By Arnie Baker, M.D.
What if I told you there was a simple method of bicycle training that would improve almost all aspects of fitness? A method that would help strength, spin, leg speed, anaerobic power, focus, and breathing? A method so powerful that in training hundreds of athletes, I have never met one who did not benefit and see improvement within a few training sessions?
You would want to try this method, I hope. It is called isolated leg training, ILT, or one-leg riding.
What You Do
Unclip from one of your pedals. Ride with one leg. If riding on the road, dangle your inactive leg to one side, or find a safe place to rest your heel on your chainstay or seatstay, away from your spokes.
On a stationary trainer, you can rest your inactive foot on the back of your trainer, on a side support (a box or a stool), in the drop of your handlebar, or in your waterbottle cage. Work up to three-minute intervals. Work up to four repetitions.
Work On Strength
In my experience, high-load 50 to 60 rpm ILT is the best method of improving cycling-specific strength. However, do not use high loads to start. Take several sessions to adapt to this exercise. It is easiest to perform this work on a stationary trainer or on a hill (up to about 6% grade). Choose a moderately-hard gear, one that you can only pedal between 50 and 60 rpm.
Since you are working only one leg, your heart rate response will probably not be high. You will be working on your muscles, not on your cardiovascular system—isolating the muscle component of fitness.
With moderate loads, you can focus on difference parts of your stroke. Sometimes focus on pushing down. Sometimes focus on pushing forward. Sometimes focus on pulling up. Sometimes focus on pulling through, or pulling around.
After adapting to moderate loads, choose a harder gear.
Pedaling smoothly does not necessarily result in the highest average torque or power. Pedaling smoothly also means that you are not working your most powerful muscles to their potential.
A harder gear will specifically strengthen your quads and glutes—the most important cycling propulsive muscles you have.
You may be able to perform high-power ILTs with so much force that you can push yourself up off the saddle. It helps to stabilize and anchor yourself with your arms. Pulling with your arms may allow you to work harder. If you are performing a left leg ILT, pull more with your left arm. Elite athletes may perform ILTs with such high torque that they may require two hands on same side of the handlebar to keep in the saddle.
Road racers and mountain bikers work with their hands on the tops. Time trialists, criterium riders, and track specialists work more with their hands in the drops. When performed in an easy or moderate gear at 70 to 90 rpm, this exercise tends to work the hip flexors (pulling up muscles) more.
Work On Spin and Leg Speed
Why do riders bounce at high rpm? It is because they do not send a neurologic signal to their muscles to stop pushing down at the bottom of the pedal stroke fast enough. A leg that is still pushing down at the bottom of the stroke while the pedal is already coming up forces the rider off the seat.
Bouncing here is not a question of too high a saddle, leg strength, aerobic fitness, or anaerobic fitness. It is a question of neuromuscular coordination. It is a skill. This skill comes from neuromuscular practice.
Choose an easy gear. If you have a heart-rate monitor, choose a gear that allows you to ride at less than 65% of maximum heart rate. If you have a power meter, choose a gear that allows you to ride at less than 50 watts.
Ride with one leg at a cadence between 80 to 90 rpm. Pedal stroke will improve. Leg speed will improve—even for two-legged cadences at more than twice this rate.
Work On Different Positions
Different bicycle positions work the muscles differently. It is easiest to perform ILTs when the hands positioned on the tops of the handlebars. After you progress to performing three-minute intervals on the handlebar tops, alternate position to the handlebar drops in the middle minute of the intervals.
Pacing, Focus, and Breathing
Single leg drills are excellent exercises to help improve pacing. It is easy to mistakenly work too hard initially and not be able to maintain cadence for the prescribed duration.
Athletes operating near their time trial threshold in steady, hard efforts often perform better by focusing on their own efforts, listening to their bodies’ rhythms.
Intense, narrow, internal, and associated focus improves performance for almost all athletes. Isolated leg training is an ideal exercise in which to start counting strokes or practice rhythmic breathing. Then extend the coordination of counting, breathing, or other rhythmic action to time trialing or climbing with both legs.
Give Single Leg Cycling Drills a Try
One-leg riding helps every type of cyclist— from mountain biker to sprint specialist to RAAM rider. Start with two or three repetitions of one minute, and build up to three or four repetitions of three minutes over six to ten training sessions. Perform ILT training once or twice a week.
You can mix 50 to 60 rpm high-load and 80 to 90 rpm low-load work in the same session.
After just six training sessions, I am confident that you will notice a benefit. If you want to continue training with one leg, give ILT a rest for a week or two, and then build up to another peak over 3 to 4 weeks.
Now give ILT a rest. Remember, it is not during training, but during the recovery from training that we improve fitness. Allow a month or two before entering another 6-week ILT phase.
Four ILT phases a year are probably best for maximizing gains and minimizing boredom or staleness.