Understanding Your Focus, a Bike Workout Example

I recently had a conversation with an age-group triathlete that I coach about a bike workout that I prescribed for him. The conversation came about because he had left a comment in his training log that either the workout itself wasn’t really challenging him as much as we had intended or he was not executing the workout properly. Here is the workout:

Workout Title: 3x5min @ 50-60rpm, Z3 + 3x10sec MAX EFFORTS
Workout Type: Bike
Workout Description:
Warm up: About 10 minutes building from Zone 1-2 to 2-3.
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6×30 seconds (per leg) of single leg pedaling at 85-95rpm with 30 second recovery spinning (both legs pedal).
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Main Set: 4×5 minutes pedaling 50-60rpm @ Zone 3 power. 3 minute rest interval spinning at 90+rpm (low effort, but high cadence).
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3×10 seconds MAX EFFORT (out of the saddle, absolutely smashing it!) on 4:50 Z1-2 recovery interval.
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Warm down: ~10 minutes of easy spinning. Keep your cadence relatively high (80+rpm)
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Workout Focus: The Main Set of this workout is intended to effect bike-specific skeletal muscle strength (low cadence), as well as neuromuscluar strength (10s max efforts)

During our conversation, the athlete commented that this workout “wasn’t that hard,” and he wondered why we wouldn’t just do a Functional Threshold Power (FTP) session to achieve the desired effect? After all, one of our objectives in his training is to increase power output in general, and we’re using FTP as a benchmark for measuring improvement. This was a good question.

After talking a bit more about the workout, as well as looking at the details of the power file he had sent me for the workout, I was able to determine that he had executed the session properly. We shifted the conversation to what the intention of the workout should be, which is as follows: The low cadence work in this session should feel less taxing cardiovascularly, but still be fatiguing muscularly, like lifting weights. The sprints are challenging neuromuscularly, and because these intervals are short, they tend not to fatigue skeletal muscles to a great degree, nor do they engage one’s cardiovascular system as much as longer intervals might. Also, the longer rest interval helps to maintain good form in each interval.

In essence, we are taxing (primarily) one system at a time, as opposed to a FTP test, or other max effort test lasting, say, a couple of minutes or longer, which combines two or more of the systems mentioned here. This is also one reason why FTP efforts might seem more challenging, but I think it’s note worthy to say that we are breaking down the work by training one specific aspect of this athlete’s cycling fitness. Twenty minutes of max effort (typically used as an FTP test) is going to push an athlete very hard cardiovascularly and muscularly. The cost of an FTP session results in a fair amount of fatigue, which can last a few days afterwards and reduces the amount of quality work the athlete can do in a week. While FTP tests/workouts definitely have merit, the purpose of the above workout is actually to maximize the muscular output, while minimizing the strain on the cardiovascular system. The intended effect of the maximizing muscular output in this workout is to build bike-specific strength in the legs. We might do a different workout to address building cardiovascular fitness, but here, it’s about skeletal muscles and stimulating them to become stronger in a sport specific way. The short sprint intervals towards the end of the main set are likewise addressing primarily neuromuscular fitness.

It takes time to reap the benefits of these workouts, but I think athletes adding these types of stimuli to their main sets regularly are going to see increases in power output over a couple of months. I generally prescribe this type of workout for triathletes who need/want improved leg strength specific to cycling. On average I have seen a 2-4% increase in overall power output when athletes use this type of work regularly over 8-12 weeks. The workload is not as extreme as an FTP interval, so most cyclists can do a similar set 2-4 times per week.

Trismarter Head Coach, Lee Gardner lives, trains, and coaches in Colorado Springs, CO. Lee has successfully coached age group and elite triathletes to a number of championship events, including USAT Age Group Nationals, Ironman World Championships in Kona, and Ironman 70.3 World Championships in both Clearwater & Las Vegas. For information about Trismarter coaching services and training plans, please feel free to contact us. Read more article by Coach Lee.