Beyond Power: Unleashing Torque for Cyclists – A Comprehensive Guide to Enhance Pedal Efficiency

Beyond Power: Unleashing Torque for Cyclists – A Comprehensive Guide to Enhance Pedal Efficiency

Pretty much every, moderately serious cyclist now uses a powermeter to guide their training. Most will have a direct-drive indoor trainer at home and an ever-growing number have on-bike meters as well. Power numbers are discussed and speculated about at coffee shops and bike stores but we have progressed from the early days where big power numbers alone were marvelled at. We now understand that power output is specific to a rider and very importantly, linked to how much we weigh.

We know the significant markers of ‘Functional Threshold Power’ (maximum sustainable power for an hour) and ‘Five Minute Power’ (explosive power). Some may even brag about their impressive one minute (sprint Power). We understand that there are different thresholds and our achievable numbers in these categories determine what type of cyclist we are. What our strengths and weaknesses are. Knowing these will help us to plan race strategies as well as how to train efficiently in order to maximise our strengths and minimise our weaknesses.

Just when we have gotten to grips with power measurement in cycling, now the boffins start talking about torque. In physics and mechanics, torque is defined as the rotational equivalent of a linear force. In cycling, that corresponds to the rotational force that is applied to the pedals during each pedal stroke. Our power is calculated by our meters by measuring torque and cadence. So the amount of pressure we are applying to the pedals and how fast they are going around. So, to increase power we either have to apply more pressure at the same cadence or, apply the same pressure at a higher cadence.

Just like our power to weight ratio where we worked to improve that by increasing the amount of power that we were capable of producing while also working on lowering our body weight, we should also work on both sides of the power equation – increasing the amount of torque we can sustainably produce as well as our pedalling efficiency in order to hold higher cadences or our improved torque levels at the our usual, comfortable cadence.

How do we improve our torque – Low cadence intervals. These can be performed outdoors on hills but the controlled environment that the indoor trainer provides is far more efficient. We are able to control the gradient without variation and exactly determine interval and recovery period length. The secret is not to go too extreme. If we are a relatively fast, efficient pedaller, holding 90-100rpm in most races and fast training rides and climbing at 80-90rpm, our first intervals should be aimed somewhere between 60-70rpm. Although the power number is not the absolute goal of these sessions, we should probably be looking at mid to high Zone 3 power for the intervals. Start short and match the recovery time with the interval. We also don’t want to do too many because high torque muscle contractions will fatigue the muscle quickly and we will lose efficiency faster than intervals at our comfortable cadences.

Efficiency is a key word in torque intervals and another reason why performing them on the indoor trainer is probably better for most. We want to maintain our usual, comfortable body position on the bike and avoid overdoing the upper body movement in order to roll the bigger gear around. If we find that we are labouring so much that we are having to rock and roll in the saddle to help keep the pedals turning, we should probably ease back on the gear slightly and use a higher cadence until we are comfortable to progress.

What we are looking to achieve during these torque intervals is a slight increase in functional strength. We will not come close to the absolute strength gains that we would achieve in the weight room but this strength is more specific and directly translates to pedalling our bikes. The more force that we are required to generate, the more muscle fibre is recruited to achieve it. Doing this repetitively will develop neuromuscular pathways which are basically communication channels from brain to muscle. The body is learning to recruit more muscle in order to accomplish the increased workload, something which will then carryover when we are riding at our ‘normal cadence’, resulting in higher power. Over a training period we will aim to increase the length of our intervals and also reduce the cadence of the intervals. We definitely want to do this systematically and gradually in order to avoid any injuries, especially to the knees.

Balancing these torque efforts we should also do some sets of intervals using higher than normal cadences. The neuromuscular benefits of pedalling efficiently fast are that the legs will bring in smaller muscles that are not able to contribute when the load is high. Training these muscles will increase their strength and grow their contribution at lower cadences and higher torque levels. What we hope to find is that we develop a smoother, more circular pedal stroke. Increasing how much of the pedalling circle that we are able to apply pressure to, will also increase torque and as a consequence, power. At the very least we will balance the efforts of the torque intervals and balance out our pedal stroke and efficiency.

Like everything, consistency and perseverance will garner results. These additions to our training schedules will not produce miraculous results from session to session but over an extended period of time, the results should be a higher sustainable power and a more efficient pedal stroke.

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