The Sweet Science of Pedaling Cadence



Does it matter how fast or slow I pedal on my bike?

YES. Believe it or not, but the cadence you pedal at is a very important concept to understand in avoiding injury, and it allows for you to ride more efficiently and faster over a longer duration of time.

What is pedaling cadence?

Cadence is how fast you pedal the cranks, measured in revolutions of a single leg pedal stroke, per minute (rpm). The average or beginner cyclist generally rides in the 40-50rpm range, wherein more experienced, conditioned cyclists tend to pedal much faster, in the 90rpm range, which is advised for all levels of cycling.

Why pedal faster vs harder?

Simply put, the slower you pedal (i.e. using the the hardest gears, and pedaling at a lower cadence) the more stress/strain it places on the body, commonly leading to knee, back, hip and neck pain on the bike. Also, at lower cadence, your muscles rely mostly on your anaerobic system, using muscle glucose as an energy source – which is very limited, and only designed for quick, all-out efforts like sprinting

Think about a simple biceps curl: In your Right hand you have 30Lb, and in your Left, you have 10Lb weight. Which arm would be receiving much more strain? Which arm would be placing more stress through the joints, ligaments and tendons? The heavier one, right? This simplified principle applies to the bike, especially due to the amount of repetition involved, especially when your riding greater than an hour.

But it feels much better to pedal slower to me… What gives?

Pedaling faster is much more taxing on your cardiovascular system- thus you breathe harder and faster to try and get more oxygen into the system to generate energy.

Typically, those with less aerobic and cardiovascular fitness levels commonly choose to pedal slower, but ultimately at the expense of your knees, back, and shoulders, which can lead to injury. Pedaling faster requires excellent pedaling skills as well as good core stability to maintain this cadence, which takes practice.

What about shifting?  

To be able to maintain a good, smooth cadence, you’ll also need to modify and adapt your shifting to be able to maintain the 80-90rpm range. For example, don’t keep shifting into a harder gear if it makes you ride at <50rpm for a prolonged time period, say >1minute. Stay with the comfortable gear that allows you to maintain a quicker pace.

Also, be sure to shift into an easier gear as you are climbing a hill so as to maintain as steady of a cadence as possible. When you slow down, or come to a stop, shift into an easier gear.

How do I improve my pedaling cadence?

Here’s a very simple exercise to increase your pedaling speed:

When riding along, shift into a very easy gear, and pedal as fast as you can, maintaining this speed of pedaling WITHOUT bouncing on your saddle. Go for 20seconds, then rest/recover for a minute. Perform this ‘speed drill’ up to 3-4 times, and you’ll find that pedaling faster becomes less of a challenge, but actually feels more natural.

As your coordination, core stability and fitness increases, you will be able to pedal at a faster rate, without bouncing on your saddle, with a goal of easily maintaining 80-90rpm throughout your longer rides, and around town. Try it out on your next ride!

–Kevin Schmidt, MSPT, CMP, Bike PT – PT/owner of Pedal PT in Portland, Oregon