Why the legs have nothing to do with riding faster: Part I

If you read the blog regularly, you’ve come to realize that it’s author is not one to shy away from ideas that go against the grain. While teaching our indoor cycling class last night, I realized another one: the key to riding faster does not reside in the legs.

As our riders went through drills to expand their rib cage when they were breathing, “packing the chins” to stabilize their spinal columns, extending their thoracic spines and engaging their lats and lower traps, I saw something very interesting: their feet moved faster and they weren’t as gassed after each interval effort. Several of them said they felt a better foundation of stability allowing them to go harder with less effort.

Did we do anything to their lower bodies? No. All we did was improve the way they were breathing, got them to engage more core stabilization muscles (which the lats are) and hold their spinal columns in a better position, consequently allowing them to move much better.

So yes, what I’m saying is an activity dominated by lower body power production and energy system manipulation is made better by something other than training the legs, or said energy systems for that matter. Unfortunately, it is far too common for riders to build strength on top of dysfunction by training their legs, aerobic/anaerobic threshold and VO2 max capabilities instead of taking steps to optimize the way they move off the bike, let alone on it.

The point being the key to increased speed in the legs starts a little higher, and its a place few people think to look when they want to get faster on their bikes. Yet, these are areas that are critical to maximizing power output and minimizing the risk of injury.

And for some reason, unless you read strength training journals, manuals, blogs, etc, you don’t hear that much about it. Which is too bad, because they are simple fixes to prevent complex problems from happening.

As the title suggests, here is the bicycle blasphemy of which I speak that have a much greater affect on someone’s potential as a cyclist:

1) How someone breathes

2) Thoracic spine mobility/position

3) Chin position

4) Lat engagement

5) Mid and lower trap strength

I realize to move a bike forward, the legs must push down on the pedals, which in turn rotates the cranks, moving the chain, which then turns the cassette causing forward motion in the wheels. I get the whole physics of riding a bike.

What I’m getting at it is yes, the legs/energy systems definitely factor into why you may not be getting faster, I’d have to be clueless to think they don’t contribute to increased speed. But my opinion is that there are much larger issues at play when it comes to the optimizing the benefits of the training stressors you put your body through in the saddle.

And it all starts, or ends really, off the bike. Move incorrectly off of it, and you will not move optimally on it.

On top of this, if you don’t have proper breathing patterns, your t-spine is locked up and you can’t keep your chin in the right position to help you “stack” the spine, or you’ve got underactive mid/lower traps and lats, getting your body to produce more power is going to be a hell of a lot harder.

We teach this too our riders, and to a person, it always helps. They ride faster, they feel more efficient and they last longer in the saddle, and here’s why.

Breathing

If you are chest breathing or elevating your shoulders when you breathe, you aren’t doing it correctly. It seems pretty simple, but its anything but. Your rib cage should expand evenly each time you inhale, in a somewhat circular fashion to allow you to take full advantage of each breath. If it doesn’t, there are a whole host of muscles that will be affected that will reduce your ability to function correctly, let alone throw down when “race like conditions” break out in your favorite training ride.

“While improper breathing patterns can create a variety of physiological problems (reduced availability to oxygen, respiratory alkalosis, ‘anxiety breathing’, headaches, and general fatigue, etc.), these poor patterns can also have biomechanical implications as well,” says Mike Robertson (“The Deep Front Line,” Robertson Training Systems).

Some of these implications include tightened chest muscles, forward rounded shoulders, shortened hip flexors, low back pain, knee pain (yes, from poor breathing), locking up of the thoracic spine region, reduction in core stabilization muscle activity and increased potential for reduced glute function. Breath incorrectly long enough, and you will tighten your body up to the point where you will be robbed of power and make it a lot harder to out perform other people when it comes time to throw down in a VO2 max environment.

To inhale and exhale correctly, you’ve got to get out of your chest and into your diaphragm. This allows for much more efficient rib cage expansion, and much better respiratory patterns.

“We have a lot of people in the population who have forgotten how to use their ribs to breathe, and as a result they have to rely on their external obliques to pull their diaphragm, their scalenes to elevate their ribs, and wind up taking shorter and shallower breaths than they should,” Dean Sommerset (All Things Thoracic Spine Part 3: Corrective Strategies).”

Keeping in mind your body will only allow you to produce the amount of power your baseline joint stability allows. Start breathing the wrong way, and you will begin to move incorrectly.

Once you develop dysfunctional joint movement patterns, stability goes down and loss of mobility goes up. Not too mention how your length tension relationships in the muscles are affected reducing contractile force power.

“If muscle length is altered as a result of a postural misalignment, then tension development will be reduced and the muscle will be unable to generate proper force,” Mike Clarke DPT, MS, PES, CES and Scott Lucett MS, PES, CES, NASM-CPT (NASM Essentials of Corrective ExerciseTraining).

In part two of this article, we will get into the critical nature of the thoracic spine.