By Kevin Kolodziejski
You Probably Don’t Remember This
In my initial column, I claimed you and I are alike. That we cycle for the same reasons: comradeship, competitiveness, calorie burn, and most importantly, to magnify feeling. In essence, to experience three months’ worth of highs and lows in a three-hour ride.
While I’ll still stand by that statement, I’ll concede the lengths to which we’ll go to magnify feeling — to experience what a word nerd like me calls “the sublimities of cycling” — probably differ. Case in point, heat adaptation workouts. My guess is you don’t do them. My guess is you’ll read about mine and find them . . . uh, questionable at best. Maybe even stupid.
But sometimes the seemingly stupid has science on its side. Before you read the science behind my seeming stupidity, however, you need to know the backstory.
‘Training Is Training, Racing Is Racing’
When I questioned the workout he had concocted for us, that’s what a teammate of mine — who rode a bit as a pro and later became a good friend — very matter-of-factly said. His words later led to an “aha” moment as forceful as a frying pan to the forehead. But the real pain came during the workout. We stayed seated and rode the biggest gear we could turn up the local and legendary 5 km climb.
We climbed about 6,500 feet in 37 miles and then did another 20 or so at tempo, he later explained, to develop the sort of power I’d need three weeks from now “to hang” with the best riders in a rather hilly road race known for its steep finish. I hung all right — and my buddy probably wanted to hang me. Despite his textbook leadout that absolutely blew up the lead group of 10 (he did such damage that he sat up and still finished third), I got pipped at the line by the only rider to hold my wheel.
I tell you this not so you wonder why in the hell my buddy didn’t ride for the win, but to explain what made me experiment with indoor heat adaptation rides. Because after one of the many times I painfully relived getting pipped at the line, good old Captain Obvious commandeered a frying pan and made solid contact with my cranium. When I came to, here’s what I knew:
Specific training creates specific improvement
So when I read an article about indoor cycling workouts that suggested using a big box fan or two to keep you cool, I thought I’d try the opposite as a way to ride better in hot and humid conditions. That next winter and spring during my early morning wind trainer workouts, I ran a portable heater, donned a ski cap, and wore two base layers under a long-sleeved jersey. Sometimes, I’d create so much sweat I’d stuff my shoes with newspaper to help them dry.
Then, on an unusually warm Saturday in early April, I met a group for a weekend training ride. Guys complained about the heat from the start. Half of them cut the ride short because of it. Yet I felt great that day — and when I raced in similar conditions on Sunday.
The feeling that weekend sold me on heat adaptation workouts. To this day, I still do them on a wind trainer now horribly rusted in shoes now ridiculously stretched. Sometimes even in the summer — though no heater is needed in my oppressive attic. You might want to try a few heat adaptation workouts, too, because even if you find the way in which I do them to be . . . uh, questionable at best, science says there’s a real benefit to them.
The Research on Roasting While Riding Indoors
You’ll find proof of this in a study published online in August of 2010 by the Journal of Applied Physiology. In it, 12 “highly trained” cyclists did 10 consecutive days of heat adaptation workouts by riding for 90 minutes (with a 10-minute break in the middle) on stationary bikes in a climatic chamber set at 104 degrees and 30 percent humidity. They rode at 50 percent of their maximum oxygen capacity (VO2 max). According to material available through the National Council of Strength & Fitness, this is about 70 percent of your maximum heart rate if you’re in good cycling shape. Such an effort feels fairly easy and creates no apparent changes in breathing.
The researchers selected such a relatively easy degree of exercise intensity because it isn’t hard enough to make highly trained cyclists better. That way, any changes between the pre- and posttests could be attributed to heat adaptation.
Another eight highly trained cyclists served as the control group. They trained for the same number of days, for the same amount of time, and at 50 percent of their VO2 max, but in a cool environment deemed ideal for optimal athletic performance — 55.4 degrees and 30 percent humidity. Within a week of the 10 days of training, both groups were retested in both hot and cool environments.
Power Goes Up, Times Go Down
As expected, the 12 who did the heat acclimation workouts performed better in the hot environment. The power they produced at lactate threshold, which is generally about 85 percent of maximum heart rate, improved on average by 5 percent. The control group’s power at lactate threshold did not change from the pretest. The time needed to complete a simulated time trial decreased on average by 8 percent. Again, the control group recorded no change.
What was not expected, though — and what’s certainly extra incentive for you to increase the heat during indoor workouts — were the across-the-board improvements recorded by the 12 who did the heat acclimation workouts when retested in the cool environment. The average increases in lactate threshold and time trial performance were 5 and 6 percent. Once again, the control group recorded no improvements.
A Crucial Concluding Caveat
Be careful — very careful — if you alter your rides, whether they be indoors or out, to incorporate the concept of heat acclimation training. Pay heed to your body. Lightheadedness, headache, nausea, vision problems, and a far greater feeling of fatigue than normal are some of the signs you could be suffering from heat exhaustion.
If any of these occur, drink water immediately. Pour some on your head. Douse your jersey if possible. And certainly scale back your effort. If the feeling remains, end the ride as soon as possible.
Kevin Kolodziejski began his writing career in earnest in 1989. Since then he’s written a weekly health and fitness column and his articles have appeared in magazines such as “MuscleMag,” “Ironman,” “Vegetarian Times,” and “Bicycle Guide.” He has Bachelor and Masters degrees in English from DeSales and Kutztown Universities.
A competitive cyclist for more than 30 years, Kevin won two Pennsylvania State Time Trial championships in his 30’s, the aptly named Pain Mountain Time Trial 4 out of 5 times in his 40s, two more state TT’s in his 50’s, and the season-long Pennsylvania 40+ BAR championship at 43.