Every spring it happens. After a winter of mostly solo rides either commuting or indoors on the trainer doing intervals, the first few group rides of the year are just brutal reawakenings to the realities of the highly variable nature of racing. What are the neuromuscular differences, if any, between hard, constant efforts and group races?
Solo or Group?
With focused workouts, most coaches advocate doing the real quality work during solo rides to maximize the odds of staying on track with the planned program. That avoids the sometimes chaotic nature of group rides, with different riders wanting to do different routes or efforts and many devolving into race-like hammerfests.
I agree with that in general, but the right kind of group ride is also essential to replicate race intensities. And honestly, one of the big allures of road riding is the effortless feel of a great group ride.
Even having moved to the cycling hotbed of the Niagara region, home of Canadian legend Steve Bauer, the majority of my riding time is still solo. I figure that, even on a good week during summer, solo riding still constitutes at least 60 percent of my cycling time, with my main group rides being the Tuesday night club races and the Sunday hammerfests.
This is infinitely better than in Halifax, where my schedule, number of cyclists, and roads meant that it was difficult to schedule any group rides at all, and even my group rides might consist of one or two others.
Rites of Spring
So after a winter spent building base endurance via commuting, along with long efforts at moderate intensities to build lactate threshold, the first few group rides and races of the year always come as a severe shock to the system. No matter how many solo hard efforts you do and how creative you get, it's still nearly impossible to really replicate the intensity of racing.
The variable nature of the ride, along with the intense and unpredictable change of pace in a fast attacking group, always leaves me incredibly fatigued. That's why racers talk about needing to race to get into race shape.
Same idea with triathletes. We as roadies love having them on group rides, because they love nothing better than going at a steady, hard pace no matter what the terrain or group dictates. And roadies, especially in the final kilometers before a sprint for a town sign, love nothing better than getting a great leadout by tucking in behind them.
So we know anecdotally that steady-state and variable riding feels differently, but are there actual physiological and muscular differences between the two styles of riding?
Theurel and Lepers
In a recent 2008 issue of the excellent European Journal of Applied Physiology, a French research group set out to determine whether constant paced versus variable cycling elicited different effects on the muscular system. Such a study has implications on planning and monitoring of training, along with planning recovery from hard efforts.
The design of the study was simple and clean, utilizing the same muscle tests that I have employed in a number of studies on the effects of heat stress on muscle function:
- Cyclists were highly experienced and fit. 10 experienced cyclists (10 years in the sport on average) riding about 11 to 12 hours/week on average and with an average maximal aerobic power (MAP) of 395 watts (W).
- Two cycling trials of 33 minutes were performed, and the muscle tests were done both before and immediately after the cycling trials. Cadence was freely chosen.
- In the constant effort test, subjects rode at a constant 70 percent MAP wattage or 277 W. No easy effort!
- In the variable trial, subjects rode at 3:20-minute segments, with each segment involving intervals of 200, 150, or 100 percent MAP for 10, 15, and 20 seconds, respectively, with the remainder being recovery bouts at 50 percent MAP. Overall average power for the 33 minutes was also 70 percent MAP.
- The muscle test was a maximal voluntary contraction (MVC) of the knee. It was isometric, meaning that the subjects tried to straighten their knee from a 90 degree angle with the leg strapped in place, such that the muscles contracted but the leg did not move. The force of this contraction was measured.
- In the middle of this MVC, the knee extensor muscles were directly stimulated with an electrical signal, producing a further increase in muscle force. This is called an "interpolated twitch" technique, and can give a good measure of what percentage of the total "ceiling" capacity of the muscle you were able to voluntarily contract, and scientists call this your "voluntary activation" (VA). If you were tired, in general your VA would decrease.