Pedal Power

By Coach Nick Morrison

Pedaling efficiency and technique is an important skill to master for all cyclists. It’s key for success at all race distances, and especially over longer and longer distances. Not only that, but offseason/winter/indoor training is a great time to focus on it.

The goal

An efficient pedal stroke is when the cyclist is pushing/pulling on the tangent of the circle that the pedals make at every point. Imagine looking at a bike from the right side like in the diagram. Think of the pedal stroke like a clock. At 12, a cyclist should be pushing forward, at 3 pushing straight down, at 6 pulling back, and at 9 pulling up. Avoid the tendency to just think about pedaling as an up and down motion.

Pedal Stroke

Drills

There are a couple of drills that I like to have my athletes work on to improve their pedaling efficiency. Both are easiest to do on an indoor trainer but can also be done riding outside. If you try these outside, just make sure you pay attention to your surroundings and pick a safe path, quiet road, or parking lot to try these out.

The first drill is called spin-ups. Shift down to your easiest gear and lower the resistance on your trainer all the way down. Then spin-up to the highest cadence you can maintain. As you reach your limit, you’ll probably feel your hips start to bounce around on the saddle. We want to try and eliminate that, so really focus on rounding out the bottom of your pedal stroke and pulling back at 6 o’clock. Also think of pedaling forward and backward instead of up and down. As you improve, you should feel your hips settle into place in the saddle and you should also notice that you can hold a higher cadence.

The second drill is called single leg or peg leg. Again, shift down to your lowest gear/easiest resistance. Unclip one foot and rest it against your chain stay (avoid rubbing your heal against the wheel!). Then pedal with just one leg. Focus on keeping a constant pedal stroke speed and applying power all the way around the pedal stroke. When you first try this out, you’ll probably feel a disconnect as you round the top of the pedal stroke and you’ll feel a distinct jerk somewhere between 12 and 3 as you connect back and reapply power. Focus on pulling up and over the top of the pedal stroke so that you can maintain the connection to power and eliminate that jerk. If you’re having trouble, practice first sitting more upright with your hands on the handlebars and as you get the hang of it, challenge yourself by going down into aero position.

Track your progress

As you practice these drills, challenge yourself by recording the highest cadence you can maintain before your hips bounce around in the saddle and time how long you can do the single leg drill without that jerking feeling. You’ll also probably notice with the single leg drill that you have a dominant leg. Try to even those out so that you can get the same score with each leg. Set a benchmark for yourself and try to improve from there!

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How Fast Should I Run?

One of the first questions I get from many of my runners is, “How fast should I run?” Running at the right training paces for you is one of the most important ways to train smart so that you get the most benefit out of your training.  

How to find your training paces 

In order to find appropriate training paces, we can use recent race results or the results from a recent fitness test to determine something called a VDOT or VO2 max. VDOT is simply a measure of your fitness level. If you want to get specific and into the science of it, it is literally a measurement of the maximum amount of oxygen your body can process in one minute. Higher numbers correspond to higher and faster fitness levels.  

There are a couple ways to measure VDOT. The first and most accurate way is to go to a sports science lab and measure VDOT. These tests can be expensive and hard to find though. The second way is to estimate VDOT based on recent race or fitness testing results. This is cheaper, more accessible, and arguably just as effective.  

Take a look at the table below and find the VDOT for a recent race or fitness test that you completed. Then look across that row at the training paces for that ability level. Those are the paces you should target on your training runs.  

VDOT Race Times and Training Intensities Handout 

You can also use this calculator to find your training paces. 

A common mistake that I see in experienced and new runners alike is that they try to run fast all the time. Looking at this table should be eye-opening for many of you because there is a drastic difference in pace from conversation to tempo pace and because the conversation pace is slow – embarrassingly slow. 

If you recently did races or tests of different lengths – say a 1 mile and 10k – and they equate to different VDOT values, that’s ok! Based on your 1 mile time, you might have a VDOT of 47 and based on your 10k time you might have a VDOT of 45. Determine the appropriate training paces based on the highest VDOT you get.  

If races/fitness tests of different lengths indicate different VDOT values, that also may be an indication of a limiter for you. Continuing with the same example, those results may indicate that the runner is better at shorter distances (the 1 mile) than longer distances (the 10k). This runner would have an opportunity to improve and more closely reach their full potential by focusing their training on building endurance for their longer distances. You could also look at that from a different angle and say that this runner is better at shorter distances and would be better served by focusing their goals on racing shorter distances and sticking with their strengths. Either way, whatever you decide helps us customize our training approach for you.  

What are the benefits to running at these paces? 

There are two big benefits to running at the appropriate paces for your fitness level – the body system you are stressing and the energy system you are using.  

Workouts at a conversation pace primarily stress the cardiopulmonary system and teach your body to burn fat for energy. Basically, conversation pace runs make your heart and lungs stronger and teach your body to burn fat for fuel which makes you more efficient over long runs. This is crucial for long distance athletes.  

Workouts at a tempo pace or faster primarily stress the muscular system and rely more heavily on the glycolytic system for energy (burns a higher amount of glycogen/carbohydrates). In short, that means that tempo pace runs help improve your leg strength and increase your top speed.  

Bike Safety

If you’re like me, you’re excited to be getting off the trainer and biking outside more. The weather is warming up, the snow is gone, and we can ride outside consistently. Enjoy the nice weather, but keep in mind a few things to make sure you’re being safe.

#1 Wear your helmet.

Please, please, please wear your helmet! That should be the first thing you always check to make sure you bring when you’re going out for a ride.

#2 Leave your headphones at home.

When you’re riding outside, you need to be alert to what’s going on around you and you need to be able to hear. Leave your headphones at home for the trainer rides.

#3 Pick a good, clockwise course.

Get to know the area you live in. Where are the good roads to ride? Look for marked bike lanes and wide shoulders. Look for roads that are well-maintained with minimal potholes and debris. If you’re riding a loop, ride clockwise. That means that you’ll be making mostly right turns which means you don’t have to cross in front of traffic to turn.

#4 Check your blind spot – way back.

If you do need to merge across traffic, make sure you check your blind spot. Remember that cars are going significantly faster than you, so they come up fast and from a long way back. When you check your blind spot, you should be looking a few hundred yards behind you – not just a couple car lengths – to make sure it’s clear.

#5 Signal with your left arm.

Always signal with your left arm. This keeps your right hand on the handlebars and your back brake – if you need to hit only one brake in a pinch, you want it to be your back brake because your front brake would send you into a front flip. Pointing up signals a right turn, pointing left signals a left turn, and pointing down signals stop.

#6 Ensure you can see and be seen.

Especially if you ever ride at dawn or dusk, but also if you ride on overcast days, make sure drivers can see you well and that you can see well. Wear clothing with reflective paneling. Ride with a headlight and taillight on your bike. I know they’re not aerodynamic or lightweight, but most lights clip on easily so you don’t have to keep them on when you ride during the day or in races.

#7 Establish yourself in the lane.

As I write this one, I know it will be the recommendation that is the most contentious. When there is not a shoulder or bike lane – and there won’t always be one – I believe it is important to establish yourself in the lane. Many cyclists will try to ride to the far right side of the road, tiptoeing the edge of the road. I don’t. When there is no shoulder, I will ride to the right of the lane but still with a few feet on my right before the edge of the road. I do that to leave  a margin of error on my right before the edge of the road – basically, space to swerve if a car passes too close. When I see other cyclists completely hug the right side of the road, I also see cars pass them dangerously close while trying to share the lane. By establishing yourself more towards the middle of the lane, it communicates to drivers that they need to cross over to the next lane/oncoming traffic in order to pass you. If oncoming traffic isn’t clear, then they need to be patient and wait. I will say that some drivers don’t particularly like being patient and I have been honked at many times in situations like this. I would rather have them honk than have them pass dangerously putting my life in danger. Better yet, review #3 above, and avoid this situation entirely.

If you want to get technical on this one, Colorado Law states, “…a bicyclist shall ride far enough to the right as judged safe by the bicyclist…” You’re in control of what you consider to be safe.

#8 Follow the rules of the road.

Stop at stop signs/stoplights and signal your turns. Doing something like running a red light on your bike not only puts your life in danger, but it also builds animosity between you and any driver that just saw you break the law. As cyclists, we need to show drivers that we respect the rules of the road, and they’ll in turn respect us. I know it can be frustrating if you hit a stoplight right in the middle of an interval. I’ve been there too. Regardless of what you’re training for or what workout you’re doing, it does not justify running the light. Plus, look back to #3. In picking a good course, you should also consider things like whether or not your ride includes higher intensity intervals and if so, try to hit those intervals on sections of the course without stops and intersections.

Have fun and enjoy the nice weather, but stay safe!

Race Day Hydration and Nutrition Planning

A complete race day hydration and nutrition plan is crucial to an endurance athlete’s success. With the right nutrition plan, you can enable your body to reach its full potential in order to perform your best on race day.

The most important thing to stress before you start to build your plan is that this gives you a starting point. From there, you need to try it out in training and make adjustments as necessary.

I break my race day nutrition plan up into 3 components: hydration, electrolytes, and calories. Follow along with this handout to start building your plan.

Hydration

As you are working out, your body sweats to cool itself. You need to replenish this water so that you stay hydrated and maintain performance. This is the most important part of the hydration and nutrition plan. Proper hydration allows your body to maintain central nervous system function – literally your brain sending electrical signal to your muscles to fire. While it is true that athletes can actually lose 2-3% of their body weight due to dehydration before their performance starts to decrease, for practical purposes and from my experience with numerous athletes, we still need to aim to replace all of the sweat that you lose. That means that we want to try and drink enough water to replace the sweat that you lose.

To determine how much you need to drink, you can calculate something called your sweat rate. Your sweat rate is the amount of weight that you lose through sweat in one hour. To calculate it, weigh yourself before and after a workout to determine how much weight you lost. Weigh yourself nude both times and dry off for the post-workout weigh-in. Divide the weight lost by the duration of the workout. In order for this to be accurate, don’t eat or drink anything during the workout and don’t use the restroom. Your sweat rate will be different for different sports and based on the weather (heat and humidity). For the most accuracy, try to calculate your sweat rate a few times for different sports and at different temperatures to get a complete picture.

Follow these steps to figure out how much water to drink.

  1. Sweat rate

Sweat rate = (pre-workout weight in lbs. – post-workout weight in lbs.) / Workout Duration in hrs

  1. Drink rate.

Drink rate = Sweat rate * 16 fl oz

Electrolytes

Electrolytes – particularly sodium – are necessary to ensure that the water you drink can be absorbed properly and again to maintain proper electrical signals in your nervous system. Sodium concentration varies dramatically from one athlete to another. There are a couple ways you can determine the sodium concentration in your sweat. The first and most accurate way is to go to a lab and get it tested. The second way is to estimate your sodium concentration based on observing yourself. This is less accurate, but most athletes can actually estimate this relatively well. To estimate it, ask yourself if you finish workouts with salt crystals on your skin and if you crave salty foods. Then put yourself into the low, medium or high category and follow these targets.

Low: 500 mg of sodium/hr    Medium: 1000 mg of sodium/hr        High: 1500mg of sodium/hr

Calories

Calories are fuel. As we compete in any sport we burn fuel. Race cars need to refill their gas tank during a race and endurance athletes need to take in more fuel too. There are two elements to this equation: the number of calories you burn and the number of calories you consume. Here’s the catch though, during a workout or race, you do not need to consume as many calories as you burn. The reason for this is that your body already has calories stored as fat that will fuel you through your workout. During endurance activity, you are primarily burning fat for energy. Primarily, but not only. You also are burning carbohydrates. You need to consume new calories in the form of carbohydrates in order to allow your body to burn the fat that you need to fuel the entire workout. Here’s how to calculate the number of calories from carbohydrates that you should consume during a workout.

1.27 x (body weight in lbs.) = calories/hour to consume during a workout

*If you are doing an ultra-distance event (ultra marathons, Ironman triathlons), you can increase that up to 1.81 x body weight in lbs.

If you consider yourself to be on the slower side of things, you may not actually need this much. Consider how many calories you are burning per hour and if this equation has you eating a significant amount relative to how much you’re burning you will probably be fine consuming less. This is where testing out these targets in your workouts comes into play.

Put it all together

Now that you have hourly rates for everything, try to break it down into servings every 15-20 minutes. It is better to take smaller servings more frequently than to take large servings less frequently. Take a look at the nutrition info on the nutrition products that you want to use and start to plug them into your plan. Use this handout to help you write down your plan.

Remember, this gives you a starting point. Try it out in your workouts and adjust accordingly. You may find that you need to eat or drink more or less. You will also need to experiment with different nutrition products to find out what you like and what sits well for you.

Sculling

How to develop a high elbow catch to pull water with your entire forearm

Sculling is one of my favorite drills to do with athletes in the pool because it helps develop two critical skills – a high elbow catch and pulling water with the entire forearm.

The catch is the first part of the stroke and when a swimmer drops their forearm vertical in the water so that they can then begin the pull which propels their body through the water. The key to a good catch is to keep the elbow high – near the surface of the water – and to catch as early in the stroke as possible – notice in the picture below how the elbow is even with the forehead. This allows the swimmer to press back in the water with a vertical forearm which propels the athlete through the water.

Sculling - correct

Notice instead that if the athlete let’s their elbows drop, that it creates more of a 45-degree angle in the water. This is a less efficient position because now instead of sending all of the pressure back in the water, the swimmer is sending the pressure back and down – towards the bottom of the pool. This causes the chest to lift and the legs to sink in the water. 

Sculling - incorrect

To do the sculling drill, position both arms at the catch and then windshield-wiper the arms. This is the same type of motion you make treading water. Focus on keeping those elbows high and pressing back with the entire forearm. Check out this quick video to see what it looks like.

Swim like a Golfer

Swimming is fundamentally different than running and biking because – like golf – it is primarily a technique sport. Mastering a technique sport demands that you spend focused time drilling the elements of the sport. Golfers will spend hours perfecting their drive by analyzing the bend in their knees, their body rotation, the bend in their elbows, their grip, and more. Swimming is very much the same.

It is important for triathletes to understand this because in order to be successful in swimming, you need to practice swimming like a golfer – not like a cyclist or runner. That means spending focused time in the water working on perfecting your technique and working on lots of drills.

Unfortunately, I constantly see triathletes taking the exact same approach to swimming as they do to biking and running. If you find yourself saying things like, “I just need to get in x laps a week and I’ll get faster.” or “If I can swim x yards today, I’ll get faster” – STOP! Simply getting in more and more distance in the water is not the best way to become a better swimmer. In fact, if you’re swimming with poor technique, you’re actually making it harder to improve because the more you swim with improper technique the more you re-enforce bad habits.

What areas of your stroke should you focus on? The three most important things are 1) an early, high elbow catch, 2) a strong pull, and 3) a streamlined body position.

The catch (early, high elbow)

The catch refers to the moment your arm grabs hold of the water and puts it in a position to pull you through the water. The goal with the catch is to make it early with a high elbow. You need to reach far infront of your body (towards the end of your lane) so that you can increase the distance you cover with every stroke. In order to actually grab the water, you need a high elbow. This will get your forearm and hand perpendicular to the direction you are swimming. You quickly notice that this is not a natural position and it is unlike anything else you would ever do. It also requires a tremendous amount of flexibility in your shoulders, so if you can’t get it yet, work on your flexibility.

The catch-up drill is a great way to work on an early catch. Catch-up isolates each arm and allows you to slow things down and focus on what your arm is doing. Make sure you make your catch, then start to pull. Avoid making the catch and starting to pull at the same time.

The pull (vertical forearm, accelerate)

The pull is the movement of your arm that propels you forward through the water. The first key to the pull is to keep your forearm and hand vertical in the water – perpendicular to the direction you are swimming. If your arm is less than vertical, you will lose efficiency because the water will slip off the end of your finger tips instead of your arm grabbing hold of the water and propelling your body past that point. The second key to the pull is to accelerate your arm through to the finish. Be patient at the catch to let yourself make the catch before you start to pull, then accelerate your hand through the pull.

A couple of my favorite drills to work on a good pull are sculling and fist. They each help you focus on getting your forearms vertical in the water – elbows high and press your forearms toward your feet. Swimming with paddles is another great way to work on your pull and especially on accelerating your arm through to the finish. When you swim with a paddle, make sure you are patient at the catch and then gradually accelerate through to the finish. Avoid putting too much pressure on right at the start of the stroke.

swim-forearm-pull

Streamlined Body Position

The last piece to focus on is a streamlined body position. When we swim, we move our bodies through a dense material – water. By putting ourselves in a streamlined position, we can reduce the amount of drag our body creates which reduces the amount of work we have to do in order to swim fast. The idea is that if you look head-on at someone swimming towards you, their entire body – torso, hips, and legs – should be hidden behind their shoulders. From the side, your body should look flat near the surface of the water.

Doing kicking drills is a great way to work on your streamlined position. Practice kicking with or without flippers with your arms held above your head (biceps squeezing your ears). For triathletes who race in open water, it is also important to learn how lifting your head to sight affects your body position (it makes your hips drop). We need to minimize that hip drop so that we can sight and still maintain good position. To do that, practice the Tarzan drill (swimming with head up) and also just practice sighting focusing on body position.

swim-balance-side-view

I know this is a lot to take in at once. Fortunately, finding your individual strengths and weaknesses is easier now than it ever because it is so easy to video yourself. If you have a GoPro and can video underwater, that’s the best way to go, but even using your cell phone above water is helpful. Get in the pool with a friend and take turns taking video of one another then review the film. Look for where your catch occurs, if your forearm is vertical during your pull, and if you are balanced in the water. What do you see? What are you doing well and what can you improve? Take what you find and start to incorporate it into your regular swim workouts. Pick one or two things to focus on at a time and then take a video again in a few weeks.

If you take this approach to swimming, you will start to see improvements quickly. Remember, every incremental improvement is going to make you faster. Even if you can’t get your body perfectly at the surface of the water, even if you can’t get your forearm perfectly vertical, every small step in that direction will make you a better swimmer.

Cycling Technique for Triathletes

On the spectrum of technique sports to fitness sports, road cycling leans pretty far to the fitness end. A triathlete’s and cyclist’s ability is primarily dependent on their fitness level. Nevertheless, there are a few key technique elements that will make a significant difference in your race day performance. Master these skills and you will become a more efficient rider as well as dramatically reduce your risk of injury.

Pedal in Circles

The single most important thing to learn to do appropriately is to pedal in circles. Sounds easy, right? Your crank arm is a fixed length, your pedal attaches to the end of it, and the pedal is forced to go in a circle. The big question is, “Are you pushing on the tangent of that circle at all times?” Many cyclists – new and experienced – are not and instead they pedal up and down. They slam their foot down like they want to kick through the pavement thinking that they’re generating more power. In reality, they’re wasting energy. You need to teach your body to pedal in circles and round out the bottom of your pedal stroke so that you’re pulling back at the bottom of the stroke.

There are a lot of trainer drills and ways to think about pedaling in circles that can be effective to improve your pedal stroke. What I have found to be most helpful is to do spin-ups at a low resistance (easiest gear) and a high cadence (30-40 rpm or even higher than where you normally ride). At this low resistance, you’ll immediately feel your hips start to bounce around in the saddle when you’re pedaling up and down. When you do it right, you’ll feel your hips sink into the saddle and stay in place as you increase the rpms. This immediate feedback from your body is why I like the drill.

Another drill that I like is the single leg drill. By pedaling with only one leg, you can feel if there is a disconnect in where you are applying power. Unclip one foot and rest it on the back of your trainer then pedal with the other foot. Focus on pulling back at the bottom of your pedal stroke, then all the way up and over the top. Since you only have one foot clipped in, you won’t be able to cheat and let your opposite foot pushing down lift your foot that’s clipped in. Work on this first sitting up with your hands on the handlebars. Once you master that, drop into aero position for an extra challenge. When you do it right, your pedal stroke will feel nice and smooth, but when you do it wrong you’ll feel a clicking/jerking pedal stroke. Again, I like this immediate feedback.

Relax Your Upper Body

The power you generate on your bike is coming from your legs – relax your upper body! If you’re riding a road bike, support your upper body with your core, keep a slight bend in your elbows, and make sure there is very little weight in your hands. If your hands/fingers start to get sore/tingly or completely lose feeling, that’s a sign that you’re putting too much weight in your arms. The same principles apply when you move to a tri bike with aero bars. Make sure you support from the core. Avoid letting your chest drop too far and your shoulder blades pinch together across your back.

Shift, Shift, Shift

I’m still amazed at how many triathletes I see that shift poorly. First, make sure you’re comfortable using both the gears in your big and small chain ring (left hand shifter) and all the gears in your cassette (right hand shifter). Next, think of shifting as a way to make the resistance level that your legs are feeling constant for the whole ride. Strive to make it feel like you’re riding on an indoor trainer where the wind and grade never changes. If the grade of the road starts to increase (uphill), shift down to an easier gear. Likewise, as the grade decreases (downhill), shift up to a harder gear. Listen to your legs and be in tune with how hard they are working so that you can shift immediately with the variations in terrain. Same goes for the wind – as that changes, shift as necessary.

If you have a power meter, you’ll be able to measure the difference – watch your power while you ride and keep a low variability index. It is eye-opening for most cyclists when they first start using a power meter and can see how much their power spikes from even small hills if they aren’t shifting appropriately. Triathlon, time-trial, non-drafting cycling is all about energy efficiency – especially over longer and longer distances. To be efficient, you need to reduce the variability through shifting.

Work on these tips next time you’re out riding or working on the trainer. Pedaling technique and relaxing your upper body are great things to work on during trainer rides in the winter. You’ll see the benefits by the time race season comes around.