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The effect of pedalling cadence on respiratory frequency: passive vs. active exercise of different intensities

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Pedalling cadence influences respiratory frequency (fR) during exercise, with group III/IV muscle afferents possibly mediating its effect. However, it is unclear how exercise intensity affects the link between cadence and fR. We aimed to test the hypothesis that the effect of cadence on fR is moderated by exercise intensity, with interest in the underlying mechanisms.


Ten male cyclists performed a preliminary ramp incremental test and three sinusoidal experimental tests on separate visits. The experimental tests consisted of 16 min of sinusoidal variations in cadence between 115 and 55 rpm (sinusoidal period of 4 min) performed during passive exercise (PE), moderate exercise (ME) and heavy exercise (HE). The amplitude (A) and phase lag (φ) of the dependent variables were calculated.


During PE, fR changed in proportion to variations in cadence (r = 0.85, P < 0.001; A = 3.9 ± 1.4 breaths·min−1; φ = − 5.3 ± 13.9 degrees). Conversely, the effect of cadence on fR was reduced during ME (r = 0.73, P < 0.001; A = 2.6 ± 1.3 breaths·min−1; φ = − 25.4 ± 26.3 degrees) and even more reduced during HE (r = 0.26, P < 0.001; A = 1.8 ± 1.0 breaths·min−1; φ = − 70.1 ± 44.5 degrees). No entrainment was found in any of the sinusoidal tests.


The effect of pedalling cadence on fR is moderated by exercise intensity—it decreases with the increase in work rate—and seems to be mediated primarily by group III/IV muscle afferents, at least during passive exercise.

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Availability of data and material

The data sets generated during and/or analysed during the current study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.

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Analysis of variance



f R :

Respiratory frequency


Heavy exercise


Heart rate




Moderate exercise

PCO2 :

Pressure of carbon dioxide


Passive exercise


End-tidal partial pressure of carbon dioxide


Peak power output


Root mean square


Rating of perceived exertion


Revolutions per minute

\({\dot{\text{V}}\text{CO}}_{2}\) :

Carbon dioxide output

\({\dot{\text{V}}}_{{\text{E}}}\) :

Minute ventilation

\({\dot{\text{V}}\text{O}}_{2}\) :

Oxygen uptake

\({\dot{\text{V}}\text{O}}_{{2{\text{peak}}}}\) :

Peak value of oxygen uptake

VT :

Tidal volume


First ventilatory threshold


Second ventilatory threshold


Phase lag


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The present study was supported by the University of Rome “Foro Italico” (CDR2.BANDO2017SM).

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Authors and Affiliations



Conception or design of the work: M.G., A.N., and M.S. Acquisition, analysis or interpretation of data for the work: M.G., A.N., I.B., F.F. and M.S. Drafting the work or revising it critically for important intellectual content: M.G., A.N., I.B., F.F. and M.S. All authors approved the final version of the manuscript and agree to be accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved. All persons designated as authors qualify for authorship, and all those who qualify for authorship are listed.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Andrea Nicolò.

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Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

All procedures performed in this study were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee (Ethics Committee of the University of Rome Sapienza) and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Informed consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.

Additional information

Communicated by Guido Ferretti.

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Cite this article

Girardi, M., Nicolò, A., Bazzucchi, I. et al. The effect of pedalling cadence on respiratory frequency: passive vs. active exercise of different intensities. Eur J Appl Physiol 121, 583–596 (2021).

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