Question: I just read an interesting study concerning cycling efficiency and power output. The subjects were Spanish pro racers, including a former world champion.
The study concluded that riders in a specific category vary widely in their VO2 max (ability to consume oxygen for energy production). What distinguishes the top riders is greater efficiency. In fact, many top pros with the highest oxygen uptake have the lowest efficiency and vice versa. Any ideas on how to improve efficiency? — Drew G.
Coach Fred Matheny Replies: The study you mention created lots of discussion among cycling coaches. As you point out, the results show that efficiency (often called “economy”) is important.
Efficiency simply means you’re using less oxygen to sustain a given intensity, which lowers your perceived effort at that wattage output. Most riders try to improve economy by improving pedaling technique using one-leg drills and/or fixed-gear riding.
That’s still important, but as I understand the research, the two best ways to improve economy are to strength train your core muscles and ride intervals at slightly above your lactate threshold (LT).
Strength training stabilizes the core so the pedal stroke is more efficient in a mechanical sense. Added strength means that fewer muscle fibers are needed to pedal at a given intensity, so the muscle fatigues more slowly. Riding at LT or slightly above trains the body to maintain high power output without going anaerobic.
One good workout, according to the studies, consists of repeats at 80-85% of max heart rate for 10-20 minutes each. You’ll have to concentrate to keep your pulse steady. It’s more doable to ride at this extended intensity outside than it is on a trainer, at least for me.
Remember, during long efforts like this you’ll experience an increase in heart rate even though you’re riding at the same intensity. This “cardiac drift” is almost impossible to prevent, even if you’re using a sports drink to stay hydrated as you train, which you should.
If you have a trainer that displays power, there is research that shows great gains are possible with only two interval sessions per week. Here’s the core of the workout:
5 repeats of 3 minutes each, with 3 minutes of easy spinning between each effort
Intensity is the key. You need to do the hard arts at a wattage equal to the average wattage you can maintain for 6 minutes all-out. This is what exercise physiologists call “velocity at VO2 max” or vVO2 max. It will create heart rates above 90% max by the end of the 3 minutes.