Anyone involved with cycling, from Tour de France competitors to those doing indoor spinning, wants more power. With so many options in equipment and training methods, we did the homework for you. Over the last few months, GU Energy Labs is examining all possible ways to improve performance by looking at the complete picture of endurance sports: what works and wins, and what is just nice to know. After countless hours of partnering with some of the best minds in cycling, InsideTracker found the perfect solution by combining the latest sensor technology and the power of blood biochemistry. In this blog we will review how endurance cycling research can make anyone better, including regular athletes looking for the right fit on their bikes, and doing better on race day.
Cycling Technique Can Improve Your Wattage on the Bike
The perfect bike fit does more than just improve comfort. It can also transform an inefficient stroke to a fluid athletic action by adjusting the right variables. Bike fit technology is growing in popularity because it works, with facilities like the Press Play Performance Lab in Berkeley, California, leading the way. In the past, fine-tuning only involved moving the bike seat up and down, or back and forth. Now, centers like those run by Dr. Greaux are diving deeper into areas like cleat adjustments, seat pressure, and muscle activity (which is called electromyography). Improving bike fit, therefore, is beyond just leg length and what handlebar one buys from the bike shop. Dr. Greaux writes :
"Using joint angles and knee tracking is a start, however, it can steer a bike fitter off course if used alone. Instead, we like to see functional data such as muscle activations and dynamic saddle and foot pressure mapping. Power is a useful tool, however we’ve seen it misused. Evaluating power output in a studio setting without electromyography can be dangerous as we don’t know how the cyclist is accomplishing that power. "
The proper fit provides an increase of power, or wattage, on the bike. Wattage is a common term riders use to summarize how much they can do, usually per hour, based on their weight and endurance over time. Training helps build the ability to create higher wattage, while bike-fit experts attempt to preserve what the legs, heart, and lungs can do with better body positions. Significant changes in posture are obvious, and even small tweaks to the cleats can improve pedal efficiency. Investing in the perfect bike and body set-up can improve the wattage a rider can produce, all while also decreasing the overuse injuries that cycling is notorious for.
Getting Lean the Right Way Matters for Endurance
With regard to power, lower body fat means a better weight-to-power ratio. Many recreational bikers and serious weekend warriors spend a fortune trying to shave a few ounces from their bike frames, instead of looking at the extra pounds on their own body frames. Improving body composition is more than just losing extra fat. It’s also considering the amount of muscle and where that muscle is. Triathletes have some upper-body muscle mass needs for swimming, especially in the sprint distances, but tour riders climbing mountains need nothing additional. Where muscle and fat is stored on the body, not just the total amount of each of those tissues.
Getting leaner slowly and consistently is the best way to avoid breakdowns, since the biomarker SHBG (sex hormone-binding globulin) is very sensitive to caloric intake and endurance training. Lose weight too quickly and the body fights back, so paying careful attention to food intake and the amount of work can improve free testosterone in the body. The science is clear that becoming leaner can improve performance. But the art is getting there slowly by not trying to lose weight too rapidly, or the effort will backfire. GU Energy Labs invested a lot of time and effort ensuring something as simple as athlete weight was carefully managed throughout competition with great success.
Why Eating for Repair Trumps Fueling Strategies
One common error in sports nutrition is getting lost in the high-or-low carbohydrate debate. Many endurance athletes have a big hole in their diet plans: the need to repair properly. Fueling is indeed essential to performance and recovery, and several leaders have outlined the right research for cyclists. An excellent roadmap to proper fueling can be found with the writing of Asker Jeukendrup. Many recreational cyclists should focus on hydration and general nutrition, because an hour on the bike isn't preparing for something like the Tour of California.
The area of body repair is not just grams of protein for muscle anymore. Smarter recovery is about the right training program matching the right nutrition plan that is personalized for you. Endurance cyclists who fail to restore ferritin and other micronutrients find themselves with full tanks of glycogen but are still tired and sore. We are now learning that every cell, including tendons, bones, and of course the brain itself, needs to be supported with nutrients and the right dietary interventions.
The stereotype of endurance being a fueling sport is antiquated. Muscles generate the force needed to win from getting stronger, and minerals and the right dose of training is beyond just how many carbs you can put in your fuel belt. The brain needs to supported as well, since cycling on the road is sometimes a hazardous journey. During a fast descent, cyclists need to be hyper-focused and razor-sharp, an ability beyond the scope of just fat, protein, and carbohydrate numbers. Athletes with chronically high cortisol levels increase their risk to poor decision-making instead of being in the zone. Nutrition is not calorie counting or even percentages of macronutrients, it's an opportunity to hack your biochemistry and repair smarter.
CryoHydration - A Cold Way to Boost Performance in the Heat?
The human body contains, on average, five liters of blood. While it’s delivering oxygen and nutrients, blood is also part of the equation to cool the body. Blood requires enough water or it becomes viscous and decreases the speed of transport, robbing water from muscle to remain in homeostasis. When the body is severely dehydrated, it risks overheating. Not only does performance suffer, the health risk also increases. Recently published research looked at ice slurry drinks, beverages at 0.16-0.18 degrees Celsius (about 32 degrees F), and how they outperformed cold and neutral temperature water in cycling performance.
Apparel companies have invested millions of dollars into the latest fabrics to keep cool, but these advances are not showing up on the thermometer with either skin or core temperature of athletes. A few weeks ago I presented on athlete performance with temperature at the FLIR InfraMation 2015 conference. The purpose of my research and lecture was to inform on how narrow the optimal window of temperature the body can perform well in. NFL teams were already experimenting with monitoring temperature changes, but many are still dealing with heat illness and poor hydration. Ironically, avoiding the heat is missing out on possible favorable adaptations to increases in blood plasma, the fluid that helps transport the oxygen-carrying red blood cells. A good rule of thumb is to be safe when exercising, but aggressive with experimentation of cooling and heating techniques when using recovery and complementary training methods.
Weight Training - More than Strengthening Bones and Muscle?
The research on cycling is strong evidence for strength training, improving both leg power and bone health. Cycling is a great sport for aerobic fitness and muscular conditioning, but because of the lowered impact on the body it doesn't have a significant effect on bone building. Exercising on a bike may challenge the heart, lungs, and muscles, but the bones are not strained in way that they get developed. In my first blog I warned about avoiding a performance crash from low ferritin, but if one is to have an actual road crash, cycling itself isn't going to help. Vitamin D and calcium intake is important for bone health, but improving bone density is a combination of stress and recovery that requires the right type of mechanical loading.
Cycling alone can improve strength, but added strength training in the gym creates some interesting muscle enhancements, according to the research. From the conclusions of the Norwegian study, it seems muscle fiber changes in weight training are more than increasing size and strength. It seems that possible metabolic pathways exist that enable the body to update oxygen more effectively, but all of this is speculation at this point because some studies show no benefits to cycling with weight training. A conservative approach is to use lifting for health and injury reduction, and take the leap of faith that performance may improve as well. Some athletes who are more gifted in the strength arena may be a non-responder, but others on the extreme end may find weight training helpful.
Putting It All Together
Your body may be a temple, but it’s also a research lab if you apply a little sport science. Experiment by trying a power strategy and monitor the results with the stopwatch. Managing key biomarkers like creatine kinase (muscular strain), androgens and stress hormones (fatigue), and nutrient changes can clue us into what is really going on beyond the superficial numbers of the wrong approach. Tracking all data, not just the convenient ones, can improve power on the bike.
Photo Credit Jessica Greaux