By Jim Rutberg, CTS Pro Coach
There are a lot of new bikes and new aero setups being rolled out of bike shops and garages around the country right about now, and business is brisk at the nation’s growing number of wind tunnels and specialty bike fit clinics. At CTS we’ve been providing bike fit services for more than 15 years, and although the technology has changed there are some things that have not. There’s no getting around the fact your body needs time to adapt to a new position, and yet this is the step that often receives the least attention.
Comfort – Aerodynamics – Power
Optimal bike fit is a balance of comfort, aerodynamics, and power output. When you move that balance in favor of any one of these items you compromise at least one of the other two, and most likely both of them. To be more comfortable and have a position you can maintain for the duration of a 56-mile Ironman 70.3 leg or a 112-mile Ironman bike leg, you’ll have to compromise on aerodynamics and potentially power output. An Ironman bike fit is probably one of the most balanced aero positions around; it’s reasonably aero, reasonably comfortable, and allows you to produce a reasonable amount of power. On the other end of the spectrum, road cyclists can compromise comfort for increased aerodynamic advantage in 20-40km time trials. Whether the position is aggressive or more relaxed, that doesn’t mean it’s an easy position to adapt to, or that you won’t have to spend time specifically adapting to changes you make to that position.
Make Incremental changes
The key to adjusting your position following a bike fit is to make changes incrementally. If you’re going to raise your saddle 5-10mm or move it fore/aft by the same amounts, make those adjustments in 1-2mm steps and ride with that new saddle position for at least two weeks or 10 rides, whichever comes first. This is a general rule of thumb, but it can be adjusted based on your flexibility and range of motion. If you have great range of motion through the hips and lower back and little to no experience with low back or hamstring/adductor pain on the bike, you may be able to accelerate this process by making bigger changes (2-4mm) or making changes more frequently (1-2mm each week).
The incremental moves serve a purpose beyond injury prevention. When you make a major change to your position all at once, it is sometimes changes the feel of your pedal stroke or the handling characteristics of the bike so greatly that you can’t tell whether the change is good or just bizarre. When you make the changes more gradually, your perception of how you feel on the bike has time to catch up with the moves you made. What we often see is that athletes who take their time making incremental changes are more likely to stick with their new positions. Athletes who make dramatic changes all at once are more likely to revert back to their original position, and they often become resistant to making any future changes too.
Training your new position
As you’re making your incremental changes and once you’ve arrived at your new position, you have to accumulate time in the saddle to adapt to the new position. The big mistake athletes make is to just ride at an easy aerobic pace in their new position. Of course it’s comfortable in that position… you’re not placing any significant performance demands on your body! You’ll only know if the position is an effective one, and a position you can sustain in competition, by performing intervals in your race position.
One of the best ways to adapt to a new aero position is to do SteadyState intervals (basically lactate threshold power output or heart rate, 90-95rpm cadence) on a road with a slight incline (2-4% grade). You want a slight grade to help increase the resistance so you’re always feeling a little bit “behind the gear” instead of “on top of the gear”. The grade is also going to make you want to rise up out of your aero position after a while, which will make you think about and focus on staying aero. Remember, an aero position is as much a behavior as it is a thing. Your aero position is only as good as you are at staying in it.
Start out with short intervals of 6 minutes, even though from a training perspective you may have the capability of doing 15- or 20-minute lactate threshold intervals. Between intervals, take 3 minutes of easy spinning recovery, and during this time get up out of your aero position, spin your legs, stretch your back, loosen up your shoulders, etc. During normal “training” intervals you just ride easy during the recovery periods. But when you’re trying to adapt to a new position, the recovery time should also be thought of as a time to “re-set” your body in preparation for the next “stretch”. As you become more accustomed to the position, increase the length of the intervals, keeping the recovery times at 50% of the interval times.
Above all, remember that there is no position on a bike that is permanent. There is nothing static about your body or your fitness, range of motion, or flexibility. As your body changes, you’re optimal riding position will change as well. That doesn’t mean adapting to a new position every month, but it does mean that it’s a worthwhile exercise to have your position checked out on an annual basis. This is also a good time to inspect fit- and control-related parts like carbon seatposts, handlebars, stems, and aerobars for wear and tear and damage.
Jim Rutberg is a Pro Coach for Carmichael Training Systems, Inc. and co-author of eight books including the The Time-Crunched Cyclist, The Time-Crunched Triathlete, and Training Essentials for Ultrarunning. To find out about Coaching and Camp specials, visit www.trainright.com/coaching