Category Archives: Mental Training

Key Traits of the Highly Disciplined Triathlete

This excerpt is from the book, Triathlon Science. It’s published with permission of Human Kinetics.

What are the key characteristics of well-disciplined triathletes? Through extensive work with numerous triathletes over several years, a constellation of traits that defines the champion’s mentality has developed. High-level triathletes do not possess superhuman powers or extraordinary traits limited to a select few. Anyone who wants to excel in triathlon can develop the characteristics that make a champion.

  • Internal discipline and self-direction: Champion triathletes decide from the outset that they are training and competing for themselves, not for the awards, not for the prize money, not for their coaches. Direction and drive need to come from within. The objectives must be chosen because that’s precisely what they want to be doing. Triathletes should ask themselves, “What keeps me swimming, biking, and running? Who am I doing it for?”
  • Commitment to excellence: Does the triathlete set a high standard for herself? Elite triathletes know that to excel at their sport, they must decide to make it a priority in their life, to be the best at what they do. They set challenging yet realistic standards that are specific, and they are honest in evaluating their abilities and the amount of time and energy that they can put into their program.
  • Determination, consistency, organization: Winning triathletes know how to self-energize and work hard on a daily basis. Because they are passionate about what they do, they find it easier to maintain consistency in training and competition. Regardless of personal problems, fatigue, or difficult circumstances, they can generate the excitement and energy needed to do their best.
  • Concentration and focus: Disciplined triathletes have the ability to maintain focus for long periods. They can tune in what’s critical to their performance and tune out what’s not. They can easily let go of distractions and take control of their attention, even under pressure. They put their attention on the aspects of the competition that are within their control and recognize that they can make that choice.
  • Capacity to deal with obstacles: Top triathletes know how to deal with difficult situations. Adversity builds character and becomes an opportunity for learning, opening the way for personal growth and renewal. When elite triathletes know that the odds are against them, they embrace the opportunity to explore the outer limits of their potential. Rather than avoiding pressure they feel challenged by it. They are calm and relaxed under fire, realizing that nervousness is normal and that some nervousness can contribute to performance. Breathing deeply and doing a mental rehearsal of exactly how the race should go can also help triathletes remain calm and relaxed.
  • Enthusiasm and desire, love for the sport: Triathletes who win have a drive, a fire inside that fuels their passion to achieve a key goal, regardless of their level of talent or ability. They begin with a vision, and as they see that vision with more clarity, it becomes more likely to turn into reality. Wherever attention goes, energy flows.

Cycling expert explains strategies for getting faster

Offers 10 tactics for maximizing hills

This is an excerpt from Cycling Fast. It’s published with permission of Human Kinetics.

Climbs and descents make or break cycling races, according to cycling coach Robert Panzera. In his upcoming book, Cycling Fast (Human Kinetics, June 2010), Panzera covers hills and all elements that can make a cyclist faster, from conditioning to nutrition and key skills.

Panzera says even small climbs make a difference the closer a cyclist gets to the finish line. “Climbs are additive, meaning a 200-foot gain in elevation may not seem like much in the first few miles, but near the finish, it can seem like a mountain.” He advises cyclists to take special note of hills toward the end of the race because these hills split the race into two groups-the leading group going for the win and the chasers trying to pick up the remaining places. In Cycling Fast, Panzera offers 10 tactics for managing hills and staying in the lead:

  • Be near the front for corners that are followed immediately by hills. “This helps you prevent being gapped,” explains Panzera.
  • Shift to easier gears before approaching hills. “This prevents dropping the chain off the front chainrings when shifting from the big front ring to the small front ring,” he notes. “Quickly go around riders who drop their chains.”
  • Close gaps on hills immediately, but with an even, steady pace. “Once the group starts riding away on a hill, it is nearly impossible to bring them back,” Panzera warns.
  • Keep the pace high over the crest of the hill, because the leaders will increase speed faster than the riders at the tail of the group.
  • Relax and breathe deeply to control heart rate on climbs.
  • Dig deep to stay in contact on shorter climbs. “Once a group clears the top, it is difficult to catch up on the descent,” says Panzera.
  • On longer climbs, ride at a consistent pace that prevents overexertion.
  • Always start climbs near the front. If the pace becomes too fast, cyclists will be able to drop through the pack and still recover without losing contact with the pack.
  • Hills are a good place to attack. “Know the hill’s distance and location in the course before setting out on an attack or covering an attack by a competitor,” advises Panzera.
  • Try to descend near the front, but not on the front. Being near the front, as opposed to the back, gives cyclists a greater probability of avoiding crashes.

Panzera also advises noting all the descents before a race begins. “Long, straight descents may require work to stay in the draft, and twisty or narrow descents may require technical skills,” Panzera says. “If the descent seems technical in review, it will definitely be technical at race speeds.”

Cycling Fast covers the latest information on new high-tech racing frames, training with a power meter and heart rate monitor, and coordinating tactics as part of a team. Readers can learn how to periodize training and use the numerous tips, charts, and checklists to maximize effort.

Triathlon Training DVD series

I’ve reviewed this DVD series, “The Ultimate Training, Technique, and Strategy Series for Triathletes” and recommend you check it out. Most are taught by Clark Campbell, former Professional Triathlete and University of Kansas Swimming Coach.

The Bike, The Run, The Swim DVDs will take you through the nuances of technique and then go over detailed training plans in depth.

“The Core Strength: Pilates for Triathletes” is a superb teaching of core strength taught and flexibility by June Quick, Certified Pilates Instructor, licensed Physical Therapist, Certified Athletic Trainer, and Stanford University Swimming consultant. She explains the movements that are demonstrated by a beginner and pro triathlete, how to make some more advanced movements when you’re ready, and pre-hab to prevent common athletic injuries.

If you’re new to triathlon and learn better visually, this is the package you want. It’s like having a coach start you out. If you’ve been around the track a few times, pun intended, you may still pick up some technique and training pointers.

Championship Productions forwarded these to me for review and I’m glad they. I had not heard of them but these are some really good training resources.

Cycling – Trends in Tour Races

In this excerpt, we learn about “Trends in Tour Races“, reprinted with permission of Human Kinetics.

“Since the beginning of the 20th century, three-week tour races have been extremely demanding. Compared to the old days, the current trend is toward shorter, more intense daily stages. In the years to come, it is expected that the average amount of time a cyclist spends in zone 3 per stage will be more than 30 min.

Physiological Demands of the Different Phases of Tour Races
In general, three-week tour races have three main competition requirements: flat and long parcours (usually ridden at high speeds inside a large group of riders), individual High Tech Cycling - Science of riding fastertime trials (40 to 60 km over level terrain), and uphill cycling (high mountain passes).

Every tour race includes seven or more flat stages of about 200 km, lasting four to five

In this excerpt, we learn about “Trends in Tour Races“, reprinted with permission of Human Kinetics.

“Since the beginning of the 20th century, three-week tour races have been extremely demanding. Compared to the old days, the current trend is toward shorter, more intense daily stages. In the years to come, it is expected that the average amount of time a cyclist spends in zone 3 per stage will be more than 30 min.

Physiological Demands of the Different Phases of Tour Races
In general, three-week tour races have three main competition requirements: flat and long parcours (usually ridden at high speeds inside a large group of riders), individual time trials (40 to 60 km over level terrain), and uphill cycling (high mountain passes).

Every tour race includes seven or more flat stages of about 200 km, lasting four to five hours. Most of the time, cyclists ride in large groups of 150 to 200 cyclists. This considerably reduces the major force—air resistance—to be overcome in this type of terrain. As a result, the energy requirement of cycling can be decreased by as much as 40% (McCole et al. 1990), making the overall exercise intensity low to moderate. The proportion of the total stage time spent in zone 3 barely reaches 5% (Lucia, Hoyos et al. 1999).

A great mastery of technical skills (such as drafting or the ability to avoid crashes) would seem most important in this type of stage, in which most riders are able to finish within the same time. In fact, these stages usually do not determine the final outcome of a tour race.

The high average speeds (approximately 45 kph) at which riders are able to cover these stages require that they push high gears (53 X 12 to 11) during long periods. This inevitably results in some muscle damage. Previous research has reported increased levels of muscle damage markers during cycling tour races (Mena, Maynar, and Campillo 1996). This phenomenon may have a negative impact on performance during the second part of a three-week race, during which accumulated muscle fatigue may considerably limit performance in the phases of competition that determine the winner—the time trials and high mountain passes.

Tour races typically include three time trials (TT) performed over overall flat terrains: a short, opening TT of 5 to 10 km and two long TT of 40 to 60 km. This phase of the competition usually influences the final outcome of the race.

Air resistance is the main force that the cyclist encounters during TT. Thus, aerodynamic factors (the cyclist’s riding posture, the size of the frontal wheels, etc.) play a major role (Lucia, Hoyos, and Chicharro 2000a).

Those who seek top performance (average velocity of 50 kph) must tolerate high constant workloads, mostly in zone 3, during the entire 60 min of the TT (Lucia, Hoyos et al. 1999). Some authors have estimated that the mean absolute power output sustained during long TT averages 350 W, although TT specialists probably generate much higher power outputs (greater than 400 W) (Padilla et al. 2000).

Some mass-start stages of approximately 200 km (the so-called high mountain stages) include three to five mountain passes of 5 to 10% mean gradient, and thus require cycling uphill during several 30- to 60-min periods over a total time of five to six hours.

When climbing at low speeds (about 20 kph), the cyclist must mainly overcome the force of gravity (Swain 1994). Because of its effects on gravity-induced resistance, body mass has a major influence on climbing performance. A high power-output-to-body-mass ratio at maximal or near-maximal intensities (6 or more W/kg) is necessary for professional road riders (Lucia, Hoyos, and Chicharro 2000a; Padilla et al. 1999).

In addition, rolling resistance resulting from the interaction between the bicycle tires and the road surface increases considerably at lower riding speeds and on the rough road surfaces of most mountain routes (Lucia, Hoyos, and Chicharro 2000a). To overcome these forces, cyclists frequently switch from the conventional sitting position to a less economic standing posture to exert more force on the pedals. Climbing specialists perform high mountain ascents at intensities in zones 2 and 3 (Fernández-García et al. 2000; Lucia, Hoyos et al. 1999). Because of team requirements, however, some riders are not required to perform maximally during high mountain stages.”

Triathlon Brick Training

In this terrific excerpt reprinted with permission from Human Kinetics, Championship Triathlon Training, you’ll learn some brick training techniques and strategies.

Combination Training
The bike–run transition is addressed first because it is much more difficult than the swim–bike transition and thus the most practiced. Often referred to by many longtime triathletes simply as bricks, combination bike–run training is more than simply following a bike ride with a run. In the modern application of the method, a variety of combinations of two or even all three sports are used in training, primarily to help the body adapt quickly to the stress resulting from rapid changes in movement patterns. When you stop doing one activity and begin doing another very soon afterward, your body must make adjustments in blood flow, nervous system regulation, and muscular tension. For example, while the majority of blood flow has been directed toward your upper body during the swim, it must be redirected to your legs for the bike ride. During the ride, you hold your back muscles in an elongated, flat position with tension. For the run, those muscles must rapidly readjust and shorten to hold you in a more upright posture.

Your leg muscles may have grown accustomed to a slower turnover pace (cadence) during an extended period of cycling at 80 to 90 rpm. In the run they will need to adjust quickly upward to a stride rate of 90 or more per minute. Your ability to make each of these basic physiological adjustments improves with training that is specific to the demands of transitioning between sports rapidly. It stands to reason that just as performance in each sport improves with better training, as you practice and train for the changeovers and related adjustments between the sports, they will go more smoothly too. By learning to make the physiological adjustments in training, you are also training to be more successful psychologically by building realistic self-talk and a positive mind-set regarding the same transitions in racing situations.

The modern approach to combination training for successful transitions uses short training bouts in each sport while focusing on moving through the transitions to the next sport at race speed. This allows for more transition-specific practice, and it creates better overall quality in the swimming, cycling, and running segments of the session. It also makes the training more varied and more interesting. For this approach you set up physical locations specifically for practicing transitioning and plan routes that make such transition practice convenient. Practice for efficiently switching from one sport to the next simply becomes part of the training process in a way that adds a unique element to multisport training and increases enjoyment.

As noted, in triathlon and duathlon for most athletes, the bike-to-run transition is the most demanding one. This is probably due to the relatively high levels of fatigue and dehydration that occur as the race progresses and the change from a relatively static and crouched position on the bike to an upright and dynamic one on the run. Thus the most commonly emphasized combination training element is the bike-to-run transition. However, at the elite amateur and professional levels, the swim-to-bike transition, while not as difficult, is still extremely important in keeping overall times down. At these levels of competition, the bike speed of the racers is very high, at times more than an average of 25 mph. Thus the need to stay close to the other competitors, even in nondrafting events, is critical for successful performance. Of course, in draft-legal elite racing, how you do in the swim–bike transition can completely make or break your race. Losing just a few seconds in the transition process can easily lead to riding on your own rather than in a pack. Losing the advantages of drafting usually means that you have to work much harder on the bike. That will often lead to an increased split time in cycling. Then you will have the same problem on the run because you will be more tired when you get to it than you would have been if you had been in a draft pack on the bike.

Transition-focused training sessions require more preparation to organize and conduct than typical one-sport workouts. Thus their use is emphasized for race-specific intensities and endurance along with course-specific preparation in order to get the most out of the training. You should use a generic training setting that is similar to most triathlon courses (rolling hills) or a race-specific practice course to prepare for specific events. Ideally this will include a closed loop for the bike and a loop or out-and-back course for the run. For the swimto-bike transition training, an available lake or outdoor pool with a nearby cycling loop is ideal. To do either one, you will need a safe place to leave your bicycle and other equipment in a transition zone.

A typical combination training session includes two to four repeats of cycling and running or swimming and cycling at a speed endurance effort. This level of effort is a little lower than full racing effort yet faster than typical aerobic training. It is also definable as a tempo-effort, comfortable-speed intensity, or a specific level of work that represents your current projected speed for approximately twice your race distance. In other words, if you project a 7-minute-per-mile pace for 10K and a 7:30-per-mile pace for the half marathon, you would run this kind of effort at a 7:30-per-mile pace. Essentially these are miniduathlons or triathlons done at just below race speed.

Before completing the target combination sets, you should do a full warmup for both sports and for all three when you are doing triple combinations. This should include all the elements of the warm-ups described in chapter 5, including a progressive warm-up in each sport followed by skill sets and a set of progressive alactate efforts.

You begin each bike-to-run work interval by running to the bike at race speed as if you had come out of the swim. After mounting the bike at full speed, you ride the bike segment at tempo effort as described previously. Then you move through the transition to the run at speed and complete the run at tempo effort. The same scenario would occur in a swim-to-bike session. You begin the swim at speed, ideally using a start method similar to what you will use racing, then exit the water and proceed through a transition at speed, followed by the mount and your bike segment at tempo effort. You should use any equipment (such as a wet suit) that you anticipate using in the racing environment.

By breaking this training session into multiple efforts in an interval format, you will improve your performance quality while overlearning the transition skills and physiological adjustment processes. The primary goal of this training is to achieve a total training effort somewhat in excess of race distance at a power output that is similar, although less, than race effort when preparing for Olympic or sprint-distance races. If you are going for a longer race, you may not be able to do the full race distance in training on a regular basis. Note that this training can also be done at aerobic intensities. A lower-intensity approach to combination training is useful during base training periods (when most training is in an aerobic range of intensity) as described in chapter 5. A cool-down for the session should include both cycling and running, or swimming and cycling, or all three depending on the number of individual sports involved. The typical training session follows:
45-minute cycling at progressive aerobic effort with 10 3 30-second single-leg
pedaling drill (see chapter 3) and 6 3 15-second alactates
15-minute run at progressive aerobic effort with 6 3 60-step butt kicks followed
by 6 3 15-second alactates
Main Set
3 3 9-mile (14 km) ride and 2.5-mile (4 km) run with transition at speed,
several minutes of recovery between each set
15-minute run cool-down
30-minute cycle cool-down

You can modify the length, number of repetitions, and targeted intensity of training to create various physiological effects yet retain the basic emphasis on combining sports. As noted, this type of training requires you to set up a transition area where you can leave the bike and other equipment while you run. Therefore, it becomes a great opportunity for a coached workout. A coach or helper can take splits, evaluate and provide feedback on transition skills, and take care of nutritional needs as well as provide security for equipment. For International Triathlon Union (ITU) racing (that is, draft-legal racing), training with a group adds specificity to the transition-practice environment. This focus could become the basis for a very enjoyable age-group training session as well. To reduce concerns about bike theft, in solo training you could use a trainer for the cycling and then do the run workout from home, although this option reduces transition specificity considerably. Some athletes bring a trainer to a track and do their bike–run combinations there so that their equipment stays
within easy view for security.

Potential Physiological Benefits of Altitude Training

This is an excellent excerpt reprinted from Burke’s book with permission with permission from Human Kinetics, High-Tech Cycling-2nd Edition.

“Human physiology is affected in different ways at high altitude. In general, the various systems of the human body—pulmonary, cardiovascular, endocrine, skeletal muscles—respond and adjust in an effort to provide enough oxygen to survive in the hypoxic environment of high altitude. Some of these life-supporting physiological responses may also enhance athletic performance, particularly in endurance sports.

The scientific rationale for using altitude training for the enhancement of aerobic performance is based on the body’s response to changes in the partial pressure of inspired oxygen (PIO2) and the partial pressure of oxygen in the arterial blood (PaO2). PIO2 at sea level is equal to 149 mmHg. At Mexico City (2300 m, 7544 ft), PIO2 drops to approximately 123 mmHg. At the summit of Mt. Everest (8852 m, 29,035 ft), PIO2 is approximately 50 mmHg or only about 30% of sea level PIO2.

High-Tech Cycling book coverBecause of the altitude-induced decrease in PIO2, there is a decrease in PaO2, which leads to a drop in renal PaO2 and renal tissue oxygenation (Ou et al. 1998; Richalet et al. 1994). It is hypothesized that this reduction in renal tissue oxygenation stimulates the synthesis and release of erythropoietin (EPO) (Porter and Goldberg 1994; Richalet et al. 1994), the principal hormone that regulates erythrocyte (RBC) and hemoglobin production. In turn, an increase in serum EPO concentration stimulates the synthesis of new RBCs in the red bone marrow by promoting the cellular growth of immature erythrocytes, specifically the colony-forming unit-erythroid (CFU-E). Erythropoietin receptors are present on the surface of CFU-E. Binding of EPO to CFU-E receptors initiates the production of cellular transcription factors, synthesis of membrane and cytoskeletal proteins, synthesis of heme and hemoglobin, and the terminal differentiation of cells (Bell 1996). The RBC maturation process takes five to seven days from the initial altitude-induced increase in serum EPO (Bell 1996; Flaharty et al. 1990).

These hematological changes may significantly improve an athlete’s V·O2max by enhancing the blood’s ability to deliver oxygen to exercising muscles. It has been shown that improvements in RBC mass, hemoglobin concentration, and V·O2max enhance aerobic performance (Berglund and Ekblom 1991; Birkeland et al. 2000; Ekblom and Berglund 1991). Essentially, many athletes and coaches view altitude training as a natural or legal method of blood doping.

Research by Chapman, Stray-Gundersen, and Levine (1998) suggests that some athletes experience a better hematological response at altitude than others do. Female and male collegiate runners who completed either LHTL or traditional “live high, train high” altitude training were classified as responders or nonresponders based on their performance in a postaltitude 5-km run. On average, responders demonstrated a significant 4% improvement (37 s) in the postaltitude 5-km run versus their prealtitude performance; nonresponders were approximately 1% slower (14 s). Hematological data showed that responders had a significantly larger increase in serum EPO (52%) compared with nonresponders, who demonstrated a 34% increase in serum EPO. Similarly, postaltitude RBC mass for responders was 8% higher (p < 0.05), but nonresponders’ RBC mass was only 1% higher (not statistically significant) compared with prealtitude values. A breakdown of responders indicated that 82% came from the LHTL group, and 18% came from the “live high, train high” group. The authors concluded that each athlete may need to follow an altitude training program that places the athlete at an individualized, optimal altitude for living and another altitude for training, thereby producing the best possible hematological response.

Skeletal Muscle
As described, the primary reason endurance athletes train at altitude is to increase RBC mass and hemoglobin concentration. In addition, they may gain secondary physiological benefits as a result of altitude exposure. For example, altitude training has been shown to increase skeletal muscle capillarity (Desplanches et al. 1993; Mizuno et al. 1990). In theory, this physiological adaptation enhances the exercising muscles’ ability to extract oxygen from the blood.

Other favorable skeletal muscle microstructure changes that occur as a result of training at altitude include increased concentrations of myoglobin (Terrados et al. 1990), increased mitochondrial oxidative enzyme activity (Terrados et al. 1990), and a greater number of mitochondria (Desplanches et al. 1993), all of which serve to enhance the rate of oxygen utilization and aerobic energy production.

Nevertheless, scientific data in support of altitude-induced skeletal muscle adaptations are minimal, particularly among well-trained athletes. Only Mizuno and colleagues (1990) examined elite athletes; Desplanches and colleagues (1993) and Terrados and colleagues (1990) examined the effect of altitude training on the skeletal muscle characteristics of untrained individuals. Additional studies conducted on elite athletes failed to demonstrate significant changes in skeletal muscle microstructure caused by altitude training (Saltin et al. 1995; Terrados et al. 1988). Furthermore, Desplanches and colleagues (1993) conducted their study at impractical simulated elevations (4100 to 5700 m, 13,450 to 18,700 ft), an altitude too high for athletes to train at. Thus, based on the current scientific literature, it is unclear whether altitude training, as practiced by most elite athletes at moderate elevations of 1800 to 3050 m (6000 to 10,000 ft) improves oxygen extraction and utilization via favorable changes in skeletal muscle capillarity, myoglobin, mitochondrial oxidative enzyme activity, and mitochondrial density. Additional research is warranted.

Another important physiological adaptation that may occur as a result of exposure to moderate altitude is an improvement in the capacity of the skeletal muscle and blood to buffer the concentration of hydrogen ions (H+). High concentrations of H+ are known to contribute to skeletal muscle fatigue by impairing actin-myosin crossbridge cycling, reducing the sensitivity of troponin for calcium (Ca2+) and inhibiting the enzyme phosphofructokinase (PFK) (McComas 1996). Thus, an enhanced H+ buffering capacity may have a beneficial effect on aerobic and anaerobic performance.

In support of this, Mizuno and colleagues (1990) reported a significant 6% increase in the buffering capacity of the gastrocnemius muscle of elite male cross-country skiers who lived at 2100 m (6890 ft) and trained at 2700 m (8860 ft) for 14 days. Significant improvements in maximal O2 deficit (29%) and treadmill run time to exhaustion (17%) were observed after the athletes returned to sea level. In addition, a positive correlation (r = 0.91, p < 0.05) was demonstrated between the relative increase in buffering capacity of the gastrocnemius muscle and treadmill run time to exhaustion.

Gore and colleagues (2001) reported that skeletal muscle buffer capacity increased 18% (p < 0.05) in male triathletes, cyclists, and cross-country skiers following 23 days of living at 3000 m (9840 ft) and training at 600 m (1970 ft). Furthermore, they found that mechanical efficiency significantly improved during a 4 3 4-min submaximal cycling test following the 23-day LHTL period.

The precise mechanisms responsible for enhanced skeletal muscle buffering capacity following high altitude training are unclear but may be related to changes in creatine phosphate and/or muscle protein concentrations (Mizuno et al. 1990). Improvements in blood buffering capacity may be due to increases in bicarbonate (Nummela and Rusko 2000) or hemoglobin concentration.

Optimal Pedaling Cadence

This is an excellent excerpt reprinted with permission from Burke’s book, High-Tech Cycling-2nd Edition.

High-Tech Cycling book cover“Most studies examining pedaling cadence have focused on pedal optimization in terms of economy/efficiency and local muscle stress. In this section, we will summarize the findings of the numerous laboratory studies that have attempted to identify which cadence is optimal. Unfortunately, few investigations have analyzed the question in well-trained cyclists riding their own bikes, making it difficult to apply the findings to actual cycling.

Optimal Cadence and Oxygen Cost: Economy/Efficiency
The two main messages to emerge from the numerous studies published since the beginning of the 20th century are as follows:

  • Low cadences (50 to 60 rpm) tend to be more economical/efficient than high pedaling cadences (> 90 rpm)
  • Paradoxically, most individuals prefer to pedal at high, theoretically inefficient/uneconomical cadences (examples include Boning, Gonen, and Maassen 1984; Cathcart, Richardson, and Campbell 1924; Chavarren and Calbet 1999; Coast, Cox, and Welch 1986; Croissant and Boileau 1984; Gaesser and Brooks 1975; Garry and Wishart 1931; Gueli and Shephard 1976; Jordan and Merrill 1979; MacIntosh, Neptune, and Horton 2000; Marsh and Martin 1997; Marsh and Martin 1998; Seabury, Adams, and Ramey 1977; Takaishi, Yasuda, and Moritani 1994; Takaishi et al. 1996; Takaishi et al. 1998).

A detailed look at the published studies suggests that both general conclusions need to be approached with caution. Several factors may alter the optimal and preferred pedaling cadence, including absolute and/or relative power output (i.e., watts or percentage maximal oxygen uptake [V·O2max], respectively), duration of exercise, test mode (cycle ergometer tests versus riding a bicycle on a treadmill), fitness level of the subject (cyclist or noncyclist), and the high interindividual variability, even among trained cyclists of similar fitness levels, reported by most authors.

In general, during laboratory tests performed by noncyclists at constant power outputs (usually = 200 W), pedaling at low rates (~ 50 to 70 rpm) resulted in lower oxygen uptake (V·O2) than pedaling at higher rates (> 90 rpm). In any case, such a generalization is of little practical value. First, one questions the benefit of optimizing pedaling cadence in subjects whose power output rarely surpasses 200 W, those who cycle for fitness or recreation. Second, elite cyclists are the ones interested in optimizing cadence and making it more economical/efficient, and they are able to generate much higher power outputs during long periods. The average power output of Bjarne Riijs during the 1997 Amstel Gold Race, a World Cup classic lasting over seven hours, was close to 300 W (data from During the most important stages of professional road cycling races, riders are often required to generate power outputs of over 400 W (Lucia, Hoyos, and Chicharro 2001a), not to mention the one-hour record in a velodrome (Bassett et al. 1999).

Bassett and colleagues (1999) estimated that the mean power outputs required to break the one-hour world records in a velodrome during the last years (53.0 to 56.4 km) ranged between 427 and 460 W. The average power output of Miguel Indurain during his 1994 one-hour record averaged 510 W (Padilla et al. 2000). Probably most pro riders are so economically below 200 W, that pedaling cadence hardly changes anything. Below 200 W, Lance Armstrong’s human engine is probably similar to that of the last rider in the overall classification of the Tour de France in recent years, and pedaling cadence does not have a significant effect on either one. The picture is likely to be different above 400 W, but there are scarce data in the literature related to the oxygen cost of generating power outputs over 400 W for 20 or more minutes (Lucia, Hoyos, and Chicharro 2000), and no data exist on how pedaling cadence could alter this variable. This is the type of information needed in cycling science.

We should therefore be cautious when applying the findings of previous research concerning cadence optimization to highly trained cyclists. The most economical of cadences tends to increase with absolute power output, that is, with watts (Boning, Gonen, and Maassen 1984; Coast and Welch 1985; Hagberg et al. 1981; Seabury, Adams, and Ramey, 1977). For instance, Coast and Welch (1985) showed that the cadence eliciting the lowest V·O2 at 100 and 330 W was 50 and 80 rpm, respectively. Thus, absolute power output is a key factor of cadence optimization and precludes any simple answer to the problem. On the other hand, trained cyclists are more effective than recreational riders at directing pedal forces perpendicular to the crank arm (Faria 1992). Such an ability carries a biomechanical advantage and probably allows trained riders to pedal at high cadences with no major loss of efficiency.

Instead of speaking of an inverse relationship between cadence and economy/efficiency, maybe it would be more correct to speak of a U relationship during constant-load exercise. There may be an optimum pedaling cadence below and above which oxygen cost increases significantly. Yet, can we assign a value to this theoretical optimum cadence at the bottom of the U? Probably not, given the great variability among cadence studies involving trained cyclists yielding the lowest V·O2, from ~ 60 to ~ 90 rpm (Chavarren and Calbet 1999; Coast and Welch 1985; Hagberg et al. 1981).

It is generally accepted that the theoretical optimal cadence in terms of oxygen cost for most humans is generally lower than that preferred by trained cyclists (> 90 rpm). This generalization requires some specification. First, the gap between the most economical or efficient and preferred cadence is usually narrower in trained cyclists. For instance, Hagberg and colleagues (1981) found both to be close to 90 rpm in trained cyclists. Second, few data in the scientific literature concern the preferred cadence of trained cyclists during actual cycling, although it is consistently assumed to be higher than 90 rpm. Indeed, the latter is only really true for one-hour records in the velodrome. Besides, fixed gears are used in velodrome events. Fixed gears are designed so the rider is constantly forced to move the pedals and might elicit different physiological responses than normal, free gears.

Only one report addressed the preferred pedaling cadence of professional cyclists during three-week races (Lucia, Hoyos, and Chicharro 2001b). Among other findings, the mean preferred cadence of the subjects was shown to range from 70 to 90 rpm, and high variability was shown between subjects and the type of terrain (flat versus uphill). High interindividual variability has also been reported for the preferred cadence of trained cyclists (72 to 102 rpm) during laboratory testing (Hagberg et al. 1981).

Finally, irrespective of the cadence adopted, the oxygen cost of pedaling is largely determined by the percentage distribution of efficient type I fibers in the main muscles involved in cycling—the knee extensor muscles, particularly the vastus lateralis—at least in trained cyclists (Coyle et al. 1991, 1992). We could speculate that, in subjects with a particularly high percentage distribution of type I fibers in the knee extensor muscles, the choice of theoretically inefficient/uneconomical cadences (too low or too high) would have a lower impact on the metabolic cost of cycling than would that choice in cyclists with a smaller proportion of this fiber type.”

Pedaling Technique

Like swimming, and running, there is technique to cycling. More specifically, there is a technique for optimizing your pedaling. If you’re going to on your bike a few hours, why not do it right from the beginning.

I found a terrific excerpt from a book that was recommended to me by a friend/triathlete. Click here for the book, Swim, Bike, Run. One of the authors is Wes Hobson who runs Triathlon Camps. He also co-authored the DVD, Science of Triathlon, available at our online store.

“Many studies have focused on pedaling mechanics. Just as we think we know everything we need to know, we learn more. Knowledge evolves as more discoveries are made and as theories are developed, proved, disproved, and overturned. The simple act of pedaling has seen many of these evolutions, with elliptical chain rings, one-directional cranks, camming cranks, power cranks, and vastly differing technical advice (supply power 360 degrees, pull up on the backstroke, lower your heels, point your toes, and so on). We like to keep it simple. The pedal stroke hinges on a simple motion: moving in a circle, the most mathematically perfect shape in the world.

When pedaling, think, circles: nice, smooth, round, perfect circles. This may sound like we’re telling you to supply power 360 degrees, but we’re not—this concept has been disproved. Human anatomy dictates that more power is available in the pushing downward phase with the strong quadriceps muscles than in the pulling up with the hamstrings. Go ahead and imagine supplying power all the way around, but don’t get hung up on the idea: don’t overcompensate at any point in the circle. Keep it smooth. Imagine your thighs are piston-driven levers and your calves connecting rods. Keep the pistons moving up and down with a nice, regular rhythm thighs doing most of the work, while the lower leg travels a relaxed circle. The connecting rods transfer that power smoothly to the pedal. You’ll need a smooth and quick cadence, as it is nearly impossible to perform at a low rpm.

Your calves, hamstrings, and gluteals supply a lot more power than you may feel or realize. After months or years of riding diligently, you may notice the greatest muscle mass change in your hamstrings first, then your calves, butt, and finally quads; inexperienced riders may notice quad development first. All these muscles are employed to complete a simple circular, mechanical action. Keeping it all smooth by balancing the work over these muscle groups is the key to efficient power transfer to your pedals.

Riders debate over foot angle: should it be level, toes down, heel down, or what? The answer: relax and do what comes natural. Don’t make a conscientious effort to alter the angle. Keep thinking circles, relax, and don’t lock up. Experiment however, under different conditions. When climbing a steep hill, try dropping your heels a bit; this works for many but also may work only if you change other body mechanics (more on this later). In any case, dropping your heels employs the calf muscles more, supplying additional power. Pointing your toes can be effective during high-cadence spinning workouts to reduce “hopping” in the saddle. But be careful, don’t make this a habit, as pointed toes keep calf muscles contracted and can lead to cramping, especially when transitioning to the run phase.”

Click here for the excerpt