Coaching philosophy Cycling Exercise selection The map or the territory Training theory

The map or the territory pt 3

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.

Leonardo da Vinci

In the first article of this series I explored the risks of assuming that there is something fundamental beneath the surface, which must first be optimized in order to increase performance later on. In the second article I challenged the need to continually increase physical training load, suggesting to focus instead on adaptation of task difficulty to where our athletes are exactly now. 

In this last article of the series we will continue to explore methods to stay in the present, and how the use of our language can help but also overthrow our attention to what is really going on and hinder the transfer of the exercises we prescribe.

As we have seen, the promise of the ideal is repeated over and over again but never fulfilled. When technology was invented to measure oxygen consumption, blood lactate concentrations and force it gave rise to new models for training. Now the recent ability to sequence DNA is looking to change the way we measure and prescribe training.

While this way of looking at the internal processes of the body certainly has merits to many sciences, it is still not able to add much to the decision process constructing training programs. Just like with the preceding reductionist approaches comes the same possible pitfalls. 

We could also measure the length of fascicles, concentrations or flux of chemicals, energy storage or the efficiency of the electron transport chain and… Well, it’s likely to be a mess to bring all those parts together in a general capacity. The whole is not the sum of its parts, despite how magnified they may be.

The aspects of things that are most important to us are hidden not because of their depth, but because of their simplicity and familiarity.

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once described the situation as it is as if a man is standing in a room facing a wall on which are painted a number of dummy doors. Wanting to get out, he would fumblingly try to open them, vainly trying them all, one after the other, over and over again. But, of course, it is quite useless. All the time, although he doesn’t realize it, there is a real door in the wall behind his back, and all he has to do is to turn around and open it.

Having explanatory models of how it all works, seems to be helping us to take the right actions. But the problem with the concept creation is that it assumes that by creating concepts, we can lay down in advance what it is we are thinking about. In plain English, there is really not much evidence supporting the theoretical concepts of phase potentiation, but we have a hard time to see this since it is all we know.

To help our man get out of the room all we have to do is make him look in a different direction. To do this we should turn things around, away from the safety of dogma, and look at what is hidden in plain sight.When do our athletes struggle in racing or during competition? Describe those situations without explaining why they happen.

This brings us to the topic of terminology, on how to best communicate with the people we coach.

Concept language is used to describe words or constructs that bundle a lot of actions and interactions under a simple word. To transmit less detail and more fundamental aspects of information faster and easier, mainly by experts of a defined field.

Complementary training, meaning all training carried out away from the field of the game, with the intention of helping successful execution of skills in the game itself (or a more functional life for that matter).

Coaches, specifically us who provide help with complementary training, are usually using the concept language of our field, as opposed to the language of the game itself. We use constructs that are natural in the gym, like “strength”, “strength endurance” and “speed”. We speak a language of “intensity”, “volume”, “sets” and “reps” with the athletes that we train.

When athletes are new to complementary training they usually struggle. They have a hard time to understand our lingo and to perform the training we prescribe with it. When we invite athletes into this world, filled with new mysteries to solve, they will eventually get better and better at speaking our language and doing our type of training.

But this was never the end goal.

It is not enough to show how clever we are by showing how obscure everything is

J.L. Austin

There is some evidence that memories are stored in the same brain regions as they are perceived. This means that not only what you mean when you phrase your coaching cues matter, but also how the athlete interprets them and in what context the training is carried out for their subsequent retrieval.

The way language seems to provide a gateway into athletes’ motor cortex is quite stunning. Studies show that when participants hear verbs like lick, pick and kick it activates the respective brain regions of the tongue, arms or legs.

By using language so different from the field of play, we might accidentally be creating a rift between the athletes training and the application of it. By using our concepts instead of mapping into the common language that is better understood by our trainees we are limiting the transferability of the training they do .

Sports is a practical matter. It is not about words, but rather about actions. Action language, on the contrary from concept language, is the language used to describe only relevant details in a clear, concise and objective way, transferring details without judgement, often with a more direct purpose. It tells what to do in a specific situation of a game.

When we start with what we see, rather than from physiological constructs, we are more likely to be able to create terminology that ties the action language of the sport and concepts of exercise science together. Then we can utilize this terminology in a coaching process that is individualized without becoming abstract.

The athletes will perform their exercises more purposeful and they will intuitively know how to use the skills they are strengthening. And, although they might not be well versed in your world, they often are very knowledgeable of their sport. They know themselves and they will be able to help improve those exercises in a constructive way.

In this the third series we will show how one could implement the proposed methods by using cycling sprinters as the example.

A muscle fiber generates tension through cross-bridges of actin and myosin. Under tension, the muscle can be made to lengthen, shorten, or remain the same. Muscles also have elastic properties where energy can be stored to increase force, but only for a very short time. When a muscle is not tense it is “slack”. To produce movement, that slack has to be removed by pretensioning.

At high speed and high power the demands for contraction velocity, pretensioning and efficiency of storage, and return of energy are greatly increased. As a result there is little positive transfer between different types of muscle contraction. In cycling most muscle actions are shortening contractions.

Cyclists produce higher peak pedal power and rate of force development on a stable cycle, commonly referenced to as an ergometer (like a watt bike, a spinning bike or a trainer) than when riding in a velodrome.

When sprinting on the ergometer, the riders only have to focus on producing maximum power, whereas on a bicycle they also have to control the direction and stability whilst trying to produce maximal power. Also, one of the biggest factor to overcome during cycling in aerodynamic drag which is not easily simulated in a gym.

Because of different demands there is an altered riding position observable as difference in hip, knee and ankle angles.

With the principle of specificity in mind there would seem to be arguments for the the track cyclist to train on the track, or to find other ways to challenge stability if that is not possible.

Torque-pedaling rate and power-pedaling rate relationships for laboratory and field tests, estimating “optimal cadence” in Elite track sprint cyclists (Gardner et al, 2005)

Cadence, or pedaling rate, is an important factor influencing the economy of motion, power output and the development of fatigue during cycling. In track sprinting the use of fixed gearing makes this a very important consideration at race day, but also to guide training. The inability to select the best gear for specific situations during a race, forces a decision on which gear would be overall most suitable for a rider in all situations. Some factors influencing this are the type of race, the opponent and the rider himself.

Bigger gears give the opportunity for higher maximum speed with less fatigue. If one is able to get up to speed and then to effectively spin it around, that is. With higher inertia comes higher demands of force.

There has been considerable research in what is called optimal cadence, the cadence where peak power is achieved. Given the importance of contraction velocity and efficiency in high speed and high power movement it is thought to provide important insight in the selection of pedaling rate, and therefore appropriate gearing.

Optimal cadence is highly correlated with the amount of fast-twitch muscle fibers, and in a sport where the ability to push bigger gears are so rewarded as it is in track cycling, there is likely not much drawback in continually training to increase their proportion. Given the low risk of gaining mass when doing large volumes of training, there is little reason for the road sprint cyclist to think differently.

As with other constructs there is a catch to letting peak power testing dictate training decisions. Those tests are almost always carried out with very little pre fatigue and from a stand still or low cadence. Following periods of exertion cadence at peak power has been shown to change. Higher velocity provides less time for cross bridges to form, and therefore the demands for the speed of contraction increases. The demands of the athlete shift with each situation and each athlete.

You can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs…?

In a small country like Sweden, with a limited talent pool even in our national sports (football, ice hockey, skiing), we need to adapt our coaching to improve each person in front of us, rather than the other way around.

One would need to look at the specific situations each athlete struggles with to best construct exercises to increase their capacity in those situations.

Sven Westergren is the current Master national champion in Match sprinting. Match sprinting is the discipline where two opponents go head to head for 3 laps, or 750 meters. He is big and strong and able to push bigger gears than his smaller opponents. They however have the upper hand when it comes to quick bursts of acceleration from lower speed.

Tactics comes down to controlling the pace. If Sven is able to keep the base speed high enough to prevent aggressive “jumps” from his opponents they tire quickly, and have little to do when he eventually accelerates to top speed. In order to strengthen his ability to do so, exercises for acceleration and maximum speed can be constructed to involve a build-up beforehand.

With little access to the only Velodrome in Sweden, which is located more than 2 hours drive from where we live, and knowing that the transfer of skill development from ergometers to the track might be low, we do most of our training during winter season on resisted rollers. This is not ideal, but better than other options.

Rollers might provide less physiological overload, because their larger demands for creating stability. Peak force and power are lower than on an ergometer, but quite similar to the track, and we have seen more transfer of improvements on to the track because of this.

We should use our coaches’ eyes when we construct exercises for our athletes, but if we can formulate them with language well understood by our athletes, we are improving both their transferability and the chance for better feedback. A clear goal for our exercises also allows for better judging if the exercise was successfully executed and functional.

A possible way to create a helpful terminology would be to first define a game model based on the broad actions taken in their sport.

For track cyclists we could construct such a model by going through each broad component carried out in a race. A very simple example would be to specify the possible actions to master as the start, the acceleration, maximal speed and speed endurance.

For each of these areas we can assign suitable actions, which would be a good starting point in order to create a more individual and usable “dialect” of a general sports language. Actions however do take place within the boundaries of space and time. If we sat down in a car and all everything that was told to us was to “drive” the action would seem less connected to its environment than if we were also given instructions on how fast and in which direction.

Similarly our cues will also benefit from the inclusion of direction and distance.

Christoffer Eriksson is the Nordic Champion in Keirin. Keirin is an event similar to the match sprint but features between three and seven riders competing in a sprint race of 3 laps after having followed in the slipstream of a pacing motorbike for 3 laps. The motorbike gradually increases in speed before peeling off and letting the sprinters battle it out.  The event is fierce, fast and unpredictable, with many split-second decisions about when to hold and when to attack that have to be made under fatigue.

Christoffer has lower top speed than many of his opponents, but on the flipside he is perceptive and he does not tire easily. In competition he cannot just muscle himself to wins but instead has to see how the match unfolds. He wins by finding the opportunity to get a gap early, or to follow the strongest riders when they do so. Using his strength to not get boxed in, and accelerate to fill gaps is an important quality for him.

One exercise to practice this ability could be to build, then simulate staying on a wheel, relaxing to get some distance in order to use the slipstream to get enough speed to go past on the outside. We could call this exercise “hit, fly, hit”.

In order to build the language for this we should consider the actions involved in it. Most important is the verb that should be the main descriptions of the action to take. I’ve often used the word “push”, as it is pushing the pedal away we would like the athlete to do. But considering that pushing is something that could be done slow I prefer “punch”, which I think would be a perfectly fine option. You can push slowly, but you can’t imagine punching slowly.

Knowing about the very specific encoding of memory storage, I would like to use a word less associated with the upper body. I would propose using “stomp”, which would seem as a similar action as punching, but for the lower body, where power is most important for cycling.

When describing the exercise, I would use something like “Build up to speed and and then stomp as hard as you can to go faster, closing the distance to a breakaway rider. Then stay as smooth and effortless but without losing cadence, and then again stomp hard to accelerate past”.

In order to sharpen the action cue I prefer to shorten it to a minimum. Keep the action, direction and distance, and end up with “stomp fast forward”, and after the “fly part” again tell Christoffer to “stomp hard past”.

The exercise will be tied to race tactics, and we would be able to get a nice feedback loop going in order to improve future exercise according to the needs and skill level of the rider.

The skeptic could point out that the examples given in this series of articles appear to be quite simple. That all I do is to observe my athletes, and when I think I’ve seen what needs to be improved upon, I have them do that very thing. Yes, with some variation, and sure, carefully considering communication and possible improvements of the exercises – it all appears to be so simple.

They would certainly be right. Even though I would argue that doing the simple thing well, is not easy. Let’s also describe how one could use the same methods to develop something less like what is performed in the sport itself.

When an exercise is very specific, by definition it has a low degree of overload. If we would like to lift the middle of a rug from the floor, we would do best to direct most of our lifting to that point exactly. If we want to maximize how high we could get it, we would also benefit from at the same time lifting at the edges.

In elite sports, you rarely win with the distance of a landslide. More often with the small margins visible in the loser’s sigh. The athlete also needs the marginal gains found in general overload.

You have to appreciate the impact that variation and change has on how an athlete reacts to training across the board

Derek Evely

The upper body is involved at a remarkable extent when cycling hard compared to when cycling less hard. The degree of negative relation between upper body asymmetry and maximum cycling power production is quite exceptional.

This should not come as a surprise – in high intensity movement the opposing forces are so great that muscle fibers have to stay close to their optimum length, and as the feet are attached to the pedals, there is less flexibility of positions in the lower body. One can imagine how much this must challenge the trunk and the pelvis when force is applied into the pedals. Studies also indicate that compromised coordinative patterns for the ankle joint correlates with loss of power.

For the cyclist who wishes to win in a sprint this would seem to make an argument for

  • Upper body training (Pullups and Dips?)
  • Hip strengthening (Hip thrusts seem to be popular)
  • Core training (oh, those circuits that burn so good)
  • Ankle strengthening (Calf Raises, for more of that sweet burning sensation!).

While there is nothing wrong with these exercises, I would treat such isolation as things we do at the end of the session, after we’ve done everything else.

In movement, force produced by muscles moves through the body. Patterns between muscles occur with the changing demands of force in order to develop synergies. The whole body efficiently forms a unit capable of more force production than any of its muscles in isolation.

Again, with the principle of specificity in mind, there seems to be an argument for multi-joint compound movements in the gym to maximize transferability of increases of strength.

The need for variation is fulfilled already if we make sure that there is a large extent of overload.

“The human race shouldn’t have all its eggs in one basket, or on one planet. Let’s hope we can avoid dropping the basket until we have spread the load.”

Stephen Hawking

In bicycle sprinting you need to subdue very heavy resistance, especially in starts and acceleration. Further, these efforts must not make you so tired that you can continue to turn around those heavy gears the distance required to complete the race. Being strong for the sprinter is very specific.

In some of its disciplines, like in the match sprint and Keirin, a modernization of tactics has raised the need for top speed over acceleration. This has forced the riders into an arms race for the capacity to push bigger and bigger gears.

In earlier posts we have explored the balance between specificity and overload in the gym setting, and isolated the following basic rules

  1. Keep movement somewhat similar in movement patterns and stimuli
  2. Overload as much as possible while satisfying rule #1. Large load means larger neural adaptation and higher percentage of muscle fibers being recruited.
  3. And do not let the main movement mechanics break down or change during the set

I argued for single leg movements for developing maximal leg strength for sports played on one leg (cycling, team sports, track and field, racket sports, etc) and double leg movements for those that have movements performed symmetrically (powerlifting, weightlifting, CrossFit, etc).

Possibly we could tweak this even further.

Before we go on to explore this I’d like to point out that I do not propose to exclude single joint general movement, despite having less obvious benefit. In fact I have all of my athletes do such movements, like pull-ups and dips, but they do it late in the session, after the more contextual work is done.

The way our muscles in the lower body are structured allows for a unique role in the transformation of rotation in the knee joint into the production of high force. Biarticular muscles are muscles that cross two joints rather than just one, such as the hamstrings which cross both the hip and the knee. Rectus Femoris in our quadriceps and gastrocnemius in our calves also have this property.

These bi-articular characteristics allow for extending the joints one by one in a sequence called the proximal-to-distal sequence more commonly referenced as triple extension. Extension of these joints one by one allows at least one of them to have a favorable translation relationship throughout the full extension.

This sequence allows for the possibility of more net force production, but in order to function properly the extensions should be completed in a certain order.

An ankle collapsing during the pedal push does not translate into movement of the pedal, but still cost energy. To prevent this leakage of force efficient cycling pedaling depends upon the ability to keep the ankle locked into position.

If the push downwards is done with a highly extended or flexed ankle the extension movement becomes rapidly less efficient. It would seem that cycling therefore cannot fully use the benefits of the triple extension.

During the sprint, ankle joint power decreases more rapidly than power at other lower limb joints, while hip extensors and knee flexors sustain their power for a longer time at higher rate.

The hip extensors are also the strongest muscle group in all velocities, followed by knee extensors and hip flexors. The weakest muscle group are the ankle flexors.

This seems to further support that there are differences in the efficiency of the pushing sequence with fast cycling, possibly at least partly as a result of not being able to execute the triple extension in the most efficient sequence.

Road cycling too involve recurrent demand for high force output, with little possibilities for perfect execution of the the proximal-to-distal sequence

New inventions in technology to measure performance in endurance training changes the way training is conducted and planned. The way things work in the strength world is no different. Traditionally the measurement was the weight on the bar, but lately bar speed, or power, has been popularized as a way to monitor performance.

More contextual always means less optimal for overload, meaning that athletes will always have lower numbers to show for their efforts. The systemized way of using such constructs could potentially bias us to high performance in these constructs, rather than to look for more contextual performance increases.

It will also subconsciously nudge us toward movements with the highest efficiency, regardless if we do not have these options for movement execution on the field. This is often defended with references to higher neural stimuli of these exercises. High effort in more contextual movements will also have equally high neural stimuli, despite lower measurements, as an effect of their lower mechanical efficiency.

Very seldom do we train strength in the gym with our joints in such non-optimal positions. Since muscles do change their optimal length and other properties with exposure, this is the whole point of strength training, and given that the coordination of chains of muscle is no less trainable – maybe we should?

The standing start is no different from seated pedaling. If the knee joint and hip joint creates force by opening up, the ankle must stay fixated in order to translate this force from above into the pedal. If it does not there is a leakage of force.

As we found in an earlier article the split squat is a fine example of an exercise capable of generating a lot of force. Even more so with the added stability of the hands. We can see that the ability to transfer force through the ankle is one limiting factor in the video of the standing start above.

Possibly we could try to combine a dynamic high force output from the hips and the knee joints with a static high force demand of the ankle?

As cadence increases, the time we have to create force shorten.

Disregarding exactly what the optimal pedaling rate for high power sprinting is, it is definitely high enough to not allow for inefficiency. For us to develop efficiency to perform unloaded high intensity movements, we should practice pre-tensioning with the use of co-contracting muscles alone.

This could be done with high power ballistics movements, such as jumps, especially from static positions with the least possible help from pre-loading and counter movements. I see few drawbacks doing some of them from mechanically challenged positions similar to what you would find in bicycling.

The splinter in your eye is the best magnifying-glass.

Theodor W. Adorno

The main reason we still lean so much on these perfect systems of explanation for decision making is that they provide the false safety of the ideal. Numbers are clear and concise, actual situations are messy. But in that mess there is also information that is lost when quantified.

A magnifying glass quantifies and enlarges an image, but the spectator cannot truly construe meaning from what is magnified. Only when we get a “splinter in our eye” we are forced to stop to regard the things that do not fit in. The flaw in vision, becomes a way of seeing better.

To say something about particular situations risks exposing our ignorance. Our challenge then, becomes not to hide from our possible ignorance, but to embrace that risk.

Acceleration Cycling Exercise selection Sprinting Strength training

These boots are made for walking pt 2

Got to hurry, got to hurry, I don’t believe you worry
Take it back, take it back, You know you can’t do that
Don’t want no sleep, Just hide and seek
Yes, I’m a speedfreak, Baby, I’m a speedfreak


As sprinters we want to be able to move our feet as fast as possible. Regardless if we are clicked into pedals on a bike, wearing spikes running down a track or on the field in a team sport we do want to get our speed of movement as high as possible for our activity. But we are not thrown out of an airplane, finding ourselves moving as fast as we possible can with no effort. We need to get up to speed all by ourselves, by accelerating our body.

With every step or every revolution of the pedal, if our power is higher than the braking forces acting upon us our speed of movement increases, until at some point the net forward momentum equal to those braking forces and we are now moving at maximum velocity.

In track and field events extending the acceleration phase is something positive and largely correlated with lower sprinting times and better chance of winning. This comes from the fact that if you can push your acceleration phase from 25m (normal for a beginner) to 70m (world record 100m runner) then your speed at the end of that acceleration is higher, but also, since that maximum speed cannot be maintained for a very long time, that the deceleration phase of the race will be shorter. Even a short race like the 100 meters is damn long if there is 70m to go when you’re entering the “die a glorious death”-phase (or, if you’re unlucky, just the “die a death”-phase).

Actually, when it has been modeled, a longer acceleration phase always wins over a shorter one and thus the objective for a 100m sprinter should always be to increase the maximal speed, as this will also emphasize to keep accelerating. For as long as the race is if that was possible.

For the team sport athlete, or the cyclist, there are however other things to consider. The dream scenario of the straight sprint down the full fields in football or rugby, is never more than just a dream as the opponents are eager to crush you with a tackle. This makes the rate of acceleration even more important as you want to be able to get up to speed and past that defender in the little time and distance available.

One would think situation for the cyclist would be similar to the 100m runner, but there are several differences that motivates him or her, similarly to the field sport athlete, to increase the rate of acceleration rather than to extend the distance of it.

While the braking force of air resistance for the runner is not something that he or she can affect much – it is what it is – this is not true for the cyclist but something that can be changed to a large degree by assuming more aerodynamic posture on the bike. While the biomechanical characteristics of the standing position offers the higher power outputs suitable for creating the high forces needed to accelerate, the seated position offers kinematic, energy cost and mechanical efficiency.

Aerodynamic drag is by far the most significant variable for cycling, increasing by the square of our speed until accounting for 90% of total resistance over 50kph. The cyclist will at some point be able to increase his speed more by sitting down forming a smaller frontal area rather to try to extend the standing acceleration phase. Because of this the cyclist benefit from accelerating quickly in order to reap the advantages available by “going low” earlier than his opponents, spending less energy while preserving his or her speed.

If we consider track cycling there are even more constraints, as we also will not be able to keep standing up when going fast. The speed will increase the G-forces in the curves which will eventually push us down into the saddle. This makes most track cyclists stand up only until riding into the second curve (turn 3 or 4 if you talk “track geography”), giving them a distance to accelerate of something between 150 and 200m, depending on how strong and fast they are and what gearing they ride.

Speed, it seems to me, provides the one genuinely modern pleasure.

Aldous Huxley

So there is a difference between how to approach complementary training of maximal speed in track and field versus in field sports and cycle sprinting. In the former you could anchor the training prescription from the speed side, as it should also carry over to the improved acceleration necessary to reach higher speed, but in the latter ones we probably should address the training from more of an emphasis on acceleration. Limited by time or distance we likely should seek to improve the rate of acceleration, always get stronger and more powerful.

While there is a lot to gain at high stride or pedaling frequencies from increased tendon stiffness, when it comes to increase the rate of acceleration at lower velocities we would likely need to produce more muscular force down into the pedals or ground, something ordinarily categorized as increased strength.

Similar to the acceleration phase in track and field there is an change in the relative contribution of horizontal (forward motion of the hip) and vertical application of force in cycling. In the track and field this relative horizontal movement is largest when exiting the starting blocks until at maximal velocity almost all force is directed straight down into the ground. When out of the saddle in cycling, as speed and cadence is increased, horizontal movement of the hip also is reduced until it is more or less locked over the saddle. So when selecting exercises to provide overload to support the acceleration phase it seems reasonable to have some orientation of the force forward.

During a sprint the max power is reached within the very first seconds of the effort, but does not last long because the optimal loading conditions for power are changed with the increase of speed. With so little stimulus at this optimal velocity for power per interval of training it makes for many hard efforts to provide enough “hits at the system” to force adaptation.

Like I highlighted when describing a process for selecting complementary exercises for the start in my last article, we should seek to find exercises that provide some similarity of sensory patterns and intention. This should enhance the possibility of transferring the strength from the gym to the field of the sport. This though process should make us give prominence to exercises that has a somewhat similar finishing position as in the sport. It would also be a bonus if the starting position is distinct and if there is some actual movement of the body in the direction that the sport.

Pictures borrowed from Dan McPartlans prestentation “Why are ankles important to cycling”, see article notes.

Pedal force is ultimately produced by the muscles that span the hip, knee and ankle joints. The main function of the hip extensors and knee extensors is to generate force that is to be transferred to the pedal. It has been shown that exercises where the muscle is shortening (concentric) and exercises where the muscle is lengthening (eccentric) both are able to increase the muscles ability to forcefully open these joints.

However, as discussed in the previous article, there are some possible downside with pre-loading with a counter-movement or a slow eccentric action as it might impair the body ability to use co-contractions. Co-contractions are the only efficient option available “on the field” to reduce the muscle-slack that has to be taken care of before being able to produce movement, and this ability should be safeguarded.

The calf muscles have two functions: in addition to producing pedal force themselves they must also stiffen the ankle so that the force developed by the knee and the hip can be effectively transferred to the pedal. If your ankle-foot system is not able to transmit that force, “deforming” under tension, this impairs your technique and by extension radically impairs your performance. This stiffening of the ankle also has to happen really quickly in order for as little as possible of such leakage of force to occur.

The maximum force developed by a muscle is proportional to the number of sarcomeres, the basic contractile unit of muscle fiber, in parallel while the maximum shortening velocity is proportional to the number of sarcomeres in series.

With their pennate structure, allowing for more sarcomeres in parallel, the calf muscles are perfect for very brief efforts of very high force production. In order to support this they are also designed for a “pumping” or recurring function such as in running and cycling. In longer duration actions the blood circulation needed for this is impaired, as exposed by the sensation of pain (“the pump”) that accompanies such exercises (for example the calf raise).

Because of it’s muscle fiber orientation the calf muscles are not really suited for generating a large range of motion, and when they are used in sports remains more or less the same range (isometric). This optimum length of tension in muscle can be shifted to longer muscle lengths, especially by large range of motion eccentric exercise, but altering this length-tension relationship in a muscle could also alter it’s function and might be something to avoid for muscles of this type.

Let’s reiterate.

When selecting complementary exercises for the acceleration phase (out of the saddle) of cycle sprinting we would like to find exercises that

  1. Extend the time at high power production, at what we can call “optimal velocity”, in order to get “stronger” and be able to accelerate faster.
  2. Limit the possible pre-stretch or slow eccentric action that could affect the co-contraction ability that is necessary for the muscles to be efficient at going from slack to tense.
  3. Work the muscles around the hip and knee joints mainly through shortening (concentric action) while at the same time work the calf and ankles mainly at constant length (isometric action).
  4. Provide muscular overload and if possible, provide sensory similarity in body positioning and movement.

Sprinting on a slight incline is a good way of adding resistance and by doing that also maintain the athlete at conditions around maximum power. However doing this in the gym, where higher overload than in the specific conditions that is to be found on the bike could and should be sought, is more complicated. One could try to use a air and magnet resisted devices like the Wattbike, but while providing both a resistance increasing both exponentially and linearly with speed, it fails to provide the high force demands found in the inertia of the initial acceleration. While coming close, it just does not feel the same at those first few seconds.

When adding load to a sled and pushing or pulling it, we also, in addition to the increased resistance of the mass being accelerated (bodyweight plus sled) have to fight friction. While this coefficient of resistance will vary with different sleds (new, old, rusty?) and different surfaces (dry asphalt, wet turf?) it will always provide resistance to prolong conditions similar to the “optimal velocity” in the beginning of the acceleration, and provide more “stimuli per set” than unloaded acceleration.

The overload generated by heavy sleds should add to lower limb strength, and possibly also help to transfer strength from other less contextual strength movements like the squat into cycling (or running). This overload is placed upon all the joints simultaneously, including the often forgotten ankle joint. The sled push is also working the hip and knee joints with concentric action, while the ankle joint works isometrically, supporting their respective functions in forward acceleration.

While the definite answer to if one should load the sleds heavy or light is not yet established, there are vast amount of data suggesting to go heavy rather than not. The eminent French scientist JB Morin notes that without heavy loads, mechanical exposure to very acute angles is not possible compared to when using light loads.

Considering that we established that the sprint cyclist would rather seem to prefer increased muscular strength over tendon stiffness in order to increase the rate of acceleration, and if we accept that more overload likely shifts the adaptation in this direction then it seems reasonable to go for heavy loads.

I would make three arguments for deciding to push the sled, rather to pull it forward. First, the pushing style seem to make athletes to be able to work with heavier weights, which might be able to shift the adaptation to our muscular preference. Second, pushing with the arms does appear to further increase forward lean and alter foot placement, which may favor increased horizontal impulse. Third and possibly most important, having tension throughout the whole body, from the hands to the feet pushing into the ground is more contextual than having the hands free. The longer chain of activation is, even though in cycling we pull ourselves down rather than push our way forward, likely to be more similar in intermuscular demands of transferring force through joints all the way down to the feet.

How heavy is heavy? Well, rather than trying to find the optimal individual load it has been shown that to use a percentage of body weight correlates well between individual load and performance. In studies the groups using “very heavy” loads has been using ~80% of their body weight on the sled, but since this has been pulled rather than pushed I would not hesitate to go heavier.

In our never ending pursuit to ride bigger gears, maybe we should also strive to always push heavier sleds?

Cycling Exercise selection Strength training The standing start

These boots are made for walking pt 1

The first step towards getting somewhere is to decide that you are not going to stay where you are.

J.P. Morgan

The posterior chain is primarily composed of four muscle groups: the calves, the hamstrings, the glutes and the spinal erectors.

The benefits of strengthening the posterior chain in cyclists is not as well established in cycling as in running, but there is no reason to doubt that they are significant. We want to avoid injuries of the like of that hamstring strain that kept four time Olympic gold medalist Laura Kenny on the sidelines in 2017. Secondly, the posterior chain seems to be a substantial contributor to performance.

Hamstring injuries are usually caused by a moment of rapid acceleration, deceleration or intense physical effort and while all too common in running, football, rugby and athletics unfortunately we do experience them in the sport of cycling as well. Knowing of the increased exposure to risk of injury when applying high power to the pedals, it should come to no surprise that they are common in the sprint oriented disciplines. Because of changed behavior between and within muscles when exposed to fatigue, that too could be the cause of a “pulled hamstring”.

While the amount of injuries of the posterior chain in cycling are not to be taken lightly, they are less common than in sports where you absorb higher forces from the ground. This makes performance the more important reason for training the muscles of the posterior chain for cyclists.

When the relationship between the exercise performance and lower limb muscle fatigue in cycling has been explored it has been shown that the two muscles most closely correlated with producing and sustaining high power are the Vastus Lateralis and the Hamstrings. Vastus Lateralis of course, the big muscle of the front legs, would be the usual guess but the significant role of the Hamstrings to the influence of exercise performance might come as a surprise.

Maximum force development takes time, and because time is limited in cycling as in almost all sports, the capability to rapidly develop force is crucial to maximize performance. When we pedal we need to be able to generate as much force as possible, as quickly as possible, before the pushing leg must relax in order to not act against the push of our other leg. Also, both for performance and for injury prevention, we should be as fatigue resistant as possible in order to turn around our pedals as efficiently as possible

The use of Hip thrust, Leg curl, Nordic curl, Deadlift – or the nowadays more popular Romanian deadlift – and Kettlebell swings are commonly used in the gym to train the posterior chain, and while all of these exercises do train the right muscles and do have merits I believe there are even better ones available.

“If risks are known, good decisions require logic and statistical thinking. If some risks are unknown, good decisions also require intuition and smart rules of thumb”

Gerd Gigerenzer

The strategy of embracing uncertainty, to deploy an intermittent decision process rather than to make that grandiose plan that could only work in a fixed and predictable world would tell us to give up finding the perfect solution. One should probably do a little of everything, all the time, as growth and self-organization in an dynamical complex system can be the result of an amplification of change elsewhere in the system. However, as we simply cannot do this, do everything, we still need to decide upon where to start.

So, let’s reiterate the list of criterion for strength work in the gym that we settled on in the Strong legs makes their own path articles, in order to see if we could use those criterions to help us in our decision process.

  1. Keep movement somewhat similar in movement patterns and stimuli
  2. Overload as much as possible while satisfying the first rule. Large load means larger neural adaptation and higher percentage of muscle fibers being recruited.

When we are keeping volumes lower and intensity higher, we get what we need from a strength point of view while avoiding being overly tired from too much complementary training. Something that could render us unable to do well on the field where that important true specificity is to be found. If we’d like to keep volume low we’d be smart to stick to few, but efficient exercises.

We could get some help to discard the exercises that are not efficient enough by examining academic studies that has been researching the muscle level activation performed with different exercises. From doing that we seem to learn to favor the Romanian deadlift and the Glute ham raise/Nordic curl rather than the leg curl and good morning.

We have more to consider! To assist the rate of force development and fatigue resistance, I would like to add the following to the list of criterion:

  1. We should prefer exercises that increase our ability to generate force, quickly, and should avoid exercises that negatively impact this capability
  2. Seek to improve strength endurance sufficiently in order to sustain power and decrease the risk of injury

“Faster, Faster, until the thrill of speed overcomes the fear of death.”

Hunter S. Thompson

When a muscle is not activated, it is relaxed. There is slack in both the muscle and tendon. Before they can generate movement of the body it first has to take up the slack and go “tense”. Some athletes struggle to produce this tension and removal of slack quickly (early phase rate of force development) and it can hinder their performance.

In many athletic movements, such as sprints, changes of direction, throws, kicks, etc, the time which force can be generated against the ground or an object is lower than 250 milliseconds. If we are inefficient at going from slack to tense this can take up to 100 milliseconds of that time without even accomplishing movement, something that could severely hindering performance. This is also likely the case in cycling, where the optimal pedaling rate for high power sprinting seems to be somewhere around 120 revolutions per minute. 120 rpm’s means 500 milliseconds per cycle, where about half of that is comprised of leg extension and the rest needed to finalize relaxation in order to let the other leg take its turn.

Strategies to reduce muscle slack is to create pretension using co-contractions, using counter movements or by adding load. This is, for instance, why a rebounding “counter movement jump” is always higher than a “squat jump” starting from a static bottom position. Better results in training can be deceiving, as practicing counter movements leads to decreased ability to produce co-contractions without the counter movement (which most sport lack time to perform on the field, and which does not exist in cycling).

Observe that claims of adding load to a movement with the use of barbells or dumbbells should be questioned, simply because of it’s potential to reduce muscle slack as it may not challenge the body to learn to develop proper pre-tension with the use of co-contracting muscles.

There are other benefits of high overload of course, but it is important to search for a balance between the possible negative effects on pre-tensioning abilities and the positive effects force production. This balance may well be carried out by emphasizing movements from a “dead” start rather than with an eccentric movement. Seemingly this could make us prefer, for instance, the regular Deadlift over the Romanian deadlifts and the Nordic raise.

For the high power ballistics movements such as jumps and throws this means to include variations, possible more often than not, from static positions even though it likely means less impressive results in the training hall.

Force production is linked to related movement patterns, not only in similar physical structure but also in similarity of sensory patterns (seeing and feeling) and intention. This means that we should, if we can, try to get some similarity of the end, and if possible, start positions when overloading a sport specific movement in the gym.

I would argue that all barbell versions of the Deadlift as well as the Nordic curl, despite highly activating the right muscles, lack in this area for all movements performed on a bike regardless if it’s in or out of the saddle. I would probably argue the same for most other sports as well, and I would want to propose the Death march as an alternative that should be strongly considered.

Regardless of being performed by “from the top”, lowering the weights, it has a finishing position similar to both cycling and running, and when used with a dead start it also has a similar start position. Adding to this is that it, similar to most sports, offers actual forward movement rather than standing still. This could very well offer better transfer into the field of play while still be possible to overload with quite large loads.

When it comes to injury prevention to fatigue resistance the slow negative provided by the Romanian deadlift or the Nordic curl are both viable solutions, but as we recognized, possibly with a cost when it comes to explosiveness.

It has been proposed by the same dutch scientists that popularized the concept of muscle slack, Bas Van Hooren and Frans Bosch, that contraction intensity may be the main stimulus for improvements seen with negative training and that isometric training – when the muscle doesn’t noticeably change length and the affected joint doesn’t move – could therefore also be highly effective when performed at a high contraction intensity.

Further, isometric exercises permits us to control at which muscle-length they are performed, opening up the potential for them to be performed at a sport specific length or around the optimum length where higher forces than a lowering only exercise can produce. This could allow for more adaptation with less overall volume, leaving more energy to hit the sport specific work.

Van Hooren proposes integrating progressively harder single leg holds, around 10 seconds of work performed for three sets, going from bodyweight only into slightly weighted into upper body rows and I have used this progression successfully.

Dealing with the radical uncertainty of biological systems it is probably wise to hedge our bets with multiple types of exercises, as we do not know what will be pushing the system into that state of increased performance and injury sustainability. Therefore, for athletes with two days of strength training per week I tend to program the Death march and the isometric holds on one of those, and to do a Deadlift variation and Nordic curls for the other session.

Cycling Phase shifting Training theory

Phase shifting pt 3 – Excercise classification

One other thing from Bondarchuk I have been inspired by is his exercise classification because it resonates well with the idea of the systems pro­duced through these processes of self-organization that cannot be understood solely through an analysis of their components. Really, when it comes to training as much as we have seen that it was in war for General Clausewitz, it could be the stimulation of the smallest thing within the system that brings about precisely the change needed for that phase-shift. So while obviously never forgetting to train ”the whole” a method for also doing ”the less” seemed useful.

The now classic “invisible gorilla” test had volunteers watching a video and counting the passes between basketball players. Half of the volunteers then missed a woman in a gorilla suit slowly crossing the entire scene. When one develops “inattentional blindness,” as this effect is called, it becomes easy to miss details when one is not looking out for them. And this is not the only predicational bias we are exposed of: path-dependence is the phenomenon of how the possible decisions for the future is limited by the decisions we have made in the past or events that we have experienced, even though past circumstances may no longer be relevant.

“The light of reason is refracted in a manner quite different from that which is normal in academic speculation” is a beautiful quote from Clausewitz meaning that the innate ideas of seemingly self-evident truths, or pure logic, does not help in a complex environment where we need an appropriate responsiveness to the ever-fluctuating conditions that emerge. While we see a limitation in long-term predictions of a system we could instead replace this with a qualitative understanding of the same. Trying to identify its overall behavior, and using what you see but also staying observant to patterns and regularities in its dynamics and open to that these patterns might change. In short: have a plan to evaluate your plan.

In order to never miss to stimulate any part, regardless of attentional deficit, path-dependance or logical fallacies I find it beneficial to do all of Bondarchuks categories of exercises each training session. Those categories include the competitive exercise (”the whole”), Specific developmental exercises (parts of the whole), Specific preparatory exercises (not part of the competitive exercise, but using the same muscles) and lastly General preparatory exercises which would be all-purpose exercises for general coordination and recovery.

This holds me accountable for always including ”the specific” in my sessions, while also overloading certain parts that I guess to be more important for me, but still to touch on things that I – truth be told – would not think matter for my performance (but still might). Every three weeks I look at the collected data and the collection of thoughts and ideas I’ve pinned to paper during the last block of training, usually ending up making slight changes of my plan for the next one.

Using only slight changes and frequent evaluations allow for a data driven program (as trend analysis is time-sensitive and time-powered) and simplicity is key both for scalability and to see what is actually driving the trend without the distraction of too many variables.

One could argue that the research seems conclusive that variation is a necessary component of effective training programs, and that this type of program while having a large variation within sessions has little between them. I would agree with the general statement but one should remember that the training input is always overlaid on the current bio-chemical state of the person doing the training, and as that the emotional state of that person is ever-changing there is always some, albeit little, variation taking place.

However: lack of variation have been strongly linked with training monotony, which in turn seems to increase the risk of overtraining syndromes, poor performance and banal infections. Obviously something to consider. Therefor I also very slightly shift the categorical emphasis throughout each training sessions within a block of training, so that while I always do a little of all categories every session, I also always do a little more of one. And thus provide a little more variation than the regular ”noise” from everyday life, but not too much to be too distracting when it comes to evaluation of it’s efficacy.

The take away is that you might not be able to predict why and when a new attractor might emerge, so do a little ”hit” on every part of the system you are targeting, relatively often and consistently over time. Dripping water pierces a stone; a saw made of rope cuts through wood.

Cycling Phase shifting Training theory

Phase shifting pt 2 – The fog of war

Let’s use my own cycling sprint training as an example of how phase-shifts can look like in performance: In January 2019 I had almost given up trying to record an average power over 800W for 10 seconds on rollers since failing to do so for months. Then all of a sudden I did it, and I to this day never again failed to do so. The next phase shift happened in October the same year bumping the stable state that performance varied around to 850W and a few months later, after seeing my performances fluctuate around the same stable state it once again shifted and since then I have never again seen less than 900 average watts when sprinting on the rollers.

(side-note: it’s crazy what low bodyweight and small frontal area/low drag does for speed. My training buddy does almost 400W higher average than me for this time-frame, and I would still more often than not beat him on 500m sprints… But some distance after that his supreme storage of kinetic energy shines through and he comfortably beats me)

The same things can been seen during this period when it comes to actual performance (speed) on the track where I went from 12.40 to 11.72 for a Flying 200m and >40 seconds to 38.02 for the 500m (on a slow, short and steep track as the Falun velodrome).

And this without structured wave-loading of either volume or intensity of training, which I was inspired to try from reading Anatoliy Bondarchuk. When I first read about the training regimes described by him, his method was very eye-opening (and surprising) to me. They certainly was not like the traditional ”Bompa”-style planning strategies that was the usual thing to see in academic literature (and that I no longer feel is a particularly useful tool). To simplify this it means that once a ’program’ or ’set of programs’ is prescribed, it is simply repeated over and over again without change, or much change, until an adaptation response is observed – hopefully leading to a phase shift in performance.

One must remember that the day-to-day measure of success here is not simply a question of load tolerance or survival (negative feedback), but rather one of enhancement and growth (positive feedback) over the medium to long-term, and to allow this to happen we should not necessarily take negative performance (one step back) to mean we are not paving the way for successful adaptation just around the corner (two steps forward).

Non-linearity and complexity in modern thought also expressed itself in the writings of General Carl von Clausewitz (1780–1831) who recognized the essentially dynamic and unpredictable nature of war. His major work, ”On war”, recognized the inherent limits of reason when grappling with dynamic and complex phenomenon.

”Success is not due simply to general causes. Particular factors can often be decisive – details only known to those who were on the spot […] while issues can be decided by chances and incidents so minute as to figure in histories simply as anecdotes.”

Non-linear phenomena, characterized by positive feedback loops and sensitivity to initial conditions, are precisely those that allow for such an amplification of “minute incidents”. Another way of stating this is to say that “local causes can have global effects”.

Cycling Phase shifting Training theory

Phase shifting pt 1 – Order and chaos

Mechanistic models constituted the first major scientific discourse and paved the way for the future development of science. With the core ideas being the Newtonian laws of motion, the notions of gravity and mass and the perception of time as an arrow the metaphor of the world as a machine took hold.

We lived in a stable clockwork universe just waiting to be described and understood in order to replace chaos and uncertainty with order and predictability. This drive for predictability and control manifested itself in a science which focused its attention on linear phenomena since those mathematical functions could be expressed and used in ways easy to understand and solve.

These linear models focused their attention to negative feedback, or homeostasis, where the product of a reaction leads to a decrease in that reaction. And while this is an essential condition for stability of a system, and thus well suited for dealing with engineering problems and machine design, it does a poor job of describing growth, self-organization and the non-linear relationships where the initial change to a parameter of a system results in an amplification of change elsewhere in the system.

Most sciences now holds the reverse to be true, that linear processes are the exception and not the rule and that nature is fundamentally non-linear.

”Whenever you look at very complicated systems in physics or in biology, you generally find that the basic components and the basic laws are quite simple; the complexity arises because you have a great many of these simple components interacting simultaneously. The complexity is actually in the organisation – the myriad possible ways that the components can interact.” (Stephen Wolfram)

This view is in direct opposition to reductionist approaches where the properties of the system are the mere aggregation of their constituent parts. Complex systems are a dynamic network of many agents acting and reacting to what other agents are doing. The competition and cooperation between those agents produces an overall behavior of the system, which can be said to be emergent. The emergent properties of complex systems are therefore properties that cannot be deduced from the properties of the individual parts. The system is larger than its parts.

And as complex adaptive systems include all living organisms including the social manifestations between them, it also include the adaptions to training. To me this explain why I have almost never seem adaptations to slowly go in one direction only, but to vary around a stable state which then suddenly might be shifted and become the new stable state that physical performance varies around.

The exploration of non-linear functions revealed the phenomena of bifurcations in dynamical systems. Bifurcations are when a small change made to a parameter of a system causes a sudden qualitative change in the systems long-run behavior.

”Systems reach points of bifurcation when their behavior and future pathways becomes unpredictable and new higher order structures may emerge” (John Urry)

For certain inputs the system will respond to all perturbations by settling back to an established steady state. And all of a sudden, when the system reaches a point of bifurcation the system will develop two alternative states that it will settle into depending on the perturbations applied to it. This can also be described as a phase-shift within the system, producing a new behavior, but one cannot tell what stimuli and to what part of the system that will cause such a shift.

In my experience, when it comes to adaptation to training, these shifts appear suddenly, and sometimes from what seems very random and unexpected. But they do not appear to be linear at all, and if anything to be the result of consistent small ”hits” to the various parts of system (in this context this would mean different stimuli to the trainee inside and outside of the training hall). And certainly seldom manifests themselves as slowly advancing from disorder to order, as in the mechanistic worldview that biology and psychology in large have moved past, but exercise science in general still succumb to.

Cycling Rants

2 tickets to the Gun show

For quite some years ago I read an article on the notorious website by Dan Trink. Dan is, amongst many (?) other things, the creator of the training program “two tickets to the Gun show” and can be said to be a specialist on something that have been a bit pushed to the side by the “functional” trend in the training world: arms. Giant arms. For no other reason than to be non-functional, but huge (pronounced hey-uge), hey-uge as f*ck.

The article starts off something like this: ”You want big arms. A pair of huge, veiny, triumphant mo-fos hanging from your shoulder sockets like thick slabs of well-aged beef. You want arms so big that when you go into a tattoo parlor they charge you for extra ink”. He has a fun way of expressing himself and his love for muscles, the arm-crazy man, in if for no other reason i think you should check him out solely for this quality.

And when I saw this picture I took awhile back of my friend Sven, I thought that maybe someone should tell Dan that about the only thing you need to do to get “sleeve-splitting arms” is to sprint on your bike (not to often, really, but as fast as you can), make split -squats (not to often, really, but as heavy as you can) and three sets of pullups a week?