Over the years I’ve worked out a program that I think makes sense. It’s all based on the standard model of education where you first learn the basics, then you build on those skill sets. So let’s lay out a full program:
Pedal stroke 101
Unlike other forms of locomotion that are limited to the motion of the human body, cycling is a geared sport. The bicycle sends the force you generate to the rear wheel via a step-up gearing system. Unlike running or cross country skiing, the forces are greater than what would be needed to move the body. In other sports the primary muscle used is determined by the motion – in running propulsion is generated by planting the foot on the ground and transferring the body weight forward. In cycling the pedals go around in circles, it’s up to the rider to decide which muscles to use. This is where the actual skill set comes into play.
Let’s limit the force generation to the largest muscle groups – glutes and quads. With that said we need to create a timing sequence for those two muscle groups – this doesn’t happen by itself.
The glutes extend the leg from the hip, all they can do is push down. To make this simple I’m going to say they push from 1:30 to 4:30, or from 45 degrees up to 45 degrees down at the front of the pedal stroke.
The quads extend the lower leg from the knee, so all they can do is push forward. We’re going to say they push from 11:00 to 2:00, forward over the top of the pedal stroke. There’s a problem there, look at the arc the foot makes when firing the quads, now think about where the pedal is going – they don’t match. You need a second muscle group active to make this work.
Hip flexors lift the leg at the hip. It’s a very small muscle group working at end range of motion – you’re never going to generate much power by using this muscle group. Just the same, it’s part of using the quads, which do have power to offer.
Pedal stroke 101 class schedule
- Hip flexor work. While it’s not one of the large muscle groups driving the bike, they do need to be working by the time we get around to learning the quads.
- Glutes. This is the basis for how you sit on the bike as well as the largest contributor of torque – it’s how you get up hills.
- Quads. Quads are the second largest muscle group in the body, responsible for leg speed and acceleration.
This is 4 weeks in late fall or early winter, with homework. Instruction is once/week, you should plan on doing the drills at least twice during the week.
With the two largest muscle groups effectively working within the pedal stroke, the next step is to make then stronger within the range of motion used on the bike. It’s time to hit the gym…
If you look at the pivot extended and the range of motion, you’ll see that the glutes can be effectively trained using the inverted leg press.
This is a less perfect scenario than the leg press because it doesn’t train the hip flexors, but the point here is to build strength in the large muscle groups.
Strength building class/schedule
Set-up for the program should only be one session. I am very picky about safety, set-up of the machines and range of motion used.
The strength building segment is 12 – 16 weeks, 2-3 sessions/week depending on your goals, plus 2 weeks of acclimation. This is a winter schedule as you must be tapered off before we increase mileage on the bike.
Glutes isolation class/schedule
With the leg press building strength, it’s time to apply that strength to the pedal stroke. Use of the glutes in the pedal stroke depends on position – lean into the pedals and the glutes engage (assuming you’ve learned how to do this), lean back and they come out of the action. The glutes isolation class is about finding the relationship between body position and use of the glutes.
Quads isolation class/schedule
The other application of power built in the gym to the pedal stroke. Quad isolation is the generation of power over the top of the pedal stroke without assistance from the glutes. The drill is increasing resistance until failure.
The muscle group isolation class is the associative stage of learning applied to the pedal stroke 101 class – making it happen with resistance. It’s a 2-4 weeks period after the first weight increase in strength training. Setting up the drills for both is a single coaching session. a lot more work on individual muscle groups will be done in the hill climbing and flat speed segments later.
Base mileage, base mileage, base mileage…
The third and final stage in the learning process is the autonomous stage – where the motor skill becomes second nature. If you still have to think about which muscles need to fire come spring, you haven’t done enough base mileage.
The point of base mileage is to make the selection of muscle groups to use automatic, based on the resistance at the pedals. To that point, it’s a long workout with lots of transitions from one resistance to the next.
Base mileage class
Being the autonomous stage of the learning process, I don’t need to be there. That said, setting up the resistance levels, the timing and checking on form will be at least one 90 minute session.
The base mileage sessions go for at least 4 weeks, more if your focus is early season endurance. Base mileage should be planned for 2-3 sessions/week, but if you’re doing strength work at the same time there may be a recovery issue.
There are two compelling reasons to do interval sessions. The first is to force your body to adapt to a higher output level – the basis for fitness gains. The second is to combine the two large muscle groups into one pedal stroke. I cannot stress enough that this comes after a successful base mileage program, so you can use glutes of quads only where they are effective, in your sleep.
The other thing you need to know about interval sessions is that they are the only training you do during that period – intervals and rest, nothing else.
Interval sessions are done every 36 – 48 hours for two weeks. Set-up for intervals is at least one session to find interval resistance and baseline levels. Intervals take place in early spring, post strength training.
Hill climbing is the application of torque, there are four ways of doing that:
- Large muscle group (glutes), high resistance
- Smaller muscle group (quads), lower resistance, higher cadence
- Out of the saddle, sustained climbing technique
- Combination of small gear, high cadence and out of the saddle
Climbing in the saddle with high resistance is the glutes isolation drill. It is the most bio-mechanically efficient and sustainable way of climbing. Shifting to a smaller gear and using the quads puts a greater strain on the cardiovascular system, but allows for quicker changes in pace. The out of the saddle sustained technique is the same “body weight over pedal” theory as the glutes isolation drill, with one fewer points of contact and a lot more variables. Combination climbing is a method that uses out of the saddle torque to raise the pace and lower gear higher cadence to maintain that pace.
Coaching out of the saddle climbing requires a stationary bike with far more inertia than a normal trainer provides. My solution has always been the Spin bike with 40ish pounds of flywheel and a rock solid frame. The concept of climbing out of the saddle is simple, body weight over the pedal, drop the body weight from the hip. In reality it’s a complex balancing act which requires practice to become efficient.
Flat speed is the act of accelerating into the wind resistance, which means leg speed. Flat speed is the application of the quads isolation drill, with one little modification:
To effectively engage the quads over the top of the pedal stroke you also need to engage the hip flexor to lift the pedal stroke up and over from 11:00 to 12:00. There are two hip flexors your body can use:
The iliopsoas lifts the femur from above the hip, the rectus femoris attaches to the patella and lifts the femur from below the hip. The body has a lot of defense mechanisms, one of which is called reciprocal inhibition – it won’t fire opposing muscles at the same time.
Look at the lower attachment points for both the vastus lateralis and the rectus femoris, they both apply force from the patella. Using the rectus femoris shuts down the largest muscle in the quads. For that reason, emphasis is put on only using the iliopsoas to lift the pedal over the top. It’s a small distinction in muscle groups that makes a large difference in speed.
There are events like the Mt Washington hill climb which go far beyond the demands of just being able to climb. Such an event requires the rider to be able to set a tempo from the bottom of the climb that can be sustained to the top, with confidence. Becoming a hill climb specialist requires a number of elements:
- fatigue resistance: When you do a really intense work out, you often feel sore the next day. That’s because you exceed the tensile strength of your muscles, they create small tears. Those tears result in fatigue during the workout, soreness or stiffness the day after. Weight training will cause the same damage, as the body repairs itself the muscle fibers get stronger. The point of strength training is to put the tensile strength of the muscle fibers outside of the range of tension they will see in use. That’s fatigue resistance.
- Cardiovascular fitness: The ability to get oxygen to the muscles by building a strong capillary network. Workouts in the zone 4/5 range push the limits of the cardiovascular system to increase fitness.
- Power to weight ratio: Like it or not, there are two numbers there. Power is exertion x efficiency, weight is that number you see when you step on the scale. There’s no way of getting around the fact that lighter is better here…
- Power production over time: As much as most people focus on #2 and #3, hill climbing comes down to producing power over time. The human body doesn’t have an accurate fuel gauge, yet you’re going to need to set a pace from the bottom and hold that pace to the top. Too slow is just too slow, too fast is also too slow because you exceed your ability and slow down somewhere in the climb.
- Confidence: In training for a hill climb, you set up a trainer and simulate the time and effort level it will take to finish the climb. Having done that a number of times before the event will get you to the start knowing that you can reach your goals. It’s the difference between finishing and doing well.
Sprinting stands out from other techniques in cycling in that it’s not about efficiency, it’s all about power. For this reason we throw out the theory using fewer muscles and get the whole body into the action. Sprinting also uses the whole bike as a point of leverage. With each pedal stroke the force at the handlebar opposes the force at the pedal – you literally try to rip the bike in half.
There are three parts to building a good sprint:
- Strength in the muscular chain: This is a strength training program that targets all the upper body muscles used in generating power from the handlebars.
- Out of the saddle leg speed drill: This happens on the road. The drill is to build maximum cadence in a very short period of time.
- Out of the saddle torque drill: This also happens on the road, rolling into a steep section of hill. The hill keeps the cadence low, so the rider can feel which muscles have to work, and where within the pedal stroke.