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Cycling Economy: The last of the big three physiological fitness determiners is economy. Sport science understands less about this one than the other two, but it may be the most important. It has to do with how efficiently you use oxygen while exercising. Measuring oxygen used is just another way of measuring energy during exercise since in the human body how much oxygen you use also tells you how much energy you’re expending. Your economy is much like the economy rating for a car. – how many miles per gallon of gas. Only in the case of exercise it’s how many milliliters of oxygen per mile.
The longer the race is the less important aerobic capacity becomes and the more important economy is. This is because at the longer distances you exercise at a lower percentage of your aerobic capacity. So having a big VO2max won’t be of great benefit. But wasting even a little energy per stroke or stride due to poor economy will add up to a lot of wasted energy – and a slow performance – in a long race.
We know what can be done to boost your aerobic capacity. You can do lots of miles and mix in high-intensity intervals. Economy is a bit different. There are some things you have control over, but many you can do nothing about. For example, we know that for swimming being tall with long arms and legs and big feet improves economy. Unfortunately, you can’t change those. In the same way, for cycling having a long femur bone relative to your total leg length improves economy. For running being short and small are good for your economy. As an endurance athlete economy is improved by having a greater percentage of slow twitch muscle fibers. And there are other improvements to our physiology we would also make if we had control over them such as increasing the number of mitochondria we have (these are the little powerhouses in the muscle cell that produce energy). These are all things we have little or no control over.
So what things can you control to improve your racing efficiency and use fewer milliliters of oxygen per mile? The most common technique. You must realize that if you decide to go this route and make changes to your current technique that there will be a period of time during which you become less efficient. This will show up as a higher than normal heart rate at any given speed or power. And it may take weeks if not months to make the new technique your normal. At that point you should be faster at the same heart rates as before.
Others that are beneficial for the bike and run are reducing excess body weight and using lighter equipment. Then there are sport-specific efficiency improvers. The most notable is aerobars on the TT or tri bike along with other aerodynamic equipment such as wheels, helmet and bike frame. As a swimmer you can improve economy by improving the flexibility of your shoulders and feet, especially the ability to point your toes. Interestingly, the research shows that having less flexibility in the ankle joint makes for more economical running as this appears to improve the release of energy stored in your calf muscle with each footstrike.
Training components that improve economy are intensity and frequency. Training at a high speed or power has been shown to make athletes more economical at all speed and power outputs including the lower range. But it doesn’t work both ways. Going very slowly doesn’t pay off with greater economy at the high end of speed and power.
One of the best ways to improve your technique and therefore your efficiency is to do your sport frequently even if each session is very brief. For example, for a triathlete to become a more efficient swimmer with only two hours a week to devote to it, swim four times a week for 30 minutes each time. That will improve your efficiency sooner than doing two, one-hour swims each week.
Plyometric exercises have also been shown to improve economy in both runners and cyclists. This involves doing explosive jumping, bounding and hopping drills. For the run brief, powerful hill repeats are much like plyometrics.
There is still a great deal of debate about whether or not traditional strength training with weights improves economy. I believe it does as I have seen so many of the athletes I’ve coached over the years improve their performances remarkably after a winter of lifting weights – provided they did exercises which closely mimic the movements of the sport. Doing curls is unlikely to make you a better runner. But doing step ups may help.
In summarizing the three physiological fitness determiners remember that aerobic capacity is largely the result of your genetics as optimized by steady training over many years. And the longer your race is the less significant this is to performance, even though it wouldn’t hurt to have a high VO2max. Lactate threshold is highly trainable and you should see a steady improvement in your speed or power when you reach this threshold. Economy may be the best determiner of performance of the three. But, as mentioned, we don’t know a whole lot about it and much of what is known to be important is out of your control. The things you do have some measure of control over often take a long time to accomplish (e.g., changing your technique), are difficult to achieve (e.g., lower body weight) or are expensive (e.g., lighter bike).
We arrived at Pitlochry late Saturday afternoon to register for the Etape. From the outset it was apparent that this event is in a league of its own. Company stands from some top names such as the Sky/Adidas cycling team and a free service centre from Mavic with a nice jazz band playing in the lazy afternoon sun made for a carnival atmosphere. The slick system and really warm reception at registration was really nice and the hundreds of locals and business’s were all welcoming. £16 worth of Freebies from Zipvit helped allay some of the energy worries for next day. Considering the 4,500 folk in the event that is quite a commitment from Zipvit as well as them stocking all the feed stations with heaps of gels and energy food.
Accommodation was booked out for most of Perthshire so we chose to camp. Along with a few hundred others, some of whom had a family support team and had been there for a few days cycling. Pre event nerves kicked in and sleeping was never going to be easy or refreshing. At 3am folk were already up and about for the 7am start. We had our breakfast, lubed the bit’s that might get sore then cycled the 2.5km’s into the town which was sealed off to cars. For us I guess it’s the nearest we will ever get to the atmosphere of a Grand Tour. Yellow Mavic service cars ready to go out on the course, Several TV crews, John Swinney the second minister working the crowd, Graham O’Bree speaking to folk, teams of serious folk warming up at the front and yet hundreds of folk just wanting to get round in one piece further back, and a great chatter and exuberance of nerves and excitement. I was away with the “A” group where I felt a bit out-classed by youth and vigour and Fiona was not far behind with at 8mins after seven am for her group. To say I was prepared for the race would be wrong. The Bealach Beag last Saturday then a rest on Sunday, Easy ride Monday then I lost it on the Tuesday night 25 TT. Cold, ill and unwell feeling I nearly didn’t finish. Wed I had as rest but a moderate temp ride on Thursday I still felt unrecovered so I had a very easy ride on Friday knowing Sat was a rest day. I didn’t feel well on Saturday so wasn’t sure how Sunday was going to go. I wanted to get about 3hrs 50.
Riders Waiting to Start (click once for large - twice for full screen)
The start for the front group going through the town was chilled, but as soon as the big road was reached the hammer went down and it was 30 mph in a big bunch and lots of acceleration with concentration to keep a wheel. The first 40 miles are a bit of a blur and were quite lumpy into the wind, but the road surface was really good for a B class road. Very quickly after going back along on the South side of Loch Rannoch it was the “King of the Mountains” timed ascent of the 5 mile 1500ft to the top of the pass over Schechallion. While not as steep as the Bealach na Ba its still full on, with sections at 16%. The descent of 5 miles down the other side was on a good road surface with nice bends and really, really fast. No shimmy on the bike as I had changed the frame so I could let rip. A sharp turn West at the bottom then a nice run up Glen Lyon up one side then down the other then onto a wide smooth road past Castle Menzies at a steady 35/28mph in the bunch until Logerait where there was a sharp turn up and left straight onto a 18% climb. This clearly broke some folk judging by clattering of gears and wheezing! I had not stopped at any feedsations due to speed and had run out of gels so getting under 4 hours wasn’t going to happen. I could feel the need for more and my threshold was going down which showed in a speed and heart rate drop which I don’t get at this time or distance if I keep the calories coming. Then the home run of 5 miles into Pitlochry. This had a few short sharp hills but was quickly over and then the public lined hill up into the finish in the town and cheers and clapping from hundreds if not thousands of folk. The public address system blares out who you are, and where you’re from. A quite pretty girl comes over and hangs a medal over you head and a not so pretty guy gives you water and helps you to a filter area. And it’s over. 3,500 k/cal, 81 miles and 3,000+ ft of going uphill. Within 5 mins your time is texted to your mobile and throughout the event folk could follow your split time live on the website. 4hrs 6 for me and I thought I would have a couple of hours to wait for Fiona who was going to stop at all the feed stations and rest and take pictures. Blow me if she doesn’t come in only and hour and a bit later at 5hrs 03 and as one of the fastest Vet ladies. With pain and surgery looming for her to say that I was very proud of her courage and stamina would be a considerable understatement.
Me Looking Nervous behind a top Rider (click once for large - twice for full screen)
So, that was Etape Caledonia. Fiona’s condition will be sorted by surgery all be it major, and my suffering riding with stronger folk ended in Pitlochry. What is truly humbling is the amount of money raised for Macmillan and the support of the people of Perthshire for those whose fear and suffering has no finishing line and to whom this race is dedicated.
The End (click once for large - twice for full screen)
Due to sampling some great cake and scones and on occassion paid some rip off prices, folk suggested a web page showing where the best places were for a stop. The best are on my web page under local info "cake stops" http://crankitupgear.com/cake%20stops.html Favourite so far is the "Robins Nest" Taynult as parking at Creagan Appin, then following the cycle track to Connel, and accross to the Glen Lonan loop with a stop for cake in Taynult is really nice. Then accross the bridge and around Ardchattan with its brilliant 12/16% 4km climb followed by the swoopy down to Barcaldine then back to Creagan makes our favourite 40 mile run. Cycle friendly and none of the hassle you get on the A82. Highly recommended and a popular route to meet up with the NACC lads.