EPC Tips - Cadence is King

Feb. 20, 2015

Last week, I discussed the importance of technique training to improve movement efficiency and lower race times (read: III. Skill Proficiency). As component number 3 in mySix Components to Endurance Sport Success, skill proficiency is one of the easiest ways for newer or less proficient athletes to improve their endurance and speed. This is because improvements in technique come quickly with regular practice that can be added to regularly scheduled training sessions.

This week I want to focus on one key element of skill proficiency that crosses all three major endurance sports (swim, bike, run), that nearly every less-experienced athlete could stand to improve: Cadence.

The rate at which you move your arms through the water when you swim, turn the pedals in circles when you ride, and take steps when you run is your cadence. One admirable observation you will notice when watching any elite endurance athlete performing their sport is that their turn-over (cadence) is high and effortless. On the flip side, you can quickly and easily identify less proficient athletes by their amazingly slow turn-over rates. This often is due to lack of balance or over thinking their stroke in the pool, or riding the wrong gear on the bike, or their heavy loping or plodding run style. Each sport (swim, bike, run) has their ‘optimal’ range of cadence, often decided by the cadences of successful champions of the sport from over the years; a stroke rate of 1.2-1.6 for swimming, 90-100 rpm for road cycling, and 180 steps per minute on the run are some examples of cadences to work towards.

In practical terms, as endurance athletes we want to move faster through the production of more power.

Please note that you can also move faster by reducing resistant forces like wind and water drag, but that is another topic. To help paint a mental image, in physics, power is generated from the muscular force we can apply (to water, pedals, ground) multiplied by the rate at which we can apply that force (cadence). If we can maintain the same amount of force (distance per stoke, gearing, stride length) and do it faster through an increased cadence, we will produce more power, and everything else being equal, we would go faster. The ability to maintain force and increase cadence is no easy feat, but it can be done through effective training. To put this concept of cadence to a real life example, go to a triathlon as a spectator and spend time to watch all the finishers in each of the three disciplines, and you will notice a direct correlation to finish times and cadence. The front pack swimmers will all have higher cadences than the mid-packers and as you stand and watch the rest come in you will notice the cadences dropping off. Same for the bike; the first athletes off their bikes will have smooth and fast cadences and the cadences will drop as the bike-leg finishers continue to arrive. On the run it’s often the most dramatic scene with faster turnovers leading the way, and as the rest of the field makes their way in to the finish line the cadences get slower and slower and… slower.

What follows are some training sets you can incorporate into your own training sessions that address improving ones cadence.

Often these sets/drills are best added at the beginning of a sessions as part of the warm-up and maybe again at the end as part of a warm-down. Spend time improving your cadence and your overall technique and efficiency will improve, along with your race times!


Swim cadence is the hardest of the three to measure accurately while performing the movement. There is a great tool made by FINIS called the Tempo Trainer Pro, that is basically a small, water-proof metronome that you can set to specific rates and hear while you swim. First you want to practice with he Tempo Trainer to find you ‘normal’ swim cadence for 50-yard repeats. It will take some trial and error to find the rate that matches your current preferred cadence. Once you have your ‘baseline’ you now have a point from which to begin challenging yourself.

Let’s say your ‘normal’ cadence is a stroke rate of 2.0, that’s a single stoke every 1-second or a complete cycle every 2-seconds. The goal with this set is to try to lower and lower stroke rates until you can no longer ‘keep up’ with the beeps. Then back off slightly and practice the challenging, but achievable rates in subsequent sets, for example:

  • 4×50 descending (increasing) stroke rate as 2.0/1.9/1.8/1.7 seconds per stroke
  • 3×50 @ 1.9 seconds per stroke
  • 2×50 @ 1.8 seconds per stroke
  • 1×50 @ 1.7 seconds per stroke


Training to spin a higher cadence first with lower gears and then gradually adding larger gears will improve your power on the bike. In our 12-week Trainer Series program we include spin-ups as the warm-up for every session. Spin-ups are a classic drill for improving cadence. This particular version is best performed on a trainer for a super-controlled environment.

Begin by being in your easiest gear. Small chainring in the front (34-39t) and largest cog in the back (23-28t). This provides very little resistance and easy spinning (if you’re in a bigger gear you will be limited by power and high aerobic expenditure, as opposed to spinning capabilities). Start by pedaling at 80 rpm (you’ll need a cadence monitor for this). Every 60 seconds increase your cadence by 5 rpm (85-90-95-etc.) until you reach 120 rpm. That is the first rep. For the second rep, return to 80 rpm and increase cadence by 5 rpm every 30 seconds up to 130-135 rpm. Return to 80 rpm once again and perform the third and final rep, from 80 to 145-150 rpm, increasing by 5 rpm every 15 seconds. If you cannot achieve the recommended upper cadences, go as high as you can get and continue to try higher and higher cadences with each session you do. The goal will be to reach to highest cadences, with little to no bouncing in the saddle and relative ease.


Increasing your running cadence will not only help you run faster but can also lighten the stress you put on your joints reducing fatigue. One helpful focus point you can think about and train is minimizing your ‘ground contact time’. To achieve higher cadence you need to reduce the amount of time your feet spend on the ground. The less time on the ground, the quicker they move from one step to the next. A great drill that isolates this concept is called Ankling.

Ankling involves very short, and quick steps. You first make contact with the ground on your forefoot, letting your foot roll down, pronating as it naturally does. As or slightly before the heel touches the ground you want to pick the foot up and move it forward for the next step as the other foot  goes through its motions. These are very quick motions with small steps, moderate knee lift, and very little forward speed. You can use your Tempo Trainer metronome (or a metronome app on your smartphone) and begin with a slow to moderate tempo to learn the movement. Once you master the movement you can up the tempo to faster and faster paces, as high as 220+ beats per minute as a real challenge. Perform this drill over a set time of 20-40 seconds or 10-20 yards per rep.


Written by Cody Waite, professional endurance athlete, endurance sport coach and founder of Endurance Performance Coaching. Looking for help with your training for 2015? Check out EPC’s Personal CoachingGroup Coaching, and Custom Training Plan options created to fit your needs and budget.  Don’t forget to ‘LIKE’ our EPC Facebook Page and follow Cody on Instagram
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