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Why Heavy Bikes and Headwinds Don’t Give You Better Workouts

I have written about heavy bikes and headwinds in the past, but one particular question gets asked over and over.

So I’m going to put an end to it, once and for all!

Hey Levi,

Thank you for your reviews which I consider practical and objective, and for my part, they bring answers to my need to remaining fit on the road.

Now, I have a different view of the power training under taxing conditions such as a heavier bike or strong head/cross wind. Under these conditions, it takes me much less time on the bike to actually reach the same physiological fatigue, i.e. by monitoring my avg heart rate. Hence, I need less miles to meet my plan.

A contrario, considering the same itinerary, when riding with heavy gear my average speed is significantly lower compared to using a lighter frame.

So I came to the conclusion that, everything else being equal, training with heavy gears conditions me better to address more challenging competition when I ride a carbon frame.

Am I missing on something?

Fatigued Francine

Hi Francine,

I’m glad you’re getting some use from my site, and thanks for writing in about this topic. With the way you worded your question, I believe it helps me understand the widespread confusion on this topic.

I think I see what you’re saying, and to some extent, I agree. Riding a heavier bike or riding into the wind is going to make you fatigue faster if everything else is equal. It’s just like in the weight room – lifting a heavier weight will make you fatigue faster.

The problem is, there is a lot more to training than just going out to fatigue yourself as quickly as possible. Plus, “everything else” is not going to be equal.

Even more simply: If your training is based on fatigue, you’re doing it wrong!

Let me ask you, what are your goals?

If your goals involve riding faster or winning races (or otherwise improving your performance,) you should be training for performance. You should not base your training around fatigue unless for some reason you are training for the World Fatigue Championships!

How To Measure Performance

There are two ways to measure performance – speed and power. Speed measures how fast your bike is going, and power measures how much work you are doing to move the bike at that speed.

Speed is a great measurement over the long term. Watching your average speed (on a given course) improve year after year probably means you’re getting better! But, on any given day, watching the current speed on your speedometer doesn’t tell you much. It’s too susceptible to changes in weather, equipment choice, and terrain.

That leaves power. Power is the amount of energy you expend (or the amount of work you perform) in a specific time frame, typically measured in watts. (If you need a refresher on… high school physics and power.)

Why Train With Power?

Power is great because it ties you and your bike together. Power is the product of torque and angular velocity, so using a cyclist with a PowerTap hub as an example, the “torque” is the force you are applying to your cranks, and “angular velocity” is the speed at which the hub is rotating.

Actually, you don’t even have to make sense of that. Just know that power is not susceptible to outside influence the way other measurements are (we’re talking speed and heart rate, mainly.)

Nasty headwind slowing you down? Your speed will drop like a rock, but power output will remain the same.

Steep hill up ahead? Your speed will drop like a rock, but power output will remain the same.

Riding a heavy bicycle rather than your carbon fiber race bike? Your speed will drop a little, but power output will remain the same.

Dealing with stress and anxiety? Your heart rate might be elevated, but power output will remain the same.

Therefore, power is the best possible way for you to measure your performance in both the short- and long-term.

Nothing else even compares (not even heart rate.)

Fatiguing Faster Is Not Helping You

Now back to the question I received. Francine thought that because she reached fatigue faster when riding a heavy bike, that she needed fewer miles to meet her plan.

Well first off, as I just mentioned, you don’t win races by getting fatigued, so you don’t want to use fatigue as a measurement in your training plan.

If that doesn’t convince you, think about this – fatigue can come from anything.

Riding a heavier bike will fatigue you faster. Riding into a headwind will fatigue you faster. Riding up a hill will fatigue you faster. Riding through mud will fatigue you faster. Pulling a trailer with a couple toddlers will fatigue you faster. Hoisting dumbbells in the air during your ride will fatigue you faster. Holding your breath will fatigue you faster.

So wouldn’t the best workout for you be to ride a heavier bike uphill through the mud while pulling a trailer, one hand on the bar and the other holding a dumbbell overhead, holding your breath the entire time?

That would definitely fatigue you very fast, but would it lead to increased performance? (Hint: No, it wouldn’t.)

Sometimes I train by running and swimming, and both of those activities put my heart rate (HR) through the roof! Do I ride faster as a result? Not particularly.

Also, training duration should be measured in hours, not miles. There are so many factors that mileage does not account for, that it is a poor way to measure the duration of your training. You should not be using a training plan that revolves around mileage.

A Heavier Bike Does Give You a Different Workout

On the other hand, a heavier bike or headwind can give you a different workout. Just like riding up a hill gives you a different workout than riding on flat ground.

Riding up a hill would seem harder than riding on flat ground, but if you keep wattage the same thanks to low gearing, it would be an equivalent difficulty.

This is especially true if you’re not good at (or hate) riding uphill. In that case, it will definitely feel harder. Typically, doing something different or new is going to be harder, but that’s not the point of training.

Here’s an analogy for you: Training on a heavier bike to get a better workout would be like doing 100 fingertip push-ups to practice for a piano recital. Your practice will leave you more fatigued (because you’re not used to stressing your fingers in that way,) but it won’t improve your performance when it counts (actually playing the piano.)

Specificity of Training

Ah yes, the principle of specificity. This is something I talk about any chance I get, because it’s so, so important! Specificity of training means making your training as close to race conditions as possible.

I actually read a good study on this recently. Researchers put runners into three groups based on training protocols, which were:

  • Sprinting on a track.
  • Sprinting, wearing a weighted vest.
  • Sprinting, pulling a parachute.

The study showed that to get better at sprinting, the best practice was sprinting. At the end of the study, the group who sprinted like normal outperformed the groups who ran their sprints with resistance. The added resistance of weighted vests and parachutes did not improve performance!

I believe cyclists would respond the same way.

In other words, riding a heavy bike better adapts you to the task of riding a heavy bike. It doesn’t make you faster at riding a lighter/normal bike.

I see the parachute training being applicable for some football players, because think about a running back trying to run forward while a linebacker pulls them backward. They need to be able to run against resistance. But neither a 100m sprinter nor a marathon runner will encounter that during a race.

Again, it’s all about specificity of training, no matter what sport you choose!!

For Further Reading and Understanding of Power Training

training and racing with a power meter

Here are a couple articles – and a book – that will help you better understand training with power if that’s something you’d like to start:

 

 

Conclusion

Just switching to a heavy bicycle by itself is not enough to make your workout harder or better. Furthermore, it’s not a good idea, because it goes against the principle of specificity of training.

So, keep training on your regular bike in regular conditions for best performance improvements.

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coach levi
Hi, I'm Coach Levi. I'm a USA Cycling Certified Level 3 Coach as well as Level 1 Certified with Precision Nutrition. Want to feel better, ride faster, and look great? Let's work together!

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Coach Levi is my favorite child and favorite cycling coach. I'd choose him over Christoper McCarmikael even. Did I mention that Levi can coach you to a healthier lifestyle where you look and feel your best?
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Hometown, PA