and your performance goals.  Most people will have a naturally selected cadence, but that doesn’t mean this is your optimal cadence.   In my experience working with newer cyclists, or cyclists who are just getting interested in racing have a cadence on the lower side anywhere from 60 to 75 rpm, while more experienced cyclists tend to have a cadence anywhere from 75 to 95rpm.  Frequently people have the mistaken notion that they should be “working hard” on the bike which forces them to use a harder gear than necessary and slows down their cadence.

By shifting to an easier gear, the amount of force or energy required to push down the pedal is slightly less, enabling the cyclists to pedal slightly faster.  It’s not so much the faster cadence that is helpful, but the fact that you don’t have to push quite as hard with each pedal stroke.  For most people, this slight energy savings adds up over time and allows them to ride further and faster with less energy, not to mention being able to have a great run leg.

You can’t get something for nothing…

There is a slight tradeoff however.  Try this experiment.  Get on your bike on a flat stretch of road or trail.  Use the easiest gear available on your bike (the granny gear) which will be the smallest gear in front and the largest gear in the back. Now pedal as fast as you can for a minute or more.  Are your legs tired? THey should be…it takes energy to move the pedals in circles.

Now repeat the experiment in the hardest gear.  Your legs will be tired in a different way…it takes more forces to push the pedals in a harder gear.

So if both extremes make you tired, why is one better than the other?  Choosing a higher cadence uses requires less strength from the muscles and shifts the work effort to the cardiovascular system.  In addition with less forces used on the pedals, less force is transmitted to your joints.  Higher cadences are easier on your knees and hips which can make the difference between enjoying the bike leg and dreading it.

What cadence should I aim for?

A cadence of between 80 and 90 seems to work well for most triathletes.  With training, you will discover your own best cadence.  In general, I advise my athletes to use slightly easier gears in the beginning of their training in order to get used ot a higher cadence and aim for a goal cadence of 85-95 rpm.

95 is definatly on the higher side, but there is no harm in overshooting a bit to help reprogram your muscle memory.  At first it may feel foreign or very fatiguing.  This is a skill that needs to be trained just like any other physical skill. But once your become accustomed to a higher cadence, it will begin to feel more normal, and will actually become more efficient for you.

Feel free to leave a comment with any questions, comments or additions below!  Thanks,

Coach Suzanne

31 Responses to “Sprint Triathlon Training – Go Faster with the Correct Cadence”

  1. Kyra Monday at 8:56 pm #

    Thanks for describing the difference between the cardiovascular demands of the higher cadence versus the muscular demands of the harder gear. Very useful, and something I hadn’t conceptualized before.

  2. Anthea Tuesday at 8:23 pm #

    I am such a novice but I shall try this experiment and report back on my progress – thanks

  3. Glenn Sunday at 10:41 pm #

    could you talk about grinders vs. mashers and which do better in triathlons or is it just a matter of preferance?

  4. Glenn Sunday at 10:41 pm #

    i meant mashers vs. spinners

  5. Coach Suzanne Monday at 4:45 am #

    Hi Glenn, basically this article addresses that without telling you outright which one is “best”. Everyone is different and each person will find their own best cadence. My personal bias is that MOST people are better off with a slightly faster cadence than a slower cadence, primarily because it will result in less force used with each stroke and hopefully a conservation of energy that can be used for the run. However, unless someone PRACTICES biking at a faster cadence they will never find out what cadence is best for them.

    As a personal note, I spent my 2nd winter doing tris focusing on my cadence indoors. As a result, I’m spining much faster than usual. However when I find myself in a time trial or race situation, I usually revert to a slower cadence (80rpm). this is a result of having tried and practiced many different cadences with and without a power meter over several years.

    So…there is no “who does best”…but as an individual triathlete, you need to experiment in trianing and give yourself adequate training time to find out what works best for you. Hope that helps.

  6. Camilla Tuesday at 5:10 am #

    Thanks for that article – really helped with your example of high gear vs high RPM. Doesnt higher gear though mean you can push harder as you are avoiding free spin so ultimately you will go faster?

    Also have you written much on the swimming leg? It’s the one I am getting most anxious about…Have first ever tri end of September and have been totally inspired by your 12 week plan and brilliant articles – Thank you!!

    • admin Tuesday at 10:00 am #

      Thanks Camilla! In a sense using a higher (ie harder) gear will help you go faster, but only for as long as you can sustain pushing that harder gear. Since it requires more force to do so, you will need to find your own “sweet spot”. What’s the hardest gear you can push at a decent cadence so as not to get fatigued during your bike leg, and still have energy for the run?

      I plan on adding some swimming articles soon. Thanks for reading!
      -Coach Suzanne

  7. Mike Friday at 3:40 pm #

    Interesting article – - makes sense why I’m tired after 12 miles in 27th gear. I’ll certainly work on changing the ratio and picking up the RPMs. Thanks

  8. Patti Monday at 1:22 pm #

    I am an avid mountain biker and planning on doing my first tri on my mtb with slicks. Because of the varied terrain of mountain biking, I frequently switch gears. I have my bike hooked up to a trainer in my basement for those long New England winters. Should I practice on my trainer spinning on just one gear and not worry about switching gears to train for road riding?

    • admin Monday at 11:43 pm #

      Hi Chef! You should definately practice in different gears even while on your trainer. The reason is that if your cadence is fixed, the only thing that will change your effort level is switching gears. Training in only one gear limits that variety of “training zones” that you can work in. You can learn more about training zones in some of my new off-season and pre-season training guides I’ll be posting about soon. Thanks.

  9. MJ Monday at 12:20 pm #

    I’ve been trying to do this higher cadence training since reading your article and it has been great. I can feel my legs getting stronger. I also make sure I do a harder cadence while standing and sitting in between the higher cadence. It seems to help a lot. What do you think?

    • admin Sunday at 3:21 pm #

      When Standing, I usually shift 1-2 gears harder otherwise you’ll start to spin out. Then shift back to 1-2 gears easier as you go to sit. Experiment with the timing of the shifting so that the shifting is smooth with no abrupt jumps in the resistance or excessive noise from the drive chain.

  10. Sally Tuesday at 11:54 am #

    Very straight forward and easy to understand article for a very novice triathlete – many thanks. Just need to get rid of my hamstring injury first then I can put your knowledge into practice!!

  11. Anna Tuesday at 1:51 am #

    This article was really helpful and interesting. I wish I had read it sooner. I will compete in my first sprint triathlon this Sunday and I don’t really have anytime to improve myself on the cycling portion of my race. At least it will help some on the actual race. Thanks for all you advice and encouraging perspective.

  12. Alexander Sharpe Monday at 3:54 am #

    Thanks for the article and site Suzanne. You have done a wonderful job and I applaud your work ethic. Thanks specifically for the article on procrastination, I just read it and it has helped me begin to regain my focus. Thanks for the e-mails also, they bring me right back to where I belong.

  13. Bruce Andersen Saturday at 5:08 pm #

    Hi, Thanks for the info. I live in Florida and the bigest problem is wind. Is there any special cadence training I might use to help when riding into the wind? Thanks Bruce

    • Coach Suzanne Saturday at 10:48 am #

      Hi Bruce, you’ll still want to use a gear that allows you to “spin” relatively high…at least 75 or higher. The wind acts as resistance…so you’ll need to train to overcome that resistance. Just like you might train on hills to build the power needed to climb long hills, riding against the wind also builds power. If you use an easier gear, you’ll find that you can spin a little higher and still make headway. It can feel better sometimes to “mash” the pedals at a low gear, but that usually tires you out faster. Use the gears that came with the bike, and experiment!

  14. simon Wright Monday at 5:16 am #

    Great article, you are right people need to find out for themselves what works best for them, me personally I find that lower gear higher cadence does not give me that heavy leg feeling once off the bike and on to the run. Once a week I drop the cadence and increase the resistance just to give me a different dimension to my training. Just my pennies worth.

    Simon

  15. Leanne Tuesday at 11:42 pm #

    I come from a running background so the bike leg is a bit of a mystery to me still. Excellent article – I understood it completely, it made sense and it has given me some parameters to work within.

  16. Kevin Saturday at 9:49 pm #

    Thanks for the article. I have the least experience in biking, and this leg intimidates me the most. I am just beginning my training for my first triathlon, and I just assumed getting to the top gear was the goal. This is very helpful to read before I develop a bad training habit. I never thought of it as cadence and gearing a trade off between strength (or force) and cardio.

  17. Connie Tuesday at 1:31 pm #

    Very helpful. thanks so much!

  18. Paula Tuesday at 2:33 am #

    Thanks for sending early in training schedule. Very helpful.

  19. lauren Sunday at 9:49 am #

    I live in Utah aka snow and cold weather.What is the best way to go about bikeing
    indoors on a spin bike since I can’t take my actual bike out yet?

  20. Craig Thursday at 10:20 am #

    Hi Suzanne, Good article. What is your opinion on the following..I’ve asked many people with answers all over the board: After increasing cadence, increasing fitness, training with power, and doing many drills, does it make sense that I can ride a hilly 20 mile course faster but with less watts average? I assumed I was getting more efficient. As your article stated, you can go faster obviously with a higher cadence in the same gear. But does this sometimes translate into LESS power? I specifically see my power numbers decreasing (comparing with previous same course descents) when descending, even though I’m faster. Thanks for your insight.

    • Coach Suzanne Friday at 10:52 pm #

      Hi Craig, Thanks for the compliment and the comment.

      If you are riding more efficiently…more even application of power throughout the ride, essentially “flattening” the hills and/or if you have lost weight, then yes you will be able to complete a hilly ride in the same time with less power. Efficiency adn strength to weight ration are what matters.

      Of course that assumes all other things are equal…same bike, same power meter, same rider, same aerodynamics, same wind, same weight ,etc, etc. Hope that helps.

  21. Pat Glennon Monday at 4:25 pm #

    Hi Suzanne I suffer from terrible cramps when getting off the bike to start the run ,is this to do with the speed I am pedalling at (higher/lower) cadence and which would you suggest
    Pat

    • Coach Suzanne Tuesday at 5:24 am #

      Hi Pat, one of the only things correlated with cramps is training or racing at a faster pace than you are used to and…a history of cramping ( I know not helpful). Slow down for now and take time to build up your fitness and the cramping should subside. You can also read more in the chapter I wrote on dealing with common injuries in the USA Triathlon’s Complete Guide to Triathlons.

      • Pat Glennon Sunday at 4:11 pm #

        Thanks Suzanne for the advice and encouragement and If I am true to myself I agree ,was pushing to the max before the body was ready
        Pat

  22. Chuck Thursday at 11:41 am #

    Thanks for the tips, Suzanne. I follow a simple rule that corresponds to your flat road experiment: If you are out of breath, shift to a harder gear; if your legs hurt, shift to an easier gear. Keeping this in mind can be used to direct training (i.e. if you’re trying to increase cardio fitness, then stay one gear lower — keep breathing hard; if you’re training for strength, then stay one gear too high.)

  23. Coach Suzanne Tuesday at 12:45 am #

    Glad you enjoyed it! There are some details I didn’t get into, but it’s important that people understand that there is no “best” cadence and that there are tradeoffs both ways.

  24. Keith (UK) Wednesday at 2:07 pm #

    A very interesting article and discussion Suzanne which I have enjoyed reading. The argument has been made I think that it is a matter of practice, which then becomes experience, enabling people to make personal choices. In this respect, it might be useful to note that the recent Time Trial World Championship was won by the German Tony Martin, who uses a much lower cadence and different gearing to second placed Bradley Wiggins. This was a reversal of the equivalent London Olympic event won by Bradley, with a much higher cadence. Thus, one or the other isn’t necessarily best, it’s becomes a question of what suits your own general physiology.

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