Bike Drills

There are many ways to get better on the bike.  This can include putting in lots of time in the saddle, taking on really high intensity workouts and even investing time in the gym building muscular strength.  But throughout all of this, working on drills is very important.  This is also the case for swimming and running or any sport for that matter.

I always love to reference basketball as a sport where you truly get out of it what you put in.  When we see an athlete such as Michael Jordan (the greatest athlete of all time in my humble opinion) flawlessly sink a game winning jump shot as the clock hits zero, there were countless solitary hours of drills in preparation for that pivotal moment.  He stood at the free throw line taking shot after shot.  Orienting the grooves of the basketball just right, snapping the wrist just right, releasing the ball at just the right moment, ensuring his follow through on every shot......and then doing it a thousand more times.

In the same way, bike drills are never complete.  They are honed and honed to be as sharp as possible.  These can include spin-ups, isolated leg drills (ILD), hill simulation through hard gears and standing, and many more.  The three aforementioned drills will be briefly discussed in this article.

High cadence is something many beginning cyclists have a hard time with.  And what is considered "high cadence" is a conversation all on its own.  From a triathlete's perspective, I've always heard a common goal of average cadence to be somewhere around 90 rpm.  Many beginning cyclists and triathletes will often be around 60 to 70 rpm.  Some of the top cyclists in the world can hold over 110 rpm on an average.  In the world of triathlon, holding a higher cadence can often avoid burning out the legs and save them for the run.  I saw what I consider a good explanation of how to reach proper cadence when an online article stated "if your lungs hurt, push bigger gears.  If your legs hurt, spin faster.  If they both hurt, you're doing it right."  Many times, people pushing hard gears at a low cadence complain of not being able to raise their heart rate.  Then some spin so fast that they raise their heart rate, but they don't generate the speed and power they'd hoped for and don't work their legs like they should.

All of that being said, working in spans of high spinning can really allow one to work on adjusting their legs to high cadence and create muscle memory in some sense.  At the same time, when spinning high cadence, it can really expose sloppy form.

Typical spin up sets I like to use include 10 x (15 seconds at 120+ rpm then 45 seconds recovery at 90 rpm), then 1 minute easy, then 10 x (30 seconds at 110+ rpm then 30 seconds recovery at 90 rpm).  Another approach can be to spin up as fast as you can until you start bouncing on your bike seat, then back it off just below that to where you stay steady on the bike seat.

If a cyclist consistently practices spin-up drills (2 times per week is great), their legs and body will become more and more accustomed to the high cadence and it will become subliminal.  In other words, the cyclist won't think about holding 90 rpm, their body will simply know what that is and what it feels like, and the body will WANT to feel like that to be most comfortable.

Many times, we don't notice the inefficiencies in our pedal stroke, because we are using two legs and while one leg is slacking, the other takes up that slack so that we don't notice it.  But when you make each leg work on its own, it quickly becomes apparent where the problems are.  Clipped in pedals and shoes are necessary to get the most out of this drill.  Bike cages can work, but nowhere nearly as good.  These drills can be done on the road, but it is strongly suggested these be done on a trainer for safety purposes.  One you don't have to worry about balance and, two, you don't have to worry about swerving in front of a vehicle.

Typical ILD sets I use include 10 x (30 seconds left leg, 30 seconds both legs, 30 seconds right leg, 30 seconds both legs).  It also can be increased to 1 minute spans for each leg, but this can be tough for beginners.  For starters, set it on a very easy gear so as not to feel impossible or possibly strain your leg muscles.

When having only one leg on the pedal, the other leg can rest on the side of the trainer to which the back wheel is connected.  This is where the inefficiencies are truly exposed.  If you hear a clanking noise, you will realize that your pedal stroke is not so smooth.  You may not be lifting your knee enough or lifting it too much to where your stroke is more of a square shape than the goal of an oval shape.  It also exposes if you are pointing your toes downward too much.  Over time, it will become easier and easier to avoid the clanking until it is a smooth stroke throughout.

And as this becomes more and more mastered, it is worthy of attempting ILD with harder and harder gears.

This is the "fun" one.  High cadence is not always an option.  Many of us train on courses and compete in races which have plenty of hills.  And when we start climbing against that wonderful element we call "gravity", our cadence naturally slows down and we start switching towards the easier gears.  And when the hills hit a certain steepness, we start standing.  That is the point in the race for triathletes where the goal pace on the upcoming run portion starts to be rethought.

So simulation of these hills on a trainer can go a long way in preparing us for these situations.  Much opposite to what we do with our gears when climbing a steep hill, the trick is to flip to the harder gears on the trainer.  I like to train with a 12 lb fly wheel attached to the trainer to make the tension higher and better simulate the resistance of uphill climbing.

So flip the gears to the hardest you can stand and attempt standing for spans of anywhere from 1 minute to 5.  This is again something that the length of standing can increase as one gets better at it.  There are some great Spinervals videos out there worthy of viewing. Two of my favorites are titled "7.0 The Uphill Grind" and "11.0 Big Gear Strength".  They hurt.

A great way of combining high cadence and hill work is by flipping to the hardest gears and standing on a hill climb.  Let's say you go three minutes climbing a hill while standing.  Well, for pretty much every uphill, you are going to hit a backside with a downhill.  So at the end of the 3 minutes standing, quickly flip your gears to very easy and hammer it as if you are descending a hill.  The combination of these will force you to consider if you are keeping a smooth, controlled pedal stroke whether low or high cadence.

You can be the strongest person in the world, but if you are grinding the gears at unnecessary angles, you are simply wasting energy that doesn't need to be wasted.  Pushing down or pulling up at the wrong time in your pedal stroke is like pushing against a concrete wall - it really isn't going to get you anywhere fast.

So consistently putting in the time on these drills and others week in and week out, month in and month out, year in and year out will pay big dividends when you take your cycling to the road and to the races.  As is my favorite saying, "Consistency is everything."

So just like Michael Jordan nailing a game winning shot without even thinking about it, you can hammer the bike while holding flawless form without even thinking about it.  The only thing you will be thinking about is how great it just felt to pass that other cyclist and how full of energy your legs are as you set off on your run.

Happy Training!

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