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Cyclingnews Fitness Q&A - September 24, 2010

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A semi-rigid cap protects the rider's toes on the new SH-M315 shoe while new vents pull in more cooling air.

A semi-rigid cap protects the rider's toes on the new SH-M315 shoe while new vents pull in more cooling air. (Image credit: James Huang)
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A SRAM/SRM power meter is mounted up with Red chainrings on this Team Radioshack bike.

A SRAM/SRM power meter is mounted up with Red chainrings on this Team Radioshack bike. (Image credit: James Huang)
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Nate Koch, Endurance Rehab, does some cranking on Fred Rodriguez to loosen things up.

Nate Koch, Endurance Rehab, does some cranking on Fred Rodriguez to loosen things up. (Image credit: Jonathan Devich/

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.

Shoe selection


I was hoping that you may be able to assist with a question I have regarding shoes and the angles of the toe box. I have been riding 35 years, back when wool was still used, real chamois, no adverts on the jersey, a leather helmet and leather shoes.

Leather shoes, laces, riding without the cleats for the first couple weeks, if they were new, so as to mark the bottom of the shoe so you could nail the cleat in were everyone's weapon of choice. Then Puma, Adidas and others came out with the plastic sole (Puma even had integrated cleats that fit in the sole - very cool).

When I look back at some older photos it would appear that the angle of the toe box seems to be a little more acute (toes a little more up) than current offerings and it made me wonder: has the angle of the toe box changed over the last few years? Is there a reason for it?

Does the angle change from manufacturer or is this a standard angle? More importantly, if there is a difference has one been illustrated for reducing the tension on the feet?

Thank you for your time, I look forward to your responses.

Michel van Musschenbroek
Georgia, USA

Steve Hogg says:


Whether there is more toe lift in modern shoes than in the past I don't know. My memory of 20 - 30+ years ago says there was variance then and variance now. There used to be more heel lift in cycling shoes generally than there is now and often that was combined with toe lift in the last to varying degrees by different manufacturers.

My guess is that the shoe designers of the time were erroneously trying to force a foot in cycling shoe to mimic running foot mechanics on toe off in a running stride. I think the idea was to try and turn the foot into a rigid lever.

Regarding foot leverage in the cycle shoe; the supposed need to engage the windlass action (plantarflexing the ankle while dorsiflexing the toes) is often given as the reason for toe lift and heel lift in a cycling shoe. The windlass action is reliant on how tight the plantar fascia is in each individual. and is not always significant.

In a lot of people the windlass will not kick in until the big toe is at +40 degrees plantarflexion and in some very flat feet there is no windlass effect at all. There is often a great variance in plantar fascia cord tightness and the hypermobility of the midfoot. Toe lift in the last profile of cycle shoes has a minimal effect, if any, on the windlass action in my view and so negligible effect on foot leverage.

The fit of the shoe and internal support (arch support and cant of foot) is extremely important so that the shoe is an extension to the foot. In many cycling shoes the cleat mounting hardware is set too far forward. Moving the cleat further back mimics the same effect as the old metatarsal rockers that were placed on the sole of shoes some years ago.

This brought the axis behind the metatarsal heads offloading the weight and reducing load on often painful ist and second MTP joints by spreading the load more evenly The same effect occurs when placing the cleat so that the pedal axle is behind the metatarsal heads; i.e, reducing pressure and the chance of local ischaemia that results in a burning feeling.

I hope this answers your question.

Power question

Two weeks ago I completed a 20-minute test for my lactate threshold. I held 276 watts for the duration and calculated my FTP to be around 262 watts. The following week I did a 100+ mile cat 1/2 rode race and found that my Normalised Power was 269 watts.

I have read that NP should be approximately close to functional threshold power during a one hour race such as a criterium. My question is how was I able achieve a NP this close to my FTP. Is this normal?

Thank you very much,


Scott Saifer says:


The FTP is sometimes used as a proxy for lactate threshold power. It is defined to be the power one can maintain for an hour, but that power depends on myriad factors, such as hydration, nutrition, ambient temperature, motivation, sleep, fatigue, distractions among others, and not just on physiological fitness.

It's unlikely you'd have a normalized power during a four-hour race that is higher than your physiological lactate threshold power, but if your FTP was measured under less than ideal conditions, you could well have a normalised power higher than your poorly measured FTP. That's why many coaches, myself included, would recommend testing FTP from race and training results rather than specifically in an FTP test. The best FTP you ever extract from any ride is your real FTP.

Improving speed


In the past I've written and asked questions about fit and position and you have helped me out a lot. Now I would like to get your expert advice about how to go about improving just plain old speed on a bicycle.

I average between 6000 to 7200 miles per year and have been for 18 years and I follow a training plan with the year broken down into periods. I do different kinds of structured intervals at different times of the year working on the different energy systems (LT intervals and anaerobic intervals) which enable me to ride at threshold and or go over threshold and recovery.

The problem is that my speed is just not that fast for the effort (only about 23 mph at threshold). Lately I have been wondering if I should just throw out my structured interval program and try this: on a long flat stretch of road, ramp it up to say 30 mph and hold as long as possible, as soon as I can no longer hold 30, the effort is over. Recover and do it again. Repeat till done.

Notice I gave no time or heart rate, what it is it is, even if I can only hold 30 mph for 30 seconds? I'm thinking that in doing this, after a while maybe I could hold 30 mph for a little longer and a little longer... and that 25 mph would feel easy.


Scott Saifer says:


The answer to your question depends on your goals, which you haven't really explained. Do you want more speed over one or a few minutes, or sustained for a much longer time. Doing your 30 mph intervals to failure is going to challenge your anaerobic alactic energy system almost exclusively if you really blow in less than 30 seconds, and your anaerobic lactic energy system if you last much more than 30 seconds.

The problem is that no matter how much you train, the anaerobic alactic energy system is not going to support efforts much past 30 seconds, and the anaerobic lactic system is going to support efforts up to 4-8 minutes depending on your training.

If your goal is to be strong for a few seconds to a few minutes, your plan is good. If your goal is to increase speed for extended rides or much more than 10 minutes, you need to develop your aerobic system more, and that means making efforts that you can sustain long enough to get that system working. That means base training and efforts up to but not much above LT.

Jeff then responded:

Scott, thanks for the quick response; yes, the goal is longer time at a faster speed. As I said I have been doing the longer intervals (up to 20 minutes repeats) for an hour at or just below threshold for years, following a good build up of base miles (my base mile pace is about 18mph at zone 2 on flat ground... if that helps).

I also do weight training and leg speed work (spin-ups) during the winter. But I just don't ever really get much faster (around 23 mph at threshold since I was 35, and I'm 53 now). The reasoning behind what I had originally asked was from the old saying if you want to ride 30 mph you have to ride 30mph (or something like that).

I read about these guys talking about rolling their 53x11 like it's nothing and I always wonder what they know that I don't. Yes I know they are cat one or two, or even pros, but they weren't always and had to develop that speed before they got to where they are now.

Scott Saifer says:


The idea that you have to ride 30 mph to get good at riding 30 mph is right, but I'd add a little clarifier: You have to ride 30 mph aerobically to get good at riding 30 mph aerobically. If you can't get pretty close to riding 30 mph as a purely aerobic effort, riding 30 will be practising sprinting, and you may get better at sprinting by doing it.

Can we assume that you are really smart about never training harder than zone 1 unless you feel really good? Accepting and acting on that rule has made large differences in sustainable speed for many athletes. One thing that top pros have going for them is that they get to recover after riding so they feel good more of the time than guys who have to work or deal with other stresses between rides.

Training hard enough to get tired without getting to the pace your current fitness would allow because you are training tired keeps you tired but doesn't have you push the limits of speed you can already do, so it doesn't help much in increasing speed.

Back pain

I am a keen amateur cyclists but have been developing some very bad lower back pain on both sides of my back this year.

It only occurs when I am on a long 120-160km spin with some good climbing taken in. The pain can last for a day or two after.

I had raced at under age level but gave it up when I went to college and took up full employment. I have only been back on the bike for three years but have been increasing the mileage annually from 4000km in year one, 6000km in year two and 8000km this year so far. I am not racing but would ride quite hard while taking part in sportives.

Do you think that this back pain is down do my bike position, possibly pulling too hard on the handlebars while climbing, over training or possibly my back in general and the strain put on it by cycling?

Anthony Kenneally

Steve Hogg says:


The answer is that I don't know because you haven't provided much in the way of detail. The good thing about your back pain is that you imply that you are feeling it more or less evenly on both sides. As to the why, there are a number of possibilities and combinations of possibilities. You will have to work through the list below in an attempt to isolate the reason or reasons.

Common causes of back pain on a bike:

1. Seat too high. A generalisation that I'll make is that more riders than not sit too high (except for really tall riders who often sit too low). I think this is because most riders set their seat height statically or under light load on flat to undulating terrain.

Most can get away with a slightly too high a seat height on the flat because momentum plays a part in carrying the legs through top and bottom dead centre, but when climbing, momentum is noticeably less because of gradient meaning that the task is to apply leverage to the pedals through as many degrees of crank arm arc as possible and ideally, with the phase of each leg (area where good force can be applied) overlapping the other at TDC and BDC to varying degrees.

Climbing, particularly if forcing the gear, requires the rider to drop their heels more than is the case at higher rpm flat riding. To do this requires extra extension of the legs. If the seat is too high to allow fluent technique, then some part of the body will protest. It can be discomfort or pain at the top of the calves just below the knee, behind the knee, belly of hamstrings, heads of the quads just above the knee, or high in the hamstrings just below the sitbones. It can also be in the low back if the rider is alternately dropping each hip in an effort to reach the bars.

2. Bars too low or too far away. If the bars are too low, then the lumbar spine must be flexed too much to reach down to them. Do this for long enough or hard enough or both and it will hurt. If the bars are too far away or the brake hoods (where most riders spend most of their time) are too low, then the effort to reach them usually loads up the upper back, neck and shoulders but I've seen instances of low back pain caused by this too.

3. Seat too far back. If the seat is too far back, then again, the lumbar spine can be flexed too much to allow the rider to reach forward. This becomes even more apparent when climbing because the 'effective' seat tube angle is slackened by the gradient which means that the rider often doesn't have the ability to apply force through to the bottom of the pedal stroke. A consequence of this is that some serious yanking on the bars takes place in an attempt to provide a platform to apply pressure to the pedals through the bottom part of the pedal stroke.

4. General functionality. If the rider isn't particularly functional and in my lexicon, functional means reasonably flexible, reasonably stable and reasonably symmetrical, then the rider inhabits a smaller envelope in terms of what they can cope with by comparison with a better functioning version of the same person. Many, many problems on a bike would be resolved if the rider placed as much importance on how their structure works as they do in going out and hammering themselves on a bike.

5. Gear selection. If a rider has to drop below 75 rpm under significant load for lengthy periods, then most will hurt, often in the lower back.

6. Any combination of the above.

Off-season improvement

I'm a Cat 3 rider about to move to Cat 2. I race 99 percent of my races in criteriums and a few road races. What I wanted to know was how should I train in the off-season to get better with the longer races in (criteriums) since I'm going to be moving up in Category and how can I train to ride in breakaways?

As a Cat 3 I would wait for a field sprint and not look to go on a breakaway - I'm looking to make a change for next season.

Thank you,

Dave Palese says:


Congrats on the Cat-up!

For dealing with the length of the races, keep in mind that even in a Cat 2 crit (or Cat P/1/2 as the case usually is) the longest race usually isn't more than 90 minutes. So general endurance really isn't a limiter. And if you've done some P/1/2 races already, look back at those races and think about how it went for you. Were you just hanging on? Were you riding well inside the group? Or were you riding competitive?

Depending on where you fall in this spectrum can help you decide how to spend your training time. For Cat 2/3 riders doing mostly crits, 3-4 hour long rides for the week usually are sufficient. As the General Preparation period moves along this winter, you can add some intensity in Threshold.

For riding in the breaks, this is a more complex questions, but the general idea is the raise your Functional Threshold Power (FTP). The higher intensity you can sustain while using mainly the aerobic energy system, the longer and stronger you'll be able to perform in the break. That being said, crits are more than just FTP. The power demands in a crit are so variable that this variable nature MUST be addresses in any sound training program.

So what do I mean? You can increase your sustainable FTP by riding steady at progressively higher power outputs. Pushing your sustainable power higher for a given period of time. But I can guarantee that if you only trained in the steady manner, that your performance in a highly variable situation would not improve significantly.

Power meters make training in a variable way more quantifiable. Metrics like normalised power and intensity factor can guide you in your training even when the peaks of power output are very higher and valleys very low. Do some research about these two items to get a full explanation, or email me and I can elaborate. This isn't really a forum for that big of a discussion.

As far training your FTP in the variable context, try this workout after you've finished up your General Prep period. Ride for 2-3 minutes at about 90 percent of your FTP to get the engine running. Then ride for 10seconds at 150 percent of your FTP. Then 50 percent of your FTP for 20 seconds.

Continue this 150 percent/50 percent riding for until you get to 10 minutes. Rest for five minutes and repeat the set. As you progress you increase the length of the sets, working up to 20 minutes. And you can also go to from 10 seconds ON/20 seconds OFF, to 15 ON/15 OFF. Hope fully you can see how this would address the variable nature of a crit.

Hope this helps. Have fun and good luck!

How to increase endurance


I'm 43-year-old and used to race but stopped about 12 years ago. Since then I've been cycling erratically, but staying in shape. I've started riding consistently again (4-5 times per week) but as soon as I get on a bike my heart rate shoots up 60 - 70 beats per minute. My resting heart rate is 63 beats per minute, and my max (highest I've seen on the bike) is 189 beats per minute. But once I get on the bike and start pedaling, no matter how easily, my heart rate jumps to 120+.

What type of riding / training should I do to increase my ability to output power at a low heart rate?


Scott Saifer says:


A heart rate that rises rapidly when you pedal with real effort would be just a sign of being out of shape, but you say you've stayed in shape and I'll take you at your word that your heart rate is jumping into the 120s as soon as you start pedaling no matter how lightly. If that is the case, you should schedule a visit with your doctor before you ramp up your training.

If you are exaggerating about the heart rate rising that far no matter how easily you are pedaling, or if the doctor clears you for exercise, the secret to making power at lower hert rates is to practice doing that. Put in lots of time between 130 and 150 bpm, avoid going harder than that, and you find yourself making a lot more speed and power in that range in a month or two.

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.