Obviously there are many aspects to cycling you can work and improve. Your maximum power output and your FTP – your theoretical best power output for an hour effort – are the basic objectives most people focus on. Your maximum power output improvement rate has a big slice of genetics, but your FTP is dependent on efficiency and muscular strength to endure the effort. That is something you can work on and massively improve on the long haul. Efficiency would be your engine here and your wheels the strength.
You can work on your strength in the gym by lifting weights and it’s common to see cyclists and triathletes hit the gym and leg press their way into muscular fitness during winter time or on their build phase to the season. However, there’s nothing more specific to cycling than working both your engine and your wheels while on the bike. And here is where low cadence work comes into play.
Low cadence work is nothing more than just that: leg pressing while on the bike. Intervals of heavy gearing at relatively low cadence. For most “low” would be around 60rpm on a flat section using the 53×11 gearing. This type of training is very common on most athlete’s schedule and its purpose is to “recruit” more muscle fibers and give your muscles a better tolerance to the efforts while pushing the pedals down. 60rpm should be a reference point, but obviously if 70rpm already feels “low” compared to your normal cadence pattern, it would be a good idea to first start with a few sessions at 70 rpm before dropping more. Anything below 50 or 55rpm may start to be too much and apply too much stress to the knees, so keeping it within reason above that is also a rule of thumb you should have in mind. The intensity you should perform this should not feel like a best effort and more likely as a high aerobic effort; something that feels comfortable within the uncomfortable. Doing this as a best effort would likely get you injured – same way you don’t go into the gym lifting (almost) unbearable weights out of the gate.
A good set for such work would be a 2 hour ride with 2 x 20 minutes at 60 rpm and low gearing. You can build your way up to intervals of 30 minutes, but never really go over 60-70 minutes of total work at low cadence. Remember that the purpose is not to dig you into a hole or get you injured. Doing a session per week that has about 40-60 minutes of low cadence and heavy gearing would be gold and enough and allow you to constantly work on your specific strength and aerobic efficiency. As you become stronger, the effort will also become easier. More so if you always do these on a flat course, meaning you should try and find a longer climb so you can keep the 60rpm, but not spin out or over that on the heaviest gear.
Low cadence work needs to be dealt with some caution. Always remember than you should start to include these on your weekly schedule in a progressive matter and not jump right away into back-to-back sessions. As any strength program, these sessions overload your soft tissues and joints, especially the knees, and you will always be better off staying injury free than constantly going back to zero. If you become so strong on the bike, can’t find hills to do this type of work or you are doing these on the trainer or rollers, maybe it’s time to upgrade you chain rings. The Vision Metron TT crankset may be fitted with up to a 55T chain ring!