A few thoughts on getting faster

Judging by the number of emails I get with coaching-related questions, there’s a lot of interest out there in getting faster. That’s cool and I like that people want to improve.

So here’s a couple of random thoughts I had during today’s ride that might help our dear readers.

Stop riding at 150w

We all have a ‘default’ riding power – that groove you automatically settle into when you’re out for a ride.  I’ve noticed a fairly strong trend, on Beach Road at least, to ride at 150-180w. This norm is sabotaging the efficiency and effectiveness of a lot of people’s training.

Dr Mitch neatly illustrated this by observing that ‘good’ riders train at 30km/h and ‘great’ riders train at 32km/h. For most people this correlates with an average power on Beach Road of 150-180w versus 200-240w. The former results in junk kilometres for most people, whilst the latter causes excellent adaptations to occur if done for a sufficient amount of time.

Buy narrower handlebars

All the dogma surrounding bar width is junk.  The leverage argument and the ventilory impairment theory (within reason) is bunk. From the aero benefit to the ease of moving through a tight bunch: narrow is king. Most females will quickly adapt to 36cm bars and most males to 38cm bars. Try it and you’ll see.


Optimise your cleat position

Jason Nichols fitting my cleats resulted in an instant improvement to my power and comfort. His adjustments made me fatigue ‘generally’ (which is good) rather than specifically in glute med. I only wish I had done it earlier. I also hear good things about Skinny at Total Rush and of course, the High Priest Lloyd Thomas. Unfortunately he’s in Germany.

Start playing with variables

The two dominant variables in any training programme are volume and intensity.  Most riders limit themselves to manipulating these two; and of course they are the most important. Here are two more to consider: torque training and nutrient timing.

1. Nutrient timing is the pre-planned manipulation of your day’s macronutrient intake to maximise performance. Some of this is beyond doubt (ie fuelling races with pre-event carbohydrate), while other areas are less clear (ie low glycogen training).  Either way, many WorldTour teams seem to think playing in this sphere provides a worthwhile comparative advantage. Just look here at how BMC protects their nutrition IP by blocking out key sections of a meal plan.

I’m not going to tell you how or when to eat, but I’d suggest doing some reading on PubMed on low glycogen training, approaches to maximal muscle protein synthesis, and strategies to modulate mTOR and AMPK such as interval training combined with fasting and/or amino acid intake. From there you can decide if you can apply it to your training.

2. Torque, measured in newton meters, is the ‘turning’ force applied via pedalling. A powermeter measures this via strain gauges and multiplies it by the cadence to report power in watts. While a good power-based training programme will focus primarily on those watts, a supercharged program will delve into targeting torque levels in training that far exceed the demands of race day.

The evidence base on this type of training is skewed towards the negative side of mixed, but is also plagued with bad study design.  Anecdotally, I believe focusing on torque is a potent approach and causes adaptations that wouldn’t occur if the athlete were allowed to self select cadence and focus only on power.

Finally: if in doubt, ride more

Whilst ‘intense’ training has a very narrow band of volume where it remains ergogenic, I believe that most elite athletes have an almost unlimited capacity for upper-end L2 work (the usual common sense caveats apply). If you’re doing sufficient intensity and wondering how to add more volume to your week – add as many hours as you can at 200-250w (for the ‘average’ A grader).

Hope that helps.



6 thoughts on “A few thoughts on getting faster

    1. Hi Shane,

      The reason I didn’t give any specifics was because optimum cleat position is individual. I will say that the degree to which the heel points in or out is very important though, and this has a big effect on knee tracking and subsequent propensity for knee injury.

    1. Hi George,

      I don’t think crank length makes a meaningful difference (unless you go to extremes: see http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21311357 which shows no difference until you go to 150mm/190mm cranks). If you stay somewhere the ‘normal range’ of 167.5 to 177.5 then you’re unlikely to go wrong.

      However, playing with crank length can be useful for some athletes in improving their position on a TT bike.

  1. Hey Nick, love your articles on ergo and training in general, would you mind elaborating a bit more on the torque levels that exceed demands of racing, what sort of adaptation would you gain from lower cadence torque efforts (at least I think that’s what you mean) as opposed to your preferred cadence range, would you be able to maintain the same output or are these efforts at lower wattage, maybe higher duration?

    Cheers El

    1. Hi Elmir,

      I like to look as far ‘downstream’ in the performance chain as possible – so I don’t mind what adaptations are occurring as long as the athlete is going faster. If you google a bit there’s some info relating to low cadence efforts impacting fibre composition ratios (Neumann, 2000) etc etc. Plenty of academics will tell you it doesn’t work and there is little evidence to support it. They can say that as much as they like – they are wrong. Flat out wrong. I don’t know a single WT level pro who doesn’t do some variation of strength endurance training.

      The fact is: to be able to produce a given power requires you to create ‘X’ torque at ‘Y’ cadence – so why not break those two down and train the ability to produce torque using SE efforts and then cadence on the rollers for neural adaptations? There are decades of (anecdotal) evidence that this approach has worked – including for a whole bunch of world champions. If nothing else at least it adds variety to a training programme and keeps the athlete interested.

      To answer your question regarding output and duration, in my experience athletes who have not done this type of training will really struggle to to maintain a similar power output with a cadence of 50-60 vs their normal 80+, at least initially. Once they have adapted, some can actually exceed their normal training wattages, especially if you use RPE as a guide because they find it ‘easier’. I find this especially true when an athlete is fatigued – they will often default to a higher torque/lower cadence strategy to get through their efforts at the end of a hard training block, or at the end of a race. Duration is dependent on interval length and intensity – I think 4x 2 minutes is a good starting point and you can build this up to 20+ minute efforts.


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