Most of your training as a cyclist is designed to make you more powerful: intervals to build high-end power, endurance rides to develop your ability to ride fast over many hours, sprints to polish your finishing kick.
However, one thing that’s often overlooked is training to be able to apply that power in any situation, on any terrain.
If you train in the hills, you may find your power output on climbs eclipses your power output on the flat. Since most riders sit up higher on climbs and mix in standing efforts, you may not be comfortable riding for extended periods in an aerodynamic position. And you almost certainly won’t feel comfortable in a fast-moving peloton, where you have to make hard efforts, at a high cadence, in an aero position.
If you train on the flats, on hilly courses you may find yourself more fatigued than normal late in the race, due to the different forces that climbing applies to your legs. You may lack strength in your glutes and lower back to match the torque requirements, and slightly lowered cadence and different muscle activation could rob you of your typical power.
So how do you solve this? One answer would be to move to your favorite cycling paradise with climbs, flats, fast group rides, and perfect weather. Since that’s not in the cards for most of us, we’ll focus on a more practical way: making small changes to your workouts to target specific terrain. The easiest ways to do that are by manipulating cadence, and by paying attention to your position on the bike.
Low Cadence Training
Low-cadence training is a type of interval training long practiced by elite cyclists. The idea is that you drop your cadence much lower than normal, often to around 60-65 rpm. Then you do intervals at a moderate power output. Although the power output may be only moderate, the force on your muscles is similar to that of a much higher power output at a normal cadence. This allows the athlete to train force development without generating as much fatigue, meaning they can do more or longer intervals than they could at a higher intensity.
This kind of training is great for all cyclists, but it’s especially good for cyclists who are preparing for climbs but don’t have long climbs to train on regularly. Because most cyclists pedal a slightly lower cadence than they do on the flat, and because long climbs provide a constant resistance, this type of grinding interval is great to prepare for tough, hilly races.
Another strategy is to train at a higher power output, with cadence only slightly lowered. For example, if on the flat you prefer to ride in the 95-100 rpm range, you probably will climb in the 85-90 rpm range. So it can be very helpful to drop your cadence to around 85 rpm for your high-intensity interval training.
If you’re training on flat terrain and targeting a hilly event, these sessions are fantastic. Make them even more productive by using a position similar to your climbing position: sitting up on the tops of the bars or the brake hoods. This will more closely mimic the muscle recruitment during climbing. The indoor trainer can be a great place to do these efforts since it’s easy to control cadence and power.
High Cadence Training
The primary benefit of high-cadence training is to improve your ability to produce high power outputs at high speed. Tailwind sections, slight downhills, or any race where you’re in a fast-moving peloton require you to be comfortable putting in hard efforts at a high cadence. The perfect candidate for this type of training is a rider who typically prefers a lower cadence and a grinding style, yet is preparing for a flat, fast race.
Incorporating high-cadence work is simple: during your high-intensity workouts, do your efforts with a high cadence, preferably 100-105 rpm. Do these intervals on flat terrain. As we mentioned above, match your position to the effort: since you’re training for high-speeds, use an aerodynamic position and stay in the saddle at all times.
This type of training will also help you feel stronger in fast-moving groups. If you’re training for a race where you’ll be racing hard with rapid pacelines or echelons, working on your cadence will really pay off.
If you don’t have any fast, flat sections where you live, these efforts are perfect to do on the trainer. If you’re training with a power meter, you may notice power isn’t as high as when you do your intervals on climbs. That’s fine, and in time, you’ll notice this gap closes.
To sum things up, altering cadence during your training can be a powerful way to improve your abilities as a cyclist. This is especially true for targeting specific types of terrain: using low-cadence efforts for climbing, and high-cadence efforts for flatter, faster races.
Not all of us have the perfect terrain for training right on our doorstep, but with simple adaptations to our training we can be ready for anything.