Heavy gear, heavy legs
It seems like an oxymoron to put cardio and strength training in the same sentence but that is one of the training outcomes in the foundation phase: Get stronger through cardio training to strengthen your muscles to prepare for heavier loads.
There are many ways to do this, like swimming with an ankle strap and paddles in the pool or walking at an incline on the treadmill with a weight vest, but cycling heavy gear drills are a perfect for over recruiting muscle fibers while improving pedaling mechanics.
On Saturday, we had a small group of Trimarnis join me and Karel for some heavy gear hill repeaters. We made sure to pick a gradual long hill (one of our many hills/climbs) that had a beautiful view at the top, which offered a little reward for each hill repeater.
It's very apparent that I have made huge gains in my cycling fitness over the past two years, since moving to Greenville, SC. I have dropped by Ironman bike time from ~5:40-5:50 to 5:18.00 over the past two years. Although Greenville has given us the perfect training playground for bike riding (and by default, you are forced to improve your skills and resilience on the bike), this was around the time that Karel and I started to train with Matt Dixon as our mentor/coach.
We have learned so much from Matt and relating to the bike, we learned the value of stressing the cardio and muscular systems separately in the foundation phase. In other words, it is important to train the muscles (legs) so that they work independently from the cardio system (heart/lungs). This was no struggle for Karel, who comes from a cycling background, but for me, this new physiological adaptation really helped me improved my cycling terrain management on hilly races courses, which resulted in faster bike times and fresher legs off the bike.
It would be a shame if you spend all of your base phase (or foundation phase as we call it) riding long without any specificity in your training. Or, the opposite - riding too hard and never working on your pedaling mechanics or improving the muscle/brain connection.
By incorporating drills, like heavy gear, single leg and high cadence, into your early phase training, you will realize that as you progress with training, you will find it easier (less taxing) to shift the load from your cardio system to your muscular system. While it is not necessary to ride 45 rpm or 125 rpm on race day, it is important that you have a range of higher/lower cadences from your normal preferred riding cadence (ex. 78-85rpm) so that when you ride in tail wind, head/cross wind or on hilly terrain, your legs can efficiently manage the course terrain.
Perhaps by reading this blog, you are realizing that improving your cycling fitness is much more than improving your FTP or trying to ride with x-watts and x-mph for x-miles. You can be very strong and fit on the bike in training but fail to meet your cycling (and run) expectations on race day if you do not master your cycling drills and skills and manage your terrain efficiently.
By having a range of available cadences with great cycling skills, you will ride more efficiently, resist fatigue, conserve glycogen and “save your legs” for the run portion of your triathlon.
Through our Greenville private and group training camps and our 8-week foundation plan, we have helped many athletes improve their cycling skills and mechanics for better riding on race day. And who doesn't want to become a better cyclist to perform better on race day?? Remember, better execution on the bike means better running off the bike. And let's get real - most race day hopes and dreams are crushed on the run and not on the bike.
Here is an example of how you can take your heavy gear work in training and transfer it to race day, for better cycling execution.
Climbing hills – Don’t default and shift into the lightest/easiest gear to "save" your legs. This will cause your heart rate and breathing to increase, thus taxing your cardio system and exhausting yourself before you start the run. When you start climbing your hill, slightly lower your cadence (perhaps with a slightly heavier gear) and switch the load to the legs to reduce cardio stress. You may be able to ride in the aero bars but to open the hip angle for a smoother pedal stroke, you will likely find yourself needing to sit up and rotate your pelvis toward the back of the saddle. Knowing how to anticipate a climb is very important so that you can efficiently change your gears and not be stuck in the big ring (or drop your chain from switching quickly from the big to small ring when you suddenly run out of gears). This process of climbing a hill should not feel scary or uncomfortable as you have trained to transfer the load from your cardio system to your muscular system. Focus on a smooth pedal stroke (which you can improve through single leg drills) and maintain a relaxed upper body.