The Mystery of Efficiency

Untitled design (2)Efficiency is what I do for a living. My job, or at least what my job is supposed to be, is to look at current job processes, be it the way we sign people up for aid or the way we process grant applications, and find ways we can do it quicker, cheaper, and basically more efficient. I am good at this job, when I am allowed to do it to my full potential without politics muddying the waters, so if shouldn’t surprise anyone that I apply, or try to apply, the same methods to my training. I am in constant search for efficiency. I watch people who ride or run with me to see how they go about doing what they do and make it seem so effortless. I watch as some glide through the water at a 1:30/100m pace while making it appear to be no harder than walking to their mailbox.

It vexes me.

I am extremely vexed.

Part of the issue is that there are so many opinions on what “efficient” means (like in this article HERE). The article states that while the athletes’ oxygen consumption rates were nearly identical in the two cases (one set using a 50 rpm and the other using 100 rpm), and heart and breathing rates, total rate of power production, and blood lactate levels were also similar, the break down of glycogen was very different.
When I started this all I was told was that the bike cadence needed to be between 90-100 for maximum efficiency. And I tried. Lord knows I tried.

But meeting that type of cadence was killing me. I decided to start doing what felt “right” and have since realized that my personal “comfort zone” is about 75 rpm. And I have gotten comments during rides about it too. Afterwards people I have ridden with ask me why I keep such a slow cadence, and it’s true I have a much slower turnover rate that my peers … I see them spinning up hills … bouncing on the seat … and getting no further and no faster than I do. I have read recent articles in the past few weeks that now say optimal cycling efficiency is between 70-80 rpm … which … shocker … is right where I feel more comfortable. So am I different? Is there something in my body that makes me more efficient at a slower cadence, or is it just a matter of fitness that I have not found yet? I know some reading this that do not know my history will say that fitness is exactly what it is, but remember that I have a few medical issues related to thyroid cancer and psoriatic arthritis that may make my circumstance different.

I don’t know if there is actual science to back it up, and I know there are some reading this that will argue until they are blue in the face that 100 rpm is required, but I know how my body feels at that cadence. My legs crap out when I try to match that, and if I gear up to a harder gear and slow the cadence to 75 I can keep up with the pack and my legs feel good. Without a power meter I am guessing that my efficiency is probably out of whack with numbers because to maintain, say 18 mph in a harder gear I am obviously putting more power into the stroke than someone at a higher cadence in an easier gear would be doing. So why do my legs not burn out in the hard gear/slower cadence but fatigue quickly when trying to keep it above 100?

Running is the same, though in the opposite direction. I used to believe that the fewer steps I took would equate to less pounding and an easier run. After going through the Chi Running training with Danny Dreyer I found that a shorter step and a higher cadence (85-90, or about 180 spm) actually is more efficient, and is easier on my aching feet and joints. The other thing I noticed right off the bat when moving to this method was that I was FASTER when I used smaller steps.

Part of the issue, in my opinion, with the studies conducted is that they
use seasoned athletes. Even the study referenced above used cyclists that were elite levels, so that perhaps skews the results a bit. What results, say Lance Armstrong, obtain is probably not going to mean anything to me. So is it a mistake to use studies conducted using elite athletes and try to match them for a normal age grouper, or fat guy, like me? This is where I went off course in nutrition a in 2012. Because I carry a lot of weight I was trying to train and lose, but long course endurance training is not conducive to weight loss in many cases. Throughout my first year I lost 40+ pounds, dropping from 303 to 236. When prepping for my second season I wanted to “get faster” so started looking at what triathlete used for nutrition on the race course, which mainly consists of sugar bombs in the form of gels and drinks. So I tried it too, and promptly started getting slower in races and gaining back to 265 pounds. The bottom line was sugar works if you’re 5’10 and 140 pounds. You have little to no fat on you to use as energy so you need that extra sugar to fuel the race. In my case, as I discovered, I didn’t need the sugar until the very end of the race, and by very end I mean mile 20 or so of a marathon. If I taught my body to use the fat I had on my as fuel, well … that almost an inexhaustible supply, whereas your body cannot hold that many carbs in reserve. By teaching my body to not touch those carb reserves I had them at the end. The trick is, and what I am still trying to learn, is when to go to the sugar on a race, because once you start taking it in then you need to keep doing it, which means the spikes and drops start too early. Your body will switch from fat to sugar quickly once it sees the sugar come in, and then you have to continually supply it to maintain (hence the reason you see cyclists with jerseys packed to maximum with gels … because they start using it immediately and therefore have to supply it continuously). It’s a learning process, but I am getting there … albeit slower than I’d like.

Like I said at the start of this post, part of the issue is the amount of information and misinformation out there. One coach says you need sugar, another says you don’t. One say that the cadence needs to be 100, another says 80. There will be people reading this that will jump ALL OVER the part about sugar and the fact I said you do not need it. Most of these will be people who are thin with no weight issues. I expect it, and no amount of evidence I give to support my stance will alter what they feel is true. The bottom line is this … you have to figure out what works for you. It has been stated in numerous articles and books recently that the population that can effectively process sugar is about 20-25%, which is one in every four people. Everyone else is feeding their body crap, no matter what they look like on the outside. And there are people that are OK with that, which I really have no problem with. I start having the problem when these folks start telling others that it’s the correct way to fuel. A 150 pound triathlete really has no idea what it is like to run or bike, or even swim, at 250 pounds. What works for them will more than likely NOT work for the heavier athlete.

So, if you’re “one of us”, the heavier person trying to find their way through the mountain of advice, do yourself a favor … READEXPERIMENTTRY THINGS OUT … and decide for yourself. Take most advice, even mine, with a critical eye. It will make you better in the end.

One thought on “The Mystery of Efficiency

  • June 17, 2014 at 11:39 am
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    I don’t know the answer either but I think that you’re right John, that each person is going to be a bit different. With my recent knee problem, I have a much easier (less pain) time of it if I am able to sustain a high cadence on the bike (~90rpm). However, I always seem to blow up aerobically if I do this and then I have to get over the fact that I’m slower. I don’t want to go slower but perhaps to preserve my knee, maybe I should be trying to train at a higher cadence. I recently went on a 270km ride with a guy who is formerly a cat 1 racer. He has legs the size of redwoods and a frame no bigger than 150lbs. For him, he was able to churn out a high cadence. He said that it took him a while to get there though. Another friend that I went with on the same ride, is about my same size roughly (~250lbs, 6’4″) and he has a similarly high cadence. He’s also ridden over 40,000km in the past 5 years. It’s hard to know what to do. Reading tips from experts and those I look up to probably help a bit but are no replacement for time in the saddle, learning from setbacks and the such. I’m going to try the high turnover during my running. I imagine how that can help me immensely. Good luck out there!

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