By Rob Crowe O.A.M.
I was jokingly referred to as the ‘Candy-man’ during my retiring local club-racing era (circa 2011). It’s just that, I often was that guy on the front, driving the pack into the wind at solid 50kph+ speeds over the final race laps. People thought I was working hard to demolish the entire field and take all the prize money off the kids, or the younger and less experienced riders.
But I never took candy from the kids!
I didn’t often win the club podium monies anyway, as being a well-known and formidable Olympic power-house of a cyclist, and coming home to Melbourne to race for $80 local wins would’ve been tantamount to bullying. And besides, the Australian race standard shot up so high in the mid-naughties that such acts of dominance were not an easy option. In the 10 years prior, club D Grade racing average speeds had raised from 38kph to 43kph, and the A Grade level was up over 48kph. That’s forty eight kilometres in an hour, at a local race.
So my brazen displays of monster-power became simultaneously folklore and fallacy. I let the jokes circulate because it was good P.R. for my new Ridewiser business (aka, if they’re talking about you, in any way, it’s still marketing!) and it was a funny conversation point. But the joke hid a racing strategy, because the ‘competitive’ mindset behind doing long powerful stints on the front in local races was that it greatly extends deep muscle strength.
I was doing my ‘hard threshold training’ during the races, and once fatigued at the front after a few laps, I’d actually peel off and just roll over the finish line at the back, contrary to Candy-man gossip stories.
No candy for me on the day.
But the candy would come, several weeks later, in the form of much greater strength. And I would win those races, in a series sometimes. So here’s how that hard training actually works inside the body, and how you can start to build serious cycling power in your own private cycling sessions – now during the COVID-19 lockdown.
The ORANGE cycling power goal.
In the Ridewiser Mindfitness Pyramid, which is a simplified schematic of a way to explain the human cycling engine structure, the BLUE physical endurance fitness layer comes from longer, more steady baseline outputs at ~ 65% of your max effort, and generally happens best on solo rides or cycling in pairs on the road over several hours. Blue training also fixes or recharges the engine when it’s tired or over-stressed from too much time in the upper colours.
Using this fitness pyramid theory, the GREEN ‘strength’ layer would be developed
by using bigger gearing loads, or creating a muscle-strain from pushing a higher
velocity, or riding up climbing gradients. GREEN is associated with doing ~75% of
your max effort and builds basic muscle strength because it’s still very
aerobic – using lots of breathing fuel – and should not produce much lactic
acid waste or pain in the muscle. That is, you can lots of it and not break
When you add more pedalling cadence to the GREEN load, you develop the YELLOW tier ~ 80% of max effort. While YELLOW is typically a faster movement of your legs, it also demands a better quality, more connected pedal-stroke, faster breathing cycle and busier neural firing-pattern – more electrical brain signals sent to the muscles.
Using the analogy that your fit cycling body is like an engine with 6 energy systems layered together, all using different fuel mixtures, then YELLOW is the uppermost, oxygen-driven output. It’s the most efficient, coordinated, aerobic fitness motor, and underlies the more powerful and most commonly sought-after ORANGE motor.
Almost every person who has ever come to me with cycling goals has wanted a better ORANGE motor. That is: to go better in the mountains, win bike races, push harder for longer, increase FTP output for time-trials or triathlons, or just to be faster than all of your friends, every weekend, forever.
Scientifically named Functional Threshold Power (FTP), the ORANGE work zone is also known as being your ‘just sustainable effort’ output, where you require the body to work on the anaerobic threshold, or borderline of ‘blowing up’. That is, going any harder will lead to over-strain and having to slow down. So you’re burning lots of oxygen and muscle glycogen stores at the same time and consequently dealing with the painful lactic acid by-product created in the process. Wanting to do this over prolonged periods like up a long climb or time-trial means you need well-developed underlying fitness layers.
After I won the Australian individual 40km time-trial title in 1991, by sitting near borderline RED zone for 52 ½ minutes, I realised that to be really good at sustaining ORANGE ~ 85% of max effort, I needed very good fitness in the ‘colours’ underneath. I had experience in developing all of the output levels, and I found that a more long-lasting ORANGE output capability was naturally boosted by building up the GREEN and YELLOW fitness layers.
Strong GREEN muscles and fast YELLOW connections.
You can think of the GREEN and YELLOW fitness layers giving you deeper strength in the muscles and faster cadences in the pedal-stroke. Developing these ‘energy systems’ or levels of effort is like putting together the ingredients of a cake before you heat it up, or building the frame of a new house before adding all of the walls and windows. In this sense, the GREEN and YELLOW training blocks are the ‘meat in the sandwich’ and you need them in there for it to taste good. You need to build them up as best you can, devote the time to training at these levels.
Yes, you guessed correctly – the training drills for GREEN & YELLOW levels are often flouted by many riders, or they have disciplinary problems doing the work, or people don’t know how or why it’s good for their engines. And here’s the tip-of-the-day for the more experienced riders reading this, rehearsing and further developing the E2 GREEN and E2b YELLOW energy systems will automatically ‘enhance’ the ORANGE performance ability, because the whole engine works together in a collaborative sense, whatever zone you are in.
Which comes first (the chicken or the egg), Yellow or Green?
It’s always a heavily debated topic to find the ideal order of the program to suit all riders. There are actually good reasons to doing GREEN-focused strength training before faster YELLOW cycling sessions, or vice versa works well too?!
I would say; if you are newer to the sport it makes better sense to tune the pedal-stroke efficiency first (YELLOW), and then add the load to get stronger (GREEN). This is a good approach for younger riders in the sport, and track cycling on restricted gear size is often used to ensure that riders don’t overload while young. Obviously, getting a good technique at anything new to the body is ideal before you add new strain levels. The ‘gym weight-training’ analogy works well here – becoming technically skilled in lifting the bar before loading it up with more weight.
However, for more experienced riders, the opposing argument is equally convincing – to follow a natural progression up the pyramid from GREEN to YELLOW as you develop fitness on each, and then move on to ORANGE. This idealistic ‘fitness pyramid construction’ approach makes sense because GREEN strength work does slow down muscle contractions, and makes you feel ‘flat’ or lethargic after the sessions, and so speeding the body up again on YELLOW efforts after heavy slow workloads is a sensible format if you want to progress to ORANGE or see improving performances later in the week, month or year.
Also, GREEN before YELLOW was the standard approach in the Olympic Cycling Team training plan I completed 30 years ago as an elite level athlete building a big cycling engine. Furthermore, it’s a common weekend pattern in our Australian cycling culture to complete hills and heavy gear-riding on Saturdays, and then go flatter and faster, or race in criteriums on Sundays.
The point is you can decide what works best for you. Which works better for your body to learn first, gaining better technique and speed, or pushing with more force? See my recommended GREEN & YELLOW training plan below, as a general 6-week guide, and freely swap the GREEN and YELLOW days around to suit your own weekly scheduling.
Ridewiser GREEN & YELLOW Lockdown Training Plan
Looking at the current lockdown 6-week period as a training plan, we can integrate the GREEN and YELLOW into the same week to use the two disciplines to complement each other, GREEN needs YELLOW to speed legs back up, and YELLOW prepares muscles and the nervous systems to push heavy weight again more efficiently.
GREEN: Bigger gear (heavier forceful load), lower cadences 65-80rpm,
YELLOW: Smaller gear (lighter spinning load), higher cadences 95-135pm
Firm upper body, sit slightly back over the rear wheel, big breathing volume, focus on maintaining same cadence and un-moving posture; give attention to locking the upper body and remaining still, and keeping a symmetrical smooth pedal-stroke delivery under pressure – rather than reverting to a push down-pull up pedalling pattern as you feel more tired; the aim is to lift your GREEN gear load and hold it steadily without swaying the upper body around, and doing this twice per week over longer time phases during a 6-week plan.
Looser and fluid upper body, sit slightly forward more over the pedals, quicker exhale breathing, focus on lifting the cadence to find an optimal leg-revving speed while keeping your bike shoes constantly engaged around the full circular pedal-stroke and without bouncing the upper body around; give attention to pointing toes down and lifting heels slightly up, and keeping knees always tracking vertically like pistons – or even a tending inward closer to the top tube of the bike; the aim is to lift your YELLOW velocity and cadence (even within each effort, speeding up is good) and holding it without losing composure and constant gear engagement; do this twice per week over longer and longer time phases during a 6-week plan.
Mon – REST Day Off or add BLUE ride for cycling health (20-40min total).
Tues – GREEN session while fresh (load focus) + BLUE ride (60-90min total)
Wed – HARD ride, short or long intensity efforts (45-60min total)
Thur – YELLOW faster flatter ride, more revs than load focus (45-60min total)
Fri – ANYTHING, but finish off with easy ride (30-45min total)
Sat – GREEN session while fresh (load focus) + BLUE ride (60-90min total)
Sun – YELLOW plus BLUE longer ride (60-120min+ total)
GREEN session drills (indoor recommended option)
Week 1: 2 x 3mins @75% of max HR or RPE effort (1 minute rests)
Week 2: 3 x 3mins @75% of max HR or RPE effort (1 minute rests)
Week 3: 4 x 3mins @75% of max HR or RPE effort (1 minute rests)
Week 4: 4 x 4mins @75% of max HR or RPE effort (2 minute rests)
Week 5: 4 x 5mins @75% of max HR or RPE effort (2 minute rests)
Week 6: 4 x 6mins @75% of max HR or RPE effort (2 minute rests)
Note: as soon as you can comfortably add gear load (heavier pedaling pressure) you can change the gear up and work at the new effort intensity until familiar and competent.
YELLOW session drills (outdoor recommended option)
Week 1: 3 x 300mtrs fast @80% of max HR or RPE effort (1 minute rests)
Week 2: 3 x 500mtrs fast @80% of max HR or RPE effort (1 minute rests)
Week 3: 3 x 750mtrs fast @80% of max HR or RPE effort (1 minute rests)
Week 4: 3 x 1km fast @80% of max HR or RPE effort (2 minute rests)
Week 5: 3 x 2km fast @80% of max HR or RPE effort (2 minute rests)
Week 6: 4 x 2km fast @80% of max HR or RPE effort (2 minute rests)
Note: as soon as you can comfortably increase cadence (RPM) (more revs without discomfort or bouncing) you might also need to change the gear up and work at the new effort intensity until familiar and competent.
~ Important Additional Training Notes ~
Effort intensity can also be targeted by using equivalent power workloads (Watts) if known to correlate with Heart-rate (HR), or Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE). The main benefit is in completing all effort time-frames.
Warm Up and Warm Down times should range between 5 up to 15 minutes long, depending on how long it takes for you to feel warm, comfortable and energised.
Hydration, endurance and flexibility: remember, in constrained times it is even more of a health maintenance issue to keep these 3 major body performance influencers in mind, and aim to maintain them all of the time.
(1) Keep yourself hydrated with regular sips of water and electrolyte replacement drinks,
(2) Endurance or BLUE riding and exercising time is the largest layer of the pyramid for a very good reason, you need lots of it to aid in recovery whilst in training blocks
(3) Flexibility of muscles through stretching, very easy riding, massage treatments or other types of exercising (cross-training sports) can help range of movement maintenance.
A Most Important Mindset
WARNING: not a spoiler
Just doing the weekly schedule of riding hours, no matter how intense, will actually generate a great deal of good healthy fitness and enough good oxygenated chemistry change in your blood-flow that you’ll be set for better brain health and some far better mental states too. So in a sense, just do it really works. The goal is to get people to enjoy their cycling enough that they keep doing it and create a healthier, happier mindset overall. So before you ditch the whole idea or go half way through it and lose focus because you’re not hitting 75% of scheduled efforts (good tip for generally completing a plan), remember that a lot of the I.P. behind setting clearly structured training programs with specific times and intensities to follow is a way to motivate you just to get on your bike! Do it, and have fun doing it, even half of it. It’s a growth opportunity mindset, a half full glass is still closer to being filled!
Candy-man Test Run
Once you’ve invested in this block of GREEN & YELLOW training sessions, then it will be time to test-drive the ORANGE layer of your newly pimped cycling engine. Beware that early attempts at ORANGE threshold can still feel limited due to a 6-week period with low ORANGE exposure, but it will switch on and feel great if you keep turning up the intensity…
Ridewiser ZOOM Ergo sessions are designed for precisely this reason – to ensure you get rehearsal in all of the major colours frequently to keep your motors running. Before you know it, you’ll be smashing head-winds, chasing down gaps, setting new circuit P.B.s, and enjoying being late to places as you’ll be riding there much faster!
Now, all of a sudden, doesn’t that Candy-man sitting on the front down a crowded home-straight of people cheering sound a whole lot easier when it comes to getting some work done!?
To trial the Ridewiser ZOOM Ergo online cycling training sessions for free, just mention this article on email to firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.ridewiser.com.au
Rob Crowe O.A.M. is a writer, speaker, Olympian and director of specialist program designs for Ridewiser Mindfitness cycling in Melbourne – how to enhance mental fitness while optimising physical fitness through cycling.