Your fitness questions answered
Topics: Training for a 100 km mountain bike event with road training, More on single-leg pedaling, More on persisting foot numbness, Training volume, Athletes and false Anaemia, Types of Training, Cross training contributing to a pre-season base
Got a question for the fitness panel? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. Try and include as much relevant information as you can think of. Remember, the more details you can provide the better the panel can tailor their response to your question.
Emails may be edited for length or clarity, but we try to publish both questions and answers in their entirety.
To find advice that relates to you more easily:
Training for a 100 km mountain bike event with road training
More on single-leg pedaling
A follow up to persisting foot numbness
Athletes and false Anaemia
Types of Training
Cross training contributing to a pre-season base
Training for a 100 km mountain bike event with road training
I know most elite Mountain Bike riders train on the road on their roadie, however what about the average rider, I prefer to ride mtb, but it seems from what I have read and heard, training on the road will have better fitness outcomes. However what about specificity, the upper body strength requirement of mtb and the numerous nuances that riding an mtb requires?
Sure the Roadie can be a tough workout, in comparison; the mtb requires the whole body when riding through terrain (more time off the seat) as well as the on/off power pedal technique required for short steep climbs. I seem to spend a lot of time off the seat absorbing and moving around on the bike to negotiate the terrain. On the roadie there’s not much of this.
So my question is what are the weaknesses and advantages of training on the roadie compared to the mtb for a 100k mtb event? Assuming the rider has good off-road skills, will the specificity requirements for mtb mentioned above be countered by the gain in endurance etc from riding road? So overall, if all things being equal which rider will be better prepared for the event?
Scott Saifer says:
I assume you'll be training five or more days most weeks, which means you'll have time to do both road and off-road training. You can get good benefit doing your road training on a MTB if it's the expense of the second bike you are worried about, but you'll race much better off road if you do the majority of your training on road.
Do enough off road to develop or refine your off-roading skills, and the specific upper body and off-saddle strength you need for negotiating challenging terrain, but then do your big-hour training on the road. The kind of fitness you need for endurance MTB events can only be developed through many-minute steady paced efforts, of the sort that are much more likely to happen on the road than on dirt, especially if the particular dirt is challenging your technical skills and upper body strength.
The better your off-road skills, the larger portion of your training time should be on-road.
More on single-leg pedaling
I was intrigued by Scott’s comment in the Nov 23rd Q&A on one-legged pedaling:
“The research in that area suggests that if you find one-legged pedaling difficult, doing it will help improve your pedal stroke, but that once you are good at one-legged pedaling, continuing to do it will slow the further refinement of your two-legged pedal stroke”
Can you elaborate more on the downside of one-legged pedaling exercises? How does this hinder the refinement of the two-legged pedal stroke?
I have a bike set up with ratcheting cranks that largely gets used for indoor rides on rollers during the winter. From a technique perspective, I have no problem riding with the special cranks – though have to gradually build up my endurance on them as the winter progresses. As PowerCranks are essentially a “simultaneous non-stop one-legged pedaling effort”, would I now be better off riding without the PowerCranks?
Scott Saifer says:
The area of skill acquisition science that is relevant here is called part practice vs whole-skill practice. Part practice means thinking about and executing the different parts of a skill separately. Whole skill practice means just what it sounds like, practicing the whole skill as a unit.
Understanding the research on this topic is easier if you think of the acquisition of a new skill in three stages. In the beginner stage your body doesn't know which muscles to fire in what order and how hard to make a particular movement. Movements are jerky and inefficient. In this phase, part practice is very effective. If you were learning to corner a bike for instance, you'd think: shoulders low, outside foot down, hands on the drops, weight on inside hand, head up, eyes where you want to go, push with the toe to get your weight off the saddle, lean the bike... If you do all these things you end up in a decent position for cornering, but you can't corner fast because it takes too long to think through all the parts and get in position. This phase can be frustrating because you are still occasionally forgetting parts of the movement and having to try again to get it right.
In the middle, skill-refinement stage, your body knows what muscles to use and approximately what forces and coordination to apply, but it's not yet automatic. In the cornering example, you do all the things to get in position pretty quickly, but you are still figuring out just how far to lean the bike for different corners, when to start leaning the bike as you enter the corner and when you can start pedaling again. You're cornering much faster than someone who hasn't worked this stuff out, but not as fast as skilled descenders. You're also still very aware of the process and probably absorbed in learning. You feel what you are doing. It's a thrilling phase of learning because you can feel yourself doing better and better as you make small adjustments. Occasionally you make an adjustment in the wrong direction and have to back up again.
In the final, mastery stage, your cornering is smooth, efficient and automatic. You get into the right position without having to think about it, you initiate turns and pedal out of them without having to think about it. You descend like a pro.
Back to the research: The research says that part practice is most effective in the beginner phase where what you are learning is all the parts of a movement. As soon as you get to the middle, skill-refinement stage, whole practice becomes more effective, and the only time to return to part practice is when you need to re-model a skill. That is, if you've been doing something for a while, but doing it badly, you'd want to break it down and then build it up again from good pieces to break the bad habits. This is why run clinics that make people start over from body position or knee-lifting and such can be effective. The simplified way to think of the research results is to say that it has been found that "you get good at what you practice."
If you practice the parts of a movement, you get to be good at making the parts of a movement. If you practice a whole movement, executed smoothly and powerfully, you get to be good at the smooth, powerful execution of the whole movement. So long as you keep thinking of the movement in parts though, you don't get as good as you could at the whole, smooth movement. People who get too hung up on focusing on the parts, doing what they learned in class may arrest their own development in the skill refinement stage, becoming good but not great descenders.
Now, let's look at one-legged pedaling. Compared to the goal performance of smooth, powerful two legged pedaling, one-legged pedaling is a form of part practice. You are separating the full movement into pieces and learning them separately, with special emphasis on the upstroke. If you don't already know how to execute an upstroke, that could be beneficial. If you do, focusing on one legged pedaling is arresting you in the intermediate phase of skill acquisition.
You might like to argue that one-legged pedaling is not about skill acquisition. Rather it is about strength training or aerobic fitness development in the up-stroke muscles, and you'd be right that there could be a role for it there, especially if you are particularly weak in that movement or if those muscles tend to fatigue before others when you ride normally. If those muscles are as strong and have as much endurance as needed to support your riding though, the negative aspects of part practice can start to outweigh the special fitness-endurance benefits.
What does this feel like in real life? I had a pro client train many, many hours on ratcheting cranks one winter, hoping to be suddenly much stronger when the racing season came around. When he started racing, he found that his pulling-up muscles quickly fatigued, not because they weren't strong or aerobically fit, but because riding the ratcheting cranks had taught him to pull up in a way that was perfect when riding ratcheting cranks, but inefficient when riding regular cranks. Once he learned to pedal the two-legged cranks again, he was fine, but not especially stronger than he should have been.
(I've had a look at the website for one brand of ratcheting cranks and seen the many testimonials there. It looks like lots of people avow that they got stronger by using them, but no one has fairly compared how much stronger a group of athletes got using them compared to another group doing the same amount of training not using them. Also, the percentage improvements claimed prove that the riders were not well trained before they started using ratcheting cranks, so large gains would be expected with any sort of higher-volume training.
If ratcheting cranks or any other gizmo or supplement really made already-fit athletes stronger than they could otherwise get, everyone would have to use it or lose. Remember, the differences in strength, watts/kg, endurance etc between the people who win and those come in mid-pack are only a few percent. If a special product made everyone 10% stronger, anyone with mid-pack talent who used it would beat anyone who didn't. )
A follow up to persisting foot numbness
Thank you for the detailed response. It is interesting that you mention seat height issue. I am addmittedly a bit obsessive about this and bike fit in general. I have read all your work and most others on the subject. Throughout my cycling experience I have experimented with every saddle height formula I could find, but the one I have always started with is the simple "scrape the mud off your heel with the crank in line with the seat tube" method. And then maybe go a few millimeters higher. Of course, shoes and cleat types will vary slightly also. I should mention that I currently wear Specialized Body Geometry road shoes with Look Keos.
What is puzzling about my condition, if it is related to saddle height, is that I have used this same method for the past twenty years. In your experience, is my condition something that could be corrected with an adjustment of a few millimeters, or are we talking a huge adjustment? I am quite certain there is currently no rocking in my hips throughout my pedal stroke.
One other thing worth mentioning: I noted that I am 6'!"; however, I have a 36" inseam and thus a very short torso. This has made getting comfortable on a road bike in particular a challenge, as my high saddle height results in a very steep drop to the bars. I currently ride a 60cm Trek Madone with H2 geometry and a 110mm stem, which gives me a three-inch drop from saddle to bar tops.
I have had a tendency to go a bit higher than the heel test on my TT bike because my short torso has resulted in me closing off my hip angle when trying to get aero by lowering my chest. This has necessitated rotating "up and forward" to open that angle and lower my frontal area. I can certainly feel a loss of power if that angle is closed too much. I made a pretty radical change in my TT position last winter by rotating up and forward and dropping my bars at least another inch. Whatever I did seemed to work, as I took a full 1:20 off my 40k PR and won the state championship for my age group with a record time. Despite that, I feel like there is even more improvement to go if I can correct my strength imbalance.
Anyway, you've given me plenty to experiment with this winter as I prepare for hibernation here in Michigan!
Steve Hogg says:
I don't KNOW that seat height is your problem which is why I listed other potential reasons. If it is, it is likely to be millimetres not centimetres but I don't know that for sure either.
Use the seat height setting method outlined in the link I gave your for both your road and TT bikes and see where you end up in terms of seat height. My experience is that is the only real world valid method for setting seat height.
You have shorter left leg and I don't know whether you compensate for it or not on a bike because you've given no information about that. You also say that you 'drive my right hip deeper into the pedal stroke'. Doing so will increase the distance the left leg has to reach if you are not rebounding perfectly to a centred position on the seat. I know you say that you don't rock but on a daily basis I see that fit client's self perceptions are usually inaccurate. You may be right about not rocking but if you are sitting with your right hip forward a touch (and this is common) your left leg will have to reach further.
Everything you've said strongly suggests overextension of the left leg. No amount of 'blasting' the 'weaker' left leg in the gym will make any difference. It is only weaker because you are asking to much of it. Either the problem is poor innervation of the left leg, which is unlikely but possible. If that's the case, no amount of gym work will have any effect Instead you will need a good chiropractor or manipulative physiotherapist. OR the problem is overextension which is far more likely.
If overextension then either -
The seat is too high
You lack sufficient compensation for the LLD in form of a shim
You are not sitting as squarely as you think you are on the seat which may in turn be caused by a dominant left cerebellum (right side of body) motor pattern or self protective measures arising from lack of foot correction or too high a seat height.
Any combination of these things.
I get the impression that your solution to physical issues is to apply more force. It's not working and I think a more analytical approach is necessary.
I am a cat1 level rider (29 years old, 170 cm 69 kg) I usually follow a well structured training of around 14 hours a week. However this year, I have been blessed with a lot of free time, and I am planning to push the envelope and aim for “pro-cyclist” level of training; add to this some weight loss probably drop to 63 kg. I want to make the best of this year to get the best possible improvement. My aim is to peak in March- April, and later on September – November.
I need some advice about the volume and training intensities that I should follow. I am willing to work hard, and make sacrifices. I just want to make the biggest possible leap in performance during this year.
James Hibbard says:
Congratulations on having some more time this winter to dedicate to training. In order to properly address all aspects of your question I really would have to be working with you as a client, but I will give you some general guidelines and warnings to the best of my ability. Do try to seek out a local coach who can help to guide you towards your goals next season.
First, “pro cyclist” winter training volumes can vary a great deal depending upon the individual rider’s targeted events and physiological parameters. Weeks ranging from twenty-five hours, to just over thirty hours would not be uncommon - with some professionals even nearing forty hours per week on the bike during the largest volume weeks of their base training.
The amount of aerobic work you undertake will be predicated upon your level of body fat gained over your ideal body composition, your physiological limiters, what type of events you are targeting, and how well you are able to recover. To illustrate this, think of how much less training volume a criterium focused rider who does not tend to gain excess fat, has late summer goals, and less than stellar recovery would undertake than a road racer who tends to gain weight, recover well and wants to race well in the spring. So assess yourself on these fronts and decide how much training you need to undertake.
You also mention intensity, and beyond the very general advice to slowly introduce intensity as the season approaches (which I am sure you already know as a category 1 rider) I am afraid that it is hard to prescribe any particular exercises without knowing you better.
What I would be most mindful of is making too great a jump in your training load as a result of having more time at your disposal. It sounds counterintuitive, but having more time to train can actually be problematic inasmuch as it allows for the possibility of overtraining. So just as much as you focus on training well, also make certain to be mindful of your sleep, diet, massage, and other habits that will impact your recovery.
Best of luck next season Khalil,
Athletes and false Anaemia
I am a 54 years old male and stay very active with mountain bike racing, cycling in 125-250 mile brevets, or running marathons. I have been participating in the above type of events for about 20 years. Several years ago, when I started getting annual physicals, my doctor determined that I was anemic. My blood hematocrit was determined to be low, in the 36 – 41% range over past 4 years (normal ranges for males is 42 -52%). He ruled out the common causes for anemia, such as blood loss, and then referred me to a hematologist, a blood specialist. This doctor determined I had “dilutional anemia”, or false anemia. This condition is recognized by an increase in blood plasma volume brought on by endurance training, and is apparently a normal compensatory response by the athlete’s body. This increase in fluid volume dilutes the total number of red blood cells, lowering the hematocrit values, thus giving one the appearance of having anemia. It is apparently not uncommon in endurance athletes. I eat well and take a daily multivitamin.
If dilutional anemia is a normal occurrence among endurance athletes, how come professional cycling teams, when in an attempt to made their lab results transparent to the public, all appear to have normal values? What are they legally doing to improve hematocrit values?
Gainesville, GA, USA
Kelby Bethards says:
Has your hematocrit ever been in the "normal" range? The reason I ask, is that in a 4 year period, with multiple tests, I'd expect it to be normal at least one time. However, it is possible that it won't be.
That being said, the Hematocrit(HCT) and Hemoglobin are measured as a concentration, not as a "count" per say. So, in endurance athletes, like you have mentioned, it is possible that as an adaptation, the body circulates a higher plasma volume, thus diluting the HCT levels.
The diagnosis of false anemia, is one of exclusion, meaning other reasons, as you mentioned (blood loss, etc) need to be excluded. A common anemia that athletes often encounter is iron deficiency anemia. Were your iron tests all normal?
Kelby Bethards, MD
Types of Training
Last week (November 23) there was a question on base level training in preparation for the racing season. I'm 19 and in my second year of college in England, I only have 8 week terms which means I have a 6 week holiday over christmas and new year which means I can train a lot. I'm just wondering about what sort of training I should be doing then. You mentioned stress due to high intensity training in the Q&A but I won't be under any stress during the holidays and I can easily fit 12-15 hours of training in a week, how much of this should be higher intensity and how much should be base training?
And when talking about higher intensity what exactly should this include? You mentioned hard group rides and I do a lot of those in term time with my university club, along with rides of a similar effort solo. I don't really do much easy base-level training (zone 2 rides etc.) or intervals, to what extent should I incorporate these in to my training?
I understand base-level training rides are important and I should do more of them I just wonder how much of my training they should make up, I've so far found that the hard group and solo rides have helped me improve a lot over this term.
Thanks very much,
Scott Saifer says:
High intensity training such as competitive group rides and races bring rapid physiological improvement but also an early plateau. Many riders start out doing mainly higher intensity training, make great gains, and then burn out well below their potential. To reach your potential you have to eventually do some training that mostly challenges your aerobic endurance. That is, zone 2 or base training. One proven approach is to do a rest period after the end of one racing season, and then only base until two months before the next racing season.
In the final two months, a high volume of base training is maintained, while two days per week base training is replaced by intervals or other harder work. The first month of transition to racing, the harder work is sub-LT and done in extended chunks, such as three intervals of 15 minutes on/ 5 minutes off at 92-96% of LT heart rate or power. In the final month before the start of racing, the harder work can be shorter intervals right around LT, such as six intervals of 5 minutes on, 5 minutes off at LT minus 3 beats to LT plus three beats, or staying as close as you can to FTP power.
Above is the general plan, but if the time during which you can do unusually large volumes of training happens to fall within the period when it is appropriate to do sub-LT or LT intervals, you should consider how much training volume you have gotten in to that point. When you increase volume by more than a couple of hours per week, you should decrease intensity. So if your inter-term volume will be a lot higher than your previous experience, take a few weeks of base-only riding to adjust to that before starting, or re-starting intervals.
Cross training contributing to a pre-season base
I had a small question regarding cross training during the base season. I was hoping that I would be able to do some jogging to add some variety this winter. I'm wondering if it would be correct to assume that if I were to throw in a small run during the week, it would still help contribute to my base buildup? Is there any rule for or against doing sort of a cross base training regimen?
James Hibbard says:
You are correct that some aerobic cross training (such as running) during your base training phase will still contribute to your aerobic development. However (particularly as the racing season approaches) the more specific your training the better, as base training is intended to not just develop your cardiovascular system but also your pedaling efficiency.
Having said that, I like to have clients run or undertake some other load-bearing activity (as cycling can cause some bone density problems. See here for more information.
However, I like to have clients suspend cross-training prior to undertaking their largest volume months of base training. So, as the season approaches, I would encourage you to undertake only specific-on bike training.
Best of luck,
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 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. He can be reached at: www.stevehoggbikefitting.com
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.
James Hibbard progressed from the junior to the professional ranks as a rider and has over 15 years of competitive cycling experience. He is a former Collegiate All-American track cyclist, trained as a resident athlete at the United States Olympic Training Center, earned international medals as part of the U.S. National Team, and was a member of the powerhouse Shaklee and HealthNet Professional road cycling teams.
He has earned 13 National Track Championship medals, as well as numerous junior, U-23 and elite California State championships on both the road and track. Since retiring from full-time racing in 2005, James has focused on his development as a coach.
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.
Back to top