Indoor Cycling Drills that Build Strength and Efficiency

Many training programs include a day, or even a few days dedicated to drill work. Before a track session, runners will perform a routine of warm-up drills and activation to prepare themselves for the task ahead. Swimmers perform drills almost every single practice during warm-up to make sure that their form is set up properly in order to not only swim correctly but most importantly: efficiently. When was the last time you had done drills for cycling? 

Many of us may be scratching our heads trying to remember the last time this occurred. For some of us…it may never have happened! It is easy to get lost in the day-to-day routine of simply grabbing our bike, gearing up, and heading out for a big day in the saddle. You’re looking to get stronger, fitter, and faster on the bike so putting in the hard miles will be the secret to this success, but is it? We have all heard the saying practice makes perfect, but it is only perfect practice that does this. If you’re pedaling in squares for three hours, are you really getting the most out of your riding? What if there was a better way to learn how to ride efficiently, which can ultimately help us to become stronger, faster riders. 

Neuromuscular Coordination and Why it Matters

Cadence in cycling refers to the speed at which you are pedaling measured in revolutions per minute, or rpm. Are you someone who cruises all day at a steady RPM of 75, or more like a hummingbird buzzing around at 110? And how does any of this relate to us producing more power and becoming stronger? 

The power you produce is a direct product of pedal speed, with Power = Angular Velocity (pedal speed) x Torque (force applied at the pedal). Based on this formula, it’s easy to see that as your pedaling speed increases, the force per pedal revolution drops to maintain the same power. Applying less force to your pedals for each revolution results in less muscular strain and therefore decrease in fatigue and an increase in your time to failure (muscular). So does this mean we should all try to ride at 130+ RPM at all times? No! Imagine trying to complete a 5-minute all-out effort holding 140 RPM. You would struggle even hitting the halfway mark, as this increase in pedaling speed puts a large cardiovascular strain on your system. Why? Due to decreased efficiency! Most cyclists have an efficiency around 23%. This means that 23% of the energy the body uses turns into the power you can deliver to the bike. Riding at higher than standard cadences continues to decrease this efficiency by 10%.

This decreased efficiency is due to a neuromuscular phenomenon known as “muscular co-contraction.” When riding at super high cadences, your body runs into the issue of not contracting and relaxing your leg muscles fast enough. You end up contracting your muscles at the wrong phases of the pedal stroke. This results in more “negative” force during each reset phase of the pedal stroke. In this sense, your legs are producing more power when at these higher cadences. It’s just that less of that power actually makes it to your wheel to help propel you forward. We refer to this co-contraction limiter in terms of neuromuscular coordination (NMC).

Why does this matter? It matters because improving your Neuromuscular Coordination on the bike means you can ride harder for longer. Fixed cranks by their design allow you to have very poor NMC and still make perfect circles. 

This is why Cadence Builds, Cadence Drills, and Cadence holds are very important drills when it comes to improving your pedaling efficiency. The only way to improve NMC is to push past your current limit of NMC. Since you are ‘locked in’ to your pedals and will always make perfect circles, pushing past your current pedaling NMC means riding at uncomfortably high cadences. These are also the best sessions to maintain a high level of NMC even once you feel you have “mastered” cadence builds and think you never need to do them again.

Muscular Strength

It is important to work on neuromuscular patterns as this will also aid in increasing your strength in riding too. The greater your pedaling efficiency, the stronger your riding will become. You will be able to utilize proper muscle firing in order to really push and pull throughout your pedal stroke. 

While we all like to add in big gear work (especially during the winter months/off-season) it is equally important to ensure that you are performing these sessions biomechanically correct too. Working on strengthening your core and hip stability to key to executing a big gear session.

The muscles that are associated with the core allow for the transfer of torque and angular momentum during movement and performance. Think about this the next time you do a standing max sprint on your bike; if you don’t activate your entire core, all power being pushed through your legs becomes wasted energy when it comes up through the chain. Your posture will be thrown off, the movement of the bars will be sloppy, and the desired outcome of forward movement will be hampered. Increasing an athlete’s core stability will result in a better foundation for force production in the upper and lower extremities.

The stronger we become in our larger power-producing muscles, like our glutes, the more forceful and stable our pedaling strokes can become. When our glutes become weak, our bodies can begin to utilize smaller stabilizing muscles to produce force, like our hip flexors and adductors. When these small muscles are called upon day after day, they become tight and fatigued quickly, as they are not meant to undergo these types of loads. Performing hip and core strengthening exercises will help us to stabilize our trunk properly, and therefore utilize the proper muscles for producing power on the bike. 

Neuromuscular / Strength Drills

Looking for some drills to perform to help increase your own NMC and muscular strength? Check out a few options below:

Cadence Builds:

3-6 X 20-60 seconds of increasing cadence.

Start at 80-90 RPM and build to > 120 RPM.

Good sprinters can easily top 200 RPM in these drills.

Recover completely between builds.

The goal of the cadence builds is to improve your comfort with extremely fast pedaling.

Cadence Builds into Cadence Holds

2-3 X 10-30 seconds of increasing cadence, AKA Cadence Builds to warm-up.

The main effort is 4-8 X 30-90s high cadence holds at 75-90% LT power.

Recover completely between holds.

The goal of the cadence builds is to improve your comfort with extremely fast pedaling.

Cadence Work and Single Leg 

3 Sets with 8 minutes of rest between sets:

Cadence Build: 30 seconds @ RPE 8, Starting at 90 RPM Build to Max RPM, Max Power is NOT  the goal 

Recovery: 1 minute @ RPE 2 

Cadence Hold: 45 seconds @ RPE 7.5 (<100% FTP), Highest RPM you can hold without Bouncing

Recovery: 1 minute @ RPE 2

Single Leg: 1 minute @ RPE 6 -(50% of FTP)

Recovery: 1 minute @ RPE 2 

Single Leg: 1 minute @ RPE 6, Opposite Leg (<50% of FTP) (100% of FTP with both legs = 50% of FTP with one leg)

Big Gear Tempo Work:

5-10 X 3-minute Tempo efforts at 80-85% of FTP power at 50-70RPM (big gear).

Recover with 3 minutes of Zone 1 spinning (Power < 50% LT Power at 80-100 RPM).

Big Gear Max Aerobic Power:

3 sets of 8 X 30 seconds at 90-100% of 5-minute Power at 55-65 RPM with 90 seconds of recovery at Recovery to Base effort at 80-100 RPM.

Rest 5-10 minutes of spinning between sets.

**For an additional test, try performing this session on your smart trainer in ERG Mode.

Big Gear Seated Sprints:

4-5 X 15-20 seconds seated start efforts in 52 X 14 of similar gear. Full 4-6 minutes recovery between each start.

Think about holding a strong core and pushing and pulling each pedal stroke on both sides during each effort!

Mac Cassin is the Chief Cycling Physiologist at Wahoo Sports Science. He holds a degree in Integrative Physiology from the University of Colorado-Boulder and has won multiple National Championships. The experience of juggling athletic goals with collegiate and career responsibilities has taught Mac that peak performance is achievable even for those who cannot focus exclusively on training.  While concentrating on exercise physiology in an academic setting, Mac competed at the World Championships, Pan American Championships, and World Cups on both the road and track.

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