It's often believed that high-cadence cycling at typically 90-100+ rpm, or spinning as it's often called, improves cycling efficiency. This is because the smoother blood flow it causes keeps the exercising muscle well oxygenated, resulting in less muscular strain and load.
It's certainly worked for elite cyclists, who can sustain a very high exercise intensity for long periods of time, but does it work for amateurs? And should everyone be doing it? Scientists led by Kings College London decided to find out...
They used a group of nine volunteers – 6 male, 3 female; two were regional level triathletes with 3 years’ experience, 6 regularly engaged in moderate and vigorous exercise, and one engaged in very light physical activity. The participants’ age ranged from 21 to 55 years.
The team carried out a number of experiments at different pedalling cadences on a stationary cycle ergometer. Force exerted on the pedals, along with cardiopulmonary and metabolic responses were recorded, together with thigh muscles’ (which are cycling's powerhouse) oxygenation, which was studied continuously using near-infrared spectroscopy.
The results showed that forces exerted on the pedals decreased at higher cadences, heart rate increased by 15% and cycling exercise efficiency decreased. As part of this reduced efficiency, skeletal muscle oxygenation decreased when participants pedalled at 90 revolutions per minute (the highest cadence tested). This then disproves the theory that spinning ensures smoother blood flow, which keeps the exercising muscle well oxygenated.
Lead author Dr Federico Formenti from King’s College London 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”.
We asked 220 cycling expert Nik Cook for his opinion on the study:
“Optimal cadence has been a bone of contention in cycling for years. We now know that a certain Texan’s Tour domination wasn’t down to his whirring high cadence pedalling alone. I’d always take the findings of a study such as this one with a pinch of salt and not be too quick to try and apply them to your own riding.
"As I suspect the case is with most things in life; somewhere in the middle with a bit of individual variance is probably the answer to optimal cadence. I always encourage riders to try and find their own cadence “sweet-spot” and, in most cases, after a few years of riding, they’ll naturally gravitate towards it. Don’t try and force a cadence on yourself that feels wrong. Yes, use low cadence/big gear for strength work and high cadence for some pedalling drills but, for the bulk of the time, trust your instincts and feel.”
Nikalas Cook is the author of the Road Cycling Performance Manual
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