Toolbox: Mental and Physical Efficiency 1
Or “How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bike (Part I).” If I could only give out one piece of cycling advice for the rest of my days as a coach, it would be this: “Conserve energy whenever possible.” Let’s look at some ways we can stop frittering away valuable energy both physically and mentally…
Smooth as Butta
When you ride your bike, whether it is for training, to have fun with friends or for competition, you have a finite amount of energy. You are limited by glycogen stores, muscular and cardiovascular endurance and perhaps most importantly, patience and persistence. The key is to use more of that limited energy to propel you forward and less on wasteful things such as nervousness or a hurky-jerky pedal stroke.
Even if you aren’t a serious competitor, addressing some of these concerns can greatly improve your enjoyment of the sport. Becoming a more efficient cyclist means being more comfortable on the bike. With a smooth, round pedal stroke, a confident and relaxed attitude and a less wasteful distribution of energy, not only will you be able to go faster and farther, but you will have more fun as you go.
Anxiety and Cycling Confidence
Sometimes anger can fuel us during a ride or race. But at the same time, how many of us have experienced a day where we couldn’t get out of our own way and our legs are jello because of a worrying or tough day at work? What we’re talking about here is anxiety and worry about things that are either simply not true, or else that we really don’t have control over. Most of us don’t realize what a toll anxiety and nerves take on our energy levels. Emotional stress exhausts the body in the same way as physical stress so it must be considered when eliminating inefficiencies.
The same is true of physical anxiety, whether that’s from bad bike fit or poor bike handling skills. Make a fist. Squeeze it as hard as you can for a full minute. Your hand, your wrist and even your bicep get pretty tired. Now imagine doing the same thing but with your neck, your shoulders and your arms for two hours while at the same time trying to pedal a bicycle. Sounds crazy, but that’s what a lot of us do every time we ride our bikes. And that’s just the physical manifestation of stress. On top of that, add the constant self doubt and anxiety hidden just below the surface that is eating away at our available riding energy. One way to combat these wasteful energy leaks is to work on your cycling confidence. This means having faith in your cycling ability.
One of the best ways to address cycling confidence is to set aside just a few minutes each week to practice skills drills. Try picking up water bottles in a parking lot, bumping shoulders with your riding buddies or touching wheels on a grassy field. When I put on a skills clinic, 90% of what we do is designed around increasing relaxation and confidence on the bike.
Being able to touch your front wheel against the rear wheel of the riders in front of you without going down isn’t necessarily a skill you would want to practice during the sprint on your next club ride, but knowing you could do it if you had to will give you the confidence you need to throw all your energy and concentration into the ride without wasting calories worrying about going down. If there is one thing I have learned over the years, it is that you might go down and you might not, but worrying about it never helps!
Visualizations and Mantras
There is an unlimited list of things to worry about while riding including but not limited to: traffic, potholes, flat tires, bonking, that creaking noise every time you stand up, and of course, getting dropped. Think about how much more energy you would have if you could forget all that and just enjoy the ride.
The mind is an incredibly powerful tool and it can be responsible for our successes on the bike as well as our downfall. Fortunately, there are a few simple techniques you can use to ensure that your mind is your ally. Try doing 5 minutes a day of deep breathing, along with a simple visualization of yourself feeling confident, relaxed and happy as you cruise along in a stressful riding scenario. Breathe in deeply through your nose and feel your belly expand. Hold it for a count of 3 and then breathe out slowly through your mouth. Hold that for a count of 3 and repeat. Imagine the inhalation full of pure, calming energy that relaxes every muscle in your body. Imagine the exhalation cleanses you of the anxiety and toxins that have built up in your body over the course of the day. During your visualization, don’t just see yourself riding confidently on that killer climb or dangerous descent, but actually experience it as if you were there.
Another trick is to say mantras as you ride. One that I use goes like this. “I’m a smooth, confident, efficient cyclist”. Pick one that is personal to your own needs and thought patterns. Not only will this help to replace some of the negative self perceptions you may have acquired over the years, but it will also help to drown out all those needless worries that go racing through your mind no matter how hard you try to stop them. The next time you are suddenly jerked out of the peace and tranquility of a challenging climb by worries about something that happened at work or a fight you had with your spouse, try replacing those negative thoughts with something like, “I’m a skilled and powerful climber”. Repeat it over and over to yourself until you find yourself lost again in the rhythm of your pedaling. It may just give you that slight edge you need to get up and over.
The biggest waste of energy for any cyclist is often in the pedal stroke itself. The first thing that needs to be addressed is proper position. An expert bike fit can not only improve your comfort and prevent injury but also add several percentage points to your power output. Assuming your saddle height and fore/aft is correct, the next thing to do is to work on various pedaling techniques. On a typical two hour ride, you might take about 10,000 pedal strokes. Even if you are only wasting a tiny bit of energy on each one, it can add up to a major energy deficit by the end of the ride.
One workout that I have my athletes do at least once a week is called the High Spin interval or, No Load Revving. The idea with this is to train the body to spin efficiently even at very high cadences. On a flat section of road, pick an easy gear and spin up to 120 rpm for 10 minutes straight. At first, you will bounce around and experience all sorts of discomfort but as your muscle memory develops, you will become smoother and more efficient. You can actually see the improvement in efficiency as, your heart rate may drop 10 to 15 beats at the same effort over a very short period of time. By wasting less energy, your heart does not need to beat as hard to keep you going.
Another drill I use is called Single Legged Pedaling. On a flat road, un-clip one foot and pedal for 30 seconds to a minute with only one leg. Right away it becomes obvious where the “dead spots” in your pedal stroke are. After only a minute of pedaling with only one leg, you may start to have trouble completing the entire pedal stroke. This is a great indicator of the muscles that you need to develop to complete a perfect pedal stroke. Try practicing this drill during your warm down after every ride you do.
One of the best tools we’ve seen to improve technique for pedaling efficiency is PowerCranks (read our review here). PowerCranks force you to use all 360 degrees of the pedal stroke. You will very quickly see where you are losing energy and right away, your body will start to correct these inefficiencies.
Other Places To Save Gas
I have still only touched the surface of what can be done to get more out of your riding. Next month I’ll discuss ways of becoming more efficient in your training, how to save energy when riding in a pack, and how to leach off the energy of your teammates and competitors when racing.
Josh Horowitz is a USCF Certified coach and an active Category 1 racer. For more information about his coaching services and any coaching questions you may have, check out his website at LiquidFitness.com