Cycling Physiology

Cycling Physiology: Every cyclist has a level of performance which they are able to obtain. This performance level, to a large part is down to your parents and genetics.

Your cycling training can help you obtain the maximum of your pre determined potential.

Many professional cyclists have been tested over the years on indoor cycling machines and outdoors in the competitive arena, which allows us a good deal of cross verifiable information.

At a general level there are three main determining factors for cycling physiology:

  • Maximal aerobic capacity (VO2 Max)
  • Lactate Threshold
  • Energy economy and efficiency.

VO2 Max

This value indicates the amount of oxygen being used by your body. It is normally written as ml/kg/min.

Cycling PhysiologyChampion cyclists will often have values in the range of 70-90 ml/kg/min, which is more than double that of a sedentary person.

For a cyclist to produce the force needed to turn the pedals and move the bicycle requires energy. In cycling events the muscles which make use of oxygen are responsible for producing this energy.

A cyclist with a relatively higher VO2 max will be able to produce more energy/power and consequently travel faster than a cyclist with a lower VO2 Max.

The VO2 Max figure is made up of different physiological variables.

These include:

    • your respiratory system’s efficiency at up taking oxygen for transfer to your blood system;
    • your heart’s volume of blood pumped out during each beat;
    • the amount of blood haemoglobin;
    • delivery efficiency of blood to your muscles;
    • your muscles ability to remove and uptake oxygen from the blood received.

As you can see a high VO2 Max is a necessity for a champion cyclist but there are also other important factors. You cannot predict cycling results simply on the result of a laboratory conducted maximal oxygen uptake test.

Lactate Threshold

A bike rider does not ride a race at the top level of their VO2 Max during a race.

In fact during long bike races often they will ride at a much lower VO2 Max. Some cyclists can however perform at a high level of their VO2 Max because they can ride at a higher lactate threshold.

cycling fitnessWhilst cycling most of the energy production is created through the use of oxygen. However when the pace increases your body will start producing energy without using oxygen (anaerobically).

A by product of this process is the build up of lactate in your blood, which makes your leg muscles burn.

If a bike rider has a lactate threshold of 70% of their VO2 Max then below this level much of their energy production is aerobic and there will be less lactate production.

Above 70% they will start increasing blood lactate significantly and the pace will be increasingly difficult to maintain.

In elite cyclists the lactate threshold (LT) occurs at a much higher percentage of VO2 Max than in your average club cyclist. With a higher LT a higher VO2 Max can be utilized for a longer period of time during a bike race.

Cycling training programs can help the bike rider improve their LT. A higher lactate threshold improvement can make up for a somewhat lower VO2 Max.

If your competitor has a VO2max of 70 mL/kg/min, but their lactate threshold is 60% (42 mL/kg/min.) and you have a VO2max of 60 mL/kg/min, with a lactate threshold at 90% or 54 mL/kg/min. Then all other factors aside you will be able to perform at a higher intensity/go faster for longer.

However another important part of the cycling physiology equation after VO2 Max and lactate threshold is your body’s economy and efficiency of energy use.

Cycling Physiology – Economy and Efficiency

There are a large number of factors which determine cycling economy and efficiency but they are all based upon the oxygen requirement of the rider to obtain a particular speed.

Your bike training wants to work on improving your VO2 Max, increasing your lactate threshold and also importantly working on your cycling economy.

Your cycling efficiency can be improved through correct bike fitting, improved pedaling technique. There are also considerations to be made with regards to event equipment choice, drafting, aerodynamics and position in the bunch as well as race tactics.

Cycling Physiology Performance

Cycling performance is a blend of multiple factors physiological, tactical and mechanical. There not one simple route to take to get the best from your body.

However relatively untrained cyclists will obtain vast improvements in their V02 max, LT and cycling economy with correct training (especially not always training at one steady speed), bike fit and tactical advice.

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