Posted: March 26, 2004
Cycling: Circles of Victory
Written by: Seiji Ishii
Cycling is regarded as a rather simple activity; after all we have all been doing it since we were children. Break it down to the primary motion and all we are doing is spinning our feet in circles. This was obvious when we were children straddling a bicycle for the first time. The balance may have thrown us off, but with training wheels and a little encouragement from our parents, the balance came quickly and we have been spinning those circles ever since. That simple activity used to be nothing but child’s play has for many of us become a very important and consuming part of our adult lives. It is still play at heart but it has also evolved into a large goal and recipient of much time, effort, and sweat.
Training for competitive cycling usually revolves around such physiological markers as heart rate, power output and lactate threshold. Hours and hours are spent riding at predetermined heart rates or power zones, which in turn are based on your lactate threshold. Seasons, training plans, and specific workouts are designed with these markers and their corresponding effects in mind. Books have been written, labs have been staffed, coaches have been educated and riders have ultimately benefited from the increased amount of knowledge. Cyclists of today are much faster and fitter than cyclists of the past thanks to the “smarter” training this research and knowledge have provided. Your fitness has surely benefited form this vast amount of research but how much attention is given to the technique of cycling? Rarely is it talked about, written about or studied to the degree heart rate and power zones are. How often do you analyze your technique and train to improve it?
Cyclists often forget or choose to ignore the most basic and simple part of the training equation: those simple little circles we have been making since we were kids. Maybe because it is so fundamental and we have been doing it for so long. When the cardiovascular fitness is there, when the training is there, it is a shame to be held back by those simple little circles. Why not perfect them as well, why not improve those circles and take full advantage of your fitness?
Lance Armstrong is a perfect example of how improving those circles can transform a perfectly fit cyclist into a devastatingly faster cyclist. We all knew his fitness and racing ability could net him classic or one day wins, but grand tours still eluded him. After his triumph over cancer he returned to the pro peloton a transformed cyclist. He went so far as, along with his team, to announced their intentions of winning the Tour de France. “But he cannot climb,” the pundits said. “He is a classics rider, not a grand tour champion,” we used to read. Well put three yellow jerseys in your pipe and smoke it. What was one of the keys to this transformation? Those simple little circles. Lance has honed his pedaling mechanics and greatly increased his cadence since returning to competitive cycling. These improvements combined with his physiology and fitness level have helped him dominate the last three Tours.
How can you perfect those little circles and transform yourself into a faster competitor? First off, you have to start by including technique training in your plans. You already include the fitness quotient and probably have it analyzed to the 9th degree. Now you just have to implement a technique factor in your total training plan and start analyzing that as well. Cycling is a sport, and most sports have techniques you must master to become successful. You are not exempt from this simply because you have been riding a bike since you were a child. As simple as pedaling may seem, there is still technique involved, which you can improve upon.
The most common technique deficits in a cyclist’s pedal stroke occur at the top and bottom of the pedal stroke. A perfect application of force would be a force applied perpendicular to the arc drawn by the pedal as it travels through the pedal stroke. Which means, at the top, the force should be directed straight forward while the pedal is passing through top dead center. Studies have shown in this area of the stroke (roughly 11 pm to 1 am on a clock face), there is usually very little force generated in this direction. At the bottom of the stroke, the perfect application of force would be straight backwards as the pedal passes through bottom dead center. Studies have shown in this area (roughly 5 pm to 7 pm) cyclists also generate little force in the described direction and often generate force applied straight down, parallel to the arc made by the pedal. This is wasted force as it does not apply tension to the chain and thus does not contribute to forward motion.
How do you correct these technique deficits? Other sports employ drills to master technique and cycling is no different. Repetitive drills are used to engrain correct motor patterns and strengthen the muscular system to support these correct patterns. A very powerful drill to improve pedaling technique is intervals of pedaling with only one leg. The use of only one leg forces you to apply force in the correct direction because you cannot compensate by using the other leg to drive the pedals around when you encounter a weak section of your stroke. This drill involves using an indoor trainer. Set up your bike on the trainer and place a stool or chair on each side of the bike to place the resting leg on. After a warm up, place one foot on the chair, make sure your hips are still square in the saddle, and smoothly pedal with only one leg. Faulty areas of your stroke will become apparent because your foot speed will drop in these areas and you may fall behind your freewheel and lose tension on your chain. Strive for constant foot velocity as you make the circle. Push your foot forward in your shoe as you clear the top section and pull your foot backwards as you clear the bottom section. During the recovery section of the stroke, you are simply trying to remove the weight of your leg off the pedal so that your other leg doesn’t expend energy to lift it up. As you clear this recovery section, pretend like you are throwing your knee over the handlebar and once again attempt to slide your foot forward inside you shoe. Start slowly at first and only increase your cadence if you can maintain correct form. Watch for your chain drooping during those top and bottom sections as this indicates areas where you are losing the correct force on the pedal. You can start with 30 second intervals per leg, and then pedal a minute with both legs concentrating on the form you employed with each single leg. Slowly increase your single leg cadence (using correct form!) as you pick up the proper motor pattern and gradually increase the length of the interval as your musculature adapts to this new pedaling style. A sample workout for single leg pedaling might look like this:
10 minutes warm up
30 seconds R leg, 30 seconds L leg, 1 minute both legs concentrating on correct form. Repeat twice.
30 seconds L leg, 30 seconds R leg, 1 minute both legs concentrating on correct form. Repeat twice.
5 minutes easy spinning.
45 seconds R leg, 45 seconds L leg, 1 minute both legs concentrating on form. Repeat twice.
45 seconds L leg, 45 seconds R leg, 1 minute both legs concentrating on form. Repeat twice.
5 minutes easy spinning.
1 minute R leg, 1 minute both legs, 1 minute L leg. Repeat twice.
10 minutes cool down.
You should attempt to get at least 7 minutes of intervals for each leg in a single workout. These workouts are best done in the early foundation or base building periods of the season when intensity is still low so you can learn the correct pattern and carry it over into the later parts of the season when you are applying more force and riding at higher intensities. It will be much easier to engrain the correct motor patterns when your attention is not competing with aerobic intensity and you can concentrate fully on the task of improving technique.
Another key to unlocking the power of your pedaling technique is cadence. Simply put, you should strive for a high cadence in all gears. This is the most obvious change in Armstrong’s pedaling style since his return to the pro ranks. His cadence is much higher than most of his competitors both on the flats and in the mountains. Why should you emulate the champion’s high revving style? Again, let’s do some breakdown here, a simple cyclist’s physics class. Power is the product of force and velocity. Applied to cycling, this would be pedaling force and cadence. A higher cadence increases the velocity (of your legs) so for a given power output the force you have to apply comes down. Creating more force increases the load on the muscles, while raising cadence increases the load on the cardiovascular system. You are therefore shifting load away from your muscular system and putting it onto your cardiovascular system. The longer and more often you leave this load on the cardiovascular system, the more you conserve the energy stores in your muscles. This glycogen in your muscles is limited, so you want to conserve this fuel for times when you have no choice but to use it. You want to hum along at high revs until you need to call on the glycogen to drop that pack demolishing attack or race winning sprint. The drill you employ here, to teach your nervous system and ready the muscles, is high cadence intervals. To accomplish this, use a light gear, which keeps your heart rate well within aerobic boundaries, and pedal at a cadence between 107 and 130. You should also concentrate on the form you learned in the single leg drills and only spin as fast as you can with this correct form and without bouncing in the saddle. Stay on the flats during these intervals or perform them on an indoor trainer or rollers. The intervals should be between 5 and 10 minutes with an equal amount of time of easy spinning in between. Remember correct form, no bouncing! Increase the length of the interval as your nervous system and musculature adapt to the higher operating speeds. A sample workout of these high cadence drills is listed below.
10 minutes warm up.
5 minutes high cadence interval, 5 minutes rest interval. Repeat twice.
7 minutes high cadence interval, 7 minutes rest interval. Repeat twice.
10 minutes high cadence interval.
10 minutes cool down.
Again, these drills are best done in the early periods of your training year. This will allow you to focus on learning and engraining this higher cadence at lower intensities of training. The resulting undivided attention to improving your cadence will lay the technique foundation necessary to apply high cadence at greater intensities later in the year.
These technique drills and the application of the learned abilities can help you make the most of your hard earned fitness. In the pursuit of athletic excellence you should leave no stone unturned. Analyzing and practicing your pedaling technique and cadence will add an extra dimension in your training, possibly turning the stone, which could lead to improved results. Perfecting those little circles could ultimately be your circle of victory.
Seiji Ishii is a Carmichael Training Systems (CTS) Cycling/Multisport Coach and USA Cycling Expert Level Coach. To learn more about Seiji and CTS, visit Carmichael Training Systems at: TrainRight.com.
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