In the early years of my racing triathlons I made incremental improvements in my cycling. At first the steps were expected simply because I didn’t have a background in the sport. But then the progress seemed to stagnate. That is until I added in cycling’s secret sauce…stationary bike trainer workouts. Here’s why they produce such amazing results.
There are going to naturally be parts of the pedal stroke where your muscles don’t have as much load as the rest of the stroke. Usually that happens at the top and bottom of the stroke. Keeping the pedals going around in the circle means you continually transition from pushing to pulling and passing through those dead spots.
On flat roads, your momentum helps carry all of that through the circle. Yes, you have to push and pull, but the shear movement of you across the ground helps keep that spin going. It’s like your body and forward momentum are a linear flywheel that is engaged.
When you hit hills, speed drops and much less of that assistance happens. In fact, if you are on a very steep hill and have run out of easy gears to keep your cadence up you can feel how suddenly there is nothing keeping your spin going except force on the pedals in nearly every part of the circle.
Your body being acted on by gravity is doing almost the exact opposite of what happens on flat roads. It’s not pulling back on the pedals, but there is very little of your forward momentum that is giving you any reprieve at any point in the pedal stroke.
Now, when you sit on a stationary trainer, the load is almost completely continuous. It is similar hill riding if not even more pronounced. This forces your muscles to adapt to generating power in much more of the pedal stroke than you ever get on flats or even some rolling terrain.
Minute per minute, you get the best workout for your muscles. It develops the ability to generate power better than just about anything other than riding hills. But on a trainer you can hold that load at all cadence rates and in all positions. It’s cycling’s secret sauce!
On a stationary trainer you have nothing external that needs to be focused on. to You can increase your awareness of your cadence, body carriage, which muscles you are using and how making small shifts in all of that affects power and heart rate.
Closing your eyes for a few minutes on a stationary trainer can really help you lazar in on how to become the most efficient you can. You’ll have the awareness of when you relax your upper body and what position of your pelvis helps you generate power with your glutes rather than quads. You certainly can’t do that out on the open road! This is also part of cycling’s secret sauce that gives you huge improvements in efficiency by working out on a trainer.
There are also some drills you can do on a trainer to gain even more pedal power. The best is one-legged spinning. Take one foot out of the pedal and stabilize that side by placing it on a box or bench next to that side. Now get into your riding position (not sitting completely upright) and spin with the other leg.
At first this will be about as awkward as it sounds. But you will get the hang of how to do this over time. Start with 1-3 minutes on each leg then work up from there to 5-10 minutes per leg. This makes the full circle even more apparent. The other leg isn’t helping you get through those less powerful parts of the stroke.
As I mentioned the first few years of my career saw consistent gains in cycling. Then that slowed dramatically. Right about then I bought a new toy: a stationary trainer with resistance. I’d heard about them, but had never used one. It’s a far cry from what you can jump into today with smart trainers that can connect to sites like Zwift. But it did give me my first taste of riding without going anywhere.
That first year all winter and spring I averaged 2-3 rides/week riding indoors. In those ride I logged a total of about 4-5 hours. On occasion I’d do my long ride on the trainer, but mostly that one I kept outside.
The effect of cycling’s secret sauce on my riding was absolutely dramatic. On the weekly group rides I’d been doing for a few years instead of waiting to get dropped by the faster folks, I was able to just play the pack and be the one to dictate the pace. Everyone new when I was ready for business because I’d get down in the drops and just ratchet the pace up.
On one of those rides after I’d had enough of the conversation, I got down in my drops at sped things up. Someone in the peloton said, “He’s got the grip. Hold on!” And from there it stuck. People simply started calling me Grip.
The impact wasn’t just in training though. My cycling in my triathlons took a huge leap. I was able to go faster when needed and to temper my real capability back and still stay where I needed to be for the run.
During the summer months I cut back on the amount of time I spent on the trainer. It ended up being about twice a week for shorter rides. Yes, indeed it’s cycling’s secret sauce!
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I am the Founder and CEO at Mark Allen Coaching. I am proud to have been voted in an ESPN global poll "The Greatest Endurance Athlete Of All Time." During my multi-sport career I won the Ironman Triathlon World Championship six time, the inaugural Triathlon World Championship at the Olympic Distance in Avignon, France, and at one point in my career I won 21 straight races across every derivation and distance. It was a great career, but that's all it would ever be unless I was able to share all of the experience and methodology we invented long before smart watches, power meters, and flashy uniforms. That's why I started Mark Allen Coaching, as a way to return to others at least the part of the gifts I received.