By Arnie Baker
By understanding the variables of bicycling workouts, you will understand how workout programs function to achieve different ends and be better able to design your own.
The components of a bicycle workout can be broken down into six basic variables:
- Pedal-Stroke Emphasis
Adjust these variables depending on the goals you wish to achieve. Volume and intensity are standard workout variables that apply to almost any sport. Many riders and coaches neglect to consider that cadence, position, pedal-stroke emphasis, and environment distinguish bicycling workouts and help train different aspects of fitness.
Volume is the total amount of work performed. In other words, it is the distance or the amount of time you spend training in a given week, month, etc.
When work is performed in intervals, the length of each interval is called the duration of the interval.
Increasing volume up to about 200 miles or 15 hours per week helps improve aerobic and endurance fitness. Additional volume primarily improves endurance.
Training for long road rides requires time in the saddle to toughen the buttock tissues and adapt to riding position. Long rides, even those of minimal intensity, help train these needs.
Intensity – Introduction
Intensity is the load or speed of work performed.
Perceived exertion, heart-rate monitoring, and the less commonly available power monitoring all have roles to play in assessing work intensity.
Perceived exertion is related to many factors including breathing rate and depth, and muscle tension, burning, and heaviness.
Heart-rate monitors help measure intensity, but they, too, are imperfect. If you work on leg speed, for example, and spin flat-out as fast as you can in an easy gear for 5 minutes, your heart rate may be very high, but your power output may be only moderate.
On the other hand, if you sprint in a moderately hard gear for 20 seconds flat-out as hard as you can, your power output may be maximum, but your heart rate may not have time to “catch up” to a maximum effort.
Power measurement—traditionally available on laboratory ergometers—is also available on new-generation portable “consumer” electronic stationary trainers. Force measuring devices can also be installed at the bottom bracket, pedals, or rear wheel axle.
As glycogen energy stores are exhausted, perceived exertion is relatively high compared with heart rate, blood lactate, or power levels.
Leg speed is another component of workouts.
Consider a rider told to work at a heart-rate intensity of 150 beats per minute for 15 minutes.
Those with a limited view of cycling fitness might think that defining intensity and duration determines the workout. It does not.
Riding at 50 rpm in a big gear at a heart rate of 150 beats per minute (bpm) trains muscular strength. Riding at 150 rpm at 150 bpm trains leg speed, a neuromuscular fitness. The workouts are quite different and give different physical results.
Some fit riders can pedal very fast—but in an easy gear, they are not necessarily working hard or going very fast.
We know that the leg muscles used in cycling are different from the leg muscles used in running. That is one reason why a good runner might be a poor cyclist.
Within cycling, the muscles used in climbing are different from those muscles used in flat riding. A position component is therefore part of the workout prescription.
Climbing volume and climbing intensity are important factors in climbing fitness.
You can climb standing or seated; on the handlebar tops, on the brake hoods, or in the handlebar drops. There are important reasons to be versatile and to train in all these positions.
For steady climbing, riding with the hands on the handlebar tops is often the best way to climb. That is because the legs have more power when the hip angle is open, and aerodynamics is of minimal importance when climbing.
Athletes may appear to the casual observer to be performing similar work—this is not always the case.
Consider two athletes climbing for 5 minutes at 75% of maximum heart rate, at 50 rpm, on the tops of the handlebars. The athlete who concentrates on pulling up will be performing different work than the athlete who concentrates on pushing forward or who pedals smoothly.
Training by emphasizing different parts of the pedal stroke—working specific muscle groups—defines yet another workout variable.
Workouts performed at altitude are different from workouts at sea level.
Workouts in the heat, humidity, cold, rain, or snow are different from workouts in temperate weather.
Workouts that require mental vigilance—because they are performed on roadways with potholes or cars, or workouts performed on mountain bike trails—are different from workouts performed on stationary trainers where all one’s mental energy can be focused on the bike.
Workouts performed on flat terrain are different from those where the grade is uphill or changing.
The same workout may present a different stress to the body depending upon recovery state. Sprints at the beginning of a workout are different from sprints after 5 hours of riding, though the duration and intensity may objectively be the same.
The same workout done individually may be perceived differently when performed in a group setting. Though the workload may be the same, as yet ill-defined neurohormonal factors make the environment of the workout different.
Rick Schultz says
Arnie, I don’t recall you ever coming over to the shop but these are basically the same points I have on my whiteboard and discuss with my clients. Did you somehow snap a photo of my whiteboard? 🙂