For years, my FTP was stuck at 225 watts. No matter how hard I trained, I could never get it any higher. I would go out for long 2-3 hour hard rides at 85-90% FTP every weekend. I would hit the Computrainer every week and do the classic 2 x 20min at 100% FTP on five minutes recovery. Nada. In reality, my FTP was probably quite a bit higher because I suck at 20 minute all-out indoor FTP tests. But even if it was higher, the power that I could bring to these hard workouts wasn’t going up. Sure, my body was adapting and I wasn’t getting devastated by them nearly as much after each workout, but the raw power was pretty level.
Then, I read Gordo Byrn’s article on Big Gear Training and it made perfect sense to me– and after just a handful of workouts, I was about 10-15 watts up from my previous averages. As Gordo hints at, most of us can maintain a bunch more watts going up a hill than we can riding on the flat. I suppose it has something to do with pedaling dynamics and the constant resistance all the way around on the pedal stroke. Hill climbing actually translates well to overall strength, including on the flat. Ask any old timer around the bike shop and they’ll tell you how the stars of yesteryear used to ride fixed gear bikes up and down mountains in the off-season to become beasts on the flats. Gordo’s strategy involves long sustained hills (up to an hour long) in a big gear that has you pedaling at a low cadence (e.g. 50-60 rpm). I guess the idea is to replicate riding a fixed gear up a steep long hill. But physiologically, a big gear means a ton of muscle tension– and I think that’s a key attribute that’s missing when riding hard intervals on the flats.
Big gear training makes a ton of sense at the right time. You don’t want to do it all the time unless you want a quick ticket to the physical therapist for a case of patellar tendinitis (or worse). I think it makes the most sense if you’ve hit a plateau in your watts. In that case, do just a few weeks of low-cadence training together with some two-legged box jumps plyometrics. Another time when it makes sense to do this is right near the end of your winter strength building but before diving into long, hard, AT intervals (if, for instance, you are an Olympic distance triathlete for whom AT power is utterly critical). I found that the benefits I got leveled out after about 3-4 weeks. Right now, I’m in the middle of my summer season– a point where constant racing leaves me feeling a bit flat (obviously too much work at just AT) so this might also be a great time for 2-3 weeks of this along with the rest of my training.
Gordo recommends doing these on a long hill. I live in Seattle and, while there are a bunch of long hills in the Pacific Northwest, none of the 1+ hour climbs are close enough to make it less than a full day’s workout (including driving). I found that the manual mode on a Computrainer works absolutely spectacularly, however, for these workouts. Most folks probably think of Computrainers as fancy ergometers, but they also have built-in “manual” (i.e. no PC needed) courses with courses 1-9 set up as gentle to steeper grades. Flipping between courses 8-9 and riding in a high gear does a great job of simulating a long steady climb. Of course, the same thing could be done by creating a course file on the Computrainer and just using that– just make sure it’s a consistent grade. Do not, however, set it up as an ERG file, which automatically reduces resistance when you increase cadence (to keep wattage level)– you want it to be just like riding outdoors where pedaling faster is harder.
Gordo also lays out a very extensive plan for developing power using this uphill grinds. Basically, he recommends starting on the bike in any position (standing, sitting, etc) and just doing an hour-long climb at a low-cadence and really high wattage. Over the course of many weeks, you gradually shift towards a TT position and shorter climbs. Be sure to check out his article for the details. Given how my body and brain works, however, I need something considerably shorter– both in the duration of the intervals and the duration of the overall build. So I just add about 5-10% (just a rough number– you can use anything you want but I tend to shoot for the upper end) to my current FTP and shoot for that number on steady low-cadence climbs. I try to stay in the aero position as long as possible. If my fitness at doing this workout is a limiter, I’ll know soon enough– I won’t be able to even hold 10 minutes like this. So then I know to start with shorter intervals (5-6 minutes on 2 minutes recovery) and just build up to longer intervals. While Gordo basic workouts call for hour-long efforts at big watts and low cadence, I find that doing that indoors is a bit too ambitious unless you’ve got some amazing videos going.
If you’re hitting a flat spot in your FTP either chronically or during the middle of a busy race season, try adding a few low-cadence hill efforts and let me know how it goes for you.