Topics: Hamstring use in cycling, Going Pro or staying ‘Joe’, Numb left leg during time trials, Power Zones
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:
Hamstring use in cycling
I hope this question is not too basic for you. For the past two years, I have been trying to reverse the bad habit I developed as a kid: not seriously engaging my hamstring as part of the pedaling cycle (as all the "how too" road cycling books I have read suggest). Despite my efforts over time, both out on the road and on a stationary bike that is the equivalent of a fixed gear bike, I do not naturally use my hamstrings.
Instead, only when I am consciously trying to engage them is it part of my back stroke; the minute my attention is diverted I don't think I am seriously using them. The only exception seems to be when the load is too little for the quads to do much work. My theory is the mismatch between the strength of the quads compared to the hamstrings make the latter's use unnatural when the quads are seriously engaged. I’d appreciate your thoughts about what I should do.
Scott Saifer says:
You are correct that the larger strength of the quadriceps relative to the hamstrings means that most of the time when pedaling, quads will be delivering a lot more power than hamstrings. In fact, the research shows that the most successful time trialists, when riding a steady pace unweight the rear pedal but don't actually pull up against it. The only time hamstrings are activated enough to actually pull up on the pedal by elite cyclists is during short bursts of acceleration or low cadence sustained work.
So, check that you are unweighting your back pedal during routine training, and don't worry if you are not actually pulling up against the pedal. If you find it very difficult to unweight the back pedal, you may have a bike fit issue. There are several possibilities, but as an example if the seat is too low, you won't be able to lift the foot effectively when you are near the top of the pedal stroke.
Steve Hogg adds:
Firstly, I agree with everything Scott has said. It is not natural to you use the hamstrings to pull up forcefully as a general rule while pedaling, no matter what you have read. There are brief exceptions as Scott has noted.
The role of the hamstrings in anything resembling a locomotor activity is to help the gluteals extend the hip NOT to flex the knee. The only time the hamstring acts as a flexor of the knee is when performing hamstring curls in a gym or some similar activity OR when you are not bearing weight or exerting downward force. An example of this is when standing on one leg and using the hamstrings to pull the lower leg backwards. The reason that you are having trouble doing as you are trying to do, except when concentrating on doing so, is because it is not a natural action.
So where you think you have a problem, what you are doing is entirely natural and something you should be doing, whatever you have read to the contrary. Basically your pedaling technique is determined by the parameters of position you set for yourself and your nervous system's response to that position. In short, let your nervous system work out the best way for you to pedal. There is more detail about this subject here.
Going Pro or staying ‘Joe’
I know this isn't specifically a fitness specific question, but I'm not quite sure where else to send it. I am a 22 year old recent college graduate who is obsessed with cycling. Before I get into details, let me lay out my ultimate question: Would it be worth it to focus on cycling for a year or so, and follow my passion, or continue the current career path I'm on and save the racing for later?
I started riding my bike knowing I wanted to race. My final year of college I made up my mind and quit my cross country and track teams and started training on my bike. I trained throughout the winter as my schedule and weather allowed at least 8 hours a week. I first raced in the C category of my collegiate conference, the second easiest of four categories. Quickly I racked up a win on a course that suited me quite well (I'm a 5'10", 140lb rider). After my win, I upgraded to the B category and came 4th in the next race. Finally, the last race of the season came around and I competed again in the B category. I won that race by over a minute and felt very comfortable throughout.
After college finished I accepted a job working for an engineering company and have started somewhat of a career trajectory. My line of work asks for constant movement from site to site, and office to office, which makes cycling regularly almost impossible. I can't see this aspect of the job changing within the next year or so. As I stated before, would it be worth trying to focus on just riding my bike? Can you think of any forums that might allow such an inexperienced rider like me to grow and give going pro a real shot? Or should I just be happy with the job I have in this tumultuous economy and bite the proverbial bullet?
Scott Saifer says:
Oh, man! This is a big topic. I'll toss out some ideas and facts that might help you decide and some challenges.
1. The majority of "professional" bike racers don't make enough to cover all their expenses much less have a profitable career. You have to move into the upper echelons of professional racing to make money at it consistently. Expect at least a couple of years developing your talent before you make money, assuming you ever would. Do you have your finances in order so that you can afford not to make money on your own during that time?
2. Riding 8 hours per week is fine fun, but pros need to train 20 hours per week or more. Many train 30+. Do you love riding that much?
3. Winning Collegiate "B" races is great. If you can do that you'd probably be competitive in the "A"s, but that doesn't mean you could keep up in a pro/elite race.
4. Bike racing is not a pure meritocracy. People get on big teams based on who they know and politics as much as pure racing ability.
5. The chance of you making more as a bike racer than an engineer are bigger than the chances of winning the lottery, but lower than winning a radio-station contest.
If all this doesn't turn you off, tell me and I'll list some more reasons not to pursue a cycling career. If you hear all this and still want to give it a shot, go for it, but I think I hear you saying that you don't want to be working for a company that owns your life and where you won't have a chance to exercise or maintain a healthy lifestyle so I have a middle-path suggestion.
Take some time to try to find a job where you can use your engineering degree but still have time to exercise. Ride your bike about 15 hours per week and enter some non-collegiate races. If you are stomping all over the elite competition in a year and still loving it, consider quitting your job of finding one with very reduced hours and more flexibility so you can pursue your dream.
Do write back and tell us what you decide to do.
Numb left leg during time trials
Firstly, thanks for this fantastic section of the site and invaluable resource of cycling information.
On a number of occasions over the past few years during time trials my left leg has become numb. For example, during a half-ironman 90km TT when I stood up to accelerate out of a corner I nearly fell off the left side of my bike because I couldn't feel my left leg at all. I recall not regaining feeling in my left foot for days! At the shorter end of the scale during the 'Tour of Bright' Stage 2 - 20km TT, the same numbness occurred but to a lesser extent, it disappeared within a few hours (at least in time to ride up Mt Hotham the next morning!).
Is anyone able to shed some light on what is causing this left leg numbness?
A few details:
Height - 186cm
Arm Span - 190.5cm
Inseam - 89.5cm
Trochanteric height - 98cm right side, 99.5cm left side
Seat height - 80.3cm
Seat Set-back - 8.5 to 10cm (changed a few times)
Weekly km's -200km to 300km (when not injured)
Years cycling - 4 years (rowing for approx 7 years before this)
More recently I've been riding with a 1cm shim under my right leg but don't feel a huge improvement. My pelvic symmetry is a work in progress; currently I'm working on building bigger glute muscles (deep squats), which appears to be working in terms of general strength however I still don't feel equal on both sides. I feel more balanced, connected and stronger on my right side.
Injuries over the past few years include lots of niggling knee pain problems (predominantly on the left side but has occurred above right knee too), left ITB friction or quadriceps tendonosis (eventually stopped riding until it disappeared – 3 months) and my numb left leg syndrome.
Steve Hogg says:
I assume when you mention the 10mm shim under the right foot you know you have a shorter right leg?
As in confirmed by x ray, scan or similar?
Re the left leg numbness; every other problem you have mentioned; the left ITB pain, the left quadriceps tendinosis and the right knee niggles above the knee are indicative of someone who is sitting with their right hip forward and down or both.
I say this because left ITB pain on a bike is always caused by a dropping of the right hip. Left quadriceps tendinosis is always caused by overextension of the left leg. If you are dropping or rolling the right hip forward on each pedal stroke, there is a consequential overextension of the left leg. The pain above the right knee combined with the previous two things suggests that it is likely that you are under-extending the right leg. I assume the left leg numbness is part of the whole pelvic asymmetry scenario. If the shimming has not had a positive effect and it seems that it hasn't, then there are unresolved issues that are challenging your position and still causing you to drop or roll forward or both, the right hip. These unresolved issues are differences in function and muscle tightness between left and right sides, or a less than ideal bike position, or a combination of both.
I've got to tell you that with the issues that you likely have, riding races like the Tour of Bright is only strengthening existing dysfunction and further embedding asymmetric motor patterns. None of which is good for you long term. Do it long enough or hard enough and you will get bitten harder than you will like. I would suggest backing off the intensity a bit and making it a very high priority to sort out the issues you have before racing again. Racing is counterproductive to sorting yourself out. Sort yourself out, then go racing. To that end, you will need a quality structural health professional or functional trainer experienced with dealing with athletes with significant asymmetries.
I am a Masters road racer coming out of my third season. I train with a power meter, but also watch my heart rate closely. I use Coggan's power zones, and Friel's Heart rate zone's.
Some coaches who I know and respect refer to a dead zone for heart rate at the upper end of zone 3 (around 90% of threshold), however in all the training books I have read I have not found anything about this.
I'm in the midst of setting up my rough draft for next seasons training plan, while all the lessons I learned this past year are still fresh in my mind, and would really like to sort this one question out.
Can you please shed any light on this topic for me,
Scott Saifer says:
Your overall training plan should include some amount of training at any heart rate you can reach, from easy rolling along with your heart rate barely above resting to all-out maximal efforts with your heart rate as high as you can get it, and all points in between. The amount of time to spend in each region of the range of possible heart rates and when to spend it there are important though. The zone you are referring to is quite tiring but brings very rapid increases in aerobic power for riders who have been doing exclusively base riding below that range. I suggest that people do longer (10-30 minute) intervals at 92-96% of LT heart rate twice a week for about a month between base and threshold efforts, but then make only very careful use of that zone in small doses the rest of the year.
For riders with anything but the most amazing recovery abilities, training in that zone as late as Wednesday will negatively impact weekend racing.
James Hibbard adds:
I want to add a little to Scott's response and touch upon the issue of a "dead zone" at the upper end of zone three.
I certainly agree with Scott that there are no heart rate ranges that should simply be avoided in the course of one's training, but wanted to speak to the logic that has driven the concern over a "dead zone". The concern is that this heart rate range is too high for the sort of aerobic development that one gains from so-called base training, but insufficiently difficult to develop one's higher intensity race systems.
In recent years this view seems to have fallen out of favor somewhat (if one looks at the data from many road races there is actually a fair percentage of time spent in this zone). However, there is still some truth to the fundamental principal that spending too much time training at the upper end of zone three (which some cyclists, particularly those who train in a group can default to) is less than ideal.
I hope that this helps!