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Be Realistic Ask the Impossible: Spin It to Win It?


At time of current writing there is a freezing blanket of fog outside the window, and a temperature of -5.  My face looks like that of a Jack Dee who's discovered his children have been fathered by another man, his dog's been ran over by a psychotic neighbour, and car's been driven into a tree by Jeremy Clarkson.  Unimpressed.

Needless to say, I haven't been out on my bike as the accumulated ice and snow has made the roads here almost impossible for even 4x4's to negotiate, and with my impending move to London its getting really frustrating not to be able to get out into the hills for some good climbing sessions before I go.

However, as per my last entry where I was getting to grips with the nuances of heart rate training methods, and my new technological wonder that is the Gar... (this isn't meant to be a product plug.  Unless they cough up an 800 for the priveledge!)  so, this week I have been ever productive and in the rather despairing absence of any chance of getting out on the bike, have again been busying myself with the turbo trainer.  Ignoring the fact that it's Christmas, I am forever skint and with very little means to purchase family and friends presents and the like, have however ensured that I took delivery of a cadence sensor to compliment my heart rate monitor...  ahem.  Selfish I know but I'm sure that knowing the stress and misery that the feeling of being wholly unprepared for the Etape next year would bring to my festive season, I'm sure they will understand.

So, this has added yet another potentially confusing dimension to my Turbo training sessions, but I've done my homework and now have a good grip on what I'm up to... or haven't been up to as it transpires.  Pre-sensor my average cadence was probably about 65-75 rpm, in a higher gear than necessary.  Post cadence training and I'm consciously willing myself to spin the pins like a maniac and achieve a higher average up in the 90's.  I thought just maintaining the correct heart rate was hard enough and made for a more challenging, if interesting workout, it has to be said that this is making me realise just how much harder it can get as I try to totally reform the way I've been riding the bike.  

For anyone who like me who thought that a Fartlek routine was something to do with over consumption of home-made curried parsnip soup before or after a ride, or is unfamiliar with the science and implications of high v.s low cadence, as well as terms such as 'slow' and 'fast' twitch muscle fibers, glycogen stores and contraction, there is an excellent 'beginners guide' to cadence that I found here by Triathlete Rich Strauss which will give a much more authoratitive summary than me.

I won't bore folk with the all the minutae here despite my new found enthusiasm for physiological science that until now I've continually ignored, but the basics are that in riding at a low cadence you use fast-twitch muscle fibers that burn glycogen for fuel. Now, this is the important bit as glycogen is stored within the muscles themselves and is in a rather small quantity (approx. 2000 calories for a well-trained, well-fueled rider) relative to what you'd need for a long-ish endurance race like the Etape.  These fast-twitch fibers tire quickly and are not able or intended to last all day, as well as requiring a long time to recover before they can be used again.  So, in my previous habits of grinding along at 70rpm in a stiffer gear, I was ensuring that a high amount of these finite energy resources were being unnecessarily used and that these fast-twitch fibers were being tired out well before the end of my rides as I applied much to much pressure on the pedals and would regularly get out of the saddle to 'spur myself on' as I saw it.

So, upon reading this, I see a resounding 'Greg, you're doing it wrong.'

Apparently what I should be doing is using my slow-twitch fibers.  These cunning little fibers mostly burn fat for fuel, supplies of which I certainly am not lacking at present and will happily get rid of.  They are also very resistant to fatigue, having evolved to help us become the athletic equivalent of the duracell bunny in plugging away all day, but are also invaluable to the cyclist as they recover quickly when allowed to rest.  This means that having spun up a hill at 95rpm on an easier gear, even though I've done more rpm's, it's been at a lower level of effort and has used the appropriate muscle fibers that will ensure I've burnt off the more abundant fat supplied energy and will let my legs recover on the descent.

In my turbo training-trance this week I stumbled upon this footage of Lance Armstrong stamping his authority over Jan Ullrich in the 2005 Tour de France's opening time trial:

As he catches Ullrich at 6 mins you can clearly see the difference in their riding styles, Armstrong spinning at a much higher tempo compared to Ullrich, who hunched over and grinding away, can do nothing as he is passed by him.  Now, with controversy having surrounded both riders in equal measure I can understand folk'll be tempted to attribute there own reasons for this but I cite it just as a topical example of different riding styles that came up as I've been training this week...

This might mean that not getting the often found willy-waving kudos of being able to say I've ground up the hill on a 11-19 rear block (as evidenced in the subsequent discussion on the SRAM Apex grouppo first ride on last week) but does mean I will be able to ride more effectively and offload much of the effort onto my aerobic system, meaning that when the additional juice is required for that additional burst of speed or sprint to the line, it will still be present in the old pistons.

So, enough of the theory, and onto how this has translated into training.  I've really just stuck to doing variations of high and low effort interval training all week, but with the cadence sensor I was truly shocked at just how fast 90rpm felt (or conversely just how slow I'd been pedalling in comparison) and how much more effort I'd been forcing my legs to put out as previously.  I'd actually assumed that 90rpm was round about where I had been riding before so it really was quite an eye opener to see just how much conscious effort it took to make myself spin faster and how unnatural it felt.  It's also feeling much more tiring as its forcing me to use my cardiovascular system more, which might improve my performance in the long run but for the moment is just producing much more sweat than ever!  However, mentally it feels good to be getting to grips with these basic things and I'm just hoping that I'm doing the right thing and they will serve me well on my mission.  Time and a lot of practice will tell how this translates onto the road, but between the disciplined diet and the turbo I must be doing something right as I've lost over a kilo in weight already which can only be a good thing...

So, festive tidings to all the good folks on and hope to hear some hints and tips from you over the next few weeks if reading my entries so far you can point me in the right direction for training routines or resources, its always welcome!  I look forward to regaling you of my cycling-related Christmas presents (to myself most likely!) and jhope you've better luck getting some riding in than me!

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Gregoire500 | 13 years ago

Hi Tony,

yes I see what you mean-there was a really good comment by Ciaran on my last post in which he describes 'movement architecture' as in taking a more holistic view of riding a bike as a whole which is pertinent also. I guess at this early stage I'm just getting to grips with key concepts and trying to apply them to basic training routines. It's amazing what you can learn in just a few days or sessions, but until I can get out onto the road I'm stuck with the turbo so making the most of it by varying heartrate/cadence/strength/endurance objectives and generally exploring what, for example, spinning at 80/90/100 rpm feels like on the big/low gears and the effect this has on my heartrate.

So its early doors but really interesting and I'm glad I'm getting into it sooner rather than later as it's all valuable stuff to have floating about my head!

I just want to get out onto the road sometime soon...

Tony Farrelly | 13 years ago

As I've gotten older I've definitely turned in to more of a pusher than a spinner, been trying to spin it more up the hills on the way to work - it's definitely faster (well, a bit) but it's flippin' hard work. One thing to consider might be what your natural cadence is and what mix of fast twitch and slow twitch muscle fibres you have - not everyone is the same. Armstrong went with what he had in the department and so did Ullrich and although he was beaten up the mountain that day - he was no slouch for a big guy when it came to getting up hills and he was well served by that pushing a big gear style.

I've never done the Etape, but surely leg strength is going to come into a long day in the mountains too so I'm wondering whether you shouldn't mix your cadence work up a bit with a bit of pushing on the flats maybe to build muscle strength, or maybe the spinning will do that anyway?

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