Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Using a proper cadence on a bike

As part of the bike upgrade that I have recently been going through, I bought a CateyeVC Wireless Cadence Cycle Computer (I will review it in full later once we have become better acquainted). The reasoning behind this purchase was I wanted to not only know my speed but also my cadence (how fast my feet spin round). Whilst not knowing what my cadence was, I was aware in my subconscious that it probably was not as high as it should be.

There is no point in me going into the details of what cadence is best and why – there are a couple of good articles here:

I had a feeling that my cadence was around 60 – 70 area, my speed was fine but I was always in a high gear with a lower cadence. So in reality I am using my fast twitch muscles much more than slow twitch muscles (fast twitch = bulk muscles for quick sprints that burn glycogen. Slow twitch = lean muscles that burn fat and can keep going for a long time and recover quicker). Roughly speaking people recommend a cadence of 85 – 95 (though this will vary from person to person).

As some may know, in my younger days I was a sprinter (basically I excel at fast twitch muscles). The idea of a higher cadence was something that took some reading to get my head round – I had always thought that if I was a sprinter I would be the type of person who spins their legs fast – but the reality is I am subconsciously in favour of using power rather than spin. Now this predisposition of mine does not have a massive effect on my cycling as I only commute 2 x 11 miles a day, but on a long hill I am dead by the end of it! The fact of the matter is I need to improve my slow twitch muscles and start using them more – this is the only way I am ever going to be able to cycle longer distances as well as get up  the longer hills.

OK so great plan, increase my cadence, but putting it into action is much harder than I thought.

My new cycle computer has a rather nifty function – you set a cadence target range – the computer then bleeps at you if you are below or above that range. Bearing in mind my advancing years and my previously very slow cadence I have set the range from 80 to 100. Maybe if I survive I will up it to 85 lower range?

I have a fairly wide range of gears on my upgraded bike – I have a 53 / 39 front chain-set and a 11-32 rear cassette (I did this because I like a wide gear range and I found myself topping out on the 50 /34 chain-set, and also needing a really low gear by the top of some hills). This new gearing seems to suit me and now I am using lower gears than of old, I feel like I am using a far wider range on my rear cassette now and the lower front gear will stand a chance of being used from time to time now.

Problem 1. Bear in mind that I have basically only cycled for a week in the past 4 months due to various injuries I am very unfit.

Problem 2. I have used a slow cadence for the past year (60 – 70 range).

Problem 3. I am physically suited to power sports.

With all the above in mind I set off for my first real cycle on the upgraded bike. It was almost like starting from new – there is no way I am going to be able to make the commute into work right now and I figure it is going to take 2 or 3 weeks to become fit enough to commute regularly again. My bike computer was dialled in for the 80 – 100 range and I set off. As it was dark it was perfect – I could not look at my speed without putting the back light on, so basically I ignored this, and just listened for the cadence beep. For the couple of miles the beep was nearly constant, gradually I started to get a feel for 80+ cadence and what this meant in terms of spinning, but it was really hard work, the total ride was only 7 miles and reasonably flat (well for Kent anyway).

My body did not like the idea of working like this, it was not happy with this higher cadence, but I think this is probably the best opportunity for me to start cycling in a better way, before my body gets into bad habits again I can teach it and train it to use the slower twitch muscles more. I have had a fair amount of muscle wasted over the past 4 months so I am going to “take the pain” and get it to grow the right muscle type for the long-term and hopefully improve my cycling. It was shocking though (whilst bearing in mind that I was unfit anyway) how much more it hurt to cycle with a high cadence – by the end of my 7 mile ride I was knackered. That said I did recover quite fast (about 10 minutes) after the ride though. So we shall see how I progress over the next few weeks and see if it does get any easier and then I shall see how or if it improves my daily commute.

The idea of you improving your cadence is definitely a sensible one, I am working from the premise that if the professionals tell you that you need a cadence within a certain range and as this is what all the big boys do, then this must be better. For me it is a lot harder to put into action than I had assumed, but I think it is something that a lot of regular cyclists need to look into. When I look at a large number of cyclists on the road (who I recognise as daily commuters) they seem to be cycling with too low a cadence. The cost of the cheaper cadence bike computers is not too great and it might be worthwhile investment for the long term.  

As a side point – being a member of the great commuter race group – there is a little trick that people often do that is to race up to the person in front of them and then just before you overtake them you slip into a higher gear – this means as you go past them you are at a low cadence and looking very relaxed as if to say “look at me I am going past you and I am not even pushing it right now” – yeah don’t tell me you don’t do it! I am going to have to forget this “looking cool” trick now.

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