Cyclingnews Fitness Q&A - September 8, 2010

Your fitness questions answered

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

Off season preparation

Hi, I'm a pro cyclist from a ProTour team. I often read the Q&A as there is some good information.

What do you think about after season break - how long should it be, should I exercise in any way, and what's the best way to start your pre-season training? Is it running, swimming, mountain biking, gym, walking in the mountains... etc? Let's say from November to January, before the season starts.

It would be really interesting to know your opinion,

Scott Saifer says:


I just checked your palmares on Wikipedia. Congratulations on your solid performances year after year. I'm surprised to see you writing to this forum since you obviously already are training well which made me think you were getting good coaching.

In general, a rider who has raced a full pro season will do well to take about five weeks off training, maybe a couple of weeks more or less. That doesn't mean that the rider can't be active, but that he should not be focused on training.

Some riders will hang up the bike entirely. Others will ride for fun. During the rest period, you should not be working with the goal of improving fitness. Take time to recover both physically and emotionally from the past season. Do enjoy some hiking, mountain biking, swimming, cross country skiing, skating... anything that is active and fun for you. If you like video games, or reading novels, do that. The important things are to rediscover your life outside of cycling, and not to get fat.

I noted that the rest break might be longer or shorter so here's how you decide: Take at least three weeks really easy. Then you are looking for two things: physical and emotional recovery. So each day, you ask yourself how you feel. How are your legs? Are you hungry for training? Are you better than the week before?

When you are no longer getting better in terms of leg feel or enthusiasm for training, make the break last one more week. Then you are ready to train again. Before you start training, you should have about a week where your legs feel completely recovered and you are desperate to get on your bike. Store up that enthusiasm. Remember what it feels like. You'll need it down the road when you are doing back to back 6 hour days in the saddle.

Many riders in their enthusiasm to do better next year than they did this year want to get down to training as soon as racing ends. That's an error. Riders who don't take any break often end up burning out mentally before the next season, and even if they don't burn out, they don't end up stronger than they would have had they taken a break.

Bike fit not right

For the most part I ride pain free, however, when I go hard I notice a few things:

1. My right side (esp. my ITB band & quad) feels like it is tighter/feels like it is working harder
2. I notice I put slightly more weight on my left arm (felt in the tricep)
3. I sit slightly to the right of the saddle (so I shift around a lot)
4. My left foot is more toe out and than my right
5. My left knee comes close to the top tube than the right

Another thing that I also notice is that I get a burning sensation just below the front of my right knee. This comes on after a couple of hours of hard riding, or during intervals where I push very hard, the odd this is I only really notice the pain when I ease up.

I stretch every day ensuring I stretch the following:

- Piriformis
- Hip Flexors
- Hamstrings
- Quads
- Calves

I have had my cleats set-up for a proper bike fitter, but I couldn't afford the whole fit. I was wondering if you could shed any light on this.

Kind regards,
Aaron J Bird

Steve Hogg says:


Points 1. and 3. combined mean that you are sitting twisted forward on the right hand side. The question is why?

More commonly a rider who sits with their right hip forward or down will irritate the left side ITB because the plane of movement of that hip will be constantly challenged by the right side movement. As your right ITB is feeling the pinch, I can only assume that it is a very tight right psoas that is the underlying cause.

The psoas runs between the front of all the lumbar vertebrae and T12, crosses the hip and attaches to the lesser trochanter high on the inside of the femur. If it is too tight, and unfortunately, this is common, it can cause what you describe.

Points 2, 4 and 5 are all consequences of what I've described. Your left tricep feels stressed because as you sit with right hip forward, the left arm has to reach further to the handlebars and I'll just about bet that if you check yourself when you're riding with hands placed on the brake hoods, that the left elbow is locked or more extended than the right elbow.

Your left knee comes closer to the top tube because sitting off centre to the right pulls the left knee closer to the centre line. Your left foot points out at the toes more because everything you are describing can force you to externally rotate your left hip and the foot has to follow suit.

You need to know more. Here are some questions for you to follow up on.

1. Is your right leg shorter than your left leg?
2. When you stretch your hip flexors, are you noticeably tighter on the right side than on the left side?
3. Do you have any negative reaction to milk products, wheat products or other food types?

If so, that may be playing a part in what you are describing.

Sleep affecting performance


I just want your expert advice on recovery after a very late night. If you have only three hours of sleep the previous day, how long you need to recover after that until you're recovered enough to go on your next ride.


Scott Saifer says:


Thanks for the great question. It is not as simple as you might like. There are two questions to consider as we work towards and answer:

1) How do you make up for missed sleep and how long does it take?
2) When are you underslept enough that you are better off not training?

The answer to 1) is relatively simple and mechanical. Each person has a nightly sleep need, a number of hours that they typically need to sleep in order to maintain more or less the same level of energy from day to day. If they routinely sleep less than that, they become gradually more tired and fall asleep more easily over several days. If they routinely sleep more than their nightly need, they become gradually more energetic, and also take longer to fall asleep over several days.

If you routinely get plenty of sleep, you will take 10-20 minutes to fall asleep, and you can probably short yourself 10 hours of sleep or more before you start to really suffer from sleep deprivation, so you could actually race to your normal standard even after a night of very little sleep.

On the other hand, if you are routinely short on sleep, you fall asleep as soon as you get in bed or within a very few minutes. In extreme cases you might fall asleep at work or while watching TV. If you are short on sleep, missing a few hours more can push you over the edge from normally functional to dangerous to yourself or unable to perform competitively. Thus the common suggestion to catch up on sleep the week before an event to allow for short sleep the final night.

So, the answer to the first question is that you make up for lost sleep as quickly as you can add a number of sleep hours similar to the number missed above your nightly sleep need. (If you need eight hours every night and you can get nine, you make up for the missed hours at a rate of one per day for example).

The second question is shorter but perhaps harder to answer in an individual case - when should you not ride?

Certainly if you are so tired that you might drift off the road or trail or otherwise be a danger to yourself or your ride companions, you should not ride. If your main interest is fitness and whether you'll get training value from the ride, then rather than look at numbers of hours of sleep done or missed, you should look at signs of fatigue and recovery.

If you are feeling worn down, achy or slow, or your heart rate doesn't rise normally, you'd be better off doing a short, easy ride and taking a nap. If you feel good and your heart rate and power are normal, training will be beneficial, even if you were short on sleep the night before or several nights before.

Correct bike position

Hello Steve,

Was wondering if you would offer me some sort of advice in regards to my bike positioning, I have every intention of booking a sitting with you but hoping your help may aid me until that time.

Some background information on me. I am 28 and have recently taken up cycling to help in my battle of depression and anxiety, after being spear tackled playing rugby league and later knocked unconscious at work (underground coal mine).

I find cycling allows me to push myself and clear my head and aid my fitness, diet etc. Since cycling I am off all medication and feel 100 percent better in myself and in regards to my wife and two kids (one and four years of age) they believe I am a changed husband/father.

I suffered varying injuries from the football accident and work accident from a narrowing of the spinal canal going down my right arm to four bulging discs in my neck with c5 and c6 bulging severly. I have also had a right knee reconstruction from a mine collapse a few years ago and suffer bad knee joints as a family ailment.

I purchased a Trek 2.1 in 58cm, I am 183cm tall with a 80cm inseam. I am also 89kg (looking at dropping some weight now not needed for football).

I was fitted to the bike instore, however never felt right. I have completed over 1000km on the bike in the short three months I have had it and completed a 107km ride recently. I generally ride 50-80km three times a week or whenever possible.

However, I find that my left knee (which is about the only good part of my body) develops a dull ache after 20km or so. I live in Lithgow, NSW, so most rides are either steep climbs or rolling hills. The knee pain feels as though it starts on the outside of the knee and can evolve to the top part and inside of the knee. I've read about ITB syndrome etc and have tried all methods to rectify the problem to no avail.

I have been to my local physio who aided me after the reconstruction and she says I have no problems in the left knee and thinks it may be a bike fit problem.

I also find on the climbs that my right quad burns out quite early leaving me tired and with a heavy feeling in the quad, but my left quad feels as though it could go all day.

I love cycling and am already browsing websites pages etc for new bikes, gear, etc. I only wished I had taken cycling up as a sport at a younger age.

Steve, any help or guidance is greatly appreciated and look forward to the very near future of you helping me so I can continue on my new found passion.

Corey Osborne

Steve Hogg says:


Left knee issues on a bike are far more common than right knee issues. The reason for that is there seems to be an inherent bias towards developing a right sided stablisation pattern on a bike.

What I'm saying is this - any challenge to the stability of your position from any source will cause you to develop a pattern of compensation to minimise the impact or fallout from the challenge. A challenge can be anything; seat height too high, bars too low, cleat angle, difference that is incorrect and so on ad infinitum.

In practice there are usually multiple challenges and compensatory responses present. All compensatory responses work in whole or in part by increasing the inherent human tendency to asymmetry and on a bike, 90 - 95 percent of the time, this will mean that the body self protects the right side but plays a price for that elsewhere; usually on the left side.

From the description you have given of right side quad burn but left side knee pain, it is likely that you are compensating for some challenge or combinations of challenges by either over emphasising the right leg or by dropping the right hip. If you are dropping the right hip, that causes a lateral load to the left knee.

What I would suggest is that you drop your seat in increments in one or two increments of 5mm and see if the left knee feels more secure and pain free. If it does, is this at the cost of the right leg feeling like it is cramped and under extending?

Let me know what happens.

Gym work and cycling


I recently performed a session at the gym doing both squats and inclined single leg presses. Afterwards I suffered from DOMS, however I rode my bike to work and back without the DOMS affecting my cycling at all.

From this can I conclude that the gym work used parts of my quads that are not used when cycling? And if this is the case, why bother doing these exercises if they do not improve cycling performance?


Scott Saifer says:


You pose an excellent question. I've used the same argument myself in the past, though I would not today since I've had more opportunities to think about it.

Since you've done a bit of somewhat scientific testing and jumped to an unjustified conclusion, let me a do a bit of the same before answering your question. I just poked through my data base of current clients and found that roughly 60 percent of my clients include lifting, including squats and leg press in their programs, while 40 percent do not.

For each of my clients, I collect their highly significant accomplishments, including such things as podium placings. I have another list for smaller accomplishments such as improving training speed or finishing races. Essentially all my clients post at least the lesser type of accomplishment but among the riders who lift, 46 percent have recorded highly significant accomplishments, while only 20 percent of those who don't lift have recorded those highly significant accomplishments. That proves that lifting is very effective in improving cycling, no?

Actually, it is suggestive but proves nothing. Here's the problem: Many of the ones who don't lift don't lift because they are more pressed for time. The ones who do not lift, in some cases, are more rushed in their daily lives, negatively impacting recovery. Some of the ones who don't lift are just plain less serious about riding.

The point here is that you sometimes need a deeper understanding before you can draw a valid conclusion from a "scientfic" test. You need to look at the assumptions that go into your conclusion and check whether they are justified.

So, let's look at your experiment and see what might be going on. You did hard weight lifting and got sore afterwards. You notice the soreness when you move your legs in particular ways and conclude that you feel the soreness when the muscle fibres that were damaged by lifting are activated, and not when they are not.

That's a reasonable conclusion and as far as I know it's correct, though I don't know that it's ever been tested so there's a possible weak spot in the argument, but let's say we stipulate that. That means that when you rode to and from work and did not experience pain in the worked muscles, you must have been using different fibers. That involves another assumption that may not be justified.

You've probably noticed that when you are sore in cycling muscles, they often "loosen up" during a ride, and get less sore. That is a central nervous system effect: The brain ignores repeated signals that go on for too long, like learning to ignore background noise or other irrelevant stimuli. It is possible that when the brain sends out a signal for the leg muscles to start pedaling, it turns down the awareness of pain signals from the same muscle. I'm not saying this is the case, but that you are assuming that it is not, and we don't know for sure.

I don't know if you measured power on your ride, but if you didn't, would you admit that it's possible that power could have been down a few watts even though you didn't feel the soreness in your legs? Did you do repeated sprints on your ride to work? If so, was your power the same as usual? Did you feel the muscles?

Since lifting calls primarily on fast twitch muscle and fast twitch muscle is minimally recruited during steady state riding, you wouldn't expect steady state riding to make you feel your sore muscles, but you might feel them when sprinting.

Did you try any multi-minute maximal efforts to failure? Such efforts also call on fast twitch muscle, and have been shown to be positively affected by strength training, at least in certain sports. In particular, strength training has been shown to increase the time that an athlete can maintain a VO2-max level effort.

What if the brain selectively uses fibres that are not sore in pedaling even though it might have recruited the same fibres when they aren't sore. This is another wild hypothesis and probably wrong according to motor programming theory, but you'd need to check before drawing the conclusion that you've drawn.

I hope I've convinced you that you've over-generalised from not feeling the leg soreness while pedaling on a particular ride to strength training not helping cycling at all. Here then is a theory that justifies lifting, even if lifting didn't impact your current ride.

The power of a short sprint or several-minute bit of hard riding depends on what proportion of the muscle fibres in the relevant muscles can be recruited during the effort. Muscle fibres that are rarely recruited have relatively high recruitment thresholds. The brain has to send a very strong signal to trigger those fibres. That ends up feeling like you have to work hard to recruit them. You have to try hard to go that fast or push that hard.

Muscle fibres that are recruited regularly undergo physiological changes at the motor end-plate (where the nerve attaches to the muscle fibre) that literally makes it possible for a weaker signal from the brain to trigger that fibre. That makes it feel easier to recruit that fibre. If there are fibres that never get used during your regular cycling training, but that could help generate a sprinting or extended VO2-max effort if you could recruit them, lifting is a possible way to reduce their recruitment thresholds enough that you can learn how to use them in hard cycling.

Riding in very large gears with tremendous resistance could do the same thing, but in a much less controlled way since it's much more challenging to set the resistance when riding a bike than when loading a weight bar. So far as I know, the assumptions in this theory are all justified and the result is consistent with actual practice among racing cyclists.

Full Specifications

The Cyclingnews Form & Fitness panel

Scott Saifer ( is head coach, CEO of Wenzel 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.

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 ( 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 ( 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 ( 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 ( 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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