Cyclingnews Fitness Q&A - June 10, 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.

Broken leg

I am a cat 3 racing cyclist here in Ireland. Three weeks ago I was hit by a car while training, and I was extremely fortunate to escape with a simple fracture to my fibula. The fracture itself will heal without any metal insertions, and the fracture has occurred at about one-third distance (closer to the knee).

My medical treatment was not so simple however, as the doctor assigned to me concluded that compression syndrome was commencing in my leg. The same afternoon of the accident I had surgery to open up the lower leg to elevate the stress due to swelling, which if not treated would very likely have eventually prevented blood flow to my lower mussels and led to muscle death.

I had two incisions made in my leg, however no muscle was cut. The surgeon confirmed that the intervention was carried out just in time, and other than some bad bruising there was no other muscle damage. I had a further three operations to close up the incisions, and I was discharged after 10 days in hospital.

I feel good now, moving around on crutches and I can actually start to put some weight on my injured leg. The fracture is mending itself well. The healing of the incisions has also gone well... most of the stitches have already removed. I had 30 stitches in one incision, and about 40 in the other.

I have written off the rest of the racing season... but what sort of program would I be safe in following once the fracture is fully mended?

I don't want to push things too hard so any advice would be really helpful.

Regards,
Alan Mullins.

Scott Saifer says:

Alan,

The question of when to start training and how much is a good one to direct to your doctor or physical therapist. Probably you start with physical therapy to regain a functional level of strength and flexibility.

Once the medical professionals have cleared you for full range of motion and intensity, you can start "training" again. I put training is quote marks because physical therapy is really training too, just training for normal function rather than the superior function of an athlete.

Once you are ready to start training, since you'll have been off for at least a month in all, you'll be in the same place any other rider would be at the end of the post-season rest period and you'll need to start building your base again.

Since it takes about four months minimum to go from rested to seriously race ready, you'll probably have to decide between doing an abbreviated training season before racing below your ability, or stretching the training all the way to next season. That would be a really long training season, so I'd encourage you to do a few months of base, then do something else for fun on the bike for a few months before rejoining the normal annual sequence in the fall.

Left foot issues

I have been having a recent problem with the ball of my left foot. For the last couple of months when I have been riding back to back days, the ball of my left foot has been swelling up and becoming sore. Mostly the bottom and the side, from the base of the big toe extending just past the ball.

I have not changed bikes, shoes or pedal position. Not sure what this could be caused from.

Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated,
Don

Steve Hogg says:

Don,

From the information that you have given, it is likely that your seat is too high. There are other possibilities as well, but seat height is the prime one.

I'll explain why. If your seat is too high, you will autonomically look after one side of your body while paying a price for that on the other side. It is much more common, even for left handed people, to drop their right hip on a bike than their left hip.

Looking after one side usually means dropping that hip slightly which increases the distance that the other leg has to reach. Often this means that the other leg, in this case the left, has to push explosively through the bottom of the pedal stroke to apply power down through bottom dead centre. This is usually accompanied by a 'dabbing' of the toe which under load, loads the MTP joint area.

Drop your seat by 5mm and let me know what happens. If dropping the seat doesn't improve things, we'll move on to less likely reasons for what you are experiencing.

Returning after six weeks off

I have been riding and training seriously for about two years. I started racing June 2009 and have been incrementally doing well having progressively won Club races from E to C grade. I am about to step up to B grade but had to go under the knife for a long delayed non-urgent Ear Operation (Tympanoplasty).

I had an ear operation last month and my ENT Specialist told me to avoid stressful exercise for five weeks for complete healing of the sensitive surgical graft. I am now entering on my fifth week of the hiatus and decided to extend it for another week just to make sure the graft is well and truly healed. Reason being is that riding hard can rupture or perforate the eardrum membrane and its easy to forget that when I am in a sprinting frenzy trying to keep up with the A graders.

Anyway, I train 7-10 hours per week on average, broken down as three times a week most of the time. One day for a three-hour low-medium intensity fat burner ride, another day for a three-hour mixed Interval sessions and lactate threshold with medium intensity and recovery in between then a two-hour fast group ride every Saturday.

Before going into cycling I weighed 97.8kg (my height is 5'9", 34 years old) and has gone down to 85kg. Still very heavy for my height but I haven't started any particular diet and lost the weight entirely just by riding. I eat mostly what I want and that has a lot of fast food in it unfortunately. I am a rotating shift worker too whihc does make it variable training days and no fixed riding schedule (i.e - ride at night when on morning shift and vice versa).

I have noticed that my thigh muscles expectedly have mushed and softened up a lot due to lack of use. I have put on 2kg already in just five weeks off the bike even with moderate eating. I would like to ask you what is the best way or program to get back to where I am and posibbly to even get better on my riding and racing. I am slightly down because I feel its going to be a long hard road again from riding with A and B graders and then suddenly gasping for breath mid ride.

Kind regards and more power to Cyclingnews!
Lou

Scott Saifer says:

Lou,

When you've had six weeks off, you are where most riders would be after their post-season/pre-training rest period. You need to rebuild your base and transition back into more intense riding before racing. You have some choices to make though.

You can do a quickie rebuild, or a full off-season sort of rebuild. With a quickie rebuild you could be back racing in as little as two months, but not racing at your best and not with the level of fitness to let you race and recover and have long season. With a two-month rebuild, I'd expect you to have about a good month of racing.

A full off-season rebuild would be more like 3.5-4 months and would let you race at your best and have the sort of fitness that lets you stay strong for several months.

So, you need to think about when you will have races available. It doesn't make sense to train to be at your best after the season ends. If there's not enough season left to get in decent shape before racing and still get in a few races, consider fooling around for a while and training for next year.

Cleat position

For as long as I can remember, I've had the cleats on my shoes pushed as far rearward as they would go. (That's what I've read here and other places). The other day I decided to try pushing them all the way forward (due to the extreme toe-overlap on my 'cross bike). Doing so puts the ball of my foot a bit in front of the axle.

I've only done two rides, but no issues - hot foot, etc. - yet. I had to raise the seat and move it rearward, by about 1cm each, to maintain the most efficient position. Does that sound about right? I seem to have a bit more go on the climbs and the frequent hamstring soreness I often had seems to have lessened, but the most noticeable difference is how much lower and further I can get my bar!

In the cleats-all-rear position, if the bar was anymore than 3cm lower than the seat - and more than 52cm from the tip of the saddle - my speed/power output would drop like a rock; I'm talking 1-2mph slower up a 10 percent grade! I can now get the bar drop to 6cm, and the bar 55cm from the seat before that drop in power occurs. Does this seem normal? Or, is it just my weird anatomy doing this?

I do know my torso and thighs are quite a bit shorter than normal compared to the rest of my parts but am I safe in assuming this means the all-fore cleat position works better for me? Or could there be something else going on here?

Paul Kossa

Steve Hogg says:

Paul,

No, your assumption isn't correct, but it's not necessarily wrong either. I don't know what you've read but it is unlikely that you have read anything here on the Fitness Page that advised you to push the cleats back as far as they will go. You would have read advice from me regarding two types of cleat position.

They are:

1. What I call 'modified forefoot cleat position' in which the centre of the 1st MTP joint (ball of the foot) should be slightly in front of the centre of the pedal axle when the crank arm is horizontal and shoe levelled between where sole joins upper at mid heel and where sole joins upper under the forefoot.

There are 'rule of thumb' recommendations relating to how far back for what shoe sizes somewhere in the archives but no where will you have read "push your cleats all the way back" or any similar phrase. No doubt this is the inference you have taken, but it isn't correct.

2. Midfoot cleat position in which the cleat is positioned so that the pedal axle is under the high point of the arch of the foot with crank arm horizontal and shoe levelled as described in 1.

Your description of where your cleats now are, having moved them all the way forward, sounds like position 1 described above, or very close to it, and you have noted that you have had to lift your seat and move it back and have been concurrently able to lower your bars and effectively are asking why. Here's why-

As cleats are moved further back, ankle movement is lessened and hamstring engagement increases. Both of these mean that seat height needs to drop. From your description of "frequent hamstring soreness" it sounds like your seat height was too high for the cleat position you had. On the pedal down stroke, the hamstrings contract in the belly of the muscle group even though the muscle group is lengthening as a whole. This places a practical limit on seat height and it sounds like yours has been too high for some time.

Now that you have moved your cleats all the way forward, which I assume is a distance of 10-12 mm or so, then you can reach further to the pedals because the cleat is further forward on the shoe and the potential for ankle movement is increased.

The further forward cleat position also brings your calves into play more, because the further forward the cleat, the more work the calves have to do to stabilise foot on pedal. Additionally, the nett effect of the calves contracting isometrically and the hamstrings contracting eccentrically, with both muscle groups crossing the knee joint, means that peak torque increases but so does the potential for fatigue.

However, there will be less load on the hamstrings than previously. Your hamstrings were overloaded before and now that they are not, so you can comfortably bend forward further, which is why you can have your bars lower relative to the seat than was the case before.

Effectively building base

I am a 42 year recreational cyclist, 5'5" and 125 lbs. I truly enjoy riding and take very seriously my riding, considering my full time job and family obligations (Family of 4 daughters ranging from 6 through 16 years of age).

I ride about 6-7 hrs a week. Most rides are about the same length, give or take, 4 rides a week of 70 minutes. I live in a rural area in Pennsylvania where there are technically no flats (you are going up or down). There is no stretch longer than 100 yards with slope of or close to zero.

My challenge is how to establish a good base, since staying at or below 80 percent of my HR is very difficult given the terrain. What is your advice for me to make the most of my rides? In understand that increasing the hours to at least eight per week is the best way to start, what can I do beyond that?

Thanks for your input. I really enjoy reading your postings.
Gustavo

Scott Saifer says:

Gustavo,

In my experience, riders who tackle hills on pretty much every ride never develop the level of fitness of riders who are able to mix up flat and hilly rides, with the optimal seeming to be roughly 1-2 hilly days per week in a 6-7 day per week training schedule, or just one hilly day in five or fewer training days per week.

I understand that getting flat rides can be challenging so I have two suggestions for you: One is that while it is boring, it is still beneficial to do flat riding either as laps or on a trainer. If you can find a big enough parking lot, a flat city block, or a stretch of road long enough to do out and backs with a steady effort, it will be worth it.

If there is really nothing you can ride that is flat, the next best thing is to ride the hills as if they were flat: get low enough gears that you can spin up and high enough gears that you can power down, always staying in your target heart rate zone. Ideally you keep your cadence over 70 rpm all the time and over 90 rpm most of the time, but heart rate is the higher priority on base-building rides.

Let me challenge you: I haven't trained seriously in years but on a MTB I can tow my kid and his trail-a-bike up hills at least up to eight percent grade without exceeding 70 percent of maximum heart rate. I just have to gear down and go slow. If you leave your daughters home and take low enough gears, you should be able to ride your local hills below 80 percent of maximum.

Gustavo then responded:

Thanks for your prompt reply. It is truly appreciated it.

I see the point of avoiding the steep hills, that makes perfect sense. Without the tough hills (which I am guessing are in excess of 10-12 percent grade, some reaching close to 15-18 percent) I might be able to gear down enough to stay within the limits.

The rest of the terrain is mostly rolling hills, so if I concentrate enough to stay in low gears I can technically still maintain a HR of no more than 80 percent. I might reach 83 percent or so, would that be a problem for the base building?

As noted, in some of these hills with a 39x26 I still reach 92-94 percent of the max HR. I take them easy but either I am completely out of shape or this is just the way it is.

This takes me to the next question, what is the best way to determine max HR? I have estimated my max to be about 193. It could be that I am wrong and therefore some of my measures are incorrect.

I will tell you a funny story. I went for my 25-year high school reunion last summer and a group of friends who are now active in triathlon started to trash talk me about my cycling. They said that I was full of this and that. A long story short, they invited me to go for a ride to the "Indian hill" (which turned out to be a monster hill, about 7km long, I felt as if my heart was coming out of my mouth).

At any rate, when we got there I took the climb on a steady pace, and after a while I was riding alone and ended up about four minutes ahead of them. They didn't say anything after that, however, when I got back to the US, I found an email from my friends saying "Next year please let us know ahead of time when you are coming, so that we can train a little more!"

Thanks for your advice, I will place more attention on low gears to improve my base.

Scott Saifer says:

Gustavo,

There's nothing magic about the 80 percent of maximum heart rate limit. As long as you are well below your own personal LT and making a steady effort, you're getting the right sort of training for base building. I use 80 percent as the general limit because LT seems to always be at least 83 percent of maximum heart rate in healthy athletes or are training well but not overtrained. If your LT heart rate is higher than 83 percent of max, you can safely ride a few beats above 80 percent and still build base.

One of the benefits of base is that you can make more power at a lower heart rate, allowing you to go over more and steeper hills without feeling compelled to go harder than you should. Getting started takes a major commitment when you live in very hilly country though. You have to go slow, and tack up hills that you could ride straight up. I have seen many times that people who are 100 percent dedicated to staying in zone improve much faster than those who stay in zone "most of the time".

The only way to measure maximum heart rate is with a maximal effort test. No age based formula, even with fitness, weight, sex or hair colour worked in gets a lot closer than +/- 10 beats, which is not good enough for setting up training zones.

So, to do a maximum heart rate test, you find a stretch where you can ride harder and harder for about five minutes. Ride hard into your test zone, and then go harder. go steadily hard until your heart rate is well above LT. Then go flat out as hard as you can. When you think you can't do it any more, sprint. If you reach a good maximum heart rate, it will start coming down again even while you are still pushing all out, and a few seconds later you won't be able to maintain the effort.

That's a fun story. Thanks for sharing. Just don't get tempted into going running with them.

Right hip flexor problem

I am a passionate cyclist that rides on the road, mountain bike and races cyclocross. After riding on my road bike, I notice a disproportionate tenderness in my right hip flexor. I don’t really notice after riding my mountain or cross bike (I use the same shoes for these).

Is there anything you can gauge from this regarding either bike fit or cleat position?

Thanks,
Mike
Boulder, CO

Steve Hogg says:

Michael,

The info that you have given that is the probable key to understanding your problem is that you are using the same shoes on each bike but riding the 'cross and mtb doesn't give you the same discomfort. The likely reason is that the higher torso position that you are likely to have on your 'cross and mtb prevents you cramping up the right psoas. I'll explain a little more.

All of us function asymmetrically and it is common to have a tighter right psoas than left psoas before ever you go near a bike. Any challenge or combination of challenges to our position from any source causes us to compensate in ways that only serve to increase our tendency to asymmetry.

What I'm saying is that you may or may not have a particularly tight right psoas off the bike. But something is awry with your road bike position and that challenge or challenges, combined with the lower bar position (and it may be the bar height itself that is the problem or part of the problem) tip you over the edge into pain.

What ever is happening is causing you to either sit with right hip down or to drop the right hip when pedaling. This cramps up the psoas when you are at the top of the pedal stroke and this is the cause of your problem OR if you are not sitting with right hip down or are dropping the right hip, then it is a fairly safe bet that you do have a chronically tighter right psoas and that your lower torso position on your road bike is the problem.

Either way, I would be having my psoas tonicity assessed and lifting my bars higher in the meantime.

Optimal cadence

My question regards whether there's a predefined sort-of connection between cadence and weight/height.

I'm 185cm and 68kg, and lately I'm experimenting with higher cadence and it seems to me that I can do better. The daily routine is 2-3 hours at 30+km/h with 15-20km ascent of 7-8 percent. And even when going uphill I start slower but when I get warmed up I can get up to 20 km/h which I couldn't do for more than 5km before.

And even so at a flat part I can manage to go at 40-50km/h, depending on the wind, which obviously demands more power than I generate at a high cadence (obvious for me maybe). Hope you get the essence of my question, thanks for the opportunity,

Andrew

Scott Saifer says:

Andrew,

On a long climb or TT, the vast majority of riders do best with a "higher" cadence, optimal being around 100-108 rpm for rider with 170-175mm cranks, if they are trained to sustain that high cadence efficiently. Many otherwise capable riders don't have the coordination to do such high cadences efficiently.

If they were to TT or climb tomorrow, they'd do better times at a lower cadence. If they are planning to TT or climb a long climb in a few months though, they'd shave time by working on increasing the cadence at which they can pedal efficiently.

The exception to the 100-108 rule is riders on longer cranks. It appears that the key variable is actually the speed of the pedals moving around the circumference of the circle (tangential velocity) rather than cadence (angular velocity). It works out that ideal cadence for steady paced time trialing with 190mm cranks is in the low 90s, so depending on what your idea of "low cadence" is, you might say that ideal cadence is high, even with long cranks.

Weight loss

In response to Scott Saifer's answer to the 'Weight Loss' question, where you mention low intensity workouts burn a higher percentage of fat than high intensity workouts:

Am I correct in assuming that for a specific time period, say 1 hour, you would burn more fat from a high intensity workout than a low intensity one?

Always for a specific time period, would the higher intensity compensate for the lower percentage of fat burned, to end up with a higher amount of total fat burned?

Thanks,
Mauro

Scott Saifer says:

Mauro,

The simple answer to your question is, "No".

We can tell in the laboratory what percentage of the energy supporting a given exercise is coming from fat and what percentage is coming from carbohydrate by measuring a variable called the "respiratory exchange ratio" or "RER", which is defined to be the ratio of carbon dioxide exhaled to oxygen absorbed in each breath.

An RER near 0.7 would indicate that fat was the predominant fuel source. With a modern diet, resting non-fit humans have an RER around 0.85, indicating a roughly balanced mix of fat and carbohydrate are being oxidised. When carbohydrate provides most of the substrate for energy production, RER is near 1.

In other words, if RER is near 1, very little fat is oxidized. As exercise intensity increases, the RER increases. That is true independent of fitness. Also independent of fitness is the fact that near LT, RER will be very close to 1, indicating that essentially no fat is being used.

The RER is does not jump from 0.85 to 1.0 as soon as you start exercising. In fact it increases gradually so that as you begin exercising, slowly ramping up from rest to LT, the total energy expended increases faster than the RER shifts, so that you do use more fat when exercising above a resting level, but as you continue to go harder, the effect of the fuel source shift overwhelm the continued increase in energy expenditure so that less and less fat are utilised at higher and higher intensities.

As you might have guessed by now, there is a 'crossing point' where calorie expenditure is high and fat is still providing a moderate fraction of the energy expenditure and fat utilization is maximized. The power output corresponding to the crossing point increases with aerobic fitness, but it always comes well below LT power.

Full Specifications

The Cyclingnews Form & Fitness panel

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.

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.

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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