In late 2003, my then triathlon coach (Brett Sutton) told me to meet him down at the local track on the Gold Coast where we would do many of our bike sessions. He was wielding a pair of cable cutters this day which I thought was weird.
“Today is the beginning of turning you into a decent rider, I can’t stand to see you ride like a pussy any longer.”
He declared in a way only Brett can. Then he bent down and cut my rear derailleur cable in half, and with that turned my 20 geared bike into a 2 speed. 53×12 or 42×12.
“I want you to keep it in the big ring, other than the most severe inclines.’
I didn’t question it. Why would I? I was weak and had just spent a season in Europe with Brett taking me to races every weekend showing me first-hand how weak I actually was. With my perfect pedal stroke, spinning away at 95 cadence with all the gear imitating the cycling superstars I watched on TV… Only to see French and Swiss bike-animals blow my doors off turning these massive gears and me helpless as I watched them ride off into the distance.
Brett had decided my way forward – forced strength training on the bike with an extreme method. This is not to be copied blindly, but it fit my situation perfectly as we were looking for extreme improvement. Six months of exclusively riding 53×12 gearing and the improvements were massive. Not long after that, I didn’t have any problem riding with or away from the best in the sport. 2009 is a case in point: In 3 Ironman and 4 Ironman 70.3 events around the world, I was first off the bike in all but one.
Was I the best? No way. But I have a pretty decent grasp of the demands of a long course triathlon bike leg.
First off the bike: Racing big gear with TeamTBB.
Since that time, I have worked in the world of professional cycling, managing and directing a UCI team (Team Budget Forklifts) which contained numerous World Champions, Olympic Medallists and a current World Record holder. It was very early on in my time in this job after intensely studying and observing this different sport I realised that there were only very few aspects of riding bikes in Road events that we could take and use in Long Course Triathlon. The ones that do, I’ll save for future blogs.
But having spent 5 years within the elite cycling world my old Coach contacted me to say,
‘I’m waiting for you to come back… Are you done with cycling yet?’
I thought well, I’ve achieved all I set out to in cycling. I’ve seen it all and I’m happy to move to the next phase. So, I’m on my way home to back to triathlon – my sport for over 23 years and with that, I have come on board as a coach with Trisutto.com!
I’m back, yet I see the debate is still raging. What is the most ideal cadence for long course triathlon?
Let’s look a little deeper.
Think of it as a see-saw, on one end is your heart and lungs, the other end is your legs. The higher the cadence the more effort is required by your heart and lungs. The lower the cadence the more effort is required by your legs. Choosing an ideal cadence is about tipping that see-saw so that it will give you the best balance for YOUR chosen event and YOUR specific needs.
The higher the power, the higher the cadence needs to be. Raising your cadence is all about spreading out the load (pedal force – newtons) into more revolutions for a given power output (watts). In long-distance triathlon, the force levels are so low that there is no need to break it down into so many revolutions as it comes at a cardiovascular cost and with that an elevated heart rate that will cost you by the end of the bike leg, or most definitely the run leg.
Some examples of varying cadences specific to different events:
The shorter the distance and the more power required for the event, the higher the cadence must be to deal with the enormous peak forces that come with such high watts.
For example, a 1km TT on the velodrome takes roughly 1min for the elite:
60sec @ ~1000w requires ~130rpm.
If we go up in distance to 4km Pursuit on the Velodrome that takes roughly 4:20min for the elite:
4:20min @ ~500w requires ~115rpm.
Let’s go right up to a World-Class male Time Trialist over 40km:
50minutes @ 400w sweet spot is around ~95rpm.
Now to Triathlon…
Elite Male Ironman bike leg: 4:20hrs @ 300w the sweet spot is around 80rpm
Age Group Ironman bike leg: 5:20hrs @ 210w the sweet spot is around 72rpm
The reasons to choose a given cadence is very rarely discussed in-depth and within triathlon is often like all other techniques taught by so-called triathlon coaches… Through imitation.
They have no understanding of the reasoning behind the techniques they are pushing onto their athletes, other than they saw Chris Froome or Lance Armstrong doing it on TV.
Athletes without an extensive background in cycling, a lower cadence helps smooth out the athletes pedal stroke, allowing them to apply force earlier in the stroke (1am to 3am) which is another positive benefit.
For long-distance triathlon, the average power output is so low that it is unnecessary to break up the peak forces with a cadence similar to a 50min Professional Time Trialist.
You can make massive gains by bringing your cadence down to 75 and benefit by the reduced heart rate, especially for the upcoming run. It is much more trainable at an amateur level with time restraints to get “bike strong” than build the massive aerobic capacity to deal with spinning 100 cadence for literally hours and hours on end, then run off the bike.
‘But won’t the bigger gears destroy my legs for the run?’ I hear many ask. Without the proper adaptation and specific on bike strength training – of course they will! But that’s the point. It is a far more time-effective method than trying to spin your way to improvements, which take years and thousands of dedicated high rpm training sessions.
If you are looking for the fastest and most effective way to improve your bike/run performance lowering your cadence is the best bet.