I have a confession: I spend a lot of time geeking out on Strava, analyzing the power files of the best professionals in the world. How do these guys train? Aside from their talent, what sets them apart? After years of doing this, I have noticed that most of these riders spend a lot of time doing technique and cadence drills on the bike.
At first glance it seems kind of trivial. I mean, if these guys are pros then why do they need to work on their technique? You’d think they would have that figured out by now. If cycling is all about power, you’d think the pros would be better off focusing on some threshold or VO2 work instead. But there is more to cycling than just power—history has shown us that some riders with a relatively low VO2 max end up being very successful. Some riders with reportedly incredibly high VO2 max values never even make it to the top. While VO2 max is an important predictor of performance, in cycling, it is not the only thing that matters. Why? The answer lies in economy.
Economy is the amount of oxygen needed achieve a certain power.
Professional riders have remarkably high economy (as much as 10% higher than an amateur!) even while riding at their limit. This can be seen if you watch any pro race, the riders all seem to have silky-smooth pedal strokes on even the toughest of finales. While VO2 max has a pre-determined genetic ceiling, economy keeps on improving year after year. If you have been training for many years and feel that you have hit a plateau in your training, dedicating some training time to technique could help you improve your economy. If you improve your economy, then you can hold the same power while consuming less oxygen, and thus raise your ceiling.
With the advent of power meters, training has become grossly oversimplified. Many riders become fixated on the power numbers at the expense of technique. But a higher power number isn’t always better. Many in pursuit of a high power number allow their form to falter. Their pedaling becomes less fluid and they rock all over the bike. That’s a lot of wasted energy! If we can teach the body to stay calm and transfer all power to the pedals, we can achieve an even higher number. This is also important for time trials, when you must hold an aerodynamic position while transferring power to the pedals. For a long road race, even just a 1-2% improvement in economy can mean the difference between a podium finish and finishing mid-pack. For these reasons I prescribe a lot of workouts focused on improving technique for my athletes. When we refine technique, we can increase the power that an athlete is able to generate without any increase in VO2-max.
There are a lot of things that you can do in order to improve your economy on the bike. However, the best approach is different for every athlete. If you tend to grind low cadences, it could be that you will benefit from focusing on your technique at high cadences. This is especially important for races because the high speeds will naturally force you to select a higher cadence. Conversely, a rider who spins a light gear could see benefits from incorporating some low cadence work on the bike. I could ride a whole book on this subject, but for now, here are 3 simple tips to help you improve you economy on the bike:
Identify your tendencies: Maybe you can ride at 75 rpm with perfect technique, but at 100 rpm you rock all over and your pedaling becomes choppy. Perhaps you struggle on steep climbs. Or maybe your form falters during a tough set of intervals. On a ride, take some time to observe the way your form changes with the terrain.
Train your weakness: If climbing is a struggle, go climbing. But this time focus on your pedaling style. Keep your upper body calm and try to put all your energy into your legs. If high speeds are a challenge, incorporate some high cadence drills into your training.
Stay Calm: Next time you do a tough set of intervals, focus on keeping calm. Instead of chasing a power number at all costs, maybe decrease the power slightly while still maintaining good form. Any unnecessary movement is wasted energy that you could be putting into the bike. Over time, your body will adapt to this new style of riding and you will become better at maintaining good form on even the hardest rides.
These kinds of drills will teach your muscles to fire in the most efficient way, while saving you energy by minimizing movement of unnecessary muscles. There is a lot more to cover on this subject. Stay tuned for more!