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Finding my pedals

Updated: Mar 30, 2023

Can you cross-train your way to completing a 95mi trail running ultramarathon? (pt.2)

You’ll remember the original question I’m aiming to answer; can you cross-train your way to completing a 95mi trail running ultramarathon? And that I intend to answer that question following the same training block strategy, style of workouts and training load volumes using a stationary bike and SkiErg to supplement the enforced reduction in running (as a result of injury).

Week one involved a transition to the bike for the bulk of the week’s training volume. Both cycling options were stationary, either; the BikeErg or a road bike on turbo trainer.

First finding - stationary cycling is a pain in the butt!

I do not have much in the way of natural padding and my cycling shorts clearly aren’t up to the job. How do you cyclists do it? Not too much to elucidate - you really don’t want the intimate details - other than 1) it’s all good for mental toughness, which is a theme you’ll discover as you read on and 2) I have found a solution, again, read on.

Second finding - stationary cycling is just not like running, D’oh!

My current training block would be focussed around the key workouts of tempo runs. Running at a rate of perceived effort (RPE) of 8-9 on a scale of 1-10. These would be 2-3 intervals of 6-10mins, with 3-5mins recovery between. At around 20” faster than 5k pace these are very hard intervals that work the metabolic system just above lactate threshold.

Now hold on…you’re training for an ultramarathon, which comparatively you’ll be plodding around won’t you, so why are you running at that pace!? Well there’s a number of reasons:

  • Increase VO2max: the maximal oxygen uptake capacity and thus improve the body's ability to take in and utilise oxygen, which is essential for aerobic metabolism (the foundation of endurance performance)

  • Increase anaerobic capacity: running above lactate threshold requires the body to rely more on anaerobic metabolism for energy production. Over time, this can lead to an increase in the body's ability to tolerate and clear lactate, use it as fuel and enable the muscles to work harder for longer

  • Improve muscle strength and local muscular endurance: which can not only help to reduce the risk of injury, but will enable the muscles to repeatedly contract over long durations

  • Develop mental toughness: as already mentioned, running above lactate threshold is very hard - both physically and mentally. So regular training at this intensity can help to improve mental toughness and the ability to push through discomfort and fatigue (of which there is plenty in an ultramarathon!)

This all sounds great, but please don’t just go out there and smash out tempo runs. It's important to approach this type of training with caution, get the balance of low and high intensity right, understand how you respond to these types of workouts and gradually build up to higher intensities/durations to avoid injury and overtraining.

So, back to my point…stationary cycling is just not like running. To emulate the effort of these tempo runs on the bike (RPE 8-9), I’ve got the gearing cranked up and pedalling like a dervish upwards of 110 rpm. Consequently my leg muscles are screaming for me to slow down and the sweat is lashing off me, forming a puddle of sweat underneath the bike. Yet, I still can’t get my heart rate up to where I need it to be.

And there are reasons for this. The heart rate is staying lower because running involves the use of more muscle groups; lower body, upper and core muscles, while cycling primarily just recruits the lower body muscles. The biomechanics of running are different too; involving more impact forces on the body, causing it to work harder to absorb and dissipate forces from each step. Interesting stat: the body must deal with 2.5 to 3 times its body weight with every single step. Now that’s going to push the heart rate up!

There’s also an RPE mismatch going on. Subjectively, I’m just finding cycling harder. I’m a more experienced runner than cyclist, running is second nature to me, it feels easy…less so cycling. There are psychological factors at play too; I’m less motivated to cycle (I want to be out running) and it’s mentally challenging too (I’m sat there…uncomfortably!...going nowhere). Then there is the physiological challenge of over-heating. There’s no evaporative effect from moving through the air to cool me down. Hence the puddle of sweat. And this has a significant impact on how hard I perceive the effort.

Solution to findings 1&2 - ride out of the saddle

I stumbled across this solution, as I was looking to provide some respite for the tender derriere, and discovered that my heart rate quickly elevated. Then the penny dropped. I could feel the extra demands from the upper body and core stabilising muscles. I could feel the legs working harder. It felt like there was more ‘impact’ to tolerate, more power needed to push through the pedals. I could drop down to a more sensible and optimum running cadence of 180spm (or 90rpm). My posture was more upright. In other words, it felt more like running. It felt like running uphill or hiking hard uphill. It also brought my heart rate more in line with the perceived effort. And therein is what I’m trying to achieve. Something that gets me as close and specific as possible to my running training.

Third finding - stationary cycling really is mentally challenging

As suspected, being rooted to the spot for 2hrs+ plays on the mind. I’m used to a changing tapestry of sights, sounds and scents that only being out in nature can deliver. Those can occupy the mind for hours and simply being in nature brings a sense of wellbeing and peace; naturally settling your thoughts. Sitting on a bike however, in a garage with only a small ‘window’ to the garden and the outside world, does not. However, as I said, I suspected that would be the case and in fact deliberately chose that option (rather than hitting the roads on the bike) to challenge myself and spend some of the time working on valuable mental skills.

I’ve mentioned mental toughness a number of times throughout this article and it’s a topic I’ll cover in detail in a future post. Aside from the physiological adaptations we seek from hours of dedicated training, the development of mental skills is perhaps one of the most trainable and effective levers we can pull to improve performance in endurance events.

Solution to finding 3 - the Foo Fighters!

I’m a bit of a purist when it comes to running, no headphones. Just nature’s distractions, my thoughts, my breathing, my movement. However I’m cycling now, the rules have changed! And I need a distraction. It explains the success and prevalence of the likes of Zwift and Peloton; providing a mental distraction, virtual spaces and gamification for those on stationary bikes. I don’t have the necessary kit and there’s no point in the investment. However I now have a speaker in the garage, the volume cranked right up to be heard over the whir of the turbo trainer, and a new support crew…the Foo Fighters (although they’re banned from playing Run!)

Now I’ve found my pedals

So, week one of training has really been about finding my way on the bike, coming to terms with it, getting to know one another. Can’t say it was that enjoyable, or that it ever will be, but the solutions I eventually got to will make a big difference going forward. Let’s see how week two progresses…


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