Low Cadence Efforts and Endurance Cycling

BY IN Exercise Institute News On July 9, 2015

Low cadence efforts, commonly called ‘strength efforts’ (SE) form the main stay of endurance cyclist’s fitness building and endurance work. This form of effort uses low cadences to generate forward propulsion and power. Power is a product of force, or torque and cadence, or circumferential velocity: force x cadence.

Using this equation, if you want to produce power you need to increase force or cadence, or both. Through targeted training work, you can focus on improving force or cadence in an effort to increase power. A low cadence effort uses force for power production (as cadence is low so greater force needs to be applied to the pedals to produce a similar amount of power). Thus the amount of force as measured by torque could be as high as 40-50 Nm (newton meters). At normal cadences of around 100 rpm, torque for the same effort may be closer to 20-30 Nm.

So, through the low cadence effort we are using muscles to generate large amounts of force that when added to the power equation may mean more watts for the same cadence (as force may be higher owing to the low cadence training).

This is evidenced below in the graphical plot of three threshold intervals of around 9-10 mins. The first two done at normal cadence, the last (shaded area) done at lower cadences. The first two efforts had higher wattage’s and higher wattage’s for the same given heart rate (HR) compared to the low cadence effort. This highlights an interesting contradiction: the body has to work harder at lower cadences for the same given wattage (as evidenced by a higher HR/ lower wattage correlation). This finding also has some empirical validity to support it, see here.

data SE

Low cadence effort compared to previous threshold efforts: Pink line- power; Red line- Hr; Yellow line- cadence



So, low cadence efforts lead to decreased efficiency (higher oxygen requirement for the same given wattage). So why do it…????

The reason is that it can accelerate various different aspects of human performance compared to normal cadence intervals alone. One recent study (study article here) looked into the effect of repeated 1 min low cadence power efforts compared to normal cadence efforts across measures of: peak sprint power; average sprint power; power at lactate threshold; Vo2 max and even testosterone levels. Across all these instances the low cadence group had an increased adaptation rate and performance measures. The testosterone finding was particularly interesting as this may lend some causality to the findings in that low cadence efforts boost testosterone levels around 20% more so than normal cadence efforts completed at the same wattage. Thus testosterone level increases may drive better performance gains.

These findings indicate that when looking at power in isolation of other variables you may NOT be getting the whole picture. If looking at the power trace above only you might infer the athlete was fatiguing or that the efficacy of low cadence efforts may not be warranted. Research however, aims to highlight the complexity of human functioning and in this instance demonstrates potential benefits.

Finally it should be highlighted that low cadence efforts need to be scheduled into a program accordingly as they put a greater load on various joints and could induce injury through overload. Sam Davis for instance is a BIG fan of low cadence efforts and for good reason, he might best be able to assist you in doing so injury free for more gains…. Best consult your coach!

-Written by Brad Hall, Brad has a degree in Exercise Science and Psychology (Hons.) AMAPS


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