Cadence is a topic that cyclists love to talk about, often with a zeal that can leave their non-cyclist friends scratching their heads. Some riders still swear there’s a magical cadence we should all strive to hit, depending on the elevation change we’re tackling, but that’s not totally the case.

If you’re wondering why cycling cadence is so important, though, and how training this skill makes you better on the bike, it all comes down to technique. Cadence is a skill, just like climbing hills and sprinting. And cadence drills are an effective way to level-up an often-overlooked cycling skill set.

“Developing a good cadence practice improves your efficiency on the bike. Smooth, efficient cadence impacts your handling of the bike, as well as your ability to produce power,” Christine D’Ercole, a founding cycling instructor at Peloton who has won the Masters World Championships in track cycling, tells Bicycling. “I love all kinds of cadence drills because they truly pay off.”

Before get into the benefits of cadence drills it’s important to understand what cadence actually means. Cadence refers to the rate at which we’re clicking over the pedals, and the unit of measure is evolutions per minute (rpms). So, for example, if your cadence is 85 rpms then you’re turning the pedals over 85 times per minute. Bike computers equipped with a cadence sensor show this stat in real time, along with other helpful data like heart rate and GPS.

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The Benefits of Cadence Drills

Improve Your Pedal Stroke

The benefits of cadence drills accumulate and compound over time, as your muscles begin to adapt to cycling’s unique demands. With practice, we develop better neuromuscular control and muscular endurance, and our bodies learn how to get more out of every one of those rpms.

“High cadence drills can, over time, help smooth out a pedal stroke by training the rider to utilize muscles that pull up on the pedals, as well as push down. This can possibly minimize dead spots in the pedal stroke, by allowing for the application of power through a larger percentage of the stroke,” explains cycling coach Kim Geist, whose professional cycling career includes multiple World and National Championship titles. “High cadence drills aim to improve neuromuscular coordination, or improve how the brain can ‘talk’ to a muscle.”

This means high cadence drills can help a road cyclist ride longer and faster, Geist says.

Get to Know Your Body Better

Any time we train a skill, it offers us an opportunity to be more in tune with what our bodies need as riders and how our bodies respond to different demands. That response is both physical and mental, and it’s an opportunity to develop a way of riding that works best for you, while also learning how to push yourself beyond your comfort zone, which is a skill in itself.

“Incorporating focused cadence work will help an individual to learn what works for them, personally,” says D’Ercole. “While we all may be more comfortable riding at a lower cadence range, pushing yourself to visit the higher end of cadence will balance your abilities on the bike. It is important to train the whole spectrum—high leg speed, torque, and power—in order to get the most out of yourself.”

In other words, cadence drills allow you to get to know your body better and figure out what works for you out on the road during the particular ride you’re doing that day. “There is no ‘ideal’ cadence for everyone,” D’Ercole says, “but there are cadence ranges that each individual may find works best for them for a given application—[for example] a 100-mile ride versus a group ride with a bunch of punchy climbs.”

Boost Your Efficiency

Developing a smooth pedal stroke at a high cadence doesn’t mean you have to go all out. There’s a distinct difference between “high cadence” and “high intensity.”

“When it comes to cadence drills, ‘fast’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘hard,’” Geist tells Bicycling. “By allowing the muscles to generate less force per pedal stroke, the rider will rely more on a strong cardiovascular system than the more fatigable muscular system, so greater endurance and speed can be achieved.”

High cadence/low resistance drills can fit strategically into a training plan. “High cadence drills are easy to work into a training program as a low-intensity workout,” Geist adds. “They can be done at low power outputs and heart rates. Workouts that are done with high cadence drills do not need to be more taxing than an endurance ride.”

However, it’s important not to neglect leg speed, as well as resistance and heart rate combinations. Variety isn’t just the spice of life, it’s also a crucial component of any training program. When it comes to cadence drills, this means practicing your skills up and down a range of rpms—you want to go high, low, and switch efficiently between all the different pedaling speeds in between.

“Cadence drills refers to not only high cadence but also lower cadence and mid range,” D’Ercole emphasizes. “Working the whole scope of cadence specifically will help you to find your body's own most efficient and powerful range for a given task, be it a sprint on an uphill or on a flat.”

How to Incorporate Cadence Drills Into Your Workouts

“[Cadence] drills are very versatile and can be used throughout the season,” says Geist. “Being able to be done at low power outputs and heart rates, high cadence can be worked on especially in the off and early seasons, but also during rest weeks or easier days during heavier training weeks.”

Keep in mind riding indoors and riding outdoors are two entirely different experiences, and each offers benefits to us as riders. While nothing compares to miles in the saddle with the wind in your face, when it comes to taking a focused and efficient approach to your pedaling technique, riding indoors on an indoor bike trainer or set of rollers is the way to go.

“Practicing a variety of cadence drills indoors, where you can focus on a solid stretch of effort without the distraction of varied terrain and potential obstacles outdoors actually helps prepare riders to better handle the obstacles and varied terrain outdoors,” D’Ercole says.

Ready to add cadence drills to your indoor training? Set up your trainer, charge your bike computer, and give these drills a try. You can do these drills as stand alone workouts, repeating them a few times back to back, or integrate them into a longer indoor ride, as you would intervals.

Cadence Drill #1

Goal: Maintain a consistent heart rate, by adjusting resistance, while pedaling at different cadences.

Find the gear that lets you work at 75% of your maximum heart rate or a rate of perceived exertion (RPE) of about 7 out of 10.

  • Warmup, 3 minutes: 85 rpms
  • 1 minute: Increase cadence by 5 to 90 rpms
  • 1 minute: Increase cadence by 5 to 95 rpms
  • 1 minute: Increase cadence by 5 to 100 rpms
  • 1 minute: Drop back down to 85 rpms (adjust resistance to maintain 75% max heart rate or RPE 7)
  • Repeat 1 more time (skipping warmup)

Cadence Drill #2

Goal: Develop smooth cadence transitions, leading to a smooth pedal stroke, and maintain the same resistance at different cadences.

Find the gear you need to be in to get to 65% (or an RPE of about 6 out of 10) of your maximum heart rate. Don’t change your resistance during this drill.

  • 1 minute: 85 rpms
  • 30 seconds: 95 rpms
  • 30 seconds: 85 rpms

Repeat 30-second intervals a total of 5 times

  • 1 minute: 95 rpms
  • 30 seconds: 105 rpms
  • 30 seconds: 95 rpms

Repeat 30-second intervals a total of 5 times

Headshot of Natascha Grief
Natascha Grief

Natascha Grief got her first bike shop job before she was old enough to drink. After a six-year stint as a mechanic, earning a couple pro-mechanic certifications and her USA Cycling Race Mechanics license, she became obsessed with framebuilding and decided she wanted to do that next.  After Albert Eistentraut literally shooed her off his doorstep, admonishing that if she pursued framebuilding she will be poor forever, she landed an apprenticeship with framebuilder Brent Steelman in her hometown of Redwood City, CA. After that, she spent several years working for both large and not-so-large cycling brands. Somewhere in there she also became a certified bike fitter. Natascha then became a certified personal trainer and spent nine years honing her skills as a trainer and coach, while also teaching Spin. During the dumpster fire that was the year 2020, she opened a fitness studio and began contributing regularly to Runner’s World and Bicycling as a freelance writer. In 2022, she joined the staff of Bicycling as News Editor.