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Please begin with an informative title:

IN AD 2009

Once upon a time, when the world was young - or at any rate, when I was young - I fancied myself a bicycle racer. I quit racing 25 years ago, but since then, every once in a while, I start to think about training, getting a racing license next year, and going out for a race or two, just to see what it would be like. This usually happens right around this time of the year, after the Texas summer heat has broken but before we've seen any really nasty winter weather. That nasty weather usually brings me back to my senses before I do much serious training. Of course, in the years when I've been obese, reality asserts itself within seconds, instead of requiring winter rains and biting cold morning rides. But now, with my weight approaching my old racing weight, I've started to feel the old urges once again. Jump across the gap with me and we'll talk about training - in particular, let's talk about base.


You must enter an Intro for your Diary Entry between 300 and 1150 characters long (that's approximately 50-175 words without any html or formatting markup).


WHEE (Weight, Health, Eating and Exercise) is a community support diary for Kossacks who are currently or planning to start losing, gaining or maintaining their weight through diet and exercise or fitness. Any supportive comments, suggestions or positive distractions are appreciated. If you are working on your weight or fitness, please -- join us! You can also click the WHEE tag to view all diary posts.


Aerobic base training is the riding that racing cyclists do during the months of the off-season. Or at least, it's the riding that they SHOULD be doing. Some cyclists, like one-time Tour de France winner Jan Ullrich, let their off-season training slide, and ride themselves into shape at the beginning of the season. You can get an idea of how successful this training strategy is by contemplating the fact that Ullrich was only a one-time Tour winner.


If, unlike me, you're not feeling the urge to train for next year's racing season, you might be wondering what use this discussion might be for you. Well, even though you're not concerned with peaking for next season's bicycle races, the idea of building an aerobic base applies to any kind of serious exercise program you might be involved in. And besides building a physical conditioning base, there's also building a base of technique and knowledge. If you're interested in becoming a better cyclist, this is the right time of the year to think about getting better at your technique.

Pedaling Technique

60 to 120 times per minute, hundreds of times each mile - the pedals go 'round and 'round. If your pedal stroke is inefficient, that's a LOT of energy wasted, whether your ambitions run to being first across the finish line - or just finishing well.

When I saw the Pedaling Technique DVD at my local library, I wondered if this might be a breakthrough in training. Part of the cycling "Optimum Fitness Results" series from Endurance Films, the Pedaling Technique DVD promises:

These workouts were developed to teach proper pedaling mechanics. Learn how to spin the pedals with suppleness and efficiently apply power. Develop efficient pedaling techniques. Ride faster and further without depleting your energy reserves!
So how does it measure up? The DVD features three workouts, and is designed to be watched while one rides a standard bike on a training stand. Each workout features a short introductory talk by Joe Friel, who is "arguably the most experienced personal cycling coach in the U.S.," according to Bicycling Magazine. I found Friel's take on pedaling stroke to be a useful refresher, but the workout that follows his talk is far less useful in terms of developing pedaling technique, even for the bicycle racers who are the obvious targets of this DVD.

Friel divides the pedal stroke into four sections - the downstroke, the transition at the bottom of the stroke, the upstroke, and the transition at the top of the stroke. He advises paying no particular attention to the downstroke - although this is where most power is developed, this is also the part that happens naturally, due to the biomechanics of the body. To improve the transition at the bottom of the stroke, Friel offers the standard advice - pull back against the pedal cleat and angle the toe down as if one is scraping mud off one's shoe. The upstroke is where most power may be wasted, by weighting the pedal in opposition to the power downstroke of the other leg. Therefore, it's important to pull up on the upstroke at least enough to unweight the pedal and not sap the power of the opposite leg's downstroke. Finally, to get through the transition at the top of the stroke, Friel advises thinking about pushing the foot straight forward in the shoe to get the pedal in place for the next downstroke.

All this is very well, but the workout that follows Friel's talk does NOT reinforce this message. Instead, it's a few minutes of warmup, followed by a pedaling speed drill that starts at around 85 strokes per minute, and gradually increase to around 150 strokes per minute. This kind of pedal speed drill could be useful to racers, but it's not much use to recreational, touring, and commuting riders.

The speed drill is followed by alternating one-leg drills, where one unclips from one pedal and rests the free foot on the training stand near the rear hub (to keep it out of the path of the pedal). One then focuses on using the active foot to spin the pedal around the circle. Obviously, this workout depends for its success on the use of toeclips or clipless cleated pedals. This is a standard workout for racing cyclists, but not one that requires a DVD to teach.

If I were scripting this DVD, I would follow Friel's talk with a workout that referenced the lecture directly, something like this:

OK, now that you're warmed up, let's focus on the pedal stroke. We'll start with the transition at the bottom. Think about pointing your toe and pulling back on the pedal, as though you were scraping mud off your shoe. Keep pedaling while you think about getting through the transition...good, now just pedal naturally for a minute or two....now, as you continue to pedal, think about unweighting the pedal on the upstroke. You don't have to pull up hard, just enough to keep from sapping the energy of the opposite leg's downstroke. Around and around, unweight the foot on each stroke...that's it, now pedal naturally for a couple of minutes...keep pedaling, and think about pushing the foot forward in your shoe, to get the pedal through the top transition. Focus on that now...right, now pedal naturally...let's start the cycle again - scrape the mud off your shoe on each stroke...now unweight each upstroke...now push the foot forward at the top of the stroke... (etc)
WWLD - What Would Lance Do?

If the Pedaling Technique DVD isn't a very good tool to help one improve one's pedaling technique, is there a better one? On another trip to the library, I discovered a book: The Lance Armstrong Performance Program, by Lance Armstrong (of course) and his coach Chris Carmichael. The book describes the drills that Carmichael prescribed to change Lance from

...a "masher" - an inexperienced rider who pushes hard on the downstroke while ignoring his upstroke...
into a rider capable of winning the Tour de France seven times. These drills, which are done in the off-season (i.e., NOW, fellow WHEEbles!), include the alternating one-legged training stand drills as in the DVD mentioned above, and also the idea of working through the transitions at the bottom and top of the pedal stroke. There are also low-gear downhill and granny-gear sprint drills for increasing pedal cadence to 130-150 rpm.

Besides pedaling technique, the Lance Armstrong Performance Program book includes a wealth of information on using a heart rate monitor, riding position, eating for performance, group riding, mental toughness, and much more. It also includes Carmichael's seven-week Success Plans, which incorporate specific levels of exertion (as measured using the heart rate monitor), with separate programs for Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced cyclists. The "Beginner" program looks like it would be a good choice for anyone who wanted to become a better cyclist - it's not just for would-be bicycle racers.

The copy I checked out from the library was updated in 2003, just after Lance had won his record-tying fifth Tour de France. However, a new edition will be released at the end of November, and is available for pre-order at Amazon. I think I'm going to put this on my Wish List, or even pre-order it. It's got a lot of great information - even if I sober up and don't get that racing license next February!

What is Carmichael's recommendation for the "aerobic base" portion of one's training? It starts by determining one's Maximum Heart Rate (MHR). This can be ESTIMATED by the traditional formula by Haskell and Fox:

220 - age
or by the updated formula developed by Hirofumi Tanaka, Kevin Monahan and Douglas Seals:
208 - (0.7 x age)
Carmichael describes a test to determine one's actual MHR, but the estimate is probably good enough to set your aerobic training level. According to Carmichael, the Endurance Base Training Zone is 65 to 70 percent of MHR. For example, my estimated MHR (updated formula) is 173 bpm. To stay at the aerobic training level, I need to go on longer rides and keep my heart rate between 112 bpm and 121.

Letters, we get letters

I got an email from one of our fellow WHEEbles a few days ago, and I'd like to reproduce it here (with name changed), as it has useful information for anyone interested in better cycling:

Dear Geek My Fitness,

It seems to me that when you bike you press down a lot, which works your quads.  It doesn't seem like there's a lot of effort involved when biking in pulling your leg up, which works the hamstrings, particularly in the case (such as me) where I don't have a toe-clip.

My first question is: do I have the above correct?

If so, then my second question is: why does biking hurt my hamstrings so much?  Is it really just the act of lifting my leg?

Sorry if I seem obsessed with this . . . but it's the only exercise I can get, and I've been forced off the bike for a month now, and it's driving me absolutely crazy . . . I've seen a doctor, seeing a physical therapist, etc etc . . .

Any insight would be appreciated.

Put Me Back On The Bike.

Dear Back On The Bike,

As you say, cycling without toe clips or clipless pedals/cleats does not work your hamstrings that much. In your case, I would suspect that you're overstretching your hamstrings, rather than overworking them.

I would examine your bike setup, in particular seat height and the forward-back adjustment of the seat on the seat post. I would also examine the placement of your feet on the pedals - you should be pedaling on the balls of your feet, rather than the arches.

Or rather, I would take it (and yourself) to a bicycle shop - ideally, one that specializes in bicycles and caters to racers and other serious cyclists. REI or a similar sporting goods store with a real cycling section could be a good choice. If you bought your bike in a "real" bike shop like that in the first place, take it back to where you bought it if you can. If your choice is limited to shops where you didn't buy your bicycle, you may have to pay for a fitting. In any case, you want a place where they can put your bike on a training stand and have you try the adjustments immediately, or have you use the store's "Fit Kit," which is a bicycle-frame-like contraption that allows the store expert to determine where your bike should fit for your body.

If you're lucky, you'll be able to make the adjustments with the frame and handlebar stem you currently have. You may also find that toe clips or a clipless pedal setup is a good investment in keeping your feet correctly placed on the pedals.

Even after getting the correct bike setup, you'll probably have to take it easy with your riding for a while. Given that it's coming up on winter here in the northern hemisphere, you might have to be doing that anyway. If your hamstring pain is following you off the bike, you may need to get some additional advice from your doctor and physical therapist. But don't ride the bike any more until you've had the setup looked at.

Good luck, and let me know how it goes.

Geek My Fitness

Upcoming WHEE diaries:

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  Thurs AM - A DC Wonk
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Extended (Optional)

Originally posted to Edward Spurlock on Wed Oct 14, 2009 at 08:33 PM PDT.

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