What's Cool In Road Cycling

Toolbox: PowerCranks Winter Training

I was at the coffee shop the other day answering questions about those funny gold cranks on my bike (which, during the winter when I am riding my PowerCranks, is how I spend most of my coffee shop time) when someone made a comment along the lines of, I remember those. They were popular a few years back. Right away I knew it was time for another Pez article.

It’s true, certain products and training devices come in and out of vogue over the years but, come November 1st each and every year, the PowerCrank bike comes out of storage and I start my winter training. There is really only one reason that I continue to train on my PCs long after the peak of their “trendiness” has past and that is because they work.

These aren’t Josh’s PowerCranks, but they ARE the real thing.

I really do get stopped at least two or three times on every ride to answer questions about the cranks. Motorists pull up along side me on the Pacific Coast Highway. Celebrities pause to inquire at the Starbucks in Malibu. Montana Mommies in Santa Monica stop and stare. Sure it gets old after a while. I’ve often thought about creating a postcard with a transcript of the conversation I am about to have (it’s the same every time) to hand out preemptively so I can get back to my ride but, in reality, I don’t mind the conversation because these things are really really cool.

In case you are wondering, this is what would go on the card.

Q. Are your cranks supposed to be like that?
A. Yes. They’re called PowerCranks. They are a training device designed to improve pedaling efficiency.

Q. So it’s some kind of ratchet system? Do they engage once you start pedaling?
A. No, they are completely independent. Each crank moves the drive train separately. You have to do the entire pedal stroke with each leg.

Q. That must be hard.
A. Yes, it’s brutal. Every ride is a suffer fest.

Q. But you don’t race on them do you?
A. No, they are a training device.

Q. So do you notice a big difference when you take them off?
A. Yes it’s amazing. After a winter of long hard miles on the PowerCranks your legs are blasted. A two hour ride is worth four and a four hour ride is worth eight. Your hip flexors are sore, your hamstrings are fatigued. But then you take them off. You do two weeks of recovery and high cadence work and suddenly you’re Hercules. Unstoppable. You can go and go and go and your legs just never seem to get tired. The transformation is dramatic. Best of all, the benefits continue to grow each year that you use them. Unlike most go-fast products made of light weight carbon that give you a one time benefit, PowerCranks continue to pay off more and more, year after year.

OK, maybe that last answer wouldn’t quite fit on the card but sometimes I get a little carried away. So for the uninitiated, hopefully you’ve gotten a sense of how these babies work and, for my constant readers, hopefully this will serve as a little reminder.

Now that you have at least a basic idea of how the mechanics of the product, I want to prescribe a couple workouts that will help you get the most out of your off-season PowerCranks training.

For those out there who just won’t be swayed, don’t worry, these are great winter workouts whether or not you have the cranks.

Base Mileage
There isn’t anything special you need to know about doing your long Zone 2 endurance rides on PowerCranks. Just go to it as you normally would but make sure you stay well inside the endurance range as many riders have a tendency to drift from what I would call moderate endurance towards what I call hard endurance. I find that riders often justify this with the thinking that by going a bit harder they are getting more from their limited riding time. Wanting to get the most out of your limited training time is an excellent reason to ride with PowerCranks as they dramatically improve the efficiency of your workouts but constantly pushing the upper ends of your endurance zone can be dangerous even on regular cranks.

There is a time for hard endurance which I will get to in a bit, but with PowerCranks you want to avoid spending too much time in that Zone 3 Gray Zone otherwise you are apt to end up in a chronic mildly overtrained state that will prevent you from hitting the higher intensities that are coming up later. There are many signs that indicate a bout of overtraining but the best indication is an ongoing inability to get your heart rate up to where you know it should be for certain types of workouts. If you find that you have trouble getting your heart rate up to where it usually is for a period longer than a week or if it happens early in a four week training cycle, then do yourself a favor and rest up until it is back to normal. Way better to take a week off the bike in November than to let it pile up until April and then be forced off the bike in the middle of the season.

Yes, it’s true. I am recommending a sprint workout in the off-season. On PowerCranks especially, a sprint day can help build muscle, improve muscle memory and neuromuscular response, help you hold on to just a bit of your peak fitness and, perhaps most importantly, help to break up those long boring winter base miles. Do four to six 30 second sprints once per week. Find a slight grade of three to five percent. Start in perhaps a slightly larger gear than what you might use in a race and ramp up to speed as quickly as possible. Then focus on holding that speed or power all the way to the end. Ideally your max power won’t be all that much higher than your average power for each interval. In other words the goal is a high maximum power output but not at the expense of seeing a drop off in power before the end of the interval.

In case you were wondering, yes it is possible to do all out, out of the saddle sprints on PowerCranks. It does take some practice but once you get the hang of it you should be able to put out as much or even more power as you can on your regular cranks because each pedal stroke is so efficient.

Muscle Tension
I played around with my training a bit last winter and left these out of the routine. Big mistake. Although they cause significant muscle fatigue and should only be done once per week, they make a big difference down the road. Efficiency at high cadences during the race season is crucial to avoiding muscular fatigue but these low cadence intervals done in the off season also will help to ensure the muscular endurance is not your limiting factor.

A steady three to six percent grade will also work well for these. Once per week do two to three 10 minute intervals at 50 rpm. Due to the low cadence, you might not achieve a very high heart rate or respiratory rate, but these should hurt pretty bad none the less. Push hard on each one so that by the last minute of each interval you are screaming for mercy but try to keep a smooth efficient pedal stroke without any wasted upper body movement. It will be tempting to pull hard on the bars and sway back and forth to get more power but this only trains your body to be inefficient. Make sure to plan a recovery ride the day after you do these.

This might seem like a contradiction to what I said before about avoiding the dreaded Zone 3 or Gray Zone but there is a time and a place for it and when done properly it can be a vital part of your off-season training. It is the most dangerous of all winter workouts but also potentially those most beneficial. If you were a pro in Europe, this would be a motor pacing workout but essentially the motor is more of a psychological tool and with the right level of concentration you can perform these workouts on your own.

Tempo pace is just a notch below threshold. You are starting to breathe a bit, starting to feel the burning in your legs but you are not to hit that anaerobic zone. You could hold a conversation at this pace but it would be uncomfortable. This is a long steady workout at a high endurance pace. You must be very focused throughout to stay in the narrow parameters of the zone.

Do this workout once per week at a low cadence between 65 and 75 rpm. Start with 30 minutes and add 30 minutes each week until you are up to a full 60 to 90 minutes. If you have a power meter, the goal is to maintain a steady power for the full interval and instead of increasing power week to week, to maintain the same power but over a longer period of time.

Put it Together
Although I have only given you a broad outline for a winter training plan, If you put these four workouts together and do them on a weekly basis while filling in the rest of the week with more endurance work and at least two recovery or off days you will see some big improvements come the race season. Although there will be no immediate performance benefits in terms of high end race speed, this will come very quickly once you enter your first race pace training phase some time next year.

And remember, you don’t need PowerCranks to do these workouts but they sure do help!

See the PowerCranks website here.

About Josh:

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.

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