The act of pedaling seems pretty straightforward and simple—at least on the surface. But there’s more than meets the eye when it comes to pedal stroke. Working on our pedaling technique is an extremely impactful way to improve our cycling performance. And one of the essential components of pedaling performance is cycling cadence.

There’s some confusion around cadence, or the number of times you turn the pedals per minute, and whether there’s an ideal number to hit on each of your rides. To help you decipher the info, we got the scoop on ideal cadence and what targets to hit for a solid ride.

What is cycling cadence?

Cadence is measured in revolutions per minute. For example, if you make 75 revolutions per minute with your pedals, your cadence would be 75 rpms.

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As with so many factors of riding, we want to optimize our cadence as much as possible because finding the ideal spin helps us ride better and stronger. What exactly is that ideal cycling cadence for optimal performance? It turns out the answer is: it depends.

What’s the ideal cycling cadence?

In 2019, a team of British researchers found that amateur riders don’t get any added benefit from high cadence cycling. In fact, they found the opposite: Forcing their legs to spin in artificially rapid circles made their heart rate soar and efficiency drop. They were just wasting energy.

Similarly, in research published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, scientists at the University of Queensland in Australia set out to determine the most efficient cadence— where the cycling muscles are producing high, sustainable power—for amateur riders.

To do so, they had 14 recreational riders pedal at constant power output of 2.5 watts per kilogram, about 183 watts on average, at cadences of 40, 60, 80, and 100, and then at the cadence of their choosing. The researchers measured what muscles were being used, how hard they were working, and how many calories the riders were burning (a.k.a. metabolic cost).

In the end, the volunteers used the least energy pedaling at 60 rpm, but preferred an average cadence of 81 rpm. A cadence of about 80 rpm also appeared to be the sweet spot where their vastus lateralis—one of the primary cycling quadriceps muscles—produced maximum power without wasting energy, making it an efficient, sustainable cadence.

Is the ideal cycling cadence the same for everyone?

So is 80 rpm the new optimum cycling cadence? Maybe for pedaling in the lab with a bunch of sensors attached to you. But not necessarily in the real world, where myriad factors determine your perfect pedaling pace, says Hunter Allen, founder of Peaks Coaching Group, and author or Training and Racing with a Power Meter, who tracks these stats for a living.

Cadence is largely dependent on two things: your main muscle fiber type and your level of cardiovascular cycling fitness, Allen explains. The balance of those factors (which, of course, can change over time) determine your ideal cadence.

To find yours, start by determining your predominant muscle type and cycling fitness.

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If you gain muscle easily in the gym, you can expect to be more comfortable on the lower end of the cadence spectrum, because you have more muscle to push the pedals. If you don’t build muscle easily or are on the leaner side, you’ll prefer to pedal faster with less force per pedal stroke to do the same work.

If you’re new to the sport or not in your best cycling shape right now, you will pedal more slowly because your cardiovascular system can’t handle the higher heart rate that comes with high cadences, and will prefer to rely more on your muscle strength. As you get fitter, you will tend to shift the work to your cardiovascular system and therefore pedal more quickly, Allen says.

“When my riders are peaking, they always pedal about 3 to 8 rpm faster than the rest of the year,” he adds.

A systematic review, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health in 2021, backs up this idea of untrained cyclists struggling more with higher cadences. Authors of the study found that high cadence at high intensity impairs neuromuscular performance more than low cadence in this population. They suggest those new to the sport don’t pedal above their spontaneously chosen cadence. This is when you want to focus more on fitness and boosting endurance, more than hitting a specific rpm.

How do you determine your own optimal cycling cadence?

    Pulling it all together, the ideal pedaling cadences for each types of riders shake out like this, according to Allen:

    • Fast Twitch/Less Cycling Fit: Your preferred pedaling cadence is definitely slower, likely in the 75 to 85 rpm range.
    • Fast Twitch/More Cycling Fit: You’ll be more efficient in a moderate cadence range, about 85 to 90 rpm.
    • Slow Twitch/Less Cycling Fit: Your preferred cadence will be in the moderate range of 85 to 90 rpm.
    • Slow Twitch/More Cycling Fit: You’ll be more efficient at the higher end of the pedaling cadence spectrum: 95+ rpm.

    It’s also important to remember that lower cadences—less than 85 rpm—require more force, which means your muscles may fatigue faster and you also use more glycogen, Allen says.

    So motoring along at 80 rpm is fine if you’re doing shorter events of no more than about 2.5 hours. But if the events you like to do are longer than that, it’s worth training yourself to pedal at a little higher cadence to help spare your glycogen stores and prevent your legs from fatiguing before you reach the end.

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    Selene Yeager
    “The Fit Chick”
    Selene Yeager is a top-selling professional health and fitness writer who lives what she writes as a NASM certified personal trainer, USA Cycling certified coach, Pn1 certified nutrition coach, pro licensed off road racer, and All-American Ironman triathlete.