Old School Big Gear Training
While this is a hot topic amongst coaches, big gear hill reps have been used for some time (see this article on Francesco Moser using big gear hill training for the hour record in 1984). About 7 minutes into this video you can see Moser doing big gear hills (check out the heart rate monitor on his wrist, I had one of these in 1991 and got a little jest about it from my U16novice buddies…fair enough…).
New School High Torque Training
While some of the details have changed, the same basic ideas apply.
There are two mechanical ways to improve power on a bike (disregarding aerodynamics and other frictional forces):
- increase cadence rpm
- increase torque (rotational force on the pedals)
This gives us a range of training options if we apply this to the range of intensities we need to train.
Torque and Leg Speed Applies to All Intensities
The principle of training torque and leg speed (rpm) applies to all of them:
- anaerobic alactic (without lactate but using ATP stored in the muscle and later resupplying this with our creatine phosphate stores) efforts (<10 seconds),
- anaerobic lactic (30-120 seconds),
- maximal aerobic or VO2max (3-8 minutes) and,
- sub-maximal aerobic (>8 minutes or less intense than above).
Bear in mind that these intensities overlap each other and are not distinct and isolated. For example, there will be anaerobic lactic contribution to VO2max efforts, the anaerobic alactic system will provide some of the effort in anaerobic lactic efforts and so on, but that is another blog post topic!
Typical High Torque Training or SFR
For this post and the majority of big gear training, we are looking at sub-maximal aerobic intensities (e.g. SFR intervals or Salite Forza Resistenza in Italian or Ascents Strength Resistance in English). Our Fitlab SFR intervals use low cadence, high force work to provide a range of benefits from strengthening connective tissue to improving force produced aerobically and improving core strength/stability. They are great preparation for higher intensity intervals later too (high force, high cadence).
Fitlab SFR details:
- Cadence 40-60rpm (start with 60rpm and progress to 40 over several weeks)
- Intensity is L2, 2mmol, tempo or around 80% FTP/maxHR
- Seated, uphill with good technique and body position
- Start with one or two sessions per week of 4 or 5 2 minutes intervals with 2 minutes recovery
- Spin at 110+rpm for the first 15 seconds of the recovery and around 100rpm for the remainder
- Progress around 30-60s per week up to a max of 5 or 6 x 7 minute intervals
My theory behind the training mechanism for these efforts is that they are performed at an aerobic intensity, so work the muscles aerobically, but the force/torque required is too much to use type I muscle fibres (slow oxidative) so you need to recruit more muscle fibres. The length of the interval means that type IIx muscle fibres (fast glcolytic) will quickly fatigue, so type IIa muscle fibres (fast oxidative) are employed. These fibres produce significantly more force than slow twitch fibres and are good at doing this aerobically. Training these is important if you want to ride fast for more than a couple of minutes and are therefore key to good cycling performance.
Two additional benefit are:
- training with high forces in a good position which helps to strengthen core and other supporting muscles
- performing cadence slowly also helps us tidy up our pedal stroke and “feel” the application of power better, helping us deliver power more effectively at a range of rpms.
Using low cadence at other intensities will help a rider focus on the strength side of that intensity and force the body to recruit more muscle fibres.
- VO2max: VO2max efforts at lower rpm are becoming popular with the pro tour teams. This would look to have similar benefits to SFR type intervals in that the focus is on fast oxidative (IIa) muscle fibres.
- Short anaerobic: Shorter, low rpm max efforts will help produce torque for anaerobic alactic and anaerobic lactic systems. The shorter ones of these (typically 5-30s) are sometimes referred to as “on the bike strength training” or weight training on the bike.
- Long anaerobic:Longer efforts in this range will develop strength for the longer anaerobic efforts.
These efforts need to be combined with over or high cadence drills and efforts to develop leg speed and efficiency. Once both leg speed (high rpm) and torque (low rpm) have been developed, efforts at normal , race type cadence can be introduced (or re-introduced).
Strength training (weights and gym work) compliment low rpm, high torque training well.
Racing and RPM
It is important to develop power in a range of cadences as racing will demand this of you! Ever been strung out doing 75kph on the flat and running out of leg speed? Or caught in a big gear as someone attacks on a climb? If you always ride at “normal” or “ideal”rpm, these will be weak points, but if you have trained them, you will be ready.
Training at a range of rpm’s and torques is an effective way to challenge a system in different ways and helps us focus on improving a weakness or developing strength at a given intensity. The ability to produce power at low and high rpm is an important component of bike racing.
Finally care needs to be taken, especially with those new to high torque training and the younger, growing cyclist. Start with shorter, lower intensity efforts at the higher rpm end of low rpm training e.g. 4 x 2 minutes SFR type efforts at 60rpm. Gradually increasing length and lowering rpm over time (weeks and months).