Train Like An Olympian! Get More From Your Cycling Workout

Written by Shoshana Pritzker
Tuesday, 08 February 2011 15:33
How Four Hooves, a French Word and One Pyramid Can Help You Get More From Your Cycling Workout
Written by Phil Joffe and Amy Logan

What do four hooves, two wheels and one pyramid have in common? If you are an indoor cycling enthusiast read on. You will learn the ways in which adapting the principles of dressage horsemanship can help improve your cycling workout in a few simple steps.

To begin, the word “dressage” is a French word meaning training. If you’re unfamiliar with dressage as a sport, picture this: The top horses in dressage can be compared to the Lance Armstrongs of cycling. Fit, athletic, disciplined. You get the picture. Of course, these horses have riders (amazing athletes themselves) who use a specific methodology to improve their horse’s athletic performance through progressive conditioning. Their training tool is a “Pyramid of Training” that is comprised of six building blocks which is constructed to help both athletes achieve the highest level of performance. When adapted to indoor cycling, this “Pyramid of Training” will help a cyclist improve strength, endurance and overall performance.  Dressage riders work their horses daily approximately 40 to 60 minutes, similar time to an indoor cycling class, applying the six building blocks of this pyramid to their workout.

In this article we will walk you through the pyramid of training and show you how to use the building blocks to improve and enhance your workout. We will contrast the dressage riders’ approach to conditioning their horses in order to compete internationally and represent their country in the Olympics to how you can get the most out of your aerobic indoor cycling workout. By adapting and applying this standard framework and its building blocks to your indoor cycling, we believe it will result in a more focused and effective conditioning exercise.
(Muscle Memory and Self Carrage)

(Alignment and Balance)

(Increased Thrust and Lift)

(Mind-Body with the Bike)

(With Energy and Tempo)

(Mentally and Physically Free from Tension)

Let’s start with the base of the Pyramid; Relaxation. The foundation of the Pyramid demands the indoor cyclist achieve physical and mental freedom from tension.  (The authors acknowledge this is difficult ) It begins with proper bike set up and proper form while in the saddle. Take an inventory from head to toes to dispel any stiffness and encourage a light feeling throughout the body. Softness at the hands, elbows and neck should be at the forefront of your preparation. As you enter the class setting, do your best to leave the real world behind. Prepare to receive instruction and focus on the music which plays an important role in your relaxation. For the dressage rider and their horse, its a mental state of looseness and suppleness minimizing muscular tension.

Practice moving slowly between the three positions on the bike initiating a rehearsal effect, preparing yourself for an unconstrained mental and physical workout.  During class, particularly during the challenging portions, keep relaxation at the forefront of your mind. Proper breathing is an essential component of your workout; regular, deep breathing (preferably in through the nose and out through the mouth) contributes to relaxation and endurance. Relaxation is a component of all the other blocks of the training scale and is critical throughout your workout.

Rhythm refers to the regularity of peddling (cadence) and body movement. It requires a solid level of energy and feeling for the tempo. The goal is to maintain the rhythm at increasing levels of resistance and in the transitions between all three riding positions. As resistance is increased, in the case of hills and jumps, the goal is to increase energy output without sacrificing rhythm. For the dressage horse, rhythm is expressed with energy and a tempo that allows for balance and self -carriage.  A consistent rhythm is built on the foundation of relaxation, ignoring your body’s discomforts. Music plays an important role in rhythm; finding the down beat will help your body get in harmony with the rhythm and help maintain a consistent cadence and smooth pedal stroke. Through rhythmic breathing your heart rate is better controlled and you are better able to to deliver oxygen to your muscles. As your energy output is increased, even and consistent breathing will assist you in working within your training zones and in developing the relevant muscles.

Connection refers to the mind/body connection with a horse, or in our case, your bike. We can translate a dressage rider’s connection to a horse’s mouth to a cyclist soft and steady connection with the handlebars. Handlebar height should be adjusted for comfort paying special attention to your back. In addition, the proper placement of feet on the pedals, whether cages or clips are used, will allow you to “feel” the bike and improve your balance. Also important, the balls of the feet should be in proper position with body weight evenly distributed and balanced. Alignment, beginning in your mind and continuing with your body, will help you maintain proper connection with your bike and help to avoid bad habits such as tension in hands and forearms, favoring one leg, locking knees etc, all of which cause fatigue.

As instructors ask for transitions between the three bike positions, proper connection will facilitate smooth and seamless transitions, regardless of how quickly you are asked to perform them. We define seemless transitions when the cyclist moves between the three positions relying on their legs and core. Regardless of the time and speed between transitions, your body should be free from tension, especially your shoulders and neck ; hands , arms and elbows should be soft and used only to maintain balance. Extended seemless transitions become more difficult as the body fatigues.  When you combine a relaxed mental focus and rhythmic body, your transitions will define the extent and depth of your conditioning. Similarly, the dressage rider is regularly trying to improve on the transitions between the horse’s gaits which requires practice to improve the horse’s conditioning.

For the dressage rider and indoor cyclist, impulsion is more than an issue of speed. Defined, impulsion combines pushing power and carrying power. Lift of your entire body as you push and pull the pedals energetically. When cyclists are inspired by the music or instructed to add resistance to the fly wheel, you will recruit more energy adding strength to the movement while maintaining the rhythm and cadence. In an interval class, the cyclist will increase cadence, perhaps “double time”, with added impulsion, animation and balance. Impulsion is not a finite term and is created and improved upon by training. As your conditioning improves you will increase your impulsion and extend it throughout your workout at increasing levels of resistance.

Straightness refers to the technical aspects of cycling. It is common for most people to have a “dominant” side to their body; one side is typically stronger and/or more flexible than the other. Achieving muscular balance and symmetry is the objective in the straightness portion of the Pyramid.

Instructors will begin class by explaining the proper positioning on the bike. (We will assume your bike is set up correctly for your body; your seat and handlebar settings are correct) Cyclist should focus on maintaining the correct angles of hips, legs and feet, minimize side to side movement and ensure your arms, legs and hands are aligned with their body and legs. With proper alignment you will not only ride with greater comfort but will avoid unnecessary injuries.

Of course straightness is dependent on relaxation and minimal tension in the body.  Also, as the body fatigues, the cyclist will often lose straightness which diminishes the quality of the workout. However, as the cyclist builds strength, their straightness and overall symmetry improves. Straightness, alignment and balance are critical to transitions. As the cyclist moves between first, second and third position and performs jumps they should focus on straightness to build energy and inertia to obtain seamless transitions. The body feels light and there is an easy movement of the entire body between the riding positions. Proper transition work is a very important element in strength building. For the dressage horse, it is this inertia that builds the muscles and adds strength.

Collection is the sixth and final building block of the training scale and is the highest achievement of the dressage rider and their horse. It is the synthesis of all the building blocks in the training scale, and achieved is only when the other five elements are progressively developed. For the cyclist it is an accumulation of the core mental and physical skills that result in muscle memory and self carriage. It can be seen as a combination of emotional and physical strength to ride an entire class effortlessly yet achieve an intense workout. It results in minimal recovery time following the most challenging portions of your ride fightning off fatigue and encouraging perfect form.  As an illustration, the cyclist will fight through moments of tired legs, shortness of
breath or tension in their back to ride transitions in proper balance and alignment and complete the class with animation and energy. Collection also means that the cyclist will be able to increase resistance, ride in a rhythmic and relaxed manner and maintain designated cadence throughout the entire class and, of course, end with a big smile!  A dressage horse and rider show collection through increased engagement, lightness of the forehand, and self-carriage. The horse will have elevation, and be ridden almost entirely with the riders seat, aids of the legs, and hands that are extremely light.

We have chosen to introduce the Dressage training scale Pyramid to the indoor cyclist in our belief by progressively adapting to the building blocks of the Pyramid, cyclists will notice a significant improvement in their conditioning. The Pyramid is a classical training tool that when applied to indoor cycling communicates techniques in a logical and orderly way to enhance a rider’s workout. It is the interconnection of the building blocks that spells out the road map for the rider to burn more calories, burn more fat and strengthen their bodies. We believe that the Pyramid of Training is not only a general guideline and framework to progressive training of the cyclist, but also an important tool for getting the most our of each indoor cycling class.

Dispel stiffness and aches
Sustain a softness and light feeling in your elbows, shoulders, hands, neck and back
Concentrate on music to help relieve mental tension and to forget about your “to-do” list
Breath regularly and properly(through the nose out the mouth)
Maintain regular and controlled cadence
Amplify energy as resistance increases
Listen for the music’s down beat to support a smooth pedal stroke
Augment controlled breathing
Balance hands and feet position regularly to reinforce proper alignment
Recognize and avoid bad habits ( i.e. tension in elbows and neck )
Facilitate smooth and seamless transitions using your legs and core
Focus mentally to work-through fatigue
Add resistance and energy to challenge yourself
Concentrate on pushing and pulling the pedals
Increase cadence and resistance yet maintain relaxation and rhythm
Reinforce muscular balance and symmetry
Maintain correct angles of hips and legs
Minimize side to side movement
Stay light in your hands especially when doing transitions between
Achieve mental stability and focus for the entire class
Rely on muscle memory for an intense workout
Fight-off fatigue maintaining perfect form
Fortify workout using the highest degrees of resistance

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