Cyclingnews Fitness Q&A - November 4, 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.

Coming back to cycling

Hi guys,

I really enjoy your input to everyone's questions. I'm a 33 years old, I just finished building a house, and I'm a school teacher. Before that I worked in the UK for a year traveling around watching bike races.

Thing is, in a previous life I was nothing but a roadie. I started at age 12 and very slowly developed. I got my ass kicked in the Cincinnati nationals when Steve Hegg escorted youngling Danny Pate to his first victory for the Chevy/LA Sheriffs in 110 degrees. At least I think it was Steve... but how did he get up that big hill in the front?

Anyway, at 25 I had a burst of form and quickly upgraded to a cat. 1. I won six national collegiate championship medals, finished around tenth (if I remember!) at elite nationals in Nashville, had several top 10's at NRC stage races, and was always in the money in tough cat 1/2 road races. Not too many wins but a few.

I trained extensively with a Powertap back then under the guidance of Allen Lim when he was at CU. My VO2 was 78.7 at altitude. I learned my wattage zones inside and out to the point where even now I can tell where I am at based on perceived exertion.

I had five enjoyable years as a cat 1. I was an animal. I tried making it with a bike bum pro team, but the closest I got was a staigaire for Go-Mart. Michael Barry even hooked me up with his old team in France, but my wife (now ex) didn't want to move so I turned it down. Regret much? Oh yes!

So my last serious year was 2003. Based on my tests, I had way more potential than I ever showed. Holy crap I'm venting... you're not my therapists.

So here is my point... I MISS IT! I was so saddened by "not making it" that I walked away at age 27. I've barely ridden since. I miss the hilarious road trips and the cohesion and fun of being teammates with friends. I want to race again, but for good reasons, not to "be a pro."

A friend of mine had an even longer absence and he just came back and won three tough crits this year. He tells me to go for it... that it'll just take a few consistent months but then I'll suddenly be Massachusetts state champion in the road race. I'm highly skeptical.

It took me 12 years to build up to where I got. I am ok with putting in a couple full time seasons to get fast again, but I want to know that I can in fact be fast again. I'm only seven pounds over my old race weight, so that won't be an issue, but I huff and puff if I walk up a flight of stairs now!

Is it really possible that if I, say, spend the winter doing consistent bike-specific aerobic work and weights, spend the spring and early summer jacking up my threshold, then tweak my anaerobic systems, that I could actually compete at a high level in the pro-1-2's again by the time the late-summer road races come around?

Might it take a season or two of 50+ race days to get back? That would be ok because I could contend for a national championship in the 35+ if the course were tough enough... I'm a wee lad who climbs well and sprints ok compared to other wee lads.

Has my brain forgotten my old ultra-smooth pedal stroke and thus I need to get those neuro-connections back with drills? Will I crash everyone out because I'm rusty in a group? Do I have too many demons to work through first with a therapist about "unfulfilled potential" and not moving to France to race?

I'm a teacher so I'll have the time to train like a pro (almost), but can I race like a pro again? If so, how can I get there? I'm not interested in downgrading to a cat 3 to "enjoy myself." Thanks so much for your input!

Patrick Sullivan

Carrie Cheadle says:

Hi Patrick,

Here are some of the mental challenges I see with athletes that are coming back either from break by choice or by force (illness or injury):

Regaining confidence on the bike. Not everyone goes through this, but some folks just have to get used to riding in the pack again. For the most part, your confidence comes back pretty quick with this. If it doesn't, make sure group rides and some skills clinics are a part of your comeback plan.

Gauging your success based on where you are right now: I see some cyclists get frustrated because they gauge their success based on their past fitness and experiences vs. where they are at right now. This can mess with your head and your confidence.

Be realistic with your goals. When you start out, you won't be racing at the level you were at when you were 27, yet. It's important to recognise how your races relate to the bigger picture so your ego doesn't just get wrapped up in the immediate results.

You gauge your success based on the goals you set so make sure those goals are in line with where you are at. And don't compare yourself to other cyclists and their comebacks. Focus on you, where you are at, and what you need to do to accomplish your goals.

Scott Saifer says:

Hi Patrick,

Whatever potential you had when you were 27, you have now. You won't have your ultra-smooth pedal stroke immediately but it will come back. You will need to get your bike fitted to your 33-year-old body. The perfect position for you is bound to have changed in six years. It would have changed even if you had been riding straight through. Bikes have gotten several pounds lighter and other ways better since you last raced, so plan to get a new one before you get to the serious racing.

It generally takes about 18 months to two years of serious training to go from recreationally fit to national level fit. Add a few months if you've been really sedentary, a year if you've been abusing your body with fatty foods, another for smoking.

It took you a dozen years to build up last time but the first 10 or so of those, your body was developing and maturing so you could not have been national class sooner, even if you trained perfectly from day one. When you were 12 or 14 or 16, you couldn't win big races because your body was not mature enough, not because you needed more years of training.

You still have your tactical smarts and your bike handling, though they may need some dusting off. Here's the challenging part though: since it takes more than a year to get back to top-level fitness, you're going to have a season of doubt. You'll have one racing season where you know you should be able to do better, but you can't yet. If you can make it through that year mentally, you'll be back to full speed in the second year.

Running for training

After reading you recent response that running shortly before or during the cycling season should be avoided, I wonder why my experience has been so different. Although I've often heard the same advice from roadies, I generally do a five-mile run once a week during the road season, and shorter, more intense weekly session during the cyclo-cross season.

During the off season I run 2-3 times per week. I started running consistently three years ago, at which point I went from a mediocre Cat 3 racer who was just hanging on, to a competitive Cat 3 road/B cyclcross racer who is generally in the mix in the front of races.

Could I improve more if I stopped running? What's the physiological reasons for not running? It makes me feel stronger and more balanced, especially when I do mid-week harder intervals in the middle of the racing season.

Thanks,
Brendan

Scott Saifer says:

Hi Brendan,

Thanks for the inquiry - I had to give this some serious thought. I'll give you the pat answers first, but then we should discuss your particular situation.

Pat answers:

1) Running trains inappropriate movement patterns, making your cycling less efficient. With each pedal stroke your brain literally learns to more strongly activate the muscle fibres that are needed for cycling, and to relax the fibres that need to be relaxed to allow the pedals to go round.

The beginner unnecessarily fires a lot of muscles that retard rather than assist pedaling. Even elite riders are still improving this. Run training causes activation patterns to be strengthened that are really bad for cycling.

2) As everyone will tell you, running is much higher impact than cycling, causing a lot more muscle damage and requiring a lot more recovery per hour of training completed. It makes many riders feel like their legs are 'heavy and slow'.

3) Running takes away time that could be spent on riding.

The answers above explain why most people would do better to avoid running during bike racing season, and why triathletes are not often as fast on their bikes as people who do the same hours per week exclusively on a bike. Notice the use of the words 'most people' though. I'm not going to argue that running is bad for absolutely every rider. Just most of them.

Riders are not all the same. They are not all the average rider and racing is not even close to all about physiology. Let us imagine for a moment that there is a rider who is incredibly fit and strong, but desperately short of confidence. So short in fact, that he lets himself be dropped and loses races he is physically strong enough to win.

Then one day he gets a lucky rabbit's foot, or a better brand of genuine patented, professional grade warming rub. He's stupid enough to believe the stuff works and it makes him confident. Crunch time comes and he says to himself, "with my rabbit's foot in my pocket, I can do this", and he hangs on and wins. Placebos really work.

I'm not saying running is a placebo for you, but just pointing out that a behaviour or training routine doesn't necessarily have to increase something measurable like VO2-max or power at LT to have a big impact on your performance.

Pain tolerance, or toughness or the ability to keep going when you hurt is essential to racing success. As I've mentioned in other posts, running can help you develop that toughness, though it's not the best choice for reasons also discussed. If the rest of your training is good enough and toughness is an issue for you though, maybe you don't need the best choice and running is good enough for you so you can be competitive while including running.

Here's my best hypothesis about your situation though: Running may have provided something you needed to have your breakthrough or it may simply have been coincidental that you started running and had your breakthrough at about the same time. I'd suggest you continue to use running as cross training outside of road racing season, but try going a month in racing season with no running, alternated with months that include running and see what happens.

As I wrote at the outset, leaving out the running will make most riders faster. Remember that muscle damage takes about three weeks to clear up entirely, so we'd be looking for the performance changes not in the first week without running but in the second, third and fourth.

And to make the test fair you have to try going without running early in your racing season, while your legs are still fresh since most riders will have 6-10 weeks of good racing once they start to peak if they are in a category that is challenging for them.

Do include run training and especially technical run training in your CX prep phase. Good luck. Let us know what happens if you try the experiment.

Brendan then responded:

Scott,

Thanks for the detailed response. I think I'll give it a try, and now seems to be a good time since I'm just starting the CX season. I just had two weekends of racing but haven't done that great because I was using them as training. I'll lay off running for the next month and see how my November races go.

A little more background on my situation, in case you're interested. About three years ago I gave up my parking space and started exclusively biking to work. It's 18 miles each way, and once or twice a week I'll add on miles in the morning on the way in, either to do intervals or just to add miles.

I live right outside NYC, and although there's a train station near my house I started running five miles to a different station when there was snow or ice in the road and not safe to cycle. What I found was that infrequent running killed my legs for a solid week after. Therefore I decided to commit to a weekly run simply to keep my legs in 'running shape' so that if I was forced to run to work I wouldn't be sore for a week. Eventually my legs got used to it and now I go through the same peaks and troughs as with cycling.

The improvement could have simply been the change in my overall training routine. My commute doesn't afford me a traditional training schedule, but it's been working for me. For the past three years I've been doing four days a week of two 18-mile rides (adding intervals/miles as required), plus one day of a five-mile run.

I don't ride or run at all on the weekends, except for racing, and I rarely take any time off except for holidays and vacations. There may be better ways to train, but it's allowed me to stay committed to both racing and my family. I'm married with three small kids, so I can focus on them on the weekends instead of wishing I was out on my bike.

I'm sure it's helped with the mental toughness too. I ride/run through awful roads and neighbourhoods, in all kinds of weather and conditions. And although I know should allow my body to recover more, only during race weeks when I'm really focused on resting to do I take the train into work. I've also noticed that when I do rest the recovery benefits come quickly and with excellent results. I guess I do a fair amount of 'active recovery' as well, as today my legs feel like lead from heavy training and two days of racing, but I rode in slowly just spinning my legs out.

Again, thanks for the advice. I'll lay off running for the next month and see how my ‘cross season goes. I'll let you know.

Scott Saifer says:

I should be really clear here: I was suggesting not running during road-racing season. In order to avoid soreness type injuries from running in 'cross races, you need to be running probably twice per week. In a week that includes a race, that means running one other time. In a week with no race, that would mean two runs a few days apart.

You haven't said how you were training before you started commuting. Did your performance breakthrough perhaps line up with the time when you started your bike commute? That 36-miler per day round trip commute sounds like awesome training volume, better than a lot of riders get on weekdays. Skipping both weekend days is not ideal of course, but getting 150 miles or more per week anyway sets you up pretty well.

How often should I get a bike fit?

Hi,

I'm 40 years old and have been riding approximately seven years. Over these years my riding has improved - however, my body seems to be getting worse which leads me to my question.

I was wondering how often you should get a cycle fit done. I had one done several years ago and was given specifics for my bike and sizes, etc; however, I was wondering because our bodies change over time (as we get older) should I have a refit done again and how often should you have a refit?

Also, I heard that if you change shoes it may be also necessary to have a cycle fit done again because this can change your position on the bike. Is this correct?

Cheers,
Greg Turnbull

Steve Hogg says:

Greg,

You are the best judge. In a functional sense, people are not static and change over time. Usually the change is slow and more often than not for the worse, because of the effects of aging coupled with a sedentary living and working environment where exercise is compressed into particular periods with a lot of sitting at work, home or in transport. However, changes can occur quickly if there is sudden trauma from an accident of if the rider is conscientiously improving how they function.

My general advice is that if you are happy with your fit but over time become less happy with how you relate to the bike, then it is time to revisit your fit. The need for this can arise because you have functionally improved to the point where your fit is no longer ideal. It can also happen because a rider becomes less functional over time, both on and off the bike.

As to new shoes; if that is the only change, then I doubt that you need to start the fitting process from scratch, but you should have the implications of any change in equipment checked out if you don't feel confident in your ability to assess the changes and correct for them if necessary.

Scott Saifer says:

Greg,

I have a slightly different take than Steve on this question. In my coaching business I generally do a fitting for new clients as part of the start up process. Because of that, I do fits on lots of people who think their fits are okay and who are, as far as they know, as comfortable as they can be on their bikes, but still in the majority of cases we find ways to improve their position.

They leave with more power, or with some nagging pain cleared up. Comments like, "I didn't know my hands (or neck, or back or...) didn't have to get sore on a long ride" are pretty common. It's not uncommon for comfortable, smooth cadence to increase by 10 rpm. That leads me to conclude that a lot of riders don't know that they would be happier with an improved fit so waiting to notice that you aren't happy with your current fit might be the best choice.

I recommend that all riders have a very thorough fitting at least once in their lives so they know what a good position can feel like, and then revisit and possibly update the fit roughly at the beginning and end of each racing season, plus any time they change shoes, get injured enough to change how they ride, gain or lose a lot of weight or change anything about the bike that affects fit (eg. pedals, saddle, bars, crank length, stem).

Each fitting should include lots of education about what different fit problems feel like so the rider can recognise and correct problems in the future. The rider should be empowered to make his or her own corrections, but there is really no substitute for a periodic expert recheck.

Strength training

I hope you can help. I have been cycling now for nearly two years and what a difference it has made to my life and body. I've lost 16kg and I am now the fittest I have been since doing my national service (mind you that's a long time ago - I'm 36).

Last winter (in the UK) I did very little training due to work commitments but this year I have got much more time for training and are indeed intending to use this as much as possible. I can spare time for three rides during the week; one as recovery, one as either hill or interval training and then a longer club ride in the weekend, between 50-70 miles.

Since I have started riding I have constantly improved, but I am still a bit off the level I would like to be at. I don't compete (only against myself) and my main priority next year is to do well in hilly sportive rides (over 100 miles).

I feel that my cardio level if very good but my main problem, I think, is my stamina and leg strength. Although some of this may be physiological I would really like to improve and strengthen the muscles that will help me gain the necessary strength, both to climb better and to hold a higher average speed (at the moment 17-19 mph).

After a bit of search I have found what I think are some good exercises and intend to do the following 2-3 times per week:

Legs (three sets of 20): Squats, calf raises, step ups (using a bench)|
Glutes (three sets of 20): Side raises, hip raises, leg kick backs

I addition to this I am also going to do some exercises to strengthen my stomach muscles and maybe a weekly Pilates class.

My question is: Would I really benefit from these exercises and are they the right ones? How do I best combine this into my cycling training? Do I do them on the same day as being on the bike or do I do them on my days off; if so will the muscles get enough rest/recovery?

Hope you can help as I have already learnt so much from your Q&A on this site.

Many thanks
Kim

Scott Saifer says:

Kim,

The question of what strength training does and doesn't do for cyclists comes up fairly often here on the forum so I gather it is a question of interest to many of our readers.

Here's the short version. Training with weights only boosts aerobic capacity in people who have very little aerobic capacity. When sedentary people start to move, they get stronger in every way. Riding a bike increases the force their muscles can generate a few times, and lifting weights increases the speed they can sustain on a bike for extended periods. Once one has been riding for a few years, as you have, that sort of cross-over benefit between aerobic and strength training disappears.

This does not mean that weight lifting is useless for cycling though as it has at least two benefits even for more highly-trained riders. One is a bit mysterious and hard to measure: an increase in toughness or pain tolerance. It is normal for relative beginner cyclists going very, very hard to feel like, "I don't know if I can do this any more" and to quit their effort, allowing themselves to be dropped when they physically could have continued with a group, or deciding to put a foot down on a hill when in fact they were physically strong enough to continue the climb.

The pain can be intense, and the desire to stop it overwhelming. Many riders will tell you that if you can convince yourself to focus on just the next few yards or the next few pedal strokes, or the distance to the next tree or something like that, it is possible to "fool yourself" into keeping going.

When you lift in the gym, if you push the upper limit of your ability (after plenty of conditioning with lighter weights so you won't hurt yourself) you can get to the "I don't know if I can do this anymore" state again and again. And guess what, if your plan is well-structured and your weights are appropriately chosen, you actually will be able to finish the sets that you didn't think were possible.

The confidence you pick up in the gym, that sense that you actually can do the things you're not initially sure you can do, transfers nicely to the bike. My clients sometimes tell me things like, "I didn't know what hard was until I did those squat sets" or "nothing in the race was hard like the lifting was hard."

Some good research has also looked at the influence of strength training on short-term, high-intensity endurance. A typical model has athletes produce a power that is well above LT, that they can sustain for perhaps three minutes. Then they do or don't strength train for several months before repeating the test at the same power.

Strength training increases the time that the athletes can sustain the same high power, at least doubling it in one study. This is not especially relevant for century riders unless they are confronting hills so steep that they are unable to ride them at a power below LT, or they are trying to keep up with other stronger riders.

If you need more toughness (the ability to keep going when it's hard or when it hurts) or if you need to sustain your maximal effort longer, strength training can help. If your legs are plain weak enough that you can't turn the pedals on steep hills, strength training can help. If you do strength train, the exercises you have discovered are okay. If you have access to a gym, I'd suggest adding hamstring curls.

Doing the strength work on your non-riding days should be fine. Pay attention to how you are recovering and if you find that your legs are getting tired and staying that way, do take a day completely off each week or more often if needed.

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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