Insights into Bike Myths and Truths (part 3)

As far as strength, the strength required to pedal a bicycle at 300 watts and 90rpms is about the same force that is required to stand up from a chair. It's close to a 45lb single leg press. Something the vast majority of humans can easily accomplish one time without taxing the ability to produce force very much at all. In other words, we are not talking about all that much force, and hardly anyone is anywhere near force or strength limited when riding a bike. What does limit us is the ability to produce that force 90x a minute for multiple minutes or hours. Otherwise known as aerobic capacity.

RESPONSE (a long one BTW) It's like you've read my first book! But just in case, here's a quote:

"Strength, as defined by Bompa in Periodization: Theory and Methodology of Training, is “the neuromuscular capability to overcome an external and internal resistance.” The strength of an athlete is determined by how much work that athlete can perform. In triathlon, then, the competitor must be strong enough to complete the distance. So if you cross the finish line, is this strong enough?

No matter where you placed in your last tri, you covered the same distance as all the other competitors. You got the work done. As a matter of fact, since you all completed the same course, it could be said that you are all equally strong. But that would be inaccurate.

Let’s say that you’re a Clydesdale who always wins his category but just misses out on taking the overall title. So you cherrypick a small Olympic distance race in the middle of nowhere and peak for it like it’s the World Championships. You’ve visualized this race a thousand times and already have a spot picked out for the overall trophy on your wall of fame. You’re gonna rock!

And then I show up.

I live nowhere near the race venue. But I happen to be attending my grandmother’s ninetieth birthday party and hear about this race at the last minute while stopping to use the bathroom at the local Waffle Hut which is sponsoring the event (I wouldn’t eat there!). You see me in the transition area and immediately mark me as possible competition. After all, I have a carbon-fiber Cervelo and the absence of a mullet makes me conspicuous among the rest of the field. But at a buck thirty, I’m not an impressive figure, so you’re not terribly worried as we wade out into the water together.

And then I beat you.

Only by a second or two, but I beat you. You put a minute on me out of the water. Then I catch you on the bike, hammering back to transition to start the run with almost a two-minute advantage. Your long legs eat up most of my lead during the final leg, but, in the end, you run out of real estate and cross the finish a few steps behind me. You’re bummed but console yourself with the knowledge that you made me work for the win, saying you simply lost to a stronger athlete.

How wrong you are.

You weigh two hundred pounds. I weigh 130. We both covered the same distance. But you had to carry an additional seventy pounds over the course of the race. Technically, you did more work. Work is force applied over distance. It is the product of the amount of resistance overcome (two hundred pounds vs. 130 pounds) and the distance over which that resistance is moved (an Olympic distance triathlon). You are the stronger athlete. Strap a seventy-pound weight to my body, and I would probably still be at the bottom of the lake somewhere.

I know, I’m not making much of a case for strength training here. I mean, if it’s not the strongest athlete who wins, why lift weights, right? If you’re thinking like that, I can tell you’ve skipped the first several chapters of this book. There’s a multitude of reasons, but let’s look at strength and its critical role in the performance of a triathlon.

If we change some of the parameters of the imaginary race cited above, it may provide you with a clearer understanding of the importance of strength in our sport. Let’s say I let myself go a bit during the off season—to the tune of seventy pounds. I win a year’s supply of Breyer’s Mint Chocolate Chip and decide I’m going to test out the Ullrich Theory of Performance Enhancement. We both show up on the starting line, but this time I’m two hundred pounds, same as you. You win the race walking away, with a personal best of two hours even. I score a different type of PR—four hours. You probably could’ve lapped me if you’d run the course a second time. Obviously you’re the stronger athlete now, right?

Wrong again.

Once more, we both completed the same distance. Yet now we weigh the same. We both did the same work. It doesn’t matter if I took twice as long as you to cover the distance, as time is a variable which does not enter into the strength equation. Time is important in the equation for power. By the strictest definition of strength, we are both equal despite the fact you had enough time to shower, eat, and overhaul your bottom bracket before I crossed the finish line.

Why then, are we wasting our time on strength development? Why not just skip to power training (no pun intended) if that’s what’s really going to determine who finishes a particular race in first place?

Power is how much work is done per unit of time or, expressed as an equation:

POWER = [FORCE (i.e., strength) x DISTANCE]/TIME

The reason triathletes must first focus on strength is because this biomotor ability is a crucial component in the optimal development of power. Tudor Bompa, in his groundbreaking book Periodization: Theory and Methodology of Training, agrees. Strength development, he says, “should be the prime concern of anyone who attempts to improve an athlete’s performance.” Its importance is again highlighted on a page from Advanced Program Design, which states, “When strength or any of its derivatives are the primary deficit, efforts should focus primarily on its development first.” Thus, to maximize power development, we must either maximize strength or maximize speed, or, with a good training program, maximize both.

Maximum Strength is the highest force that can be performed by the neuromuscular system during a maximum voluntary contraction.


So to increase the force produced, we can increase the resistance (M) or the speed at which the resistance is moved (A). Yet increasing movement speed is not as effective in the development of maximum strength as increasing the weight of the resistance, due primarily to the role momentum plays in the lift.

Momentum is mass in motion. For those of you who fell asleep in physics class, I’ll keep this simple. The more mass or velocity an object has, the more momentum that object will possess. That’s one reason why you see some people swinging their free weights around and rushing through a set of twelve like their lives depend on it. The only newton they’ve ever heard of is a cookie. But they innately know that once they start their hundred-pound bicep curl with their back and knees, their arms can be along for the ride. Momentum is their ego’s best friend.

Maximal tension on a muscle, which is critical for maximal strength development, is only increased during the initial acceleration of the load. After that, momentum takes over and effectively reduces the tensile loading of the muscle. But if you use a sufficiently heavy weight, the speed at which the weight is lifted will be limited. Thus, the contribution of momentum to the lift will be minimized, as well.

This is not to say that you should not try to accelerate the load as quickly as possible. To quote Chek again, “The closer a given load is moved to maximum velocity the greater the intensity and the greater the training effect on a neuromuscular basis.” The neuromuscular benefits to which Chek refers are:

increased neural drive to the muscle
increased synchronization of motor units
increased activation of the contractile apparatus
decreased inhibition of the protective mechanisms of the muscle (Golgi tendon organ).

Basically, you’re making the muscle smarter when you challenge it with a sufficient resistance, literally putting brains behind that brawn. And a smart, functional muscle is a strong muscle.

Strength is, ironically, often an endurance athlete’s biggest weakness. But the intelligent triathlete quickly learns to apply this one golden rule: Train your weaknesses and race your strengths."

Again, I am not really trying to argue with Andrew, because I can't. He knows more about the body than me by orders of magnitude. In the end, we are all after the same thing, results. And that is my battleground. Exercise physiologists, physical therapists and the larger research community have always lagged behind real coaches. Great coaches find performance, and then everyone else figures out how they did it. While not able to hold my own in any body knowledge debate, what I would certainly do is rest my case for simplicity on the performance of my athletes, the results of my bike fits, and my excellent record of not injuring the vast majority of them along the way.

RESPONSE: While admitting I lag behind many people in various areas, I need to clarify I actually have SOME knowledge of coaching/training. In fact, I can honestly say that of the many people who grace my client roster, some are quite accomplished in their various sporting endeavors. For the sake of brevity, I'll focus on the endurance athletes I've worked with--including professional cyclists, national champions both in the US and abroad, winners of both stages and the overall of some UCI level races. Heck, I even recall working with a Grand Tour Winner. I daresay some of them might even go so far as to call me a decent coach/trainer. Does that make me anybody to listen to--nope! What does, perhaps, is having studied and practiced under some of the greatest minds in the fields of human performance and health and then practicing what I preach so I end up being more than just a talking head, academic with no real, practical experience. Even then, I encourage whoever may be listening to not believe anything I've said until they've learned it properly and applied it to themselves. Take the knowledge off the page and do something with it before claiming to know it. And even then, realize there's always more to learn. One of the reasons I've actually enjoyed this exchange with you, Dave. Now, I do qualify for a free bike fit and it would be fun to continue this discussion in person. But I've been fitted by Matt Cole himself. And my riding time is, sadly, limited these days. Guess I'm spending too much time on FB. I'll give you the last word, though (as you can see) I've used most of them. If you've read this far, I applaud you. Your endurance is likely surpassed by few.

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