Cyclingnews Fitness Q&A - April 20, 2010

Your fitness questions answered

Got a question for the fitness panel? Send it to fitness@cyclingnews.com. Emails may be edited for length or clarity, but we try to publish both questions and answers in their entirety.

Aerobic versus LT training

I am inquiring about a reply to someone's letter from Scott Saifer. I am interested in the last paragraph regarding aerobic training versus LT training.

I thought that aerobic training was used to build base miles and prepare the body for more strenuous workouts at higher levels that would increase the amount of speed and power that could be sustained over time. The response sounds like training harder makes you slower. If that's the case, why train hard at all – why do intervals or sprints or any of that fun stuff?

What should the level be to be 'well below LT' (in percent of max HR)?

Thanks,
Damien

Scott Saifer says

Damien,

Base training does many things beyond simply preparing the body for harder work, though it does that too. Base training, done properly:

a) Increases power at LT
b) Improves efficiency (less oxygen used per amount of energy generated)
c) Boosts easily sustainable speed
d) Increases mitochondial density (more aerobic enzymes in the muscle)
e) Increases capillary penetration of muscles
f) Converts nearly 100 percent of type IIb fibers to type IIa fibres (so you can use fast twitch fibers for endurance activity)
g) Improves recovery from harder work or racing so you can do more of it without ending up overtrained
h) Increases the percentage of energy that will come from fat at any sub-LT intensity
i) Decreases the blood lactate level for any given power output

I know of one pro who got up to averaging 25mph on flat and rolling rides below 80 percent of maximum heart rate without doing any training harder than base.

If you think about a bike race, who is going to have a chance of winning? The guy who is cruising along chatting, or the guy who is gasping? It doesn't matter how hard the gasping guy can go. It doesn't matter how deep he can dig. If there are a few guys who can go faster than his best speed, but without even beginning to suffer, he's not going to win. So, what do the chatting guys have? They have superior aerobic fitness which comes from good base riding.

Now, later in the race, things heat up and the guys who were chatting earlier are starting to work hard. The guys who were gasping earlier are off the back or hanging on, spent and unlikely to become factors in the race again. After the aerobically strong guys have been going at it hard for a few minutes, some of them start to blow, gaps start to open or the finishing order starts to get established.

Riders who have done no above LT work will be the first to blow. Sustained efforts well above LT improve tolerance for that level of work, perhaps delaying the blow-up moment from 20 or 30 seconds to five or six minutes. Work near LT improves tolerance for and recovery from harder work, so it's important to do the LT stuff before the harder stuff, but only if the base is good enough to get the rider through most of the race without having to go hard. Otherwise the tolerance for hard work makes you able to hold on longer, still with virtually no chance of winning.

Sprint workouts are an extension of the same story. Sprinting ability is great, if you can get to the end of a race with your sprint intact. Otherwise it's wasted.

Now on to the other half of the question, about hard work making you slower. The research is not particularly clear on how or why hard training makes one aerobically slower. Coaches used to say that when you train anaerobically it undoes the aerobic training. That may be true, but I'm more inclined to think the effect is more indirect: hard work makes people tired so they do less base training or lower quality base training. They gradually lose their base fitness.

What I'm sure of is that when we have people do a good base followed by LT work and more base for another month, and then have them start racing, their best racing form hits a few weeks later. Then, as they continue to get plenty of super hard training in the form of racing in a field where they have to suffer to compete, form begins to disappear roughly 6-10 weeks later. If hard training were the secret to racing ability, they should only get stronger and stronger once racing starts, but that never happens.

When I suggest base training safely below LT, I usually mean below 80 percent of maximum heart rate, or below 96 percent of LT heart rate, whichever is lower.

Crashing concerns

Hi,

I'm an amateur racer at Cat 3 level and things basically haven't been going so well for me recently. I had a good start to the race season this year with some good placings and earning my first points to put me on the way to an upgrade.

The problems started about two weeks ago at one of the races I'd been hoping to do well in. Basically I tried to start a bit of a break and myself and another few guys were going for it, a few other guys bridged to us and whatever happened wheels touched and I went down hard and covered myself in road rash.

Nothing broken on me, plenty of damage to my bike, but I was pretty beat-up from it and had only did some turbo training and rollers before the next weekend's race, which was a large event that I'd been training for for a good few months and had been hoping to get round it successfully. It was a four-day stage race. I really wanted to do well in this race as I felt strong and confident I could do something. I was frustrated as hell.

In the stage race the next weekend, I put in a good time on the Friday night prologue and started the Saturday stage. As the bunch was a lot bigger than I had been riding and due to my crash the previous weekend I felt very nervous in the group. The rain started to fall and a few crashes happened around me.

The pace was high as a lot of continental teams were over to race in this also and they were really pushing on hard. Next thing I knew I got caught up behind a crash and while I didn't go down, I got hit by a bike in the shoulder. I'm not sure that my body had completely recovered from the previous weekend's crash. Either way, I couldn't get back on the group and couldn't push hard enough to go own by myself. I packed the race feeling demoralised and depressed.

I took two days off completely and then went back to training, did some turbo sessions and a couple of road sessions which started to feel good again, then developed a head cold approaching the weekend. I raced at the weekend in what's considered a 'classics' race over here and at the start I was feeling nervous in the bunch and a bit worried about my performance due to the head cold I had.

Even so, all seemed to be going ok and I was holding position in the bunch fine. Then I flatted, got a slow wheel change and couldn't get back on. I didn't feel too bad about this as I knew that my fitness was there well enough and it was the wheel change that caused me to be out of the race, rather than getting dropped due to being rubbish.

Instead of racing on Sunday, I decided to do some hill training by myself. The day was sunny, light winds, all in all pretty perfect. I rode about a mile from home, hit a pothole or a lump and lost the front wheel and went down hard. I reopened all the previous wounds from the last crash, added some new road rash and think I've badly sprained my arm/elbow to the point that it's locking up pretty badly. I've damaged some more bike kit, ruined some more kit and my poor wife has to see me all beat up again.

I feel physically aching and sore all over with an aching head, neck and body. I'm financially drained from replacing stuff and getting bikes looked at. I feel emotionally all over the place and like I'm falling apart as it just feels that everything is going against me on the bike and I can't get a break of luck. It's kinda thrown all my racing plans out the window for the next few weeks I think and I'm worried what state I'll be in when I start again.

I also guess I'm not sure what kind of help I'm asking for here, but some advice, words of wisdom or any sort of help would be welcome.

M

Carrie Cheadle says

M,

You have had a run of bad luck. That's all. When you have a run of bad luck, it's easy to get overwhelmed, frustrated, and depressed. The first thing to know is that it won't be like this forever. Unfortunately, it was just your turn.

Although it's a bummer to have to change your training plans to adjust to injury or illness, the ability to adjust to what your body needs at that moment in time is the trademark of an elite athlete. You have to be able to adjust to what's happening right now. If a chef bakes a pie and accidentally substitutes salt for the sugar, they don't just say “screw it” and serve the pie; they adjust. They throw in a few more ingredients and turn it into a savory pie or they just start over.

Taking care of yourself now puts you in a better position to still have a fantastic season. If you don't focus on letting your body recover and heal, then you're serving yourself a giant slice of salt-pie and giving yourself a greater chance of having a mediocre season. You also need time to recover emotionally. During times of high stress we are more likely to get injured so give yourself some time off. When you first get back on your bike maybe you won't be as strong as you were at the beginning of the season, but your strength will come back.

I just saw a road sign around the corner from my house yesterday that had the message 'Failure isn't falling; it's failing to get up.' Dealing with setbacks is an inevitable part of a cyclist's journey. Go back to the beginning of the season and remember how good you felt. That cyclist is still there, he's just hiding under a mess of bad luck. Shake it off and get back to the basics.

Remember what you were doing and how you were feeling before that first crash. Chances are that right now when you think about getting back into your next race you're thinking, 'Oh man, I can't handle another crash. I don't want to deal with anymore road rash or handing over more cash for broken bike parts. Everyone just stay away from me.' (probably said with more expletives!)

Now - what were you thinking about when you were riding in the pack earlier this season? You were probably in the moment and focused on staying on the wheel in front or seizing opportunities to move up in the pack. As you get back into racing and you feel yourself getting nervous, ask yourself: 'Where does my focus need to be right now?' If you give yourself a break and get back to the basics, you still have a great season ahead of you!

Knee pain

Hi,

I've used this page a few times now and find it to be useful, so I'm hoping you can help me with another issue.

I've just started getting pain in my left knee. I changed form Sidi to Specialized shoes about six months ago and seem to have got on ok with the shoes. About 3 months ago I changed saddle from an Arione to a Flite, which I seem to get on well with.

These equipment changes resulted in me slightly lowering and moving the saddle forward to accommodate the new shoes and saddle. I've been riding with the new set up for a few months now with no problems.

In the last couple of weeks I've increased the intensity of my training and since then I've been getting pain in my left knee. Even when trying hard I try to keep my revs at 90rpm and no lower than 85rpm.

The discomfort is hardly noticeable whilst riding. But post ride and the next day it can be pretty uncomfortable/painful, particularly when walking down stairs. The loaded knee gets a sharp pain that makes me wince. The pain is over the knee cap and on the outerside side of the knee cap.

I often feel like my left foot is loose in the shoe, and progressively tighten the shoe over the course of a ride.

I already have a thin insole under the Specialized insole to help fill the shoe as my left foot is a bit smaller. I'm considering putting another insole in my shoe as I often feel like I'm reaching with my left leg, particularly when trying hard. But I'm confident my saddle height is correct for me.

Any ideas, advice or positional changes you think I need to make? I'm going to see a chiropractor/physio next week to get the knee looked at too. The pain only seems to occur when trying hard, longer steady rides don't seem to affect it.

Thanks,
Matthew

Steve Hogg says

Matthew,

Firstly, check the simple and often overlooked things. Like the angle of the cleats. Go for a ride, accelerate to about 35 km/h and coast with your left foot forward. Try and move your heel outwards. Is there available movement?

If no, stop and adjust the cleat so that the nose of the cleat faces further out from the centre line of the bike. If yes, accelerate again and then coast and try to move the left heel inwards. If no, stop and adjust the cleat so that the nose of the cleat faces further in towards the centre line of the bike.

Then recheck in both directions. If your left foot was trapped at an angle it didn't like, then knee pain is the likely result.

However, if you found that there was adequate free movement in either direction and that you didn't have to make any adjustments, then repeat the accelerate and coast cycle with the right foot. Sometimes the central nervous system tends to protect one side more than the other and a right sided issue can have left sided fallout and vice versa. If you find the right cleat angle to be less than ideal; once you have it adjusted correctly, recheck the left side.

I also have to potentially challenge your assertion that you're confident that your seat height is correct for you. The reason that I say this is that you only experience a problem when you are riding hard. When we force the pace, relative to our natural technique, we all drop our heels more which causes greater extension of the legs.

I would experiment with dropping your seat 5mm. Once done, ask yourself whether the left leg feels fine now on hard rides. If the answer is yes, great, you now have a good seat height. But if the answer is yes, but the right leg feels cramped and underextending, then you know that you need to raise your seat back up the 5mm an place a 5mm shim under the left cleat.

Let me know what happens.

Bone density

Dear Cyclingnews Fitness Q&A,

Being somewhat concerned about bone density (I'm a 44-year-old man), I have begun adding a bit of running to my training.

My question is a simple one: Will doing a 20-40 minute run every week or two do anything to maintain my bone density, or is this too little to make a difference? Have any studies been conducted indicating how much running is necessary to maintain healthy bone density in the legs? I look forward to hearing from you.

Dave Johannsen

Pamela Hinton says

Dave,

While your question appears simple, the answer is not as straightforward as it might seem. As loss of bone mass naturally occurs with aging; you are wise to do what you can to minimise that loss. Your question asked about increasing bone density of the legs.

However, from a fracture-reduction perspective, the hip and lumbar spine are more important skeletal sites than the legs. In other words, osteoporosis-related fractures are more likely to occur at the hip and spine than other skeletal sites.

The importance of mechanical stress to the maintenance of bone mass has been clearly demonstrated by the dramatic and rapid loss of bone mass that occurs during weightlessness - eg, space flight, or bed rest. In addition, cross-sectional studies comparing athletes to non-athletes have shown that individuals who participate in high-impact, weight-bearing sports - eg, gymnastics, have greater bone density than their sedentary peers or athletes who participate in non-weight-bearing sports - eg, swimming or cycling.

We recently published two papers that showed that runners and strength-trained individuals had greater bone density of the spine and hip than cyclists (J Strength Cond Res. 2009 Mar;23(2):427-35.; Metabolism. 2008 Feb;57(2):226-32.). These results are consistent with the recommendation of the American College of Sports Medicine for bone health: weight-bearing endurance activities (including those that involve jumping, such as tennis and jogging) 3-5 times per week and resistance exercise 2-3 times per week are recommended to preserve bone health during adulthood.

However, this recommendation leaves several practical questions unanswered: what type of weight-bearing activity is best, what 'dose' is needed to see a benefit, what resistance exercises should be performed and at what intensity?

Thus, while there is reasonable evidence that running positively affects bone density, provided dietary energy, calcium, and vitamin D are adequate, the minimal amount of running required to produce a measurable increase in bone density remains to be determined. To answer this question definitively would require long-term dose-response studies in humans. These studies would be very challenging logistically.

Because bone density changes very slowly, the intervention period would need to be at least 6 months long. Many different 'doses' of running would have to be tested to find the minimal amount of running required. As you can see, the difficulties associated with recruiting subjects, as well as the time and monetary costs, are prohibitive. Thus, studies in experimental animals have provided key information to help determine the 'optimal' exercise for increasing bone mass.

Studies in experimental animals have shown the following: only the bones that are 'stressed' are strengthened (as is true with skeletal muscle); high-impact, dynamic physical activity that involves movement in multiple directions produces the greatest gains; and, bone becomes non-responsive to additional loading after as few as 40-100 loading cycles (impacts) and regains its responsiveness after about eight hours of rest.

Thus, unlike most health benefits derived from exercise, more is not better when it comes to bone. Rather than running for 20-40 minutes once per week, you would be better off running less each time, but running more frequently. For example, running 10 minutes two or three times per week would have a greater positive effect on your bones than one 30-minute run per week.

To increase bone density, an alternative activity to running is jump-training or plyometrics. One study in young women showed that 10 vertical jumps per day, three days per week for six months significantly increased bone density of the hip and lumbar spine (J Appl Physiol. 2006 Mar;100(3):839-43.). We are currently testing the efficacy of plyometrics to increase bone density in men with low bone density of the hip or spine. Stay tuned.

Scott Saifer says

David,

At least one study (MacDougall et al, J Appl Physiol 73: 1165-1170, 1992;) has found that athletes who run 15-20 miles per week have higher bone density in the spine and lower legs that those who run fewer miles, and that additional miles beyond 20 miles per week was not associated with any more increase in bone density.

While 15 miles per week might sound like a lot of running to a cyclist, it's only 15 minutes per day. Activities with higher impact such as jumping jacks and jump rope are probably more effective, so a shorter daily bout will take care of your bones just as well as a the longer run.

Your 20-40 minute run every two weeks plan will probably do a small amount to increase your bone density, but has one fatal flaw. People who run only every few weeks and run as long as 40 minutes when they do so very frequently end up with running injuries. This experience is not universal of course, but most people need more regular running conditioning to be able to handle 40 minute runs without getting hurt.

Overtraining

I have a few questions regarding overtraining. As a returning comptetive cyclist off an injury I'm ramping up my training for collegiate and USCF this summer. I had been following a periodised plan of three weeks build, one week recovery, monitoring no heavy increases per week and mostly a volume increase.

As I am focusing on base, on a trainer ride I was unable to go over 155 bpm, I was breathing heavy, sweating, and big ringing it at about 23mph, but despite my best efforts I couldn't raise HR. I took three weeks off, and am in my second week back, and on another training ride, I've experienced the same thing.

I've not noticed large increases in resting HR, weight, and diet has been good. Am I carrying fatigue from a previous workout, or is this overtraining. I was under the impression OT only occurred with a super high increase in one of the FIT principles or bad recovery. Sorry for the lengthy email, but I wanted to ask the gurus.

Cheers,
Bennett Fallow

Scott Saifer says

Bennett,

Let's start with a definition: Overtraining is a long term loss of performance despite maintaining or increasing training load. The loss of performance has to go on for several weeks or months despite resting up to count as overtraining. If you get tired but resting a day or two or taking an easy week fixes you up, you were overreached rather than overtrained.

Overreaching is a fancy name for being tired from just a little more than appropriate amounts of training. Think of overtraining as being overreaching so extreme that by the time you rest up from it, you're detrained. Overtraining happens when an overreached athlete continues to push in training.

A heart rate that won't rise on one particular day is not proof of overtraining. It is probably a sign of overreaching. You also might be getting sick. Take a few recovery days (an hour or so with a heart rate below 70 percent of maximum) and you'll probably be fine.

For future reference, if you ever feel less than excellent in any way after a warm up, you'll get more out of a long recovery ride (heart rate 60-70 percent of max) than pushing to higher heart rates. That's what pros mean by "training how you feel". if you do that, you won't end up overreached nearly as often, and you'll never end up overtrained.

Microdiscectomy recovery

I am a 42-year-old Cat. 3/4 cyclist who just had an L4/5-S1 Microdiscectomy. I have been doing stretching, walking for PT, but have yet to get on the bicycle. My severe sciatic pain and back issue came after solid training last summer peaking at around 250 miles per week.

This training was after a few light years on the bike so my base was weak. My concern and question is related to my positioning and whether a dropped hip or other issues could have led to the exacerbation of my condition. Is this possible, and if so, are there precedences?

Brad Karns

Steve Hogg says

Brad,

I'm not sure what you're asking. If you are asking whether a dropped hip or other asymmetries of technique can cause the severe onset of pain or an increase in pain in an already existing issue, then the answer is a loud yes.

Are there precedents in the sense of have other people experienced similar issues for the same reasons. Again the answer is a loud yes.

Brad then responded:

Thanks for the response. Yes, those are my concerns. Since your answer is yes, I am concerned about riding in possibly a wrong position and reinjuring myself as I try to recover. Curious what you would recommend as to proceeding with recovery and cycling - I'm itching to get on two wheels again!

I am also best friends with Jerry Gerlich, and rode, raced, and worked with him in the cycling industry for years in LA, where I still live....

Steve Hogg says

Brad,

Jerry is a good and knowledgeable guy. The key to getting a resolution to your issue is to find out what caused the disc bulge in the first place. Unless it was a sudden trauma caused by exerting a lot of force from a poor position, I'll bet the problem has been developing for years and is the result of a tilted pelvis with or without a measurable leg length difference.

Strip to the waist and stand in front of a mirror and move each thumb down your torso until you hit the top of your pelvis. It is very likely that one thumb will be higher than the other. That pelvic tilt is the reason for the scoliosis (lateral curve) in your spine and the disc will have bulged on the outside radius of that scoliosis.

Once you establish which side is high side, then you need an x ray of the pelvis taken in the following fashion. Stand with knees locked out. You need to know the relative height of the femoral heads as that will tell you the functional difference in length which is a different thing from bone length.

Bone length is largely irrelevant - for instance, if you have a lower arch on one foot, that low arch will effectively shorten that leg with or without a bone length difference. The first x ray will establish the functional leg length as well as whether there is a small hemi pelvis. A small hemi pelvis is when one ilium is smaller than the other. This is possible but the chances are not high.

Then you will need a second x ray of the pelvis taken from the side to establish whether both ilium are in the same plane. If one is rotated anteriorly or posteriorly, then that affects functional leg length.

Once you have that information, get back to me and I'll see what I can advise regarding bike position.

Full Specifications

The Cyclingnews Form & Fitness panel

Steve Hogg (www.cyclefitcentre.com) has owned and operated Pedal Pushers since 1986, a cycle shop specialising in rider positioning and custom bicycles. In that time he has positioned riders from all cycling disciplines and of all levels of ability with every concievable cycling problem. Clients range from recreational riders and riders with disabilities to World and National champions.

Scott Saifer (www.wenzelcoaching.com) is head coach, CEO of Wenzel Coaching.com and has been coaching cyclists professionally for 18 years. He combines a master's degree in Exercise Physiology with experience in 20 years of touring and racing and over 300 road, track and MTB races to deliver training plans and advice that are both rigorously scientific and compatible with the real world of bike racing.

Scott has helped clients to turn pro as well as to win medals at US Masters National and World Championship events. He has worked with hundreds of beginning riders and racers and particularly enjoys working with the special or challenging rider. Scott is co-author of Bike Racing 101 with Kendra Wenzel and his monthly column appears in ROAD Magazine.

Kelby Bethards, MD received a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering from Iowa State University (1994) before obtaining an M.D. from the University of Iowa College of Medicine in 2000. Has been a racing cyclist 'on and off' for 20 years, and when time allows, he races Cat 3 and 35+.

He is a team physician for two local Ft Collins, CO, teams, and currently works Family Practice in multiple settings: rural, urgent care, inpatient and the like.

Pam Hinton has a bachelor's degree in Molecular Biology and a doctoral degree in Nutritional Sciences, both from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

She did postdoctoral training at Cornell University and is now an associate professor of Nutrition and Exercise Physiology at the University of Missouri-Columbia where she studies the effects of energy balance on bone health. She has published on the effects of cycling and multi-day stage racing on bone density and turnover.

Pam was an All-American in track while at the UW. She started cycling competitively in 2003 and is a three-time Missouri State Road Champion.

David Fleckenstein, MPT, OCS (www.physiopt.com) is a physical therapist practicing in Eagle, ID and the president of Physiotherapy, PA, an outpatient orthopedic clinic focusing in orthopedics, spine, and sportsmedicine care.

His clients have included World and US champions, Olympic athletes and numerous professional athletes. He received his Masters degree in Physical Therapy from Emory University and is currently completing his doctorate at Regis University.

He is a board certified orthopedic specialist focusing in manual medicine and specific retraining of spine and joint stabilisation musculature. He is a former Cat I road racer and Expert mountain biker.

Carrie Cheadle, MA (www.carriecheadle.com) is a Sports Psychology consultant who has dedicated her career to helping athletes of all ages and abilities perform to their potential. Carrie specialises in working with cyclists, in disciplines ranging from track racing to mountain biking. She holds a bachelors degree in Psychology from Sonoma State University as well as a masters degree in Sport Psychology from John F. Kennedy University.

Dave Palese (www.davepalese.com) is a USA Cycling licensed coach and masters' class road racer with 16 years' race experience. He coaches racers and riders of all abilities from his home in southern Maine, USA, where he lives with his wife Sheryl, daughter Molly, and two cats, Miranda and Mu-Mu.

Dario Fredrick (www.wholeathlete.com) is an exercise physiologist and head coach for Whole Athlete™. He is a former category 1 & semi-pro MTB racer. Dario holds a masters degree in exercise science and a bachelors in sport psychology.

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