Prudential RideLondon Start

The truth is out there

Cycling Plus took age-old sayings you hear from club mates, manufacturers and internet know-it-alls and ran them past a selection of coaches, sports scientists and engineers to find out the facts

With a low enough gear you can ride up anything…

The most reassuring myth any of us will ever hear is both true and false

Rob Kitching of ride analysts says: “The physics of riding a bike means there is a certain minimum speed below which we simply fall off. Even if there wasn’t, we’d reach a limit of adhesion between our tyres and the road surface.” But Dr David Swain, Professor of Human Movement Sciences at Virgnia’s Old Dominion University says: “A person should be able to cycle up any hill that can be walked – provided the gearing allows you to keep turning the pedals. If the gearing is too high, the cyclist will need to perform maximal contraction at very slow rpm, and will fall once the hill becomes too steep.”

Aim to ride at a cadence of about 85-90 RPM

With its disregard for individual ability, it’s hard to believe but this one’s true

This one-size-fits-all piece of advice seems to have such a disregard for individuality that it must be untrue, but according to Professor Swain it’s solid guidance. “For most well-trained cyclists operating at a moderate to high intensity, 85-90rpm is probably the best. This has to do with the economy of converting muscular power into mechanical motion. A higher rpm provides a smoother, more economical energy conversion. However, a higher rpm requires more work just to move the mass of the legs. At low exercise intensities, cadences below 70rpm are most economical, which is why most untrained riders use a low rpm.”

Stephen Cheung PhD, lead editor of Cycling Science by Human Kinetics agrees: “This is a good rule for everyday riding, as power is a combination of both torque and cadence. A much lower cadence places a lot more strain on your muscles, tiring them sooner. There are times to break this general rule. When climbing, you will naturally tend to ride at lower cadences because of the change in position due to gravity, but this also permits you to recruit more muscles.”

Caffeine helps you burn more fat…

If it sounds too good to be true, perhaps it is…

The performance-enhancing benefits are well known, but this claim, seen on leaflets in bulk-buy caffeine gels, seems too good to be true, suggesting some sort of metabolic assist. According to sports dietician Sarah Danaher, MSC, of SRDNutrition, the claim is disingenuous, but could be seen as true.

“There is little evidence to support the theory that caffeine affects fat-burning. However, in terms of weight loss, caffeine can help you to work harder for longer, ultimately resulting in more calories expended.”

Aside from its workout-boosting properties, hundreds of studies have shown that 2 or 3mg of caffeine per kilo of bodyweight about an hour before exercise can prolong an athlete’s time-to-fatigue point and reduce the feelings of pain and effort that come with a hard workout.

“You can easily get this amount of caffeine by drinking coffee. Caffeine levels vary greatly in coffee due to variations in blend and brewing technique, but the content from instant coffee seems to be consistent, with one teaspoon providing 60mg of caffeine. So, if you enjoy a cup of coffee this can be the easiest way to get the right amount of caffeine. As a word of warning, more caffeine doesn’t result in better effects. Higher doses are more likely to give you side effects such as nausea and shakiness.”

Massage is an essential recovery aid

The benefits aren’t scientifically proven, so is this a case of mind over matter?

There can’t be many cyclists who haven’t registered the disconnect between the professional’s obsession with the benefits of massage and the lack of scientific evidence for them.

According to Paul Hough, lead physiotherapist at St Mary’s University: “The theory that massage enhances recovery following exercise is based on massage having numerous physiological and psychological effects; increasing bloodflow; reducing muscle tension and providing a sense of well-being. It is debatable whether massage improves post-exercise muscle recovery as few scientific studies have verified this theory. That said, many studies have reported psychological benefits of massage, such as reducing the sensation of muscle soreness.”

Dr Cheung agrees that the benefits are primarily psychological, but no less valuable for that. “The actual physical or psychological benefits of massage are open to debate. It’s still likely a very worthwhile treat to give yourself on occasion. It’s a for of mental recovery, and it can have benefits in muscle recovery that may not be readily observable in a laboratory setting.”

High-pressure tyres give you more speed for less effort…

Don’t fall foul of piling on the pressure for an easy speed fix

Despite the fact that we probably all know better, few cyclists can break their habit of pumping their tyres to iron-hard consistency. Rob Kitching has crunched the numbers. “We should go back a step and say that ‘the tyres providing the lowest coefficient of rolling resistance (CRR) are the ones which give you more speed for less effort.’ Crr is a number that expresses the amount of power required just to keep the tyres rolling, relative to your speed and weight.

Several factors determine this figure including the flexibility of any inner tube, pressure in the tyres, and the road surface.

Current thinking is that there is a sweet spot pressure above which Crr actually increases, in other words extremely high pressure may be counterproductive. Identifying the tyres with the lowest Crr depends on so many variables, so we would always recommend that riders who care deeply about every watt of efficiency carry out field tests using power meter data. We have a tool that makes this easier at”

Dr Cheung adds: “Highly pressurised tyres work against you on the road for several reasons. The lower air volume and harder tyres transmit more vibration from the road to your body, causing more fatigue. Harder tyres also bounce around more, and you can’t transmit power to the road if your tyres aren’t touching it.”

Your intervals need to be the same intensity

Are we missing the benefits if our first and last intervals vary?

We ran this advice past Paul Hough and Tim Kennaugh of Kennaugh Coaching, who largely dismissed it.

“This isn’t true,” says Kennaugh, “It depends on what your goal for the session is. If you are training your VO2 system your last interval might be worse than your first, but if you’re still in your VO2 max zone you’ll still be getting a benefit.”

“The type of interval protocol has a profound effect  on the physiological adaptations that occur,” adds Hough.

“If the goal is to improve aerobic fitness, intervals should be repeated at a similar intensity – around 88-95 per cent of your HRmax [the highest number of beats per minute your heart can reach during maximum physical exertion.] These sessions should allow suitable recovery between intervals so the effort can be replicated. The Selier study, using a 4x8 minutes at 90 per cent HRMax protocol, produced improvements in physiological performance indicators among cyclists.

“Training to improve maximal power requires a quality not quantity approach. Each interval should last 5-20 seconds and be performed ‘all out’ without pacing. The recovery period should be 8-10 times as long as the work bout. Some drop in power is inevitable on the final few sprints of this type of session.”

Resistance training makes you put on weight

Are cyclists missing out on the benefits for fear of becoming body builders?

Weightlifters like to say that “nobody builds muscle by accident” – it takes an extreme routine to turn yourself into an Adonis. Yet cyclists shy away from the idea of resistance training and, in doing so, according to Paul Hough, miss out on many benefits.

“Resistance training improves the strength of muscle, bone and other soft tissues. It also has a number pf metabolic health benefits such as improving glucose and insulin metabolism. For endurance athletes, many studies demonstrate that resistance training can improve neuromuscular function; specifically, it can enhance cycling efficiency and decrease the risk of sustaining an overuse injury. Due to the positive impact that this type of training can have on health and performance, I recommend nearly all of my clients perform at least two sessions per week. To maximise benefits, it is a good idea to increase protein intake on those days. I recommend 1.8/kg of body mass.

“A carefully designed resistance training programme has minimal effects on muscle size. Achieving the levels of muscle hypertrophy that worry cyclists requires eating a calorie surplus. In fact, research has demonstrated that endurance training can actually ‘blunt’ muscle hypertrophy. This is why some body builders avoid endurance exercise.”

You have an hour-long protein window after training in which to repair your muscles

Is your time really limited to get your muscle recovery started?

According to Sarah Danaher, this one is not only untrue, but people who believe in it can often hamper their recovery. “What I often see is a lot of protein being taken, leaving no room for carbohydrates. For quick recovery, it’s rehydrating and refuelling with fluid and carbs that is more important than immediately having protein. You don’t need to panic about getting the protein in within minutes of finishing a session, as long as you get 20-40g of protein in over the next few hours, and then in ‘pulses’ every two to three hours. The protein taken following an endurance session won’t be building much new muscle, but rather building mitochondrial proteins that sit beside the muscle to provide it with power. They are extremely important for endurance athletes – we have much more mitochondria than weightlifters!”

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