Updated: Jan 9
In a world dominated by FTP, it's hard for cyclists to think about anything else. Th key though to becoming faster just may lie outside the realm of energy systems.
Practically every cycling workout is adjusted to FTP. We are inundated by programs touting to raise it. That's great for triathletes, but what about bike racers?
How has this extremely dynamic sport been so dominated by one area of focus? It's great to be able to clear lactate, but what about the thousand or so things you do every hour to keep you with the pack, after corners, respond and give attacks, and change pace.
What I'm talking about is acceleration. As much as you would like to believe it's related to FTP, it's not. Imagine if you could save all those matches because instead of putting out 90% effort of your max responding to an attack, you only had to put out 70%. How much fresher you would be at the end of the race when you were doing 30% less effort over the course?
This isn't energy systems stuff. Some will argue the ATP system, but I'm not going to get into that. What I am talking about is increasing your neuromuscular efficiency. A track running sprinter and track cycling sprinter are very familiar with this. In the sport of road cycling though, NE gets swallowed by the big bear, FTP.
The way this works is the brain sends signals to your muscles in order to cause contraction. The slower these signals are, the slower the contraction rate. The faster the signals, the faster the contraction rate. More importantly, the firing signals telling the muscles to relax is what's most critical.
This is called reciprocal inhibition. In sprinting, or acceleration, it's not about how fast you can contract, but how quickly you can relax the muscle. This prepares the muscle for the next contraction. A muscle contraction is nothing without the ability to relax. The most evident display of this occurs in a muscle cramp. A cramp is actually a muscle which is stuck in a state of contraction without the ability to relax.
In order to be efficient at accelerating, you need to work on the brain's ability to tell the muscle to quickly relax, so it can fire again. This allows the cyclist to push power into the pedal stroke, quickly relax, and do it again, and again. When the body becomes really good at this then it's power to accelerate becomes phenomenally better.
In order for the body to become efficient, specific attention needs to be on drills and workouts that uses this relaxation method. One of my favorite workouts is standing downhill sprints in a tiny gear. Find a hill around 6-8 percent, and put your bike in the small chain ring about 2 gears from the top of the cassette. Ramp up the speed and try to pedal as fast as you can. It's not about the power, it's about but about quickness.
The first time you do this, your body will be extremely inefficient at that contraction-relaxation cycle. You may pedal in squares, stomp, and your rpms may be low. As your body becomes more efficient, your pedal stroke will smooth and your rpms will go up. This will be your first indication of your body-brain connection getting better.
This drill is one of the beginning ways to increase your neuromuscular efficiency, working your way towards better acceleration. Remember, cycling is dynamic. In order to become better, we must focus on all areas that can make us a better cyclist.
FTP is just one component is a series of many other abilities. This article is the first in a series that will focus on ways you can increase your power and speed specifically in cycling. Stay tuned for more articles written on helping you become the best cyclist you can be.