Tuesday, August 28, 2012

A season of adaption coming to an end and the results speak for themselves….

A season of adaption coming to an end and the results speak for themselves….

My season is quickly coming to a close and after 4+ months of intermittent (2 to 4 days a week) PowerCrank usage I can say without a doubt they have (1) improved my power and comfort on the bike and (2) helped spur a fit revolution for me that will pay benefits through the off and into next season.   I am also excited about transitioning to the offseason, because I will be using my PowerCranks for near “exclusive” use from September through January and will be continuing to post updates and wattage reports.  I feel pretty confident in saying that I will see continued benefit in power, cadence, and comfort by virtue of “exclusive” rather than intermittent use, and can’t wait to see if I can blow away PRs in 2013 beginning with the Jack Frost TT in February.

Improvements in power and comfort:

I went into this in-season PowerCrank trial with the hopes of improving my power on the bike, especially as I focused on a few big events (e.g. Cascade Cycling Classic and the Alpenrose Velodrome Challenge).  While my luck in the races left a lot to be desired – I crashed or had a mechanical issue in pretty much all of my major races this year – I did experience some pretty significant in-season power improvements and am happy to report that while the adaption to PowerCranks took some time it was a valuable investment.

The following table highlights the power improvements I saw during the PowerCrank trial:

Wattage Before
Wattage After
30 sec
1 min
2 min
5 min
10 min
20 min
30 min
60 min

Key call-outs:

  • My major improvements were in the 10 to 20 minute range, which probably highlights the near-term benefits from intermittent usage.
  • I think that leveraging the PowerCranks during the offseason will help in my sub-5 minute power as well as my endurance above and beyond 30 minutes.

The following highlights the comfort improvements I saw during the PowerCrank trial:

  • My pedal stroke has smoothed out and I no longer have as pronounced of a “hitch” at the top of my left pedal stroke.  As a result I have become more comfortable over longer distances and have been able to increase my cadence (particularly on the track) without “bouncing” around.
  • I have less tightness and soreness in my hips and gluts and have developed additional strength in my quads.  I spend less time having to “loosen” up my hips before and after races and I am more comfortable in car rides home.

Fit insights and revolution:

I feel it is honest to say that I went into the PowerCrank trial with little to no expectation of changing my fit dramatically, or beginning to identify ways that I could alter my saddle height and/or setup to provide better comfort, smoothness, and ultimately power on the bike.  Luckily for me, I did, and even if I hadn’t experienced the power gains I’ve seen the fit insights alone would have been more than a success!

In my previous post I talked about the changes I’ve been making to my fit based on the insights from PowerCrank riding and a few folks have asked “how did you know you needed to make changes?”  The simple answer is I didn’t really know at first, but as I began to become more familiar with riding PowerCranks I began to be able to discern between “things that felt odd, because I was pedaling independently” and “things that felt odd, because something was off in my fit.”  After I had transitioned out of my initial adaption period I began to notice that my left side felt “compressed” and didn’t fully engage throughout the pedal stroke. 

Think of the sensation you experience as you walk up a flight of stairs.  Your legs are “disconnected” and acting independently as you coordinate the lifting of your body from one step to the next.  As you walk up the stairs you can discern differences in the way each leg reacts under load and while moving, and you can quickly identify if the differences are due to tightness, extension, or injury.  If we use walking up stairs as an analogy for my observations, I noticed that (1) I was walking up the stairs is a semi-squat (knees always bent), (2) that my left leg was “squattier” than my right and didn’t fully extend before I began on the next step, and (3) since I was in a semi-squat position it took a lot of energy to pull my leg up to step up on the next step.

PowerCrank riding provides you a similar sensation while on the bike (i.e. independent motion with the requirement of coordination) and provides you a platform for analysis if you are willing to (1) listen to you body and (2) try out different adjustments.

My immediate response was one of my old 1mm adjustments, but by sheer dumb luck I decided to throw caution to the wind and moved my saddle up by 10mm instead.  The “jolt” of adjustment did both my mind and body well and helped free me from my micro adjustment habits and allowed me to look at changing my fit with an open mind.  I have often wondered why my previous fit experiences didn’t throw caution to the wind in order to evaluate “bigger” changes and I think that is due to two facts.  One, we often talk ourselves out of change, because the steady state is known while change is unknown.   Two, fitters fall prey to the same thought process, especially with stubborn elite athletes, and often make minor changes rather than large adjustments.  This is all complicated by the fact that our bodies are effective “masking” agents and adapt to whatever you throw at them, which means it learns to work fairly well in compromised positions.

In the end I have made the following changes to my position and will continue to evaluate future changes during the offseason as I transition to exclusive use as well as strength building.

Saddle Height:       Up 25mm
Saddle for/aft:       Forward 2mm
Saddle Angle:         Down 2 degrees
Results:                     My legs extend and engage more fully in my pedal stroke; I have better hip rotation; and I have reduced impingement on my psoas for lifting up my leg over the top of my pedal stroke. 

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

What I'm beginning to understand...I was pretty messed up!

To begin with, I want to thank everyone who has reached out to be outside of this blog to ask questions and provide me support for my PowerCrank'ing experience.  I'm happy to know that folks are interested in my learnings and are considering their own application in the near future.  Please feel free to send me questions and/or post comments on this blog.  


With that said, all this week I have been racing the 6-Day at Alpenrose Velodrome and riding my PowerCranks each day to and from the track.  By the end of the week I will have 8 days straight of PowerCrank riding (total of ~12 hours of training on PowerCranks), which will be my longest continuous stretch of usage since I started this adventure a few months ago.  Also during the past week I went into Upper Echelon Fitness in Portland to have another Retul fit check and based on the feedback from the fit, matched with my observations from on and off the bike, I have begun to realize how messed up my left leg has been for the past several years.

Before we walk through my observations and how things are changing, I want to take a moment to provide you a brief overview of my fit history, pedaling challenges, and crash considerations, because I don't think that I'm unique in any way.  

Fit History:

Effectively, I have tried almost every fit process during the past 15+ years and continue to be a "micro adjuster."  It drives most of my cycling buddies crazy, because from day to day my fit will go from feeling okay, to way off, to "I've never ridden this thing before."  I've met with fit specialists, chiropractors, pediatrists, etc and have tried Wobblenaught, Specialized, and Retul fit processes.  Additionally, my left femur is 10mm shorter than my right, so I have constantly experimented with lifts, offsets, and other mechanisms to help "balance out" my legs.  

In the end my fit has, and continues at points to be, a constantly evolving view of what feels right today.  At the beginning of the season my fit and saddle height were quite low...see this photo as proof.

Pedaling Challenges:

Given some of my physical considerations, I have always struggled with the stroke of my left leg.  Effectively, my left foot/knee/leg has always ridden longer than my right side even though it is actually my shorter leg.  It's hard to explain without waving my hands in the air, but effectively my body has shifted over to the left, which causes my left side to ride as if it was "compressed."  From there my foot/knee/leg behave as if they are longer (e.g. compressed) and have a tendency to want to roll, or "push," out as if you were trying to step down and in the same process also roll your foot as well as knee out away from your body.  I've often called the sensation "cupping" because it feels like my leg is bowing out in a cup shape while pedaling.

As a result my left leg engages poorly during my pedal stroke and my quad as well as my glut fail to fully engage throughout the pedal stroke.

Crash Considerations:

As you can probably tell by now there are a number of factors that have contributed to the way I sit and pedal on the bike, which why the independent pedaling motion supported by the PowerCranks has been the most conclusive way for me to (1) identify and (2) address my lingering issues.  In addition to my Fit History and Pedaling Challenges it is also important to recognize that I have crashed very, very heavily on my left hip at least 4 times during the past several years.  In fact, one of the crashes left me unable to walk without support for several days and I continue to work on stretching out my left hip, which has some residual scar tissue.

Observations and Changes:

Frank at PowerCranks is quite right when he says you get the best results from focused PowerCrank usage, because a week of daily PowerCrank usage really highlighted the fact that my saddle height has been way, way too low for several months (if not years) and that my left leg's poor engagement was being driven my a low saddle height as well as poorly developed hip flexor strength.  I have raised my saddle by nearly 2 cm (yes, for all of those who know me I use to worry about 1mm, so 20mm represents a major fit evolution for me) and my left leg and side is finally starting to fully engage within my pedal stroke and I no-longer feel like my leg is "cupping."  Also, the additional height has allowed both of my legs to engage in a complete stroke and it has become a lot easier to bring my legs up and over the top of the pedal stroke while maintaining pressure on the pedals.

I am hoping to do a round of power testing shortly and I will post results.  I will also look at doing a before and after fit comparison for those of you who are interested.  As always, thank you for reading and please let me know if you have any questions.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Plan for the next few weeks...more PowerCrank focus

Well, we're getting down into the final thrust before Cascade and the speeder (crit and track) portion of the season kicks up.  I'm really hoping my PowerCranks (PC) will help provide me an advantage, so here is my plan for the next few weeks:

  • Monday (6/18) - Resting
  • Tuesday - Racing PIR
  • Wednesday - PC ride
  • Thursday - PC ride + Track racing
  • Friday - Resting
  • Saturday - Pacific Crest Tri (as team)
  • Sunday - PC ride
  • Monday (6/25) through Saturday (6/30) - PC ride + Alpenrose 6 day racing
In all that should provide me with more than twice as many PC rides per week as I've been having the past few months.  Should be fun!

A major race, a run of bad luck, and some continued improvement

I went in to the Mt. Hood Cycling Classic with high hopes based on the training and racing I've been doing, as well as the recent wattage gains I've seen based on my relatively limited PowerCrank training.  During the weeks leading up to Mt. Hood I had primarily been seeing sub-5 minute power improvements and I was hoping that would help me during the first stage as well as the crit.  Here is how it played out:

Stage 1 - The road race started out fast from the gun and I nearly set a 5 min power record on the first climb and unfortunately got a flat shortly after the start of the 2nd lap and never caught back on after getting a neutral SRAM wheel.  Luckily for me one of my teammates was in a chase group and we finished the stage together.  If he hadn't I'm not sure if I would have made it.

Stage 2 - Scary is how I would describe the Stage 2 Time Trial, which was highlighted by 30+ mph side gusts throughout the 18+ mile course.  I love Time Trials, but I don't love wind like that and I was off the road twice and am lucky I didn't go down.  Still, I was surprised by the fact that I set a 40 min power record (~340 watts), because up to that point I hadn't been seeing larger improvements in my longer power efforts.

Stage 3 - The downtown Hood River crit is always an experience and culminates in a downhill hairpin corner that always claims a few riders each year.  The race was fast, sketchy at points, and everything a typical Pro 1/2 crit is.  During the race I noticed less fatigue than I normally have with those types of efforts and I could really feel my legs "pushing over the top" during seated accelerations, which is something relatively new and I would associated with my PowerCrank training.  During the crit I set a 50 min power record, which meant I had two longer power records within one day.

Stage 4 - The final stage of Mt. Hood is beast of a stage capped by 4 hard climbs, a bunch of hairy descents, and only a few moments to catch your breath.  I've rarely had good days during Stage 4 and this year I went into the stage feeling better and fresher than normal, but was caught behind/in a small crash during the 1st KOM climb (about 4k out) and was never able to catch back on.  Dang, both road stages affected by bad luck...that's stage racing for you.

Summary - Bad luck sucks at Stage Races, but I'm starting to see power gains beyond 10 minutes.  Hopefully that will continue to improve as I get more targeted PowerCrank training time during the next 5 weeks leading up to Cascade.

Shorter can be better...who knew?

When I first received my "Entry" level PowerCranks in the mail I couldn't help but wonder why someone would ever want to use a 90mm crank.  It just seemed odd.  Can you even pedal 90mm cranks?  I come from a generation of cyclists who grew up watching and then mimicking riders like Jan Ullrich and Miguel Indurain, who were famous for using long cranks to crush their competition.  In fact, Jan use to ride 177.5 cranks on the road and then would TT using 180 or 182.5 cranks!

As a byproduct I have spent a majority of the past 15 years riding, racing, and training on longer-than-average cranks and have often road 177.5 cranks for TT'ing.  So, when I first installed my PowerCranks I ran through the length options (170, 150, 130, 110, and 90) and immediately selected the 170mm length as my starting point, because it felt like the familiar and easier thing to do.  I should note that I tend to be a stubborn person (just ask my wife) and while I had read Frank's posting on "The Importance of Experimenting with Crank Length" I hadn't really taken it fully to heart.

From there I spent my first ~6 weeks riding 170mm cranks never thinking about whether or not it would be easier or better to try something shorter.  As is normal for me, I just "pushed" through the adaption experience and continued to do my best to develop the strength and coordination that would allow me to pedal consistently for more than a few minutes at a time before I needed a mini-break to allow my hip flexors to recover.  Luckily for me I was able to trade a few emails with Frank and he encouraged me to try out a shorter length (150 or 130). 

With my biggest races of the year coming up rather quickly, and with my existing training and racing calendar limiting my PowerCrank time, I was more than willing to try anything that would help accelerate my adaption and muscle development.  On the eve of the Mt. Hood, for the first time in my life, and with a bit of skepticism, I moved down to 150mm for my tune-up ride.  The difference?  A night-and-day transition in the way I was able to consistently ride my PowerCranks.  Immediately I was able to control my pedal stroke and left/right coordination better, and I was able to ride for 20 to 30 minutes continuously without a break for muscle or brain-power recovery.  Plus, I was able to climb out of the saddle without an issue (albeit for 10 seconds at a time)!  

I don't feel like I can put as much "leverage" on each pedal stroke, but I am able to calm my stroke greatly and already feel like I'm improving my coordination beyond the benefits I was seeing at 170mm.  More to come soon, but I'm excited by the change and will be experimenting with 130mm during the weeks to come.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Another weekend of training and racing and another PR.

For the first time in several weeks I had a Friday, Saturday, and Sunday stretch where I could mix in a heavy dosage of PowerCrank'ing without running into a race.  On Friday I managed to sneak out after work for a 90 minute ride and was pleasantly surprised by how much muscle memory I have developed during the past few weeks and that I'm able to get on my bike and "go" without spending a mile or two re-discovering how to ride/pedal.   I have noticed that my saddle height has gone down by 2 or 3mm since I started using my PowerCranks and I think it is being driven by two things:

1.  I have greatly reduced the amount of ankle flex'ing (often called "ankle'ing" by fit folks) that takes place during my pedal stroke, because I have to keep my ankle relatively fixed in order to maintain cadence, timing, and pressure throughout my pedal stroke.
2.  I have also begun to engage my glut and hamstrings more in my pedal stroke, which is probably associated with #1 a bit as well.

I should note that the saddle height reduction has only taken place on my road bike and my TT position has remained stable.

On Saturday and Sunday I was able to mix several hours of PowerCrank riding in with my hard tempo rides in preparation for the Mt Hood Cycling Classic, which is coming up in two weeks.  At the end of my longer rides my hip flexors are pretty much numb and I get to a point where it's hard to maintain any level of pedaling coordination for more than 20 or 30 seconds.  By the time Monday came around my legs were pretty tired, but in new ways and my fatigue was pretty isolated in my hip flexors, but my quads felt pretty fresh.  I did the PIR TT for the second time this season (the first prior to my initial PowerCrank experience) and I am happy to say that I dropped more than 60 seconds off my original time!  

Progress is being made with my admittedly less-than-every-day usage of PowerCranks and demonstrates that even targeted mid-season usage can begin to develop power that can help you during a season.  Or, at least that's what I'm finding so far.

You can find a photo from the TT at: http://leonardjohnson.zenfolio.com/p508225301/e3501591a

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Before and after shots

Here are a few before and after shots of my install. I was able to use my existing Campy chainrings, which preserves shifting and chain life.