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 definitely 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.
More training information and tips on Sprint Triathlon Training can be found in my free guide, First Time Finisher's Triathlon Guide from Forging The Athlete Written with the first time triathlete in mind, the guide also contains valuable tips and hints on keeping your training fresh and inspired. Download the guide here and sign up for the free Forging the Athlete newsletter at the same time.
The author of this article and training guide, Suzanne Atkinson, MD, is a certified USA Triathlon and USA Cycling Coach and has completed one of the most coveted and interesting triathlons, the Escape from Alcatraz. Suzanne Atkinson, MD is a USAT Certified Triathlon Coach and has competed in one of the most interesting triathlons, the Escape from Alcatraz. She provides personal coaching for both triathletes and cyclists and is avidly involved in the online triathlon community. Her background in both coaching, physiology and medicine bring a unique angle to Triathlon Training for all levels of athlete.
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