Cyclingnews Fitness Q&A - September 21, 2011

Fabian Cancellara (Leopard Trek) continues his Worlds build-up.

Fabian Cancellara (Leopard Trek) continues his Worlds build-up. (Image credit: Fotoreporter Sirotti)

Topics: Hamstring use in cycling, Going Pro or staying ‘Joe’, Numb left leg during time trials, Power Zones

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Hamstring use in cycling

Going Pro or staying ‘Joe’

Numb left leg during time trials

Power Zones

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:

Hi Tom,

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:

G'day Tom,

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’

Dear panel,

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:

Hi Rob,

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

Hi Guys,

Steve Hogg says:

G'day Leigh,

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.

Power Zones


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:

Hi Jeff,

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:

Hi Jeff,

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!

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.

James Hibbard progressed from the junior to the professional ranks as a rider and has over 15 years of competitive cycling experience. He is a former Collegiate All-American track cyclist, trained as a resident athlete at the United States Olympic Training Center, earned international medals as part of the U.S. National Team, and was a member of the powerhouse Shaklee and HealthNet Professional road cycling teams.

He has earned 13 National Track Championship medals, as well as numerous junior, U-23 and elite California State championships on both the road and track. Since retiring from full-time racing in 2005, James has focused on his development as a coach.

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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