Saturday, December 12, 2009

Pedaling Drills

One of the goals of the Base period is to improve your speed skills - the unique techniques of your sport. At first these are learned by isolating them and making the movements slowly. As the movement pattern becomes ingrained the movement becomes faster and more complex as it is combined with other critical movements.

Pedaling a bike seems like it ought to be simple and require little in the way of skill. That's not the case. In any group ride look around and you can pick out the riders who have good pedaling skills and those with poor skills. Efficiency - how much energy is wasted (or not) - is what this is all about.

Athletes who are efficient at pedaling a bike are especially good at the top, bottom and recovery side of the pedal stroke. At the top they transition efficiently from pedaling up and back to pedaling forward and down. At the bottom of the stroke they do just the opposite without wasting energy. Riders who are not very good at pedaling make these transitions too late. This wastes a tiny amount of energy in every stroke. In one-hour you may make 5,000 to 6,000 pedal strokes. That is potentially a lot of wasted energy.

Efficient cyclists slightly unweight the pedal on the recovery side, or backside, of the stroke. Inefficient riders let the foot and leg on the recovery side rest on the pedal causing the other leg, the one driving the pedal down, to work harder to lift the dead weight of the recovery leg. Again, this wastes a lot of energy.

Note that I’ve not said anything about the front side of the pedal stroke. This side is easy to get right. Pushing the pedal down does not require much in the way of skill. The problem is that inefficient riders focus only on the down stroke. They “stomp” the pedals typically with a lot of excess, side-to-side, upper body movement. This also wastes a tremendous amount of energy.

Let’s get rid of the energy wasters in this Base period. Drills will help you to pedal better. Following are the common ones I use with the athletes I coach. They may be mixed together in a single workout or each may be done by itself as a workout.

* Isolated leg training (ILT) drill. This is the quintessential pedaling drill, the one you should do a lot in the early weeks of Base. It’s done on an indoor trainer. Unclip one foot and rest it on a chair next to the bike so you are left to pedal with only one leg. With the bike in a low (easy) gear turn the crank at a comfortable cadence. The first thing you’ll notice is that getting through the top of the stroke, the 12-o’clock position, is difficult. Focus on smoothing this top transition. At first you may only last a few seconds before the hip flexors fatigue. When that happens switch to the other leg. When it fatigues clip both feet in and pedal for a few minutes applying what you have learned in the single-leg pedaling. Repeat the drill several times throughout the workout. A variation on this drill involves using Power Cranks™. These are cranks like the ones you have on your bike now, except they aren’t connected. So each leg pedals individually. If you get these it’s best to mount them on a spare bike so you don’t have to change crank arms when you want to do different workouts.

* Toe touch drill. In this mind drill you focus on your feet. Every time your foot approaches the top of the stroke imagine that you can push your foot forward in your shoe touching your toes to the front end of the shoe. Of course, you won’t be able to do this, but trying will cause you to transition more smoothly through the 12-o’clock position. Pedal in an easy gear going slowly as you learn how to make this movement. As you master the drill you’ll be able to turn the pedals faster.

* Top only drill. This is another foot-focused drill. Pedal the bike by keeping the top of your foot in constant and firm contact with the inside, top of the shoe. Try not to push down on the pedal at all. The actual pedaling is done just with the upstroke. Don’t apply excessive upward force. Make the pedaling movement gentle and smooth.

* 9-to-3 drill. As you pedal the bike imagine that you can drive the pedal forward from the 9-o’clock position on the backside to 3-o’clock on the front side of the stroke without going through 12 o’clock. Keep the gearing low so that you can pedal easily.

* Spin-up drill. During a ride shift to a low (easy) gear and gradually increase your cadence higher and higher until it is so fast that you begin to bounce on the saddle. Then return to a normal cadence. It should take 30 seconds or so for each “spin-up.” The bouncing is because you have reached and gone slightly beyond your optimal high cadence. You bounce because your foot is still pushing down at the bottom, six-o’clock position, of the stroke. And since the crank arm can’t get any longer, as you push down your butt comes off of the saddle. This drill is best done with a cadence meter on your pedal so you know what your top-end cadence is. The goal is raise your highest, optimal cadence by learning to transition smoothly at the bottom of the stroke.

* High-cadence drill. Throughout a workout insert high-cadence intervals of a few minutes each. During each of these intervals increase your cadence to a level which is just slightly uncomfortable and then maintain it for the length of the interval. Use a low (easy) gear. Recover between the intervals for several minutes while pedaling at your normal cadence. Over the course of several weeks extend the duration of each interval and the combined interval time for the workout.

* Fixed-gear drill. This requires special equipment – a fixed-gear bike. Your local bike shop can help you set up such a bike. This is a bike that has only one chain ring, one cog and no derailleurs or freewheel. When the wheels go around the pedals also go around. You can’t coast. When riding a fixed gear you must learn to relax and let the bike do the work. The first few times you ride it go to some place flat with no traffic and no stop signs. A large parking lot would be perfect. Keep the workouts short at first. Be forewarned that this is a dangerous workout until you master riding the “fixie.”

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Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Training Tools

In 1995 I tried using a power meter for the first time--an SRM the company loaned me for the summer while I was writing The Cyclist's Training Bible. It began to change the way I saw the process of training for bike racing and triathlon. Then in 1998 Tune, Inc. which created and sold the Power-Tap power meter gave me a prototype to use. I've been using them ever since and now require that everyone I coach also have a power meter. The heart rate monitor, while a useful tool in itself, is now an even a better tool. The combination of power and heart allows me to prescribe workouts and analyze their results in very precise ways. I don't know how I coached athletes before the power meter came along. I suppose it was all just guesswork although it seemed quite effective at the time.

Now something else has come down the pike that is once again modifying how I view and understand training -- WKO+ software (formerly known as Cycling Peaks). I started using it for myself and the athletes I coach last fall. Designed by Andy Coggan and Hunter Allen, this makes the power and heart rate tools even more effective. It took me a while to figure out, but once again I am beginning to see training in a slightly clearer way. Based on metrics called "Training Stress Score" (TSS) and "Intensity Factor" (IF) which are derived from power meter data, the software produces and updates daily how your training is going. (I won't go into the math of TSS, IF, etc here. Buy Coggan's and Allen's book, Training and Racing With a Power Meter for all the gory details.)

Let me give a small example of how my view of training is being refined and better defined because of WKO+.

Above is a screen shot of an athlete's "Performance Manager Chart" from WKO+. The red line represents fatigue, the blue line fitness and the black line form (race readiness). To paraphrase a basic concept from Andy Coggan, form = fitness - fatigue. This simply means that if you want to be race ready (rising black line) you need to first build fitness (rising blue line) by being very consistent with your training and then reduce fatigue (red) by allowing for rest. You can see this happening in the above chart. Fitness ratchets upward for several weeks as the athlete trains fairly consistently. Several times throughout this four-month snapshot fatigue is shed. You can see this as a drop in the red line. The athlete is resting by reducing training stress through less intensity, less frequency, less duration or some combination of these. As fatigue is reduced, form rises. The athlete is becoming race ready. Very simple to see.

But there are some less obvious nuances. For example, notice in circle "A" that fatigue drops and form rises. The athlete is becoming race ready. But also notice that fitness is dropping at the same time. Whenever training stress is reduced to eliminate fatigue, fitness also begins a slow decline. Basically, the same thing is happening with circle B--fatigue is down, form is up and fitness is dropping slightly. Even though form appears to be about the same level in both circles, notice that fitness drops more in circle A. In fact, the athlete reported not feeling very sharp at the form high point in A, but reported feeling quite strong at circle B's high form point. Obviously, because not as much fitness was lost.

So what does this mean? For years I have been tapering athletes in the Peak period by having them do a race effort workout every 72 hours with two active recovery days between. This has usually worked well. Circle B reflects that training method. Essentially, circle A had too many days of active recovery between the hard workouts. So because of the software now I can now see a representation of what I figured out many years ago and I can actually manage the day the athlete comes into high form. Pretty remarkable.

Stay tuned as I'm told there are even more remarkable features being designed for the software. It's becoming more fun all the time.

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