Sit or Stand: Tradeoffs in Efficiency?

While standing is a bigger stress on our aerobic and cardiovascular system, it does not necessarily mean a decrease in efficiency itself.

Varying our positions on the bike is required in order to adapt to different terrain or riding situations, or simply to give our body a break from being stuck in the same position and stressing the same muscles. While we know that standing is great for giving us more power, what are the effects on metabolic demand and efficiency?

Boy, You've Got to Carry That Weight...

When we think of weight-bearing exercises, the first and most obvious one is running. That's because, in addition to propelling yourself forward, a lot of energy is required simply to keep yourself upright and stabilize yourself.

Added to that is the impact force from landing on your feet each stride. It's the combination of the two that makes for a much higher heart rate, metabolic rate and overall stress when running compared to cycling. It also helps to explain why Lance felt the NY Marathon was tougher than any ride he did during his cycling career.

Cycling is mostly a non-weight bearing activity, and the bicycle is a highly efficient machine especially because it removes the impact forces and also because the cycling position cradles our body and minimizes the need to support our own weight for the large part.

However, there are times where we have to support a good deal of our body weight, and that's when we're standing. Whether it's on the flats, the hills or in a sprint, we are no longer supporting weight on the saddle. We must rely on our muscles more to keep ourselves upright.

Tradeoffs in Efficiency?

Of course, this is why standing typically costs more energy, but it's also the leveraging of more of your body weight over the pedals, along with the recruitment of additional muscles, that produces the higher power outputs possible when standing as opposed to sitting.

This is one of the main reasons why we're generally taught to keep the standing to a minimum except when you need extra power, such as initiating an acceleration (e.g., sprint, breakaway) or when you need the extra power while climbing. Wind resistance is also higher while standing due to the larger surface area you're exposing.

I have written extensively on efficiency in various forms over the past couple of years, and that's because it is the single biggest pathway to increasing the power output you can lay out on the road. To refresh your memory, check out the article on Lance's improvements in pedaling efficiency from 1993 through his first Tour victory. So this begs the question: while standing may provide more power and also cost more energy, is there a difference in the efficiency (gross efficiency defined as power output: energy consumption) between standing and sitting?

To the Books

You know where I'm heading with this--straight to the library. Doing so is always such a humbling experience, because I almost always come across one of those "why the heck didn't I think of doing this?" experiments that have me kicking myself.

This time around, it's a French research group from Montpellier that's making me black and blue from the kicking (1). The experiment itself is ridiculously simple: have fit cyclists ride for six minutes at 75 precent VO2max in the following conditions:

  1. flat (velodrome) in a seated position (done twice).
  2. 5.3 percent gradient hill in a seated position (done twice).
  3. 5.3 percent gradient hill in a standing position.

Seated position consisted of riding in the drops. Standing position was done with the hands on the hoods.

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