18 activities that will make you a better – and happier – cyclist
I’m standing on the jetty at Kona on the big island of Hawaii soon after dawn, watching the start of the legendary Hawaii Ironman Triathlon. In front of me, 1,500 extremely buff humans in swim caps bob nervously in the warm Pacific like brightly colored Ping-Pong balls. Behind me, 1,500 very expensive bikes perch in row upon row of racks, glinting in the rising sun.
The starting siren blares and the calm ocean suddenly roils as if somebody dropped a Big Mac into a school of piranhas. Unleashed, these triathletes won’t stop until they drop – or until they’ve swum 2.4 miles, ridden 112 miles and then run 26.2 miles, whichever comes first. The swiftest will finish in just over 8 1/2 hours (and average more than 23 mph on the bike); the slowest will take almost 17 hours.
As I bear witness throughout the long, hot, windy day, my bikie-bred disdain for “tri-geeks” takes a beating. These multisport athletes’ conditioning, spirit and toughness blow me away. They’re fit in a way that no single-sport guy like me can ever be.
I noticed it even in the days before the race while strolling through Kona. I’m used to the classic pro cyclist look: hunched shoulders, famine-victim upper body, sequoia-like quads. But triathletes’ bodies look so balanced, so healthy: actual muscles above the waist, sculpted legs sans cycling’s extra-kneecap look, and bronzed thighs and stomachs that have more than a passing acquaintance with sunlight.
But the difference isn’t just physical. So many of the multisport athletes I’ve met over the years seem friendlier, happier and more inclusive about their disciplines than a lot of bikies I know. Maybe it’s easier to socialize while running or hanging at the pool than when riding a paceline or shredding a singletrack. Maybe because triathlons focus more on individual challenge than on dropping that slimeball on your wheel. Or maybe because it’s hard to be snobby and insular when you’re constantly dipping your toes into different sports.
Besides – admit it – don’t you sometimes want a little break from your bike? Bikes will always rule, of course, but an alternative sport can douse burn-out, maintain fitness, help prevent overuse injuries, and exercise dormant skills and muscles that complement your cycling.
“When I was training for the Ironman,” says cycling legend (and 1981 Iroman winner) John Howard, “it refreshed me to go from one sport to another. As much as we love our bikes, they’re not the be-all and end-all. It’s about balance. Cyclists tend to get very drawn into their own sport.”
Now, before your heart rate starts to spike, forget about the Ironman. Of the 1,000 triathlons held each year in the U.S., the most popular is the sprint distance: 1/3-mile swim, 15-mile bike, and 3.1-mile run. (Hydrophobes always have bike-run duathlons to challenge them.)
If you get hooked, try the international distance (0.93-mile swim/24.8 bike/6.2 run) – the length for the first-ever Olympic triathlon, to be held at the 2000 Games in Australia. For dirt lovers, triathlons with an off-road bike leg are gaining popularity. (For more info on triathlons, contact: USA Triathlon, 800/874-1872, CO; www.usatriathlon.org.)
Of course, swimming and running aren’t the only cross-training options – just the most popular and accessible for most of us. For more cycling-friendly sports, see page 51.
To help you get started, we present this multisport primer that includes tips, techniques, workouts and products for swimming, running and cycling (against the clock). Some of the info comes from the experts at BICYCLING’s sister magazines Runners’ World and Fitness Swimmer. We gleaned other tips last winter at the Mrs. T’s Multisport School of Champions (760/944-1367, CA; www.multisports.com). Teachers at the five-day clinic included Howard, eight-time Hawaii Ironman winner Paula Newby-Fraser, ’97 champ Heather Fuhr, top swim coach Roch Frey and veteran runner Danny Abshire.
So cross the barrier, break the routine. It’s a wide world of sports out there, and if you play the right games, they’ll all pay off when you get on your bike.
Stroke of Genius
Weak upper body? Knee injury? Swimming can make you a more balanced rider
Of all the multisport options, swimming probably worries cyclists the most. Our bodies – generally weaker torsos and beefy legs – aren’t exactly dolphin-like in the wet stuff.
Too bad we feel that way, because swimming is a great complement to riding. It works your neglected upper body, babies your joints and provides a fiendish cardiovascular workout.
The biggest mistake cyclist-swimmers make (besides wearing Speedos with our Farmer John tan lines) is trying to use our cycling strengths to power through the water. That is, we think the harder we kick and the sooner we pull our arms through the water, the faster we’ll go. But au contraire.
“Swimming is a finesse sport,” says leading coach Roch Frey. “Don’t slap the water.” The goal is form and efficiency, which will eventually beget speed. So think shark. Think missile. But don’t think windmill.
Frey’s Technique Tips
Body position is key. Forger those childhood instructors who told you the water surface should lap against your forehead in freestyle swimming. Instead, look down and slightly forward. If you lift your head, your hips and heels sink. You waste much more energy dragging your lower body through the water than skimming across the top. “It doesn’t matter what you’re doing if it’s not being done close to the surface,” Frey says.
Get it off your chest. The best way to propel yourself is to roll from side to side. Extend your right arm forward and glide on your right side while your left arm recovers out of the water. Keep gliding in this position until your left arm comes around and almost touches (or “catches up” to) your extended right arm. Then as you pull through the water with your right arm, roll onto your left side with the left arm extended. Frey calls this a “cheating catch-up” stroke. The goal is to take fewer strokes per lap, not more. This technique also helps avoid shoulder injuries.
Use your arms and hands correctly. Your hand should enter the water flat or even pinkie-first. This provides the most power, not thumb-first as used to be taught. And remember, you get most of your power from the last half of the stroke, so pull through the water with slowly increasing force.
Breathe left and right. The optimal breathing pattern is bilateral, in which you breathe every third stroke (alternating breathing on your right and left side). It’s okay to breathe every second stroke if you can only do so on one side or need to breathe more frequently, but this will lead to an imbalanced stroke (and possibly shoulder injury). You also won’t swim as straight.
StrechCordz Pro CrossTrainer
Calm down: That’s not bondage gear you see here. The StrechCordz Pro Crosstrainer – which includes latex tubing, harness and hand paddles – is exercise equipment for in-the-pool or on-land training. In water, you can use the LongBelt option for resistance swim training. Or employ the ShortBelt for stationary swimming – say, if you’re traveling and have access only to one of those dinky hotel pools, If you can’t get to the pool at all, the system provides several exercises designed to mimic the smooth, consistent resistance of water. Cost: $120. NZ Manufacturing, 800/886-6621 (WA); www.nzmfg.com
You’ll look like an amputee Daffy Duck, but these shorty fins are designed to make you swim faster and more powerfully. Zoomers increase the efficiency of your kick so you can work more of your body’s muscle mass and get a better workout. Zoomers also increase your speed, which lets you get higher in the water, enabling you to roll your body more. This in turn helps your arms turn over faster, so you can breathe more often and work harder. Cost is $35 to $45. Zoomers, 800/852-2909 (WA).
Speedo Stroke Monitor
Think of the $90 Stroke Monitor as a cyclecomputer for swimming. This wristwatch-style unit helps gauge your efficiency. effort and technique so you can improve your stroke and the quality of your workout. Features include elapsed time, number of stroke cycles and cycles per minute. The competition model also features distance per stroke cycle, swim-efficiency index, speed (in yards or meters per second) and cycles per minute. The fitness model shows distance swum and calories burned. Speedo, 800/577-3336 (CA).
HELPS YOUR CYCLING BY:
* Developing your often-neglected upper body
* Providing an alternative cardiovascular workout
* Babying overworked or injured joints
Not enough time to ride? Running will help keep you lean and mean
Can’t run – bad knees. Jogging? Too boring. We’ve heard it all before from anti-running cyclists (many of them on our staff), but we say to everyone, “Give it a chance.” Just do yourself a favor and do it right.
For advice on getting started we turned to Danny Abshire, a 20-year distance and ultra-distance runner and co-owner of Active Imprints, a Boulder, Colorado, company that makes custom orthotics. Abshire recommends Galloway’s Book on Running by Jeff Galloway as a great place to start, but here are the basics laid out at your feet.
Shod yourself correctly. Get the right running shoe for your foot type by visiting a reputable running store with knowledgeable staff. For objective info, check out the annual March running shoe guide from our sister publication, Runner’s World (800/666-2828).
“You can’t do anything until you understand your foot type,” says Abshire.
Start slowly. The distance may sound lame to cyclists, but rookie runners should start by running no more than one mile – even alternating walking and jogging at first. Do it every other day, up to three times a week. Increase your mileage by 10% per week (i.e., 1.1 miles in week 2, and so on).
Stretch it out. Stretching is crucial, especially right after running. Abshire recommends Bob Anderson’s book Stretching.
Stay inside the lines. Picture a side view of you running, surrounded by an imaginary circle. The objective is not to let any part of your body travel outside that circle. Aim for rapid leg turnover, similar to a good spin on the bike, rather than taking long strides. Work to eliminate wasted motion.
Stand proud. Keep your torso erect but relaxed. You should be able to draw a line perpendicular to the ground from shoulders to hips. Keep your arms relaxed, too, and don’t swing them across your body.
Drill yourself. Follow these drills that are recommended by Abshire to improve form and leg turnover. Do each for 20 to 50 yards:
High knees. Raise your knees to your hips quickly. Relax knees and arms, lean forward slightly.
Butt kicks. Quickly bring your heels to your butt. Start easy, don’t lean forward, keep your knee slightly forward.
Skipping. Focus on picking your feet up rather than putting them down. Stay smooth, don’t bounce, go one foot at a time.
Do these drills after a short or medium-distance running workout, on grass if possible. To strengthen your feet, perform them barefoot. Do two sets of each and recover completely between each set.
Even a carefully built-up running program can leave you with sore legs. A soothing antidote is The Stick, a self-massage device consisting of a flexible rod with handgrips on each end and rolling cylinders in the middle. Designed to promote healthy muscle tissue, it can work virtually all parts of your body, from quads to calves, hips to back, neck to forearms. Tired cycling muscles seem to like it, too. Available in various lengths/flexibility, including: 17 inches ($26), 20 inches ($30) and 24 inches ($40), RPI, 800/554-1501 (GA); www.thestick.com
Blisters are to running as saddle sores are to Cycling. Fortunately they’re treatable, if supremely annoying. Many of our running friends are becoming partial to Bodyglide. Made from plant waxes, it’s a natural lubricant that protects skin against irritation. It’s easy to apply (tike a roll-on deodorant), water- and sweat-proof, hypoallergenic and petroleum-free (which makes it good for use with wetsuits, too.) It also goes on cleanly and has no odor. Bodyglide costs $6 for a half-ounce container. Sternoff, 888/263-9454 (WA).
Your feet carry a heavy load – namely you. Superfeet footbeds are designed to improve comfort and support by cradling your feet in specially shaped liners that fit in running shoes. (They also offer footbeds for cycling shoes.) Features include rear and mid-foot control points, a support bridge and shock absorption. Cost: $29 per pair. They’re a good alternative for those who can’t afford custom orthotics, which can cost more than $200. Superfeet, 800/6346618 (WA); www.superfeet.com
HELPS YOUR CYCLING BY:
* Giving you a great workout in a short time
* Keeping you lean while traveling
* Offering a low-tech fitness alternative
Get stronger and faster by cycling against the clock
Of course, the best part about doing a multisport event is the bike leg, where you get to pass all those people whose strengths lie elsewhere (like on the run, where they’ll pass you). Time trialing develops your power, serves as a great gauge of your fitness and presents a perfect way to feed your competitive urges without fear of group carnage.
Both an art and a science, time trialing demands special equipment, training and bike setup. John Howard whose resume includes multiple national cycling championships and a world land-speed record knows a thing or three about this craft. (For details on his Cycling School of Champions, call 760/944-3787; CA.) Howards’s advice:
Get down, get aero. If the budget’s tight, adjust your road bike for time trialing by installing a bolt-on aero bar and moving your saddle forward (about 1 inch to start), tilting it a couple of degrees below level. The goal is a flat back and bent elbows. If you can afford it, get a time-trial bike with an aero bar and a steep seat angle (75 to 78 degrees, versus the traditional 73 degrees) for increased power and better aerodynamics. To save time and avoid hassles in the long run, consider buying an extra seatpost and saddle, adjusting them for your time-trialing position, then swapping them with your standard post and seat for TTs and triathlons. (For more on aero bikes and positioning, see “The Need for Speed,” August.)
Make time for trials. If a local club stages mid-week time trials, get your butt out there every other week. Or do solo efforts against the clock of, say, five miles. Pick a course that’s safe, flat (so you can concentrate on all-out speed rather than climbing and descending) and out-and-back (to get used to riding with a headwind and tailwind).
Spin your own spin. Gear selection is an individual choice, but Howard says it should yield a cadence of 80 to 100 rpm. To determine your optimum cadence, do a series of practice time trials using different gearing in each. Track your time and heart rate to find what gears work best.
Jam for the fitness. Intervals provide some of the best training. Howard recommends two or three two-minute jams at about 10% below your anaerobic threshold with about one minute rest in between. Do these twice a week, outdoors or on an indoor trainer.
Take a long ride home. Combine intervals with one weekend day of steady, long-distance (longer than your race) riding of three to four hours. On the other weekend day, do a brick workout (which is triathlon-speak for combining sports).
For instance, ride a few miles, run a 1/4-mile, and repeat. This accustoms your body to switching muscle groups. Reserve other days for recovery cycling (and hard efforts in other sports).
Read more part 2