ATC 285: Is There An Optimal Cycling Cadence? Plus: Finding Your Tempo Pace, Marathon Debrief and Olympic Tri PR Tips

April 26, 2019


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  • Lucho’s started using the SweetBeat HRV app.
  • Easy aerobic exercise can increase HRV based on research and Lucho’s experience.
  • HRV scores are individual! Your number is an n=1 (don’t compare yourself to Lucho).
  • We can’t just rely on technology to guide our training. So be mindful whether or not you decide to comply with your device. Sometimes it’s ok to do the workout, even if your tech says you “shouldn’t.”


Cycling Cadence in Triathlon

Brett Sutton has been posting about his views on cycling cadence in triathlon (for example, here:  In a nutshell, he says that everybody other than professional cyclists should pedal with a lower cadence than 90 rpm, because it’s too difficult for those who did not grow up racing bikes to pedal at 90 rpm and because it’s somehow less efficient.  In the linked post, he “backs it up” with a more developed piece by one of his coaches and a one-time pro cyclist, Cameron Watt (, who attempts to put physics behind that idea, essentially saying the higher the watts you are pushing, the higher your cadence.

Frankly, none of that makes any sense to me.  For one, I don’t recall ever having trouble pedaling at 90 rpm and in fact tend to go higher during focused efforts.

In Watt’s article, he at one point talks about track sprinters who are pushing massive watts and cadence and says, see their cadence is high because their watts are.  That makes no sense. The reason track cyclists have a very high cadence is because they are riding a fixed gear bike and increasing cadence is the only means of accelerating.  Sprinters have to strike a balance between selecting a massive gear for the final kick and having a reasonable ratio so that they can get up to speed reasonably quickly at the start.

Further, to take Sutton/Watt’s argument to its logical conclusion, shouldn’t we also run with a lower cadence too?

What the Coaches Say:

  • A cadence of 72-80 (as Sutton recommends) is reasonable for an amateur IM athlete.
    • At the end of the day, your cadence is individual. If you’re between 75-90 then you’re probably fine! If your run is suffering, then look at the cadence.
    • Too low of a cadence and you won’t be able to run after the bike, because your muscles are fatigued.
  • Variety in training is crucial. If you can’t do over 100 RPM, then you need to work on that. Likewise, if you’re dying at 60 RPM, work on that.
  • Don’t worry about cadence on race day. It should be “preferential gearing” AKA let the athlete do what’s natural to them.
  • This low cadence approach is definitely not applicable to the run! No research suggests that a low run cadence is advantageous. And, as with cycling, your natural inclination is the best.
  • BONUS: Tawnee dug up a number of research articles on the topic:

1. The Effect of Pedaling Cadence on Skeletal Muscle Oxygenation During Cycling at Moderate Exercise Intensity.

New study (Feb 2019) on 9 recreational cyclists, found over 90 rpm less efficient. But these were not trained athletes.

They exercised at a power output equal to Tvent, pedaling at cadences of 40, 50, 60, 70, 80 and 90 rpm, each for 4 min. Tissue saturation index (TSI), a measure of vastus lateralis oxygenation, decreased from rest to exercise; the magnitude of this TSI reduction was significantly greater when pedaling at 90 rpm (−14±4%), compared to pedaling at 40 (−12±3%) and 50 (−12±3%) rpm (P=0.027 and 0.017, respectively). Albeit small, the significant decrease in TSI at increased cadence recorded in this study suggests that skeletal muscle oxygenation is relatively more affected by high cadence when exercise intensity is close to Tvent.

2. The effect of cadence on cycling efficiency and local tissue oxygenation.

Study on 14 Trained triathletes/cyclists. They tested 60, 80, 100 rpm tested in 8 min trials and found that they had higher efficiency and economy at lower cadences. 

It was concluded that: 

  1. (a) Trained cyclists and triathletes are more efficient and economical when cycling at 60 rpm than 80 or 100 rpm;
  2. (b) Local tissue oxygen saturation levels are higher at 80 rpm than 60 and 100 rpm; 
  3. (c) Heart rate and blood lactate levels are higher with cadences of 80 and 100 than 60 rpm; 
  4. (d) Local and global RPE is lower when cycling at 80 rpm than at 60 rpm and 100 rpm. 

A practical application of these findings is that a cadence of 60 rpm may be advantageous for performance in moderately trained athletes in contrast to higher cadences currently popular among elite cyclists.

3. The association between cycling experience and preferred and most economical cadences.

Compared experienced cyclists and non-cyclists, finding:

  1. Both groups displayed lower VO2 values at lower cadences.
  2. Mean preferred pedaling cadence surprisingly was somewhat higher for NC than C, but not statistically significant. 
  3. The most economical cadence was significantly lower for C (56.1 +/- 6.9 rpm) than NC (62.9 +/- 4.7 rpm).

Take-home: grinding reduces oxygen cost but can lead to more muscular fatigue.

4. Cadence Matters

This article cites studies that show:

  1. Muscles have better neural efficiency when spinning, but this increases oxygen cost. To what extent these can be further trained is not clear,
  2. Grinding lower cadences may be a lower oxygen cost, but the neural system gets tired sooner.
  3. For the same power output (200Watts as used by Gotshal, 1996) higher cadences make for better muscle blood flow, and in-line with reduced muscle strain data, it makes for better endurance.

5. Optimal pedaling rate estimated from neuromuscular fatigue for cyclists.

Six college-aged cyclists each performed six sessions of heavy pedaling exercise at individually selected work rates based on their aerobic capacity. The optimal pedaling rate was evaluated on the basis of minimal neuromuscular fatigue.

Lower neuromuscular fatigue at 80-90 rpm, but lower VO2 (O2 uptake) at 60-70 rpm.

Optimal pedaling rate estimated from neuromuscular fatigue in working muscles is not coincident with the pedaling rate at which the smallest VO2 was obtained, but with the preferred pedaling rate of the subjects, and seems like cyclists prefer to go with cadence that allows for lower neuromuscular fatigue


Clydesdale Aiming For Olympic Tri PR

Hi Lucho and Tawnee, First time, long time as they say on all the best radio shows. Your podcasts have helped me get through many grueling workouts and I believe because I use predominantly MAF in my runs, I am rarely injured these days (touch wood).

I’m 48 with a decent athletic background. I’ve run a few marathons and completed 5 Ironman races in my early 40s. I took a step back from the sport as I went through a divorce and wanted to focus more on my kids and work. I’m aiming for an Olympic Triathlon PR of 2:30 (best was 2:37 5 years ago). It is in late June on a reasonably flat course.

Currently weight 250 lbs, aiming for a race weight of 240 lbs. I’ve got a decent base from the winter, now I’m aiming to get in great race shape.

I think I’ve got my swim covered as I do 3 Masters classes per week.

I do 4-6 hours of hilly biking per week, as my schedule permits.

I do around 4 hours per week running, 75% of it at MAF, one tempo run and a track workout. My current MAF time is 10:45, I’m aiming to get this down to 9:45 at the the of the race.

I’m doing a sprint a month before the race, and I also work out with a trainer for strength work once per week.

Any advice for me and for any other bigger guys/gals who love the sport of triathlon?

What the Coaches Say:

  • This is a solid plan. You’re putting in a lot of work and staying healthy. Bravo!
  • One thing to consider is taking 2 weeks or so to adjust the ratios, so you are focusing on your weakest leg.
  • Consider periodizing the intensity of your cycling (don’t just do MAF).
  • Losing 10lbs in that amount of time is aggressive. Usually, you don’t want to lose weight while peaking for training because food is fuel! Don’t starve yourself before or after intense workouts. Don’t sacrifice all your hard won fitness gains for weight loss.
    • Why are you fixated on that weight? What was your weight during your last PR? That should guide you more than an arbitrary number.
  • Don’t try to gain mass with your strength training; especially beware of  upper body muscle mass.
    • Consider cutting strength training altogether (if you’re strong enough already) to focus on lower leg mobility.
  • Throw in some longer open water swims at tempo, which are more specific to Olympic racing.
  • Consider having a run-heavy plan (even though your 4 hours is already really good). Do testing to check your status.
  • High intensity track workout can be detrimental to MAF. Consider replacing that track work with a 6-mile MAF run or hill intervals.


Making Sense of Marathon HR & Pace Data

My name is Sol. Yes, the same (male!) Sol whose question Lucho answered a year ago regarding periodising training for a marathon over the course of an entire year. I’ll happily report that the training went perfectly (with no niggles) and the debut race more perfectly with a 2.59 finish. I felt strong and comfortable throughout and paced it very evenly with the fastest and slowest splits within 10 seconds of the mean.  I have to say here too that Dr Maf’s and Tawnee’s idea of using honey as fuel worked a treat!

Question 1. During training my long MP tempo efforts equalled 160bpm. During the race, however, for the most part (between mile 3 and mile 19, after which it began the upward creep), my heart rate hovered around 154 bpm. Does that mean that I was running easier than I was capable and could have sped up to 160 intensity?

Also, what might be the explanation of the first three miles’ HR being more elevated at 160 before dropping to 154? (Could it be the lack of a proper warm up? I ran 1.6 miles as a WU). This has happened before at other races.

As an aside, I have heard Dr Maffetone saying on the podcast that a marathon can be raced 10-15 seconds faster than MAF pace. The thing is, my MAF (130-140bpm) pace is only 7.50 ish, yet I raced a minute per mile faster!  How was that possible? Or are there caveats to the Dr’s rule?

* My training included, besides for the weekly long runs, increasingly longer tempo runs first at 145bpm, then 150, 155, until reaching 13 miles at 160 + WU and WD.

What the Coaches Say:

  • MAF training is super risk averse, but you weren’t afraid to push beyond that and see what you were capable of.
  • 6-beat differential is nothing remarkable. That could be a temperature difference.
  • If you want to experiment with pushing your HR up then do it gradually. You have good data now with your experience.
  • This was a textbook perfect race, so you should feel confident pushing harder next time. But only slightly 😉
  • HR spike at the start was probably adrenaline for your first marathon.
  • 1.6 mile warmup is a little long. Lucho thinks 1/2 a mile is adequate. Tawnee recommends drill work (that you’ve done before). Temperature is the important thing here. You want your muscles to be warm so they’re functional.
  • Tempo talk (for experienced runners only)
    • Tempo is zone 3 (in other words, MAF + 5-10bpm)
      • A lot of this is RPE; there’s no magic formula.
      • True tempo is marathon pace.
      • Tempo has an assumed duration based on your race distance. Tempo for a marathon runner is 3, 6, 10, or 13 miles at marathon effort.
      • Short tempo runs are mildly stimulating
      • Long tempo runs build immense mental toughness
    • Threshold is zone 4 (15-20bpm over MAF)

Comments (2)

  • David_Ko says:

    Great episode!

    I tried to find Endurance Planet ATC episode that Sol mentioned but I was unable to. He mentioned that he asked there about marathon periodisation over the course of the whole year. I'm in a similar position and would love to listen to this episode.

    Thank you!

  • David_Ko says:

    Great episode!

    I tried to find an episode about marathon periodisation that Sol asked a year ago but I failed. Is anybody aware what was the episode number or date?

    Thank you!

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