Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Torque: A novel off-season approach

Last Thursday around 2:30pm I finished the last exam of the semester, turned down several invitations to wander over to the Big Hunt and pound a few pitchers and a few plates of wings, and began walking at a furious pace home--to be precise, to my bike at home. I'd ridden it nine times since the start of Fall semester; that is, .6 times per week and an average of an hour a week.

This will be my schedule until May: about an hour per week.

What would you do with this kind of restricted schedule? Would you focus on cardio? Would you do intervals? What kind of intervals? What kind of long-term benefit (or aerobic, strength, and anaerobic atrophy-minimization) can you get from an hour a week on the bike? Which system--aerobic, anaerobic, or muscle strength--would you target?

I decided not to focus on aerobic training. The aerobic system is highly responsive. That means you can increase your VO2 max by 15-30% in only a couple of months, but also that you can lose capacity just as quickly. As was clear to me on my last group ride, I've already lost aerobic capacity, and won't be able to get it back until May.

Short aerobic/anaerobic gains in 1-minute and 5-minute max power--where I saw my greatest improvement last year--are also quickly lost. My 1-minute power is already back to where it was three years ago: stinksville.

Strength, in contrast, requires time to build, but deteriorates more slowly than the aerobic system. It even requires several days of recovery after workouts--Olympic lifters and bodybuilders often choose to rest 5-7 days between workouts for specific body parts.

Thus, my off-season goal, other than remaining under 190 pounds, is to build on-the-bike strength. On-bike-strength is a complicated concept. Measurement of on-the-bike strength, unlike strength training in the gym, is not easily measured. Also, you don't just want a one-time explosiveness of the kind that Usain Bolt has; you want strength that lasts. You don't care about squat or deadlift max; you only care about the force you throw into the pedals. That is, you care about torque--(1) torque max and (2) torque over time.

So how do you train to maximize these two variables?

One of Friel's principles is specificity--the concept being that you train for specific distances and events. This applies also to torque--if you want torque, push large gears at high torque. That's the basic concept, done at shorter or longer intervals.

Three things to note:
The point is not to end up breathless and wheezing like a chainsmoker; the point is to feel your legs burning.

This can be rough on your knees. Make sure to warm up, and if at any time you feel knee pain, stop.

You can focus on different aspects of power: if you want to increase sprint speed and max torque do short intervals at low cadence and high intensity for 10-15 seconds; if you want to build endurance strength, do longer intervals at lower cadences.

This is what I'm doing: low cadence at longer intervals. Hopefully, I'll be transforming the shape and makeup of my muscles at the cellular level.

One difference in trained and untrained cyclists is not only the percentage of slow twitch to fast twitch fibers, but the relative size of these fibers. In untrained individuals, slow twitch and fast twich muscle fibers are about the same size, but cyclists who do strength-endurance training see their fast twitch fibers increase relative to s.t. fibers (see below)

What does this mean? As you push bigger gears, you recruit more and more f.t. muscles (despite their name, fast twitch fiber recruitment doesn't require speed, it requires torque).

You'll go into the spring pushing big gears but unable to hang with the pack. Torque high, power low. Unless your goal is to dominate Trade Zone, don't worry. You can peak much more quickly than you can build leg strength and power, which is why most coaches delay subjecting their athletes to intense interval training until March or later, depending on targeted races.

For reasons I don't entirely understand, most coaches view the off-season as a time to ride slowly for hours on end. Perhaps this is the best way to keep off weight, which is another issue altogether, but it doesn't build strength, which, as every crit rider struggling to push through corner accelerations knows, is essential for the kind of racing we do in MABRA. Perhaps coaches worry that cyclists will lose the ability to spin at higher cadences, a concern that a recent Josh Horowitz column addresses.

Certainly torque training in the off-season is relatively untested. It's novel, and it may not work. I don't know of any studies that try to measure its effects against a control group. That said, it makes sense to me--especially given a very limited off-season schedule. If you're on a similar torque training plan or are thinking of incorporating torque training into your routine, let me know how it's going and what you think of it--either here, or next season as you blow by me on the climbs.

For more information on torque training, seethis post by Alan Couzens. Torque training is also mentioned in an excerpt from one of Arnie Baker's books.


Chuck Wagon said...

You know the real definition of torque, right? Torque is when you wake up with morning wood and you have to pee. Well, in order to pee in the bowl and not on the ceiling, you have to push push push. Eventually you push so hard that your feet fly backward out from underneath you. That's torque!

At our age, we get to experience this for approximately... should be another couple of hours at least.

My word is "fastr" which means either that you are going to get "fastr" using your training ideas, or that our time for torque is running out "fastr" than I estimate.

Corey D said...

Great post!

Calvini said...

I like your way of seeing torque, Dave, and I'm gonna refer to a guide that has been of great help to me: Definitely NSFW.

Corey, you've been doing some of this. Lemme know how it's going.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.