One of the many new things you may need to relearn about cycling is where your power comes from. Your thighs pump your legs to turn the pedals; your core acts like a wall for the thighs to push against. So at first glance it seems pushing your muscles to the limit is the best way to move those pedals faster. But the food you’ve eaten powers those muscles. So, pushing them too hard will exhaust your energy which will inevitably slow you down. How do you ride, then, without constantly exhausting yourself?
The answer is cadence. Cadence is the rhythm of your feet as they turn to push the pedals. A good rider will balance cadence power output. Given a flat smooth road and a windless, generally, a very fast cadence (say 120 revolutions per minute) may help to avoid exhaustion, but won’t move your bike very far forward for the effort you’re putting out. A very slow cadence (say 50 rpm) will likely involve pushing hard on the pedals with each downstroke, and pulling up hard on the upstroke — it might move your bike forward faster, but it will definitely exhaust you. (Read my prior article on why higher cadence is better.) The answer is to modulate your cadence based on road conditions and your fitness level. How do you modulate your cadence?
And that answer is effective use of gearing and fitness. The first and easiest step is to learn to use your gears. Assuming you have a road bike with two front cogs (together, “the chainring”) and ten or eleven rear cogs (together “the cassette”) — a very common set — practice using your front gear as a macro adjustment and your rear gear as a micro adjustment:
- When descending, be sure the front gear is in the large chain ring.
- When on flat or rolling hills, use large front chain ring if you have a tailwind (wind aiding you by pushing you in the direction of travel).
- When on flat or rolling hills, use the small front chain ring if you have a headwind (wind hindering your by pushing you backwards).
- When climbing, be sure the front gear is in the small chain ring.
How you do this is dependent on what kind of components your bike has. (See REI’s article explaining gears.) But the front controls on most road bikes are on the left side. Usually, you have to force the derailleur to push the gear UP onto the large ring, so the “faster” gears are achieved with a bit more effort on the gear lever, while to gear DOWN you are releasing the pressure, so the shift is more like a click.
Once you’re in the correct front cog, use the rear cogs to micro adjust your performance. If you find yourself sweating, huffing, and using too much muscle power, you may want to push the rear gear UP into a larger (higher) cog. If you find your legs spinning like mad while all the world passes you, you may want to RAISE the gear by pushing the rear gear DOWN into a smaller cog.
Gaining a basic understanding of the mechanics is important, but the only way to do it is to try it out. (See this article for an explanation of how to shift.) Don’t be shy to play with your gears. Try riding on flats first in the big chain ring (front gear). Then try the same ride later in the small chain ring. Then micro adjust with the rear to keep your legs spinning.
You may notice a subtle difference in how you ride and the difficulty. This is, in part, because there is a big overlap in the “gearing ratio” (see prior link) — some of the same gears are represented by different combinations of chain ring/cassette gearing.
Here’s a quick list of common gear combinations which may help gel the whole thing in your brain:
- The “easiest” gear combination for climbing is the chain is all the way TOWARD the bike (small chain ring, largest cassette cog);
- The “hardest” gear for descending is the chain all the way AWAY FROM the bike (large chain ring, smallest cassette cog).
There are two combinations which you should avoid: largest chain ring and largest cog; smallest chain ring and smallest cog. This is called cross chaining. In these configurations, you put the most stress on the chain. Better components can do this no problem, but if you’re dropping your chain a lot, check to see if you’re doing this.
The takeaways are this:
- Big front chain ring: climbing — Small front, descending.
- Large rear cassette: easier — Small rear, more power.
- Maintain a cadence which does not exhaust you, but moves you forward at the desired pace.
- Don’t be afraid to experiment.
Next week, I’m going to write about fitness and cadence and give you some target cadences which should help with your understanding. Also, you can get a good cadence meter for your bike pretty cheap — apart from your speed, cadence is a good metric to help gauge your cycling (though I’d invest in a heart rate monitor first).
I am a strong advocate for weight training to support cycling. Even modest weight training builds muscle, strengthens bones, and helps to build core strength — important because cycling does not do these things. If done properly, it is safe and will help riders avoid injury, rather than risking a chance of it.
Hitting the gym can be a foreign experience to cyclists, but how you lift weights in just your first week of strength training can lead to better results. In a study of rest intervals between exercise sets, researchers found that limiting breaks to 60 seconds during the first week of weight training boosted study participants’ hormonal response to the exercise. —Bicycling Magazine
Strength training may (or may not) be important for professionals; but for recreational cyclists all you need are some inexpensive free weights or a gym membership. The single most important advice for everyone doing weight training is to focus on form, rather than amount of weight lifted. For this reason, you will need some kind of instruction.
There are lots of training programs for cyclists, and if you are going to cycle competitively, they may be useful. As cited above, there is a debate amongst professionals about cycling training and workouts. From this debate, you’ll find many complicated strength training routines on line and in various expensive looking programs. It seems unlikely that any recreational cyclist will need that level of complexity. So instead, find a reliable source and stick with it, so long as it works for you.
I get my training advice from Scooby’s Workshop. A wonderful, free resource with video instructions on nearly every weight training exercise a new weightlifter will need.
Generally, here is a list of tips I’ve gathered over the years:
- Focus on Form: Focusing on form will help you get the most out of the workout and reduce the chance of injury.
- Lower the Weight: Lower weights with high repetition is generally safer than higher weight with low repetition.
- Avoid Real Pain: Listen to your body: not all pain is gain. Pain in joints, pain which is sharp or sudden, pain in the lower back are all bad. The only pain which is beneficial is the almost-pleasant muscular soreness you can get after any energetic activity.
- Stop Before Injury: So, if an exercise feels odd, it could injure you. Stop, check your form, and lower the weight. Or skip that exercise altogether (you may not be ready of it, or it may simply not be for you — we’re not all the same!).
- Swinging Causes Injury: Avoid exercises that have you swinging heavy weights: this could lead to injury.
- Complex Motion Causes Injury: Avoid exercises that have you moving your body in more than one plane at a time (for the same reason).
- Keep Mentally Fit: Don’t compare yourself to others (unless doing so inspires you). You don’t know how long they’ve been training, or how they are training.
- Be Regular: If you train diligently (at least three times per week), you will see results. Be patient.
- Be Patient: Results gained over a long period are more likely to be permanent than those gained quickly.
- Make Life Changes: So — like an improved diet and cycling — make weight training part of your weekly routine.
- Be Routine: Your workout should last about an hour for cycling purposes, but do more if you feel comfortable.
- Be Committed: Don’t chat, fiddle with your iPhone, gawk at the muscle men (much), or nap during your workout. Get in the gym and get it over with. You should be moving nearly constantly during your workout.
- Develop your Core: Ripped abs come from diet and aerobics. A strong core comes from strength training. Do both, but don’t expect that six-pack until you get your diet under control.
- Body Weight: Exercises that use your body weight (pull-ups, chin-ups, push-ups, hand stands and the like) are excellent strength training exercises that can ultimately be done nearly anywhere without too much special equipment.
- Vary your Program: Sticking with training does not mean sticking with a routine until it becomes so dull your stop doing it. Additionally, your muscles will respond to changes in exercise and intensity.
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Strengthening the abdominals is important for basic health to keep you injury free. Strong abs help stabilize the spine and keep you from injuring your back. Strong abs are important in virtually every sport, from golfing to running.
We cyclists may think that we are excluded. After all, the power behind the pedal stroke is generated in the quadriceps, hamstrings, gluteus maximus, and calf muscles. Isn’t it? The answer, I think is partially yes and partially no. The immediate power you get comes from your legs, but what’s behind the legs? Supporting them is your torso. The torso is the wall against which all the other muscles push to generate power.
So if the torso is weak, the wall is going to crumble before the ride is over:
YOUR BULGING QUADS AND RAZOR-CUT CALVES are the envy of your pack, and you start every ride strong. As the ride progresses, though, your hips seesaw in the saddle, your lower back aches, and you slow in corners. The problem? Your core cries uncle long before your legs wear out. Although a cyclist’s legs provide the most tangible source of power, the abs and lower back are the vital foundation from which all movement, including the pedal stroke, stems. (Bicycling Magazine, links in the original.)
So, how do you build core strength? These are some tips that I’ve used and noticed a marked improvement in my core strength and riding ability:
First, riding itself will help, but is not likely to be enough to keep you strong on long rides. In concert with these other suggestions, core strength will improve over time.
Second, cross train. Mixing in another sport — anything from walking or swimming to weight training or tennis will help develop different sets of muscles, skills, reactions, etc. which can only help strengthen your core.
Third, incorporate abdominal training into your routine. I use the 15 minute “rotisserie” routine developed by Scooby three days a week, and the result have been tremendous (see video). Scooby has a comprehensive list of abdominal exercises on his site.
Fourth, improve your eating habits. I’m loth to say “diet” because that implies a short-term solution. I have actively improved my eating habits and plan to keep my new habits for the rest of my life. Just making smart choices may be enough to reduce fat and increase muscle. A stricter diet may be required if your goal is to race, but for recreational cyclist, start with Scooby’s “simple substitution” method to improve your diet. But, remember that cyclists have specific nutritional needs before, during, and after rides.
I hope these tips help. Please let me know what works for you!