Maximizing Your Cycling Workout Part 2: Power and Performance

Owner of Ann Arbor's PowerCycling, Marc Mueller, shares best cycling practices

By Marc Mueller

Photo: Pexels

ANN ARBOR - Last week I wrote about how Fuel & Fit can help your indoor cycling performance. This week, I want to talk a little more the concept of pedaling power and monitoring your performance to make progress.

First Things, First: What’s Power?!?!

I’m assuming many of you don’t remember your high school physics class (if you do – wow, that’s impressive, you can skip this explanation). Power is simply work done in a given period of time. It’s measured in watts (yes, same “watts” we talk about when we refer to a lightbulb). The unique thing about cycling (compared to other forms of exercise) is we have all the equipment we need to objectively measure performance and consistently track progress.

Create More Pedaling Power

To become the best cyclist you can be, you need to master the pedaling motion. You wouldn't be alone if you put more effort into the downstroke, and missed out on the other side of the pedal stroke when pulling the pedal through the bottom of the pedal rotation. 

In our heads, we have this image of just pushing the pedals downward when cycling, but in fact, the pedals are taking us through a circular motion.  

You will become a much more powerful and efficient cyclist, while reducing overuse injuries, when you are able to balance your efforts between the downstroke which uses primarily the quadriceps, and the upstroke which engages your hamstrings. The visual that you want to connect to is that of scraping mud off the bottom of your shoe when your foot passes through the bottom of the pedal stroke. When you master this action you will engage the hamstring more effectively and create a smoother riding style by balancing out your pedaling motion.

Another way to help your pedaling form and function is by investing in a pair of cycling shoes that work with a clipless pedal. Most indoor cycling classes offer bikes equipped with the ability to clip in and this is a great place to learn how to use clipless pedals before trying them on your road bike. One major advantage of using a clipless pedal is that it locks your foot into place on the pedal, much like a ski binding, and this allows you to have more power pulling up on the pedal which helps you create that more perfect pedal stroke.  

Another advantage is that cycling shoes have a stiffer sole than your typical athletic shoe, which gives you a firmer connection to the pedal and allows for a greater transfer of power to your pedaling action. Once you switch over to using cycling shoes, you will wonder why you waited so long to make the change. 

Pro Tip: To develop a smoother pedaling stroke and gain a better connection to the entire pedaling revolution try this single leg pedaling drill. Let the left leg hang off to the side while pedaling with the right leg. You will need a fairly light resistance or gear on the bike to perform this drill- pedal with your right leg for 30-60 seconds and then ride with both feet  for 1 minute before switching to the left leg for 30-60 seconds. Shoot for a total of 6-8 times pedaling with each leg. 

Measure your Performance to Make Progress

We are all the same when it comes to investing time, effort and money into something we want to see progress and have it benefit our lives somehow. To ensure that you reap the rewards from your indoor cycling efforts you will want to utilize some form of technology to measure your performance on the bike. Having data available to you during your ride will help you to target the right intensity for different types of intervals, keeps you accountable for your workout, helps you track changes in your fitness and can be a motivator to continue training and improving.

There are two means of technology that can help you in gauging your effort during an indoor cycling class. One, is the use of a heart rate monitor, which has been used in endurance sports for more than 30 years and will tell you how hard the body is perceiving your effort on the bike to be.  

When you are evaluating your progress with heart rate as a guide, you would like to see that your heart rate doesn't go as high for a similar effort as it had in the past. Hence the body is perceiving the most recent effort to not be as stressful as it once was.  

Another way you may recognize progress is when you see your heart rate dropping quickly after an effort that may have pushed the heart rate to a high level which caused you to breathe more heavily and brought on a burning feeling in your legs. Heart rate, however, can be influenced by air temperature, dehydration, stress and even a bad night's sleep so relying entirely on your heart rate may not give you the complete picture on the progress you are making.

The other means of measuring your progress is with the use of a power meter that many indoor cycling bikes now have available. When you train with power as your guide, you are receiving instantaneous information as to what exactly the body is producing  in the form of watts. Watts represent your actual effort on the bike, unlike heart rate that is the body's perception of that effort.  

Using power to gauge your progress is the most definitive since it will tell you if you are getting stronger or not based on how many watts you are able to produce for different lengths of time. Being able to produce more watts over a given time period is like when you are weightlifting and you can now use a heavier set of dumbbells to perform your set, you know you are getting stronger!  

When training with power, you will also have a stronger focus during your workout because there will be a specific goal of how many watts you are trying to produce for different intervals, so it helps in your pacing of those efforts. If you are goal orientated and like to see progress, then you will love training using a power meter. 

Seeing your fitness improve is very satisfying and validates that the training you are doing is paying off. Using a heart rate monitor or power meter can help you to succeed in the "big picture" of things, which is to enjoy getting on the bike on a regular basis and in the process better your health to enjoy an enhanced quality of life for many years.

Pro Tip:  Look at the relation of your heart rate to the power you produce during a ride. This valuable metric can be determined by dividing your average watts produced during a ride by your average heart rate. Track this over time and watch your fitness increase as this ratio gets larger.

Marc Mueller is the owner of PowerCycling, an Ann Arbor-based indoor cycling studio that specializes in a science-based approach to indoor cycling. For more information, visit www.powercyclingusa.com. Mueller can be contacted at powercyclingusa@gmail.com.  

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