Cyclingnews Fitness Q&A - January 5, 2012

It was a dusty start to marathon nationals in Bend, Oregon.

It was a dusty start to marathon nationals in Bend, Oregon. (Image credit: Scott Nelson)

Topics: Power to weight ratios, Returning confidence levels after a bad crash, Efficient cadence, Balancing aerodynamics and power, Recovering from a shattered femur

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Power to weight ratios

Returning confidence levels after a bad crash

Efficient cadence

Balancing aerodynamics and power

Recovering from a shattered femur

Power to weight ratios

Hey Cyclingnews!

I am a 17-year-old road cyclist and I compete at the highest level for my age nationally. I see a lot of stuff surrounding road cycling in power relative to weight. I’m an all right time trial rider but my real strength is hills, while I don’t have the power of many of the more mature top riders my exceedingly low weight means that on longer climbs (4min+) and steeper ones I can keep up and beat many of the much better all round riders on those hills. This brings me to my point of writing into you guys.

The reason I have such a low body weight is down to three things, my physical maturity, (which I accept will come to pass), my height (173cm) and my extreme lack of upper body muscle volume. I want to know form you guys if it is worth while doing any upper body specific exercises to increase my strength in my Pecs, biceps, deltoids etc... I already do abdominal workouts because I recognize the importance of strength there.

My last note is that sometimes at an exceedingly high pace when the hammer is down my arms fatigue and go kind of weightless as in a complete loss of strength, far before any other muscle sets do which generally results in a loss of power at the pedals. So I want you guys to answer this question: increasing upper body strength will obviously increase my ability to apply power through a more rigid frame but will the gains in strength be applied enough to outweigh the extra gains in weight.



Scott Saifer says:

Hi Daniel,

I have really good news for you. Muscle strength depends on two factors which can develop separately: How much muscle mass you have (size and number of muscle fibers) and how efficiently your brain can recruit the existing muscle mass. Gym workouts done without aerobic endurance work in the same program (not the same session, but sessions of each within the same week) will cause increases in the protein component in individual muscle fibers, increasing muscle mass. The research says that if you do gym work while doing high-volume endurance training in the same program, you will gain muscle strength without gaining muscle mass.

So, the easy answer to your question is that if your arm strength is limiting your cycling ability, you should definitely do some strength work for your arms. Using weights is a convenient way to do that.

(Your case is special since you are young and still developing. You will probably add muscle mass as you age independent of lifting.)

Returning confidence levels after a bad crash

I recently crashed from my bike and stayed on the ground for twenty minutes. Lying unconscious five minutes on the cold ground.

I survived the crash with cuts and bruises and my recovery is going well but my psychologically side is no doubt how to continue with my riding. Reason of my crash is a dog that ran in front of me in second. The accident was unavoidable. How can I channel my fear and my breaking doubts? I stayed locked and paralysed second before crash and that's all I remember! I have only second and half to react and my reaction is both brakes squeezed down to the bottom. My speed was about 40 km/h moment before impact.

What’s the best way to approach returning to the bike – I want to come back, but I’m obviously quite shaken up!

Sincerely yours,

Sinisa Saric

Carrie Cheadle says:

Hi Saric,

I'm so sorry to hear about your crash. After a bad crash it can be challenging to get your confidence back and get yourself riding again. After a crash you can feel a little more vulnerable and fragile when you get back on the bike. That fear of reinjury is a strong one – it's your brain's way of trying to keep you safe.

Unfortunately, when you do get back on your back, the physiological response of the anxiety you feel usually includes holding your breath and tensing your muscles which affects your balance and coordination on the bike. This begins a negative feedback loop because as soon as you feel unstable on the bike it causes anxiety and feeling anxious causes you to feel unstable on the bike.

To start regaining your confidence you want to create a way to set yourself up for accomplishing small successes. Start off small and slow. When you are ready to get on your bike, go for a short fun ride. Start with situations that don't make you feel nervous and start building confidence from there. Working on your bike handling skills including Scott's suggestions on learning how to fall is a great way to build that confidence as well. Practicing those rolls helps your brain get the message that you aren't as vulnerable as you think and you aren't going to get hurt every time you fall which can help to start breaking that anxiety loop.

You also need to work on relaxing on the bike. An easy tool to make sure you are releasing tension while you are riding is to relax your face, relax your hands, and breathe. Do this drill every few minutes to help relax the physiological tension that tends to build up when you get back onto a bike after a crash.

There is truth in the saying "time heals all wounds" - this goes for both physical and mental. Be patient with yourself, be patient with the process, and work on your physical skills as well as your psychological comeback.

Good luck!


Pamela Hinton says:

Hi Saric,

It sounds like you might have experienced a concussion as a result of your accident. A concussion is a type of traumatic brain injury that is caused by a bump, blow, or jolt to the head that changes the way your brain normally works. Loss of consciousness is one symptom of a concussion, but there are many others, including headache, nausea or vomiting, balance problems, dizziness, double or blurry vision, sensitivity to light or noise, feeling slow or foggy, problems with concentration or memory, and confusion. You don’t have to be “knocked out” to have had a concussion. In fact, most concussions occur without loss of consciousness. You should pay attention to how you are feeling and avoid exercise that aggravates any of these symptoms.

I mention the possibility of a concussion because the symptoms might be contributing to your fear and lack of confidence. If your balance is off or you feel “slow” processing information, getting back on the bike will be even more challenging. Most people fully recover from sports-related concussions, but for some people, signs and symptoms of concussion can last for days, weeks, or longer.


Scott Saifer says:

Hi Saric,

I'm sorry about your crash. As you know, bad crashes happen from time to time, even to the very best riders. I'll let Carrie answer about how to deal the psychological aftermath of a crash.

It sounds like you went over the bars and landed on your head. There are a few skills that you might want to develop along with your psychological recovery, if you don't already have them:

1. When you grab the brakes hard, push yourself backwards off the seat, lower your shoulders and straighten your arms at the same time. The more weight you put over the back wheel and the lower you get your center of mass, the less likely you are to go over the bars, even if you hit something pretty solid.

2. Go to a grassy field or a gymnastics hall and practice dive rolls and somersaults, first from standing, then from walking and eventually from a run. You won't always have time to control a fall, but if you have developed the reflexes, you at least have more of a chance.

3. If you end up scared enough that you will take some time away from the bike, replace some of the bike time with a martial art that includes falling, such as Judo or Aikido.

Efficient cadence

Over the years, I have read two different clinical studies concluding that the most efficient cadence over a whole range of powers is 80 rpm from an oxygen utilization standpoint. Yet the conventional wisdom is train to spin at 90 rpm or better. Please can you explain, or suggest optimum training plan from a cadence perspective?



Scott Saifer says:

Hi Tom,

Indeed, the research generally agrees that 80 rpm or so is optimal from an oxygen utilization standpoint, for stronger riders putting out higher power. For less trained riders or lower power, the optimum is even lower and yet no one (other than Ironman triathletes) races at or below 80 rpm unless they are out of gears. What gives?

There is no shortage of oxygen or heart beats in the world, so getting maximum power for a given rate of oxygen consumption is not a particularly important goal. The thing that stops racers is not running out of oxygen, but various forms of fatigue. In the case of Ironman triathletes, fuel is the limiting factor. They run out of usable carbohydrate sooner than they face any other sort of fatigue. It turns out that at intensities well below LT, the cadences that reduce oxygen use also spare carbohydrate, enhancing endurance. That doesn't explain why mased-start bike racers ride around 100 rpm though.

Pedal slower than the typical 90-110 of a pro and the well known power=force x velocity equation dominates. Lower foot velocity means higher force to get the same power, and higher force means more rapid fatigue. Pedal much faster than 110 rpm, even if you have a well developed spin, and another effect becomes dominant: Think for a moment about pedaling really fast in a very low gear or with the chain off and you'll realize that a lot of energy and muscle tension go into keeping the feet moving in a circle, even when there is little or no pressure on the pedals. Very high cadences mean more wasted energy, more muscle tension and more rapid fatigue.

Biomechanical modeling studies show that peak muscle tensions during riding at typical power outputs of racers are minimized around 100-110 rpm, coinciding with the cadences actually used by the most successful longer-distance, massed start racers. On very long cranks, the tension minimizing cadence is proportionally slower, and on very short ones, proportionally faster. It appears that racers choose their cadences to minimize muscle tension and thus delay fatigue.

From a training perspective, you want to include lots of time at typical racing cadence, including spinning 90-110 rpm, but also down to 50 rpm if you'll be doing hilly races. Even if you won't be doing hilly races, lower cadence riding is good for recruiting and training fast-twitch muscle fiber, which is very important for sustained and short term high-power efforts, such as time-trialing, riding a break away, chasing and sprinting.

Balancing aerodynamics and power


Steve Hogg says:

G'day Anders,

If your heart rate rises when riding in the drops, then there is a problem with the position of your bars, or your flexibility or what is more likely, a problem with both. Ideally, when using an indoor trainer at a given load, your heart rate shouldn't change when moving from the brake hoods to the drops. That it does means that you are reducing your breathing ability or having to enlist more muscles to support your position on the drops.

There are two parts to your issue. The first is how effective your bike position is and the second is how functional are you.

Re your bike position, have a look at this link. There is a large amount of information there.

As to your function, if you don't experience regular back or neck pain, get hold of a copy of "Flexibility For Cyclists" by Fred McDaniel. It is currently hard to get so if you cannot track down a copy, try "Stretching and Flexibility" by Kit Laughlin.

If you do experience regular neck or back pain, read "Overcome Neck and Back Pain" by Kit Laughlin.

You will know when you are making progress when you can move from brake hoods to drop bars without your heart rate increasing.

Recovering from a shattered femur

Hi Fellas and Ladies,

I read some of your site and thought you might have some insight here.I shattered a femur as a paratrooper in the Army. After the docs used me as a guinea pig one leg is 2" shorter than the other. This is all in the femur so the mechanics are very different right to left.

The docs also failed to repair the ACL on that side. I've compensated with flexibility and strength gains in my hammies and glutes to the point where I can do a forced march with a 90lb pack but I still have a lot of play.

So, the question becomes should I go clipless and settle with being asymmetric or use clips with my built-up shoe? Should I shim or change the crank size on one side? Any input would be helpful. I'm back in the pool and trying to go for a triathalon.



Steve Hogg says:

G'day David,

Considering how few paratroopers there are in the world, I see a lot as clients! I get the impression that jumping out of planes with the combination of a heavy pack and a small 'chute isn't that good for the human body. And it is usually knee reconstructions ,other knee problems or back injuries that brings them to us.

Given that you are going to need a substantial shim stack on the side of the shorter leg, (and possibly other measures) here is what I would advise. Find a bike fitter with an adjustable bike with adjustable length cranks. Duplicate your existing bike position and crank length on the adjustable bike. Use clipless pedals and shoes. You will not sit squarely on the seat because of the 2" LLD. Keep shortening the crank on the shorter legged side until you are sitting squarely on the seat and both legs are able to pedal smoothly. What difference results in the crank length is the size of shim stack that you are going to need under your shoe.

The shim stack will be large and that then presents a problem with an increase in rocking torque. For a detailed explanation please look at this link:

If you do decide to go to clipless pedals, use Speedplay. The reason I suggest this is that with the size of shim stack you need, rocking torque will become a problem on the shimmed side. The only way to negate or minimise rocking torque is to move the shimmed cleat further back relative to foot in shoe. Speedplay (with optional part no. 13330) offer more rearward adjustment potential than any other system. Also to that end, the current Specialized S works shoes have a more rearward cleat mounting hole position than any other shoe.

Once you have worked out an ideal shim stack with further rearward position of cleat to minimise rocking torque, my advice would be to have a boot maker heat and remove the sole of your shoe and fit a full length dense EVA foam build up of the desired height. Done properly, it will look like a factory job at a glance. A large shim stack will have multiple layers which can come loose where as a built up shoe is faultlessly reliable.

Re your question about differing crank lengths. Only consider this when it is the least worst of only bad options. You already have significant difference in femur (primary lever) length. That means that you will either develop less torque on that side or have to contract muscles harder to produce the same torque. Shortening crank length will reduce torque even more because torque is muscular force exerted on the pedal multiplied by crank length. Ideally, you want to function on the bike in as functionally symmetrical way as possible. The only reason to use a shorter crank is because all else has failed and a shorter crank in conjunction with a shimmed or built up shoe is the only viable option left to you to allow you to ride a bike.

Re your sloppy knee. I have one too but in my case it is an unrepaired rupture of the PCL and MCL that is 38 years old. I've got about 10 - 12 mm of fore and aft slop between tibia and femur but have built up VMO's and hamstrings to the point where I can perform deep single legged squats, have run marathons on it and so on. I would get it repaired but everyone who looks at it tells me that the chances of an operation making any long term improvement are not high. In contrast, my understanding of ACL repairs is that they are fairly routine with a very, very high success rate. Have you considered surgery?

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 five-time Missouri State Road Champion, racing for Dogfish Racing Team.

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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