Are you trying to increase your cadence to ride more like the pros? New research says it might be doing you more harm than good. Scientists compared the effects high and low cadences have on force exerted on the pedals, blood flow and oxygenation of the muscle. Here is what they found out.

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Pros are known to pedal above 100 revolutions per minute (RPM). That’s a really high cadence compared to casual cyclists who often pedal at half this RPM. Many cycling enthusiasts try to adopt a higher cadence, thinking that smoother blood flow keeps the exercising muscle well oxygenated. A new study from the King’s College London published in February 2019 in the International Journal of Sports Medicine set out to test if that’s actually the case.

The researchers recruited 6 men and 3 women ranging from 21 to 55 years old. Two of them were regional-level triathletes, six regularly engaged in moderate exercise, and one did only light activity occasionally. These volunteers carried out a number of experiments on a stationary cycle ergometer at moderate exercise intensity and at different pedalling cadences. Force exerted on the pedals and cardiopulmonary and metabolic responses were recorded, together with thigh muscles’ oxygenation, which was studied continuously using near-infrared spectroscopy.

Vincenzo Nibali in action during the twelfth stage of the 105th Tour de France, 19 July 2018. © Profimedia, AFP

All metrics got worse at high cadence

The results showed that forces exerted on the pedals decreased at higher cadences, heart rate increased by 15% and cycling exercise efficiency decreased. Skeletal muscle oxygenation also decreased when participants pedalled at the highest cadence tested, 90 RPM. The lead author, Dr Federico Formenti, said:

“Pedalling at cadence greater than 90 revolutions per minute is advantageous for professional cyclists, but appears inefficient for recreational cyclists. When cycling at low exercise intensity, skeletal muscle oxygenation is mostly unaffected by cadence, indicating that the cardiopulmonary and circulatory systems can effectively meet the exercising muscles’ demand. However, at a greater exercise intensity, high cadence reduces recreational cyclists’ efficiency and skeletal muscle oxygenation, suggesting a reduced ratio between oxygen being delivered to and taken up by the exercising muscles.”

To sum up, high cadence seems to be beneficial only for cyclists who can sustain high intensity at the same time. So, if you’re just starting out or if you don’t have competitive goals, you might be better off at a lower cadence.

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