Strength training – low cadence, big gear hill reps for Trisutto camp athletes in Cyprus.
Even after all these years, and all the results I’m still asked by athletes about bike cadence. How come I’m such a proponent for ‘non-biker’ trained athletes to use low cadence? Athletes sit at home and watch the cycling on TV and question why don’t I recommend such spinning.
Let me put it in perspective for you.
Many pro cyclists train from 750km to say 1200 km per week, and do so for 10+ years prior to you watching them on the TV. Many still don’t find the magical feel on the pedals that the top small percentage do. If riders who are pro and spend 6 days a week training a minimum of 4 to 5 hrs a day can’t find ‘a feel for the pedals’ then how can someone with no background, who can only put in a maximum of 200 km a week find it? Yes there will be exceptions. But how many do you think? I don’t train for the exception but instead make adjustments when they do come along every generation or so.
Many field and lab tests have been done to attempt to show spinning is more efficient to the newcomer than just pumping the big gear, or as we call it stomping. These tests results don’t get aired much because the end results nearly always bore out the different conclusion than what the cycling fraternity were looking for in the test. Confirmation could not be given. In fact, most if not all tests showed that subjects who were not trained produced more power and sustainable speed at cadences between 60 (yes you read right) between 60 and 70 cadence. Any higher and the efficiency was lost. I’ve read studies from USA, Australia , England , and even France, and all come with the same conclusion, that over 70 cadence the subjects watt to power endurance was significantly less than the under 70 cadence group. The same riders under the same conditions lost as much as 10% of their vital scores.
In all cases heart rate began to climb at the various cadence levels, and once the riding novices were asked to hold 100 cadence, not only did their performance diminish greatly, but also their heart rate rose to levels approaching 15% below max for the entire tests. Again, across all data, I saw this was universal, and I would hope to any reasonable person not a debatable point.
Low Cadence and Total Body Force riding
So keeping in line with the specific requirements of our sport, I considered that when training for Triathlon:
a) We have to train three disciplines, not one. So our hours are limited for bike training compared to cyclists.
b) Most if not all athletes that I come in contact with are not ex-professional bike riders with an already wound in innate feel of the pedals. Thus ‘spinning’ may be detrimental to them riding to the best of their ability.
c) The race is not over once we hop off the bike. So, riding with an elevated heart rate close to ones anaerobic threshold would not be advisable if one wanted to run at a reasonable pace after the bike.
Yes these were assumptions back then when I formed my opinions, and I would think based on sound principles. Over the years experience has taught me that this judgment was indeed one of my better ones as all riders in the age group classes I have helped have made rapid and sustainable gains on the bike.
I’’m about function over form. What works for the individual is what is right. Watching a 90kg or 198lb athlete spinning down the road at 100 cadence makes me depressed, as does watching a certified level coach teach a 50kg or 110lb 5′ 2″ female to swim like Michael Phelps, who is 6′ 6″ or 185cm and looks like an aircraft carrier. It makes me cry and want to have these coaches certified in another way.
If you are not exceptional or you don’t have an innate feel for the pedals, take my tip: if you want to run to the best of your ability off the bike, and get the most out of it when you are on it, then lower cadences will produce results for you.
Join Trisutto Head Coach Brett Sutton and his squad at training Camp in Cyprus in April, 2018 for insights into the Trisutto Coaching and Training methodologies.
Our approach to training extends to the selection of equipment, where we do our best to incorporate common sense principles with proven results. With that, I’m often asked about which wheels and tyres are best for which athlete and why I’m so ‘anti’ disc?
I’ll respond to the question on tyres first as this is the least complicated. My opinion is that for Iron distance racing the choice between tubulars or clinchers shouldn’t be based on which one is faster.
Instead it should be on:
1. Which one you can change with confidence.
2. Which one you can ride with confidence after you have changed it.
Unlike ITU short course races, our day is not over if we have some tyre trouble, which every athlete inevitably does. So with such small differences in actual speed advantage, the major time consideration is if we have a technical problem on the ride, then what is the preferred option to complete (and still compete) in the race? Tyre choice becomes critical.
In the past I have had most of my non-technical riders stick with clinchers, the reasons are threefold:
They worry about if a tubular is glued on properly.
They find getting a properly glued tubular tyre off very, very difficult.
If they do have to change it, they then ride so carefully that they lose masses of time worrying about whether it will come off in a fast corner.
I have also seen very experienced riders have accidents after they have changed a tubular and then hit the pavement.
To me being one second faster over 10km means little if we lose 10 minutes over 40km because we are not confident riding on a non-glued replacement. So if you’re a rider who worries about the downhills or sharp corners in normal circumstances, then I think clinchers would be the best selection without doubt.
If however you’re a confident rider capable of down hilling and cornering well on a tyre that you replaced yourself, I would say go for tubular. Similarly, if you are one of these athletes who are going to give up after any technical problem on the bike regardless, tubular will be your best option.
Stormin’ Normann having trouble with the tubulars: “Too much gluuuue!”
Now to the lovers of gadgets and all things theory:
Unlike what is common perception I am not anti-disc. I also acknowledge that the disc IS faster in the wind tunnel.
So why don’t your hear me singing their praises and having all my guys ride on discs?
1. You have to be a confident and technical rider to use discs effectively. If wind gusts scare you and throw you off your rhythm, then it’s prudent to avoid using them.
2. A disc needs to be up to around 40km an hour to be of a real true speed advantage. The men have only just been able to achieve this in Ironman over the last couple of seasons. A 4hr 30 ride give or take. So for the age-groupers and pro women, it’s not really going to work for you.
3. In a crosswind (particularly when it’s gusty), more energy is used and thus will come back to hurt you on the run.
I would also add the clinching argument that Hawaii doesn’t allow discs. So why practice with one when you should be focused on preparing your race setup for the World Champs?
Chrissie won first year on HED Jet 6’s (60mm deep) – front and back.
So discs out, what do we go with?
For men I tend to be a tri spoke fan more than the deep (808), or ridiculously deep (1080) wheel rims. You don’t get the speed of the disc but you still catch the cross wind and it tires your legs for the run.
In cases where Hawaii is not on the calendar, if you fancy yourself a good bike handler and prefer discs I am not going to tell you otherwise. If your dream is Hawaii then stick to the shallower depth of aero wheels available. Aero is not as important if you can hop on board the bike train. If you are strong and fit, shallow are all you need. If you insist on getting a bit of airtime by leading the race on the bike then be my guest, ride the big boys and run 3hr 10min.
One note for the boys to remember is that Hawaii is a different animal to the tougher Iron distance races, where to qualify you’ll have to be able to ride well and not in a big group. So having the wheel to take advantage of the course can be crucial.
For female riders the best advice I can give is a good pair of shallower depth aero wheels that are light. If you want to mix, then match a shallower front wheel and a deeper rear wheel, as cross winds affect the front more than the rear. If you’re unsteady on a bike in the wind, then use shallower wheels on the front and the back. If you’re OK then the shallower front, semi deep back combination will work for you. And if you think you handle as good as the guys then back yourself and go the semi deep front and back.
Hope this will help in your selection, Chrissie won her first Hawaii on none of the big end toys, just semi deep aero wheels, which she used at training.
Remember that in Iron distance we need reliability first, confidence second and you take your pick for third. All the hype about speed won’t help you change a tyre on the day you really need to. Just ask Normann.
The Northern Hemisphere season has kicked off and one of the most asked questions is ‘Coach, I’ve got time before I do my main race. Can I do a race in another sport?’
My answer changes depending on the sport, the amount of time before the main race, and the possibility that doing that race could cause injury that will impact on the main goal of the season.
Let’s start with an open water swim race. The answer is nearly always a yes, great idea. Any time we get to practice open water in a real race scenerio is a big positive for me. If it is not the day before the race I’m more than happy to give it the big thumbs up.
Let’s move to the run race scenario. Again, I like this as a training aid to a better triathlon run. In saying that, we break it up into two categories:-
To help improve speed, choose a race that is much shorter than race distance. If one is racing Sprint or Olympic distance triathlon, then a 3 to 5 km road race is a great stimulus for future.
To help improve race pace for long course / Ironman athletes, then races from 10 to 21 km are ideal. My favorite is around 15 km, as I have found it gives a great stimulus of both above race pace and endurance, but without flattening the athlete, or interrupting too much their training due to needing a longer time to recover. When attempting this style of race we insist it must be done negative split, or as a build run. This ensures we don’t build up a lot of unnecessary lactate during what is a glorified training session.
Running Races can compliment our triathlon training well.
I left the bike to last, as when an athlete tells me they would like to join a cycle race, I ask if they would like a broken collarbone before their main event of the year?
In a perfect world I’d love to say yes, but rarely does this occur. Safety must be the ultimate decider of bike racing, and I just don’t see pack riding being beneficial to an Ironman racer. If they ask can I do a time trial race, I’m the first to say ‘what a great idea’.
Let me be clear, if someone asked me to pick between a 1 hour criterium or a 1 hour time trial on a turbo, I would say there is no comparison. (I have only seen one, no two athletes fall off a turbo – but that is for another story!)
Racing other sports I find to be a great benefit if you put them in context with your long term goals, and can help you enjoy your fitness without breaking the bank – financially, or physically.
The terribly sad events of the past days are once again a reminder of the ever increasing dangers when training on public roads. It is worth reminding ourselves that the single most efficient and result producing tool for triathlon cycling improvement is the turbo trainer.
Discussing training with age group athletes at our training camps, I observe that so many who already have a busy work and family schedule are also spending so much time ‘commuting’ to training, or engaging in activities that our Trisutto pro (non-working, no kids) athletes do not have time to do!
A lot of the programs I see incorporate gym strength training, which is a waste of valuable time in pursuit of sports specific strength, and also will not develop your specific skill level in any of the three disciplines. Instead we incorporate strength work directly into the disciplines of swim, bike and run.
The reasoning is simple, but very effective:
What we’re trying to do is engage and strengthen the muscle groups that actually perform the discipline while using the correct skill technique for our sport.
Riding a turbo is far superior to road riding if you wish to become a bike monster! It can be controlled, it can be monitored and through smart training I’ve seen the turbo turn many a poor cyclist into a good one. For busy age group athletes, riding the turbo is also time efficient, with no commute to get to training routes considered safer for riding. Instead just hop on, and ‘give it a tonk’!
Always have and always will be a fan of the turbo.
In my earlier days a turbo set was an every second ride occurrence, however with the onset of ITU legal draft races I let it go. With the last years increasing focus on Ironman I reintroduced it as a big part of what we do. Athletes don’t have to work on if it is not to their liking, however let me be clear:
It is the key to opening the door to time-trialling success, and is at the core of our TBF (Total Body Force) method. The turbo:
– Addresses time management issues (no commute, no gym).
– Better promotes strength acquisition within the specific cycling muscles
– Addresses safety concerns of training on public roads
– Is suitable for all weather conditions (too hot, too cold, too wet), seasons, daylight or nighttime hours.
One of the many questions coaches and athletes ask when using Moderate, Medium, Mad as a perception of effort level, is why we also advise that at top speeds to hold no higher than 95% effort. Is this not contradictory?
I want to clarify that I believe this is an essential ingredient of building performance but also maintaining it over long periods of time.
Here are three reasons to explain my thinking:
1) Holding manageable technique:
Speed as well as endurance comes from holding a manageable technique under pressure of effort.
Very early on in my swim career I heard from a wise old coach that tough is not how much you can hurt or be hurt, but is Technique Under Fatigue – TUF. This has been pivotal in my success.
You may notice I say ‘manageable technique’, rather than good technique. If you can’t handle the technique and be able to replicate it over the duration of the race distance then it’s not manageable. When technique is not manageable, the performance breaks down with the degrading of the technique as you fatigue.
Many a world champion has had questionable techniques in regards mechanics, but have been able to control their particular technique for long periods under fatigue – as well as pressure of competition.
This is manageable technique.
When going all out, and giving it every physical exertion, one tends to tighten up and lose the fluidity and thus control of their natural technique. This applies to each discipline – swim, bike and run. I have found over years of trial and error just taking that perceived 5% off from giving everything allows the athlete to hold their stroke or stride while under high exertion. This impacts performance in a most positive way.
Speed and all out effort, and not distance is the main instigator of over training.
One can with proper training travel prodigious distance with little or no negative impact on performance, however, short efforts done too frequently bring on massive fatigue very quickly. Placing the 95% target in the minds of athletes alleviates that possibility somewhat. Thus, I see it as an important part of the overall picture of controlling the efforts to allow longer seasons of high performances.
Being at the very best speed one can achieve heightens the risk of injury by a huge amount. The 95% mantra again puts a small insurance policy of control within the “mad ” part of the preparation.
I hear some ask what about the absolute speed training?
Here is something to think about for you coaches. We have seen in all disciplines that I emphasise shorter distances, with many repetitions to develop speed. I do this using the principle that it’s the acceleration to top speed that is the primary source of improvement in speed. I am absolutely certain of this.
Science may not have yet caught up with it, but like most other innovations we have followed before they were accepted, this too will be agreed to in the future by the sports scientists.
Our results are proving it yearly. However, for now I can only add that the firing of the muscle cells to accelerate, is the most important recruitment for improvement. Not the amount of time spent at that maximum speed.
Max speed or all out effort, can be self defeating. Mad is about controlled top effort. To go 95% is certainly very uncomfortable – but it is controlled. It is TUF (Technique under fatigue).
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Thomas Schafer doing what he does best on a bike: hammering.
Since Brett’s (Sutton) initial blog on low cadence there has been a lot of discussions on the right cadence for special events and different athletes here on Trisutto.com.
One of the questions asked was: ‘What would you recommend for mountain biking?’
Now this could seem to be a little bit off topic for a squad that is highly specialised on triathlon performance. But it’s not. Not only because we have both a bunch of XTERRA athletes and a bunch of pure cyclists among our athletes. This questions goes to the heart of our individual approach. There is no one size fit’s all recipe. Every coaching decicion consists of weighing different aspects against each other. And this is exactly what the answer to that question shows.
Cadence is always a compromise of different things:
First the energetic demands – where generally a lower cadence is more efficient and burns less energy, and the muscular load, where higher cadences are easier to handle and less tiring. The higher your power, the higher your cadence needs to be. For triathlon, especially Ironman racing, power is very low compared to for example a TT stage in road racing. This is why triathletes are better off with a low cadence, but the Cancellaras of this world do their 6,5W/kg efforts at a cadence of well above 100. They couldn’t generate and sustain a power this high with a 50 cadence. Cam Watt layed out this aspect precisely on his latest cadence blog The Great Cadence Debate.
Trisutto.com athlete Guy Evans competing in XTERRA.
Next you have to consider race situation: Do you have to do sprints, counter surges or attacks, move with a peloton? If in such a race situation you’re stuck at 60 cadence your competitors will be gone before you even could shift into a smaller gear and speed up. This is one of the reasons why road racers have to ride in a relatively high „stand-by“ gear to be able to act or react immediately.
And finally you have to consider the physical make of the athlete. Is he a „born“ sprinter of nature, who has more fast-twitch fibers and is generally better suited with high cadence (and shorter racing) or has he a built-in diesel engine with lots of slow-twitch fibers, an endurance monster with a monster gear?
Triathletes and XTERRA athletes also have to be able to run off the bike. That also makes for a different riding and cadence compared to a pure cycling race.
Considering all these aspects is what goes through a coach’s mind. Depending on your kind of racing and race distance, one has to find the right balance of all these aspects.
But back to mountain biking: Off-road one cannot chose cadence as freely as in road racing, or even more freely in triathlon. On the mountain bike, cadence is to a very high degree dictated by course profile and race situation. The shorter and faster the race, the more difficult the course, the less room to think or even choose cadence. You simply have to react. So it’s very unrhythmic racing, with lot’s of short burst, extremely high spikes, and a lot of out of the saddle action. That’s a very different dynamic to triathlon where you can ride one and the same cadence for literally all courses out there, not being bothered by terrain or competition. You do your thing and nothing should disturb you.
In off road racing cadence is dictated by course profile.
Not so in MTB racing: Traction and keeping the momentum plays an important role in steep and difficult gravel sections. Riding a very low gear will cause the wheel to lose contact. So a higher cadence is needed to keep the momentum and make it up steep ramps smoothly. On the other hand, you cannot ride a 100+ cadence on rough terrain or standing standing on the pedals.
Also, you are very limited in big gears with the gear ratio in modern MTB – you simply lack big gears when it comes to flat stretches of racing. So quickly you will end up with quite high cadences for those sections as there simply is no bigger gear available. This was a bit different in the old days, when you had triple rings at the front, but therefore all that shifting hassle as well.
In terms of racing needs and race cadence, MTB racing is generally in between triathlon’s low cadence (even power / low, aerobic load) and road racing’s high cadence (big jumps in power, all kind of surges and bursts, lots of VO2max riding).
MTB racing is much closer to road racing than to triathlon.
Mountain biking, especially the short racing, has an even bigger range of power distribution than road riding. A lot of extremely short, extremely high spikes in power. And if you have a closer look, also extremely high spikes of force (power = force x distance) not seen in road racing. Theortically those power spikes would need a very high cadence to smooth out the force spikes and make the effort more sustainable – but at the same time, you’re limited by terrain and out of the saddle action in high cadence. In MTB racing, there will be always more intensity than in triathlon and always more muscular load than in road cycling.
But, hey that’s also, what it makes different and entertaining!
So to break down all theat aspects in a simple summary:
Cadence in triathlon is easy: You chose the most efficient range which is between 60 and 80, depending on athlete and distance.
Cadence in road racing: You chose on race dynamics and high intensity which gives a cadence between 90 and 110.
Cadence in MTB: MTB racing is much closer to road racing than to triathlon, as you have also high race dynamics and power loads, but at the same time you’re much more restricted by terrain (which makes for lower than “ideal” cadence) and gear ratio (which makes for higer cadence than “ideal”). So the range is much wider and a bit lower than in road racing. However, the longer and more steady your race is (MTB marathon) the more that range will narrow and shift to the slower side 60 to 80.
In 2015 Jo Spindler coached over three professional Ironman winners.
Trisutto.com online triathlon coaches are available to help improve your performance here.