Image by Rook Media
We’ve really been enjoying watching the return of road racing after the pandemic (or somewhat ‘after’), like we're sure many of you are too, and are particularly enjoying watching the athletes at Le Tour grinding up the Alps and Pyrenees in big gears and at massive power outputs. Hill reps are a common part of many endurance training programs, whether that be for running, cycling, or triathlon, and at Endure IQ we are big fans of riding up hills and doing specific overgearing work on the trainer in preparation for a long-distance triathlon (in fact, we dedicate a whole module to this type of training in our three disciplines in our online course LDT 102). We thought now was as good a time as any to review some of the key studies in this field, and whether the available research backs up this type of training prescription.
Specific strength training for endurance athletes
We call this type of work – whether it be riding or running up-hill, or riding on the trainer in a big gear and at a lower cadence – specific strength training, because that is exactly what it is. Power output (Watts) integrates force and velocity. In cycling, force essentially refers to how hard you are pushing down on the pedals, whereas the velocity refers to the speed you are turning them, in other words your cadence. If in your typical gearing you would produce 300 W at a cadence of 85 revs.min-1, but then bump up a couple of gears and now produce the same 300 W at a cadence of only 65 revs.min-1, you are producing more force, but at a lower velocity, hence the same power.
Strength training in the gym, like back squats and deadlifts, typically involves high force movements performed at low velocity. Therefore, we like to think of low cadence training on the bike as strength training that is specific to cycling – hence specific strength. What’s more, cycling at a lower cadence – or higher force with lower velocity - actually produces fundamentally different biomechanics and patterns of muscle activation (1), so if we are going to be competing on a course that features flatter and hillier sections, we want to ensure we are ‘trained’ in riding up-hill and on the flat since they are different movements.
What does the research say?
Whilst there isn’t a huge amount of literature in this domain, one of the best studies in this was published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research in 2009 and was led by Carl Paton here in New Zealand (4). In this study, the researchers had 18 cyclists perform four weeks of training, with half of the group doing their twice-weekly interval training at low cadence (60-70 revs.min-1), and the other half of the cohort doing theirs at high cadence (110-120 revs.min-1). The interval sessions consisted of 5 x 30-second maximal-effort sprints, with 30 seconds recovery between-reps, and was therefore sprint interval training. The authors took a range of measures before and after the program, with the one most relevant to long-distance triathlon being power output at 4 mmol.L-1 blood lactate concentration, a strong indicator of performance and an index of the anaerobic threshold. The group performing their intervals at low cadence saw an increase of average ~11%, which was much larger than the ~3% average change in the high cadence group.
Subsequently, another really good study was published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology by a group from the University of Exeter in the UK (3). In this study, a group of cyclists trained for four weeks, completing two outdoor long interval training sessions (6 x 5 min at ~VT2, or the anaerobic threshold) each week. The participants were separated into an uphill training group that did their intervals at ~60 revs.min-1, and a flat-ground training group that did their intervals at ~100 revs.min-1. The researchers measured performance in an uphill and flat-ground time-trial in both groups of participants before and after the intervention period.
Interestingly, whilst the uphill interval training group saw improved power output during the uphill and flat time-trials following the intervention, the flat-ground training group only saw improvements in the flat-ground time-trial. This indicates some degree of training specificity may be required, or is at least favourable, for improving our ability to cycle uphill. We can’t expect to get better going uphill if we do all our riding on the flat.
Finally, a similar study reported greater improvements in 15-min time-trial performance after a low-cadence vs. high-cadence interval training program (5), and a 2017 systematic review tentatively recommended including low cadence cycling within training programs, cautioning that not all studies in this domain have shown positive effects beyond training at freely-chosen cadence (2). As such, the effectiveness of the approach probably depends on the specifics of how it is integrated into the training program.
How should I integrate this into my training plan?
For the long-distance triathlete, we recommend including hill work in all three phases of training. In the high-volume, polarised general preparation phase focused primarily on low intensity sessions, we recommend getting as much long, hilly endurance riding in as possible. These rides are great for building your base ahead of the more specific sessions later in the training cycle. Hilly, or at least undulating, components to these rides can help extend the duration of these sessions, as the variety in cadence – and therefore activation patterns – can help spread the load.
As we move into the specific strength phase of training, we might look to perform really high-force interval sessions at and above the anaerobic threshold; something like 2 (5 x 1 min at L4 power and 55 revs.min-1, 1 min recovery), with 5 min between-sets. These sessions will really get the legs burning, and, in line with the research shown above, can generate some pretty impressive performance gains.
In the competition phase, we might think about including longer low cadence sessions much closer to Ironman power; for example, 6-8 x 8 min at L3b power and 60-70 revs.min-1, with 2 min recovery between-sets. These sessions are closer to our race-day intensity (70.3 or Ironman), and are targeted at extending the sustainable duration of these specific power outputs. The low-cadence element of these sessions is designed to help build muscular endurance, as the forces generated to produce the power are still high.
In summary, including hill reps or indoor overgearing in your training – a practice used by cycling coaches since time began – has some solid support in the scientific literature. We are big supporters of this type of training at Endure IQ, and recommend including this type of work in all phases of your training in the build-up to a long-distance triathlon. It’s fun too right?!
- Dr Dan Plews & Ed Maunder
Endure IQ's online courses guide athletes and coaches to understand and solve real performance questions in endurance sport.