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Cadence Work for Mountain Bikers

Cadence drills for mountain bikers are an effective way to gain more speed out of your legs allowing you to improve your power on the bike. Efficient pedalling with a faster cadence is a good way to increase speed without feeling a huge drain on your energy reserves. 

Power= Work/Time

There are effectively two ways to gain more power on the bike. Increase the force on the pedals or increase your revolutions per minute (cadence.)

Are you a Masher?

Mountain bikers are often given a bad rap as “mashers” meaning we just push down on the pedals. This is not true of course and maybe you’ve just never given this too much thought, but pedalling is a skill. This is great news as all skills can improve with practice!

To be a more effective rider in varied terrain, you must be able to “do it all!”

  • Grind uphill with lower cadence if you’ve run out of gears
  • Ramp cadence up quickly without bouncing to accelerate
  • Spin moderate gears to maintain traction in technical or loose terrain
  • Whiz quickly to “stay on-top” of a gear during a harder effort or on the flats

Pedalling Smoothly and Quickly is Trainable

Just as you wouldn’t expect to be able to play Mozart sitting down to the piano for the first time, an efficient and effective pedal stroke takes skill. The good news is that it’s TRAINABLE!

Nerves fire in a micro-second, telling the quad and glutes to extend the knee and hip to bike move the bike forward. At the same time, there is a “reciprocal inhibition” of the opposing muscles- telling them to chill. The nerves of the hip flexors and hamstrings say: “Hey let’s not fight, you go right ahead, I’ll get you on the upswing!”

Now, in order to get a nice smooth pedal motion the firing patterns of all of these muscles must be exquisitely coordinated. All of this happens in a continuum and for each leg!!! Think about the hands of a clock, with the origin of the hands being the center of your crank. As time passes think of putting the maximum force on the hands the entire way around regardless if you are pushing down, scraping back, pulling up or pushing over 12 o’clock at the top!

Yeah- IT’S ALOT to think about! Not even considering the OPPOSITE leg that is trying to “GET OUT OF THE OTHER LEG’S WAY!”

Pedaling Drills

Drills to work your efficiency, especially at higher cadence will transfer to improved power with less fatigue at all cadences. You just can’t think your way through these workouts however. Things happen too quickly, so we need to train our neuromuscular firing systems by working on a smooth pedalstroke at lower cadences and then ramping things up. Think of this as improving your wiring systems to the muscles.

The nice thing is that feedback from inefficient pedalling is pretty quick and results in bouncing or if you are not clipped in- your feet flying off the pedals. Training and practice on a regular basis will “hardwire” the movement and make it more automatic.

What is a GOOD Cadence?

Like everything in life, it depends! Mountain biking is hard enough so try not to make it harder by pushing too hard a gear, unless you are forced to, say on a super steep uphill. Think of this as a way to build your toughness! Otherwise try to aim for a cadence between 80-100 RPM on average. You’ll want faster and slower cadences depending on terrain, but this is a good home base for most of us.

How do you know how fast you are “spinning?” 60 RPM would be one leg going around every second.

To measure your cadence count how many times one knee rises over 15 seconds. Multiply that by 4! If that comes out to 20-25 “knee ups” you are in the 80-100RPM range. 

Another good thing to measure is your maximum cadence. This is the revolutions per minute of one leg that you can sustain without bouncing. Do the same 15 sec count and multiply that by four. Elite cyclists have no trouble keeping 120-140 RPM without bouncing. This does, however come with a high heart rate price tag. I guess that is why they are pros and the rest of us are not.

3 Cadence Drills for Mountain Bikers

Spin Ups:

With an easy gear start out pedalling at least 80 RPM and build to a maximal sustained cadence without bouncing. Hold this for 30 seconds. If you start to notice your form deteriorating decrease cadence and hold where you can. Rest 2 min between repetitions. Do 5-10 reps

High Power Accelerations:

Start on a hill with a harder gear and 40-60 RPM. Without shifting gears accelerate to your highest cadence and hold for 10 seconds. Rest 2 min between reps. Do 5-10 reps. You might need to adjust your gearing to get the timing just right on this one.

Single Speed Riding:

Not just for the crazy, hardcore riders looking to punish themselves. Riding with a single gear forces you to make the best of a “bad” situation during your ride. Riding with one gear will make you a stronger and “smarter” rider, anticipating hills and using momentum and able to pedal at ALL cadence whether you want to or not. Don’t own one? Just leave the bike in one gear and commit.

single speed mountain bike

Bonus Work: Single Leg Drills

Ok, so you’ve nailed all the skills workouts and are continuing to work on your pedal efficiency at various cadences. Now it’s time to really kill it with the single-leg drill. Most mountain bikers have one foot they are comfortable putting forward when standing and descending. Did you know that most cyclists have one leg that likes to overpower the pedal stroke and throw things off for the other leg? It’s true, and it’s really not shocking that we are not balanced from left to right leg all the time.

This is also a trainable skill with single leg drills. These are easier to perform if clipped in on gravel roads. You can also do them on a trainer to really focus. Work them into your warm up routine just as you might the above cadence drills to continue to enforce efficient mechanics during your workouts.

    • find a flat section of road/trail without interruptions
    • choose a moderate gear with a cadence of  80-100  RPM
    • unclip one leg and continue to pedal in a smooth stroke for 15 seconds
    • clip back in and pedal with both legs for a few seconds
    • unclip the other foot and pedal smooth for 15 sec
    • rest 1 min or so between trails
    • repeat 3-5 times during your warm up or ride

Be sure you are not moving your upper body and have good posture while doing this drill. Tighten your core and look straight ahead.

Keep Track of Your Progress:

Be sure to measure your max cadence over 30 seconds or a minute and write it down. It also helps to record observations and challenges. For example- left single leg drill much harder than right If you have a cadence sensor and a Training Peaks account you can let the software do it for you. Remember that which is measured improves so keep working and looking back at how far you’ve come to keep the motivation for improvement high.

Tricia Davis, DPT

With over 25 years of experience as a physical therapist Coach Tricia, DPT is over the revolving door of injuries and illness that are preventable. Through her work, she realizes that bodies do not come with an instruction manual and it's difficult to navigate health care as an athlete. Working in sick-care (the exact opposite of healthcare!) with injured athletes and non-athletes alike our founder Coach Tricia, DPT is inspired to lead the revolution of health engineering. By teaching people how to prevent injury and illness NOW, many days, weeks and months of healthy living can be protected. Coach Tricia is well-armed and inspired to keep athletes pushing their boundaries without setbacks.

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