*UPDATE* Psychological Effects of Heart Rate Monitor Use Study

12/21/2010: Preliminary results were reported at Indoor Cycle Instructor in October 2010. Manuscript in preparation. Once published, results will be made available on this site and at ICI.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Holdin' It Down in the Saddle

When I don't write up my profiles within 24 hours of "being in the moment," I get too distracted by my life to ever post them. I'm supposed to be studying like crazy (the fam is visiting for the weekend, for my official "White Coat Ceremony" -- see also: I will get no work done whatsoever), so pardon the brevity.

This is a ride I did with my class last night, inspired by something I'm working on in my own training: heavy hill-climbing in the saddle. As many of us appreciate, it costs energy to stand (10-12% more energy, to be exact)/ Thus, in the real world, we don't do it very often. Only only only when we have to: for extra leverage on a steep climb, for a quick leg stretch, etc. (As an aside, admittedly I am a HORRENDOUSLY poor outdoor rider. I'd never actually seen a real hill 'til I moved to Vermont in August. Humbling, truly. So when I climb, I never stand up EVER -- not because I'm so darned efficient. Because I fall over. Good times...).

Yet, a disproportionate amount of time during indoor cycling classes is spent out of the saddle. Wayyyyyy more time than we ever would spend outside. I'm guilty of it, too.

Why does this happen?

Is it because many instructors distrust the attention spans of their riders?
Do they design their profiles to spend most time out of the saddle because they think their classes can't handle anything but? Is there a justification that as long as they're not presenting 45 minute sprint-sprint-sprint "10 out of 10" balls-to-the-walls insanity, that they have to balance the attentional demands of controlled, aerobic training somehow?

Is it because instructors and riders often confuse the fact that higher heart rates out of the saddle equate with harder (groan) or otherwise "better" workouts? Do they fail to appreciate that getting more work done at the same level of intensity, logically, defines a benefit?
(For example: I can climb a hill at x resistance level at 80% MHR while standing. To climb that same hill, seated, at 80% MHR, I can likely support more resistance (say, 1.5x) -- since my heart rate will drop just by the cardiorespiratory "break" by remaining seated. If I can strengthen my legs by supporting that "1.5x" amount of resistance, at the same level of effort -- well, damn, I think that's something I might want to spend time doing sometimes. Eh?)

Is it because climbing out of the saddle on a fixed gear bike allows a rider to biomechanically "cheat," and thus he or she feels that it's easier/more comfortable? Is he or she then relying on the stability of the core (or, worse, upper body) and the extra leverage to "mash down," instead of triggering the glutes to fire with each forward extension and powerful stroke upwards?

I'm a scientist. Do I care enough about this issue to launch a well-designed research protocol? Of course not. But I do like to answer my own questions, and have a habit of effecting "unofficial" experiments and observing what happens (i.e., Q: Can I do the same profile over and over and over again 3x a week for a month, and have nobody notice? A: Yes.). And so I've done here.

What happens when you take an instructor's preconceptions and agenda out of the equation? One of my go-to stylistic devices that I write a lot about on Spintastic is what I call these "surges" -- intervals of various lengths, presented as opportunities to be met in an individually determined way: with resistance, with speed, with position, or not at all. I coach my riders to only take the "surges" that mean something to them.

When I first started doing this, I noticed a few unsurprising correlations. When I stood up on a "surge," they stood up. When I remained seating, some still stood up -- but a LOT of riders did not. So I just stopped riding. "Surge time" = I get off the bike and start workin' the crowd. I remind them of the parameters of their options, encourage them to make choices consistent with their goals and values. And you know what? A lot more of them stay seated. When reminded to make choices about working at intensity levels that "mean something" (i.e., fat-burning), people often choose differently in response to that cue.

So that's the instructor bit. If you can educate people that control over their heart rate, supreme, ranks among their top priorities, FANTASTIC. "Givin' 'em what they want" is a factor of TEACHING them what they *should* want. I heard Spinning MI Raquel Schmidt brilliantly articulate this at WSSC last year: coaching is the art of getting people to do things they don't want to do, and then evolving to want them."

But what about the other hypotheses? "I'm clearly not working hard enough in the saddle. My heart rate isn't as high." Or, "I can't, biomechanically, find a way to be comfortable in the saddle and still support this kind of resistance."

I found myself wondering whether, if one could refute those two arguments for people, COULD you make them WANT to stay seated when they absolutely did not want to?

Behold, my profile designed to do just that:

Strength Ride: 75-85% MHR
4 block "loop ride." Each block has two loops: a 75 --> 80% hill, and a 75% --> 80% --> 85% hill
Premise: An inversion of norms. You think that the "hardest" work is out of the saddle. Turns out, not true. We're going to reap the benefits of seated climbs today -- blastin' out those glutes and hips, strengthening and sculpting those muscles in the back of the leg by paying attention to our pedal stroke. Our hardest efforts, we'll try our darnedest to support while seated. But stand, we will -- to recover.

Warmup & "Experimental Phase"
Seated flat --> progressive loadings to seated climb: 65% MHR --> 70% --> 75% --> run 75%
Focus on pedal stroke mechanics, adjustments to upper body carriage, hip alignment, pelvic tilt. Upon transitioning to the run, pay attention to what happens to your heart rate. Adjust resistance and breathing to modulate any changes. Observe how it DOES cost energy to stand -- prove it to yourself. As you return to the saddle, observe how your heart rate changes. If it drops, add more resistance to maintain the same level of effort.

Block 1
Seated climb: 75% --> 80%
Run to stretch out the legs at 75%
Seated climb: 75 --> 80% --> 2 mins at 85%
Focus on dropping the heel on the powerful backstroke to keep that flat foot. Slide your weight towards the back of the seat, on the widest part of the seat. Breathe an extra bit of calmness into the upper body, to liberate your legs to do all the work. Direct your awareness to anyplace where you might be wasting energy -- tension in your shoulders, your hands, your jaw.

Block 2 & Block 3
Run to stretch out the legs at 75%
Seated climb: 75% --> 80%
Run to stretch out the legs at 75%
Seated climb: 75 --> 80% --> 2 mins at 85%

Block 4
Now we've done this three times. We've seen that, fo' sure, it is possible to get that heart rate up in the saddle. We've seen, perhaps, that we're stronger than we think -- both mentally, in terms of our ability to focus and husband our resources on the task at hand; and physically, in terms of efficiently supporting more resistance than we expected. For this last block, you've got a choice: you can meet those heart rate parameters the way you always do... or, you can give yourself permission to challenge yourself to apply your new lessons learned.

Same pattern.
And you know what?
With the exception of one rider, every single one of them stayed seated.

Tomorrow will be interesting to see whether, in a fresh context (I'm doing an aerobic interval ride) whether they make the same choices -- whether this actually extends beyond the context of "that ride with the theme of staying seated all the time."

I'm hopeful ;-)

BY THE WAY.... attention to my NYC crew: I'm coming to town for four hours on Sunday 2/22 (ridiculous!), taking advantage of a free ride back with my family.
Teaching my old Sun 9:30AM at NYSC 41st/3rd -- hope to see you there!


Charles said...

I'm flying in later that afternoon. Too bad I couldn't make it to your class :(

I think all your reasons for instructors standing alot are true, epecially the perception that people will get bored. we have a tough job trying to change mindsets that have already been formed, some for good, others, not so much. I personally would rather sit all day but realize my audience and try to mix it up. I bet 80% of my classes are in the saddle. Thanks for posting.

Kala Marie said...

I agree with Charles. I, too, worry that people get bored. Although, I have been encouraging them to stay in the saddle more and more. I'm really starting to hit hard with some endurance rides, so they better like being in the saddle!

I also noticed that when I tell students you can bring it up or stay seated, a lot of them follow what I do.. or even if I say "do 10 jumps at your own pace" they will often pick the same pace that I choose. Interesting. I should get off to walk the floor like you did and see what happens then!!

Great post as always!!

Melissa Marotta said...

Sorry for the delayed response to both of your super-thoughtful replies! I've been entertaining visiting family and getting stranded in snowstorms. Good times...

Both legit rider boredom and our perceptions of boredom are a big deal. The way I deal with this, personally, is to address my liabilities before they do -- like on a job interview. "I know you're bored. You're probably thinking x or y or z." --> their ears perk up, because they're totally thinking x, y, and z and you buy street cred by anticipating their thoughts -- you're "so" in tune with their inner psyche, as they see it --> they start listening; they're actually hyperprimed to absorb whatever the hell you say --> you make it count. That's where you say something AWESOME about the merits of lower-intensity aerobic endurance training, toss in a few empowering constructs like the "fat-burning machine" and tricks for reminding themselves why they're enduring the mental challenge at hand.

Charles, I am super-impressed at that 80% mark. I'm definitely not there! SUPER-impressed.

Kala, have you tried this "get off the bike during jumps" experiment yet? I didn't write about this on that post - but that was actually the first experiment I ever did. I'd had surgery and couldn't ride, so was coaching off the bike. I'd been teaching for maybe 4 months at that point - I was SO anxious about coaching off the bike, yet decided to coach some jumps of ALL things to do off the bike. It was a mess, then. I assumed that since I always said "You can jump at my pace, or at your own," that it would be the same thing if I wasn't on the bike. Not so! Over time, I found that the trick to entirely own-pace jumps (as in, not even the option of jumping at your pace... since you're not doing it) was to give 'em a rhythm that made sense. Sometimes I use my arm to "lift" and "lower" to get across the desired smoothness of the movement. Can't wait to hear about how it goes when you attempt your own experiment!

Oregon Yankee said...

Just found your site and this post. Thanks. I am nearly 65, an avid "roadie" and have been coaching spin classes for 3 years. I basically agree with your comments but would like to add a couple of thoughts.

First, posture braaks are good - esp if you're coaching a "power" class. I need to get out of the saddle every few minutes to relieve the strain on my back. I've also noticed that the more experienced road cyclists will come out of the saddle without prompting by me. I think we realize that such breaks help both the back and change the mechanics.

Second, I do two power drills built around two climbs I've done in France - Mt Ventoux and l'Alpe d'Huez. Pure climbing with steep ramps. With the resistance required to "emulate" the gradients of these ramps and switchbacks on these climbs, it is impossible to remain in the saddle. And that effort - pushing up a simulated 12% gradient, for example - with the bulk of the class at a similated 7% - 8% makes for a lot of satisfied class members.

I look forward to spending more time at your site!

Melissa Marotta said...

Wish I knew your name... feel too awkward to actually call you "Yankee!" But thanks for taking the time to write this very thoughtful response. I completely agree with you, and apologize for implying that I was OPPOSED to standing on a bike! Of course not; we *have* to, for all the reasons you described. What I should have done a clearer job of articulating is that I, for one, am constantly working at improving how I educate my non-roadies about a) standing for the RIGHT reasons (instead of the mythological ones about "getting a better workout" -- whatever that means), and b) because of those reasons, the requisite changes in resistance-loading, biomechanics, and breathing. Wish I said it like that the first time around -- thanks for prompting me to clarify!