Skip to main content

Cyclingnews Fitness Q&A - December 28, 2011

The Schleck brothers have been forced indoors to keep their winter training going

The Schleck brothers have been forced indoors to keep their winter training going (Image credit: Bettini Photo)

Topics: Physiological rationale for lower cadences while climbing, Knee discomfort in cold, Finding that ideal weight, Redlining while climbing

Got a question for the fitness panel? Send it to 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:

Physiological rationale for lower cadences while climbing

Knee discomfort in cold

Finding that ideal weight

Redlining while climbing

Physiological rationale for lower cadences while climbing

Would anyone care to explain the physiological rationale for using lower cadences when climbing? Naively, it would seem that if a rider is optimally efficient at cadences around 90 RPM on the flats, this would be the optimal cadence when climbing. In fact, I find that I feel better continuing to pedal at higher cadences when on a climb.

I strongly suspect that these higher cadences feel more efficient to me because I've never trained to use lower cadence (so I continue to reinforce this preference each time that I ride). So, please explain the benefit of lower cadences while climbing; if I understand a rational justification I may be able to embrace lower cadences and become a better climber.



Scott Saifer says:

Hi David,

Higher cadences are better for climbing so long as the rider has the skill and coordination to do them. Many riders don't have those, so they climb better at lower cadences. Skill and coordination for higher-power spinning require focused practice, which it sounds like you have done.

The exception to the rule that higher cadence is better is of course climbs so steep that you won't have the gears to climb them at higher cadences with sustainable power. If any races you'll enter have hills like that, lower gears are a potential solution, but on hills too steep to spin in gears that it makes sense to have on your bike given all the events you'll do, you'll have to reduce cadence. Train lower cadence if you'll have to race lower cadence. It will never be as efficient as higher cadence in terms of fatigue generated per distance traveled at a given power, but training will at least decrease the rate of fatigue when you are forced to lower cadence.

Knee discomfort in cold

As I’ve gotten older, my knees sometimes ache or I feel a slight twinge in them during the winter when I am outside here in New Hampshire. Once I’ve been on the bike for a bit and warmed up, I don’t feel any discomfort or aches in my knees, nor do I feel anything post ride, it’s just before when I am walking around outside in the cold.

I’m wondering if an embrocation like Mad Alchemy applied to my knees would warm them up prior to a ride and be beneficial. Some general info for you that you might need to know – both bikes have been fit by the same person/ shop, no aches/ pains any other time of year and I’ve never done any serious/ lasting damage to my knees. I run 3x week on a treadmill for 30 minutes and I do specific leg weight training 3 times a week, but do not do leg extensions because I know they can adversely affect the knees.


Scott Saifer says:

Hi Chris,

Embrocations that increase the circulation of blood near the skin do nothing to replace a warm up for muscle function, but they could help with warming up the knees in the sense of getting you past your early-ride aches. Riding for a few minutes on a trainer or stretching before riding might also do the same. I'd suggest experimenting with each of those possibilities, and also being sure to keep your knees very warm and protected from wind when riding on cold days.

Finding that ideal weight


I'm a relative newcomer to cycling, 6 months ago I bought myself a road bike with the aim of getting back into shape. I have no lofty aims of winning competitions, I'm just looking to not embarass myself complete when i take on a couple of 10 mile trials and a 100 miles sportif in April. I've always kept myself fairly fit through football but I've been pretty bad with my food in past, hence when i started cycling again seriously I was 93kg. I've now got myself down to 83kg and I feel stronger and now follow a much heathier diet. I was wondering what your view of my ideal weight should be? I'm 6ft and I'm 27 years old.

Any advice would be greatly appreciated,



Scott Saifer says:

Hi Ian,

You haven't said if your 10-mile trials with be hilly or flat. If they are flat and you are not concerned about finishing time for the sportifs, then your weight doesn't matter too much. Being lighter lets you go faster and dissipate heat more effectively, but if your goals don't involve winning, those are just comfort issues. If you want to ride up hill faster, being lighter helps to a point. For what it's worth, at your height, the vast majority of successful pro road racers are between 150 and 170 pounds (68-77 kg).

At the high end you find the sprinters and time trialists. At the low end the climbers. Below the low end, you give up power even for climbing. Above the high end you can lose weight without giving up TT or road sprint ability. My suggestion would be to keep riding, improve your diet and let your weight go where it goes. You will certainly be lighter and leaner than you are now, but I would not recommend a particular weight unless you are thinking of competing more seriously.

Redlining while climbing

I'm a 48 year old on again off again roadie who moved to Colorado from Florida this past July. I jumped in with a group riding east out of Denver doing about 45 miles to try and get back in shape. I can hang on the flats and little rollers but always get dropped on one particular climb.

I monitor my heart rate and find that when the hammers down I'm in the 160-168 bpm range, but when we hit the climb that I always get dropped on I'm usually at 186-188 before the top. My legs turn to ballpark franks and I've got to back it down to below 150 beats per minute to recover. Any advice to help keep me from redlining it would be appreciated.



Scott Saifer says:

Hi Bob,

You've been in Colorado long enough to have adjusted to the altitude so you're getting dropped on that hill because you are not in good enough shape one way or another to hang. You are simply going "as hard as you can" for right now, so we need to see what you can do to make more power or improve your power-to-weight ratio.

If you can trade pulls on the flats but you get dropped on the hills, I'd be suspicious that you need to lose some weight. If you'll tell me your height and weight, I can make a clearer judgement on that. (Or figure it out yourself: The vast majority of successful racers fall in a narrow band of weights, roughly 10 pounds either side of a line. If you are 5'10", the average pro your height is 150 lbs. If you weigh that much or less, you can potentially climb, if you have the aerobic power. If you weight more than that, long climbs are going to be your competitive downfall. Super-fit riders riding in lower categories might get away with 5-10 extra pounds. For every inch you are taller or shorter than 5'10", add or subtract 5 pounds.) If the guys you ride with are fit, you need to follow these rules to keep up with them.)

If you can sit in on the flats but not trade pulls, then you are lacking in aerobic power and need to develop that before you hope to climb with the big boys. That means several months of aerobic training, lots of long rides but not too much intensity.

As to advice to keep you from red-lining - That's easy: don't go so hard up the big hill. If you are blowing and then crawling over the top, you might even finish the climb quicker by not trying to stay with the group once they start going hard.


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. He can be reached at:

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.

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.

Thank you for reading 5 articles this month*

Join now for unlimited access

Enjoy your first month for just £1 / $1 / €1

*Read 5 free articles per month without a subscription

after your trial you will be billed £4.99 $7.99 €5.99 per month, cancel anytime. Or sign up for one year for just £49 $79 €59

Join now for unlimited access

Try your first month for just £1 / $1 / €1