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Cyclingnews Fitness Q&A - August 11, 2010

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.


I have been racing for the past seven or so years, since I was 14. I don't always have the time to train much more than about 10 hours maximum. And this is usually only over a period of a few months over summer. I race road and XC, and would consider myself a climber, certainly not a sprinter.

My limitation has always been cramping; drinking sports drinks with magnesium in them helps, as do magnesium supplements. However, I still have issues in the big races that are particularly taxing on my body, such as the final lap of a XC race, or a KOM sprint about two hours into a road stage.

I am guessing Im not limited by my cardiovascular system, but by my leg muscles not being trained enough? Could you suggest any specific intervals or training structures that might address my problem? Do you have any other ideas on why this continues to occur?


Scott Saifer says:


There are many causes of cramps. You may be on the right track with the idea that you are undertrained for the races you are entering. It could also be bike fit, general nutrition or a variety of other things.

I've seen a lot of cases of repeated cramps cleared up by taking calcium. Since that's such a quick and simple fix to implement and test, why don't you do that first.

Get yourself a calcium based antacid. Take one each morning and then one each hour when you ride. If you still cramp after doing that for a week, write back and we'll try to figure out what else might be going on.

Aerodyamic position

In the Tour we often see riders sliding forward on their seats and continually pushing themselves back again. Surely they are losing time doing this?

What is the cause and is it the set-up incorrect or is it just the wind tunnel set-up they use?


Steve Hogg says:


You mention wind tunnels so I assume you mean TT bikes. There is no prize for the most aerodynamic position, only the rider who rides fastest over a given course. Aerodynamics plays a part in this but do does the physical ability to apply force to the pedals, ability to breathe to highest capacity and ability to have best control of the pedaling action.

In addition are technical skills like cornering, descending and being able to ride at the limit without exceeding it. All positions are a compromise between often contending requirements. What we all need is the best compromise or set of compromises for what we need to do on a bike and for the duration that we need to do it.

If a rider places too much emphasis on one aspect of a position, they often lose more in other areas than they gain from their particular focus on another area. If, as you describe, a rider cannot maintain their position during race type efforts, then there is something wrong with the position.

"What is the cause?"

I think there are multiple causes and combinations of causes. A seat that is too high will cause the rider to slide forward and so move closer to the pedals. A seat that is too far forward destabilises the rider in the sense that they have to use increased upper body effort to maintain a solid platform from which to push the pedals than if they were sitting further rearward. This causes the rider to shorten up and push their spines further into flexion than might occur on their road bike.

If the set up of their bike doesn't allow for this, then they will slide forward on the seat.

Equally, if the aero bars are too low or too far forward to be reached with ease, the rider has to move forward to meet them. Sometimes too, sponsorship requirements may mean the necessity of using equipment that may not suit a particular rider.

The bottom line is that huff and puff of exertion aside, a position on a bike, whether road or TT, should be easy to maintain. The more effort directed towards maintaining a position, the less effort available to push the bike down the road. If the position isn't easy to maintain, then there is more work to be done on that position..

Stomach problems when riding

Dear fitness panel,

I'm a 45-year-old cyclosportif rider living in France. I've been riding/racing for six years and train about 10 hours a week from January to July, mostly on longs climbs/in the hills. I do about 10 sportifs a year, from March to July all in the 130km - 170km range and most often with 2,000m - 3,000m of climbing. I weigh 76kg for 180cm and eat a normal balanced diet.

I rode my sixth Etape du Tour this year, and suffered exactly the same problem as last year. After five - six hours of riding, I felt sick and couldn't face eating any of the bars and food I had in my pockets (2xMule Bars, 1xGerble Pain d'Epice and a ProtoFast protein bar). All I could take on board was plain water - thinking I'd be sick if I ate anything.

After about 40 minutes of very slow riding - heart rate in the 75 percent - 80 percent range, rather than the usual 86 percent when climbing - a fellow rider told me to just stuff in food - which I did. To my surprise, I didn't vomit - and actually picked up speed and morale to finish. This year it was on the Tourmalet, last year the Ventoux.

What's going on there? Any ideas why my stomach is feeling bad? What can I do/change to stop it happening? Why do I feel I might vomit if I eat - but actually when I do eat, it's not that bad? Last year on the Ventoux I didn't eat - and got up the mountain real slow. This year, the guy's advice helped - but I want to avoid the feeling altogether.

Before each sportif I always eat pasta the night before. In the mornings, I usually have one big bowl of cereal (half cornflakes/half Jordans Country Crisp with chocolate pieces) with low lactose milk at least 90 minutes before the race, with water.

Sometimes I'll also have a quarter of one of these Gateau Sport (sports cakes, from Overstims). I always carry two 500ml water bottles - both with energy carb drinks (Hi5 or Isostar Endurance) - and whenever I refill the water, I always add a sachet of the same powder. I rarely stop at feed stations and can't eat bananas! Last time I took energy gels I almost vomited - but that was ages ago, so maybe I could try to get back into them?

Can you help? Can you suggest a hydration/eating plan before and during a seven-hour race such as a mountainous Etape du Tour?


Pam Hinton says:


If it's any comfort, you are not alone in suffering from nausea and lack of appetite. Gastrointestinal distress afflicts 25-50 percent of elite endurance athletes, and it is more common among runners, women, and younger individuals.

The most common symptoms are heartburn, bloating, belching, nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps and diarrhea. As you have experienced, severe symptoms can adversely affect performance by interfering with the ability to consume adequate energy and fluids. In addition, dehydration and electrolyte imbalances can result from vomiting/diarrhea.

The cause of these symptoms is multi-factorial and varies among individuals and with the intensity/duration of the event. Upon the onset of exercise, the nervous system is activated and stress hormones are released (sympathoadrenal activation). This response is advantageous, as it diverts blood to the skeletal muscle, heart, and lungs and mobilises fat and carbohydrate stores for use.

However, when blood flow is redistributed during exercise, the gut, liver, and kidneys experience a dramatic reduction in blood flow. For example, at rest, the gastrointestinal tract accounts for 25-30 percent of blood volume, during moderate and strenuous activity, blood flow to the gut is reduced to 1-3 percent of the total. A consequence of the reduced blood flow is decreased delivery of oxygen and nutrients to the intestines, which results in ischemic injury, increased permeability of the gut to bacteria, and inflammation.

In addition, gastric motility is reduced. This means that the rate at which the stomach empties into the gut is dramatically slowed. All of these processes can cause the symptoms mentioned above. There is also some evidence that exercise can cause an acute increase in the release of satiety hormones from the intestine, which will reduce appetite.

Another possible cause of your symptoms is loss of sodium during the course of the 5-6 hour cyclosportives. The recommended sodium intake during exercise is 500-700 mg per hour, as this is the range of maximal sodium absorption from the intestine. However, it is possible that you may be losing sodium at a faster rate than this, depending on your sweat rate and the concentration of sodium in your sweat.

Your eating strategy during the events seems reasonable. You want to ingest carbohydrates (glucose, maltodextrin, or sucrose are better than fructose) at a rate of 30-60 grams per hour. The energy drinks are fine as long as you mix them in the appropriate volume of water. Drinks that are too concentrated in carbohydrates or electrolytes will slow gastric emptying even further.

Obviously, you want to select foods that are low in fat and fibre and that are easy to digest. In addition, consuming small amount more frequently would be preferable to consuming a larger volume all at once. You might try carrying a salty snack food with you (e.g., crackers, pretzels) and see if that helps. Remember, you'll want to test out these modifications in a long-training ride, rather than during a race.

Scott Saifer says:


In addition to what Pam has said, I'd like to add that since you are digestion challenged during exercise because of reduced blood flow, you might try shifting your fuel mix away from protein and towards carbohydrate.

I'm not familiar with all the bars you mentioned but at least one was a protein bar and I've had several clients clear up gut problems by reducing protein intake during long rides.

Pedalling changes


I am a 49-year-old cat 2 rider who has been racing mostly masters races but I have also been racing a few pro 1-2 events. Since most of the riders I am racing against are half my age I am looking for ways to improve my efficiency so I can ride these races a few years more.

One way I have been working toward this goal is trying to make my pedaling more fluid and circular. I have been very much a big gear rider in the past and have found that if I concentrate on bringing my pedal across the top I can improve my wattage output at the same heart rate. Does working on this sound like a good idea and do you have any other suggestions?

Brian Polhemus

Scott Saifer says:


Don't focus on your age as a reason to need "tricks". The young guys need tricks to keep up with each other, too. Especially now that you've splashed your secret all over the internet.

While increasing wattage at the same heart rate sounds good, and using more of the pedal stroke sounds good, there is a catch. There is definitely extra power available to those who work on their pedal stroke, but some things you can do with your pedal stroke you can train to be able to do in a sustainable way on a long ride, and some will only be good for short bursts, no matter how much you train them.

Starting the push down sooner and continuing it closer to the end of the down stroke are in the former category. Those can be done all day once they are developed. Actually pulling up against the pedal with every stroke is in the latter category. No matter how much you train, you can't add power that way for more than a few minutes.

So, to answer your question, yes, working on starting the down stroke with forward push and ending it with a bit of pull back is a good goal. If you find it particularly challenging though, it's time to look at bike fit since a good pedal stroke usually comes pretty naturally once the bike fit is good. You also mentioned being a big gear rider. If that means you are routinely racing under 90 rpm, learning to spin will make you a much more competitive racer.

Training around shift work


I work night shift (9PM-6AM, Mon-Fri). Do you recommend training after work? At around 7AM-8AM, or should I get some sleep first and train after I wake up at around (3PM-4PM)?


Scott Saifer says:


There are several considerations when deciding what time of day to train. None of them lead to a strong conclusion that you should really train before or after your night shift work though. Here are some things to think about as you make your decision:

1. What will make it most likely that you will actually do the training? Several studies have shown that people who exercise before work are more likely to stick to a training plan than those who plan to exercise after work. After work people may be tired, or maybe other tasks are attracting attention or demanding time. Still, many people manage to train after work, so this is really an individual thing.

2. People who sleep at night have a circadian rhythm that makes them most awake a few hours after they wake up, has a low period in the afternoon and a second bump of energy in the evening. Training will be most effective if it's done during a period of peak wakefulness rather than when you are feeling tired.

That rhythm is driven in part by exposure to light and in part by timing compared to sleep timing. There's probably similar research on people who work night shift, but I'm not familiar with it. You should consider if you tend to be more tired or more awake at one or the other of your possible training times.

3. Training is most effective if it is closely followed by relaxation. That argues for training after work, so long as you are energetic enough to do high quality training.

4. Training is least effective if you are tired before you start. That argues for training before work unless your work is not particularly tiring.

As you can see, there are arguments for training before or after work, and there is not one that is much stronger than the others for everyone. You have to consider when you are most likely to be able to do high-quality training with greatest consistency.

Training for French cols

Hi guys,

I am a 33-year-old who has reignited his passion for cycling in the last few years. I don't race but enjoy training for and completing sportives, and enjoy a few hours at the weekend as well as commuting fairly often.

I probably cycle about 7-10 hours a week and I will do one spin class as well as a 6km or 10km run now and again. I am 6'2" tall and weigh 75kg and live near the undulating countryside of Surrey.

This summer I will be cycling up the Col du Tourmalet and wanted some specific training tips to be able me to cycle up non stop. Last year I cycled up Mont Ventoux but had to stop a few times on the way up, especially where the road averaged over eight percent for several kilometres.

What do you think would be good training sessions to help me improve my power and fitness, to help condition my legs for the Pyrenees. I will obviously be cycling to work as many days as possible to improve my base.

Thanks for your help in advance, it is much appreciated.

Kind regards,

Scott Saifer says:


As I often do, I'm going to answer the question implicit in your note rather than the one you directly asked. If you are routinely training 7-10 hours per week and doing occasional longer rides, the secret to climbing the Tourmalet non-stop (or doing any other several hour but not all day ride) is not any specific sort of training but is pacing on the ride itself.

Yes, you should practice hills and do a ride per week where you push a big gear at low cadence, but no matter how well you train, or don't, you can climb the Tourmalet non-stop simply by riding at a pace and in a gear that allows you to do so.

Let me illustrate. Here in California we have an event known as the Death Ride. It's 129 miles (a bit over 200km) and has 16,000 feet of climbing (almost 5,000 metres). It climbs over five passes that top out around 9000 feet (2700 metres).

Roughly half the people who start finish all five passes. Many of the ones who don't manage it are racers and very serious riders who train a lot, but who don't know how to pace or eat for such a long day in the saddle. Some of them ride repeats on 1000-metre climbs in training.

Several years ago the woman who is now my wife rode the Death Ride. She never trained more than four days per week with three of those being about an hour, skipped many weekend rides entirely, never trained over 80 miles (130km) in one ride, and never rode big mountains in training. She finished all five passes by keeping her heart rate strictly under a limit we had figured out would let her keep going, and by making generous use of low gears. The next day, she was full of energy again.

So, if your goal is really to ride the Tourmalet non-stop, the main thing is to practice riding a controlled pace including when you ride up hills. The best way to do that would be to use a heart rate monitor or power meter to measure and control your effort and experiment to find a heart rate or wattage you can sustain for the length of time you expect to climb. Keeping the heart rate below 80 percent of max is a good first guess if you don't have any other information about your own ability to go on.

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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