Is it better to pedal faster or harder? Stop wondering!


When it comes to remembering something you intrinsically know, the phrase ‘like riding a bike’ often comes to mind. After all, you may not really think about what you’re doing when riding a bike – so often, instinct takes over. But how does pedaling affect how we ride a bike? Do you need to go faster or harder to have a better ride?

It is best to focus on pedaling at a high cadence for better cycling efficiency. Pedaling faster places a higher stress on your heart but is more efficient to ride for longer periods of time. Pedaling harder delivers more power while wearing out your legs faster, and can lead to injuries.

You may be wondering what cadence is and how that impacts the way you ride a bike. The answer is that cadence impacts everything! Understanding this metric is important to truly get the most out of your bike, so let’s keep exploring force vs. speed in this article! Read more to learn about cadence, its benefits and drawbacks, and how to get the most from it!

Pedaling faster or harder: a question of cadence?

Pedaling faster means pedaling at a high frequency while pedaling harder means pedaling with higher torque. To obtain such torque means having a lower cadence with more resistance coming through your legs. So pedaling faster vs harder is a question of cadence.

Understanding cadence in cycling

Cadence in cycling refers to the rate – or the speed – at which a cyclist can pedal. This is usually measured in revolutions per minute (RPM), meaning how many times one pedal makes a complete revolution within the span of a single minute.

Cadence is easy to feel when cycling: it corresponds to how fast you are spinning your legs. If you have a low cadence, your legs turn slowly and if you have a high cadence your legs are really spinning fast. If you are unsure, you can buy a cadence sensor like this one to find out your exact cadence. It will give you a value in RPM.

Note: to read the value of your cadence sensor you will need to connect the sensor to an app, a watch or a bike computer.

Cadence can vary between 50rpm and 120rpm. A low RPM is below 80rpm while a high cadence is above 100rpm. Don’t expect to reach 120rpm :p only pros can achieve it.

Low cadenceMedium cadenceHigh cadence
50-80 rpm80-100 rpm100-120 rpm

If you want to know more about cadence sensors, go to this article I wrote on the topic.

Differences between low and high cadence

The cadence you choose to ride in is often instinctual and depends on your experience with exercise. For example, people with experience in strength training can often ride at a low cadence and higher torque, whereas amateurs will likely choose a higher cadence to start with little resistance behind it.

When you ride at a low cadence, you will need to exert more force because you are facing more torque. It is the same as pushing a door open from the side close to the hinge. The farther away from the hinge, the less resistance you will encounter to open the door. Similarly, at a low cadence, you output more power.

On the contrary, at a high cadence, the resistance on the legs is much easier but it requires more effort from your heart.

Whether you choose to pedal faster or harder, there are pros and cons to each choice. In fact, to make this matter easier to explain, let’s look at the benefits and disadvantages of each choice to help you become a better cyclist.

The pros and cons of pedaling harder

When you pedal harder on a bike instead of faster, you can push a lot more force onto the bike. Due to the higher torque, you feel much more resistance in your legs and you engage more your muscles to deliver the extra power needed to get the bike moving.

Without going to the extreme, a low-ish cadence can feel quite natural for many people especially if you have strong legs. When you get on a steep climb, even by changing the gears, this is what pedaling harder feels like. With the right gearing, you can apply this even on the flats.

So pedaling harder feels quite rewarding because you feel like you are working out. And you get the satisfaction to feel how much power you are putting in and see the bike moving.

However, on the flip side, this will put a lot of strain on your muscles. Pushing more force onto the pedals exerts pressure on your ankles, knees, joints, and leg muscles. If you overdo it, or you increase the power too fast without proper training before, you can easily injure yourself.

That being said, it doesn’t mean that training to get to a lower RPM is dangerous – the only thing you need to consider is to build up to a lower cadence gradually instead of immediately shifting to placing more pressure on the pedals.

In summary:

Pedaling Harder
Pros
Cons
- Build strong leg muscles
- Lower heart rate
- Generate more power
- Build strong leg muscles
- Stressing the muscles, which can lead to injuries
- Fatigue quicker: can't keep up for long distances
- Feeling of dead legs after a certain time cycling
- Harder to adapt to changes in acceleration, or to the elevation on route

The pros and cons of pedaling faster

When you pedal faster on a bike, it will increase your heart rate and reduce the strain on your leg muscles. A higher cadence is good to get your heart pumping which is recommended by doctors. You are in cardio rather than strength-building mode with a high cadence. And this is also good to burn fat and calories.

Maintaining a high cadence is hard at first, as it will require a lot of work from your heart and you will also experience more difficulty breathing. But cardio is a good workout and with training, it gets much easier. Cardio is key to remain in good shape, especially in cycling.

The good thing about pedaling faster is that your legs don’t feel bad at all. Also, if you need to constantly adapt your speed, such as in a city or when riding in a group, it will be much easier. Your legs will be fine to give a bit more pressure from time to time and change rhythm. It is the same with elevation, if you are grinding through your rides and a hill comes up, there is a point where your legs won’t take it anymore. While with a higher cadence, you can always slow down a bit your pedaling speed to go up the hill. Your legs will still be fresh to do so.

Of course, if you can keep a high cadence through hills, it is best but not easy 😉

So pedaling faster is key to a prolonged and sustainable biking effort. And it will also help with recovery. Fatigue is less important when cycling at a higher cadence, and you will recover faster.

Pedaling faster requires that you have a nice pedaling form and a very smooth way of pedaling. This is essential for efficiency. Also, you need to keep some resistance under your legs. If you increase the speed of pedaling by easing too much on the gearing, then you could injure yourself. To know if you are doing it right, it’s simple: you should not be bouncing at all on your saddle.

Pedaling Faster
Pros
Cons
- Increase the blood flow
- Do not strain your legs
- Easier to adapt to changes in acceleration or elevation
- Ride longer without being tired
- Better for burning fat
- Higher heart rate which can lead to more struggle breathing

So should you pedal harder or faster?

Grinding a big gear (pedaling harder) lowers your heart rate but it wears your legs out faster. Spinning a small gear (pedaling faster) raises your heart rate but does not strain your legs. Learning to spin is key to being a better cyclist as it will help your ride longer distances.

Like everything it is a question of balance. Overall it is best to pedal faster but pedaling harder is also good to build up muscles and deliver more power to ride faster.

So:

  • Teach yourself to feel comfortable at higher cadences

It takes time to increase the RPM, so go slowly and incrementally. If you have a cadence sensor, check your current RPM and try to increase it by 5rpm on your next rides until it feels natural. And again. You should target to reach 90 to 100rpm. Going above is more for elite cyclists.

  • Then do most of your rides at a high cadence and include some moments with a low cadence to improve your strength and power

This will maximize efficiency when riding and minimize the risk of injuries. You can achieve your ideal cycling performance with careful training and consideration!

There is a reason pros pedal faster and not harder, overall it’s more efficient!

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