Training Tip: Pedal Slow To Ride Fast, Part One

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Written By: Lance Watson

Lifesport coach Lance Watson provides new thoughts on how to increase strength and power output on the bike.

Many novice cyclists ride at a low cadence. Over the past two decades, the mantra of most respected cycling coaches has been to “spin, spin, spin” in order to increase efficiency and speed. By this they mean that instead of turning the pedals at 70 revolutions per minute, athletes should try to move their legs a little more quickly. This is good advice. Spinning with a smooth average cadence of 85 to 95 rpm on race day is an effective way to maintain a consistent heart rate and conserve glycogen (easily accessible, limited-supply muscle energy) while minimizing lactate accumulation.

I have taught many age-group athletes who have spent years riding at 70-80 rpm to spin at a higher cadence. Once the athlete makes the suggested change and becomes comfortable at the higher cadence, he or she becomes a faster and more efficient rider. The athlete is thus able to perform at higher sustained wattage for longer periods of time.

However, training athletes over multiple seasons at higher cadences resulted in a phenomenon I didn’t expect: In some cases, performance started to taper off, and power output dropped. To solve this problem, I returned the athletes to regular, sustained, lower-cadence riding sessions to increase strength. This training was interspersed with training at and above optimal race cadence. As the season progressed, the athletes were able to ride at 90 rpm on the same gear that they previously were riding 70 rpm on earlier in the season. They increased their wattage output significantly in the lower cadence range first and then in the higher cadence range. Lower-cadence riding builds strength by using more muscle fibers for every pedal stroke, while the higher-cadence practice lets the athlete translate that strength into sustained endurance performance.

Any cycling coach will tell you that workouts on hills make you stronger. Fighting gravity, riders will climb for prolonged periods of time at a lower cadence, feeling increased resistance on the pedals. An efficient climber who rides at 90 to 95 rpm on a flat course may climb at 65 to 80 rpm depending on the grade of the hill. While this strength training is essential, there are several challenges in building a cycling program around hill climbing. First, it is difficult to find a steady, even-grade hill. Second, if you find a steady grade, it is unlikely that the climb will last for more than a few minutes, let alone 20 to 45 minutes. Third, once you’ve completed a hill interval climb, you have to get back down before starting the next climb. Therefore, it is difficult to limit recovery periods for multiple intervals. For instance, a 20-minute climb would likely be followed by 10 to 15 minutes of descending, which may be too much rest time. It is for these three reasons that early-season cycling programs focusing on building strength benefit greatly from the use of a stationary trainer.

Check back in the next few days for parts two, three and four on specific trainer workouts designed to increase strength and power output on the bike.

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