“Does higher cadence burn more calories?”
Every cyclist wants to maximize gains from any given training session, and sometimes one of the goals can be to lose weight through cycling. But does a higher cycling tempo burn more calories than slower cycling of your legs? Cycling coach James Sprague explores the case for and against conditioning your cadence for weight loss.
A case for adopting a high tempo
Force is cadence x force. The cadence you freely choose is usually a balance between reducing the force required with each pedal stroke and not moving your legs unnecessarily. When you ride at a higher cadence than your freely chosen cadence, pedaling efficiency decreases. Efficiency describes how hard your body has to work to produce a certain amount of energy. The decrease in efficiency is simply due to the need to move your legs more in a given period of time. For example, instead of doing 90 revolutions per minute, you may now need to do 100 revolutions. Not every revolution of the pedals drives the pedals, so when you pedal above your freely chosen cadence, you get a more “unproductive” motion.
This costs energy, burns calories, but doesn’t produce power when you pedal. So, in theory, riding at a higher cadence means you’ll actually need to work a little bit harder, and yes you’ll actually burn more calories for the same intensity.
The lawsuit against adopting high tempo
To burn as many calories as possible in any given training session, you basically need to work as hard as you can. Maximizing energy production will increase the amount of work you do and therefore the number of calories you burn. To maximize power output, you must operate as efficiently as possible. Therefore, anything that means you can’t produce as much power—such as riding at higher cadences—may mean that you can’t produce as much power and therefore you can’t burn as many calories.
In my opinion, even if the goal of a cycling training plan is weight loss, it still makes sense to increase the adaptations and training benefits of each session. The reason is that as you become fitter, you will be able to produce more energy per session, thus burning more calories.
So I don’t recommend that riders artificially raise their cadence to try to burn off extra calories. I would suggest that it’s best for most people to ride a freely chosen cadence most of the time. Focus on the training goal for each individual session. Even if you burn a few more calories by riding at a higher cadence, the differences are minimal. If you were to ride at a higher cadence and lose 1 percent efficiency (which would really be a lot to lose) over 1 hour riding at 250w, the difference would be ~35kcal, or less than half a chocolate digestif.
When you’re looking to lose a little weight, the truth is that it’s much easier to make changes to the intake side of the equation rather than the utilization side of the equation. Better to skip that biscuit with your cup of tea and ride at the tempo you freely choose.