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Your Guide to Cycling Economy and How to Improve It to Make Hard Rides Feel Easier

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Cycling economy is a key performance determinant, alongside more popular metrics like VO2 max and functional threshold power (FTP). Like those other metrics, improving your cycling economy requires improvements in fitness overall.

But there’s one big difference that’s great news for cyclists everywhere: You can improve your cycling economy with other strategies that are less time- and effort-intensive than long training rides or sprint sessions.

In this guide, exercise scientists and certified cycling coaches explain the concept of cycling economy in detail, along with how to measure it and how to improve it.

What is cycling economy and how does it affect performance?

To define cycling economy, we first should consider the main physiological factors that influence endurance performance, says Jason Boynton, Ph.D., sport scientist and USA Cycling-certified coach with Boynton Coaching based in Perth, Australia. Depending on who you consult, he says, there are three or four main factors:

Maximal oxygen consumption (VO2 max)Maximal metabolic steady state (a.k.a. lactate threshold or anaerobic threshold)Exercise efficiency

Durability, also called “fatigue resistance” and “physiological resilience” has recently been proposed as a fourth factor, Boynton says, that’s included in the cycling economy equation.

In simpler terms, as defined by USA Cycling-certified coach Paul Warloski, cycling economy is “the energy cost of producing a given power on the bike.”

To put that into on-the-bike terms, that means a cyclist with better cycling economy uses less energy to produce, say, 200 watts for 30 minutes than a cyclist with a lower cycling economy. And as your cycling economy improves, your body will require less physiological resources to produce the same power. Over time, pushing 200 watts for 30 minutes will start to feel easier and easier.

How is cycling economy measured?

Cycling economy is “usually quantified in the amount of oxygen consumed divided by work rate,” says Alex Rothstein, certified strength and conditioning specialist and program coordinator of exercise science at New York Institute of Technology.

It’s represented as the volume of oxygen consumed per minute at a given wattage, for example, 10 milliliters per minute per watt (10mL/min/watt), according to Rothstein.

Unfortunately, properly measuring cycling economy (or its independent variables, like VO2 max) involves testing with a metabolic cart in a laboratory, says Boynton. “This can be costly and logistically prohibitive for most amateur cyclists,” he says. “Even professional cyclists could find it difficult to track their changes in cycling economy given their busy training and racing schedules.”

As such, Boynton says it can be argued that the biggest issue with improving cycling economy for most cyclists is actually measuring it. For example, “a cyclist might improve their power output over time, but this improvement could be the result of multiple factors along with an improvement in cycling economy or without any improvement in cycling economy.”

If you have the time and funds to undergo complete metabolic testing—and to do it again and again over regular intervals—that’s the best (and only true) way to receive an accurate and full picture of your cycling economy. Most cyclists are probably better served by tracking a couple of independent variables that can be estimated fairly well using field tests.

VO2 max and FTP, for example, can be estimated using an indoor bike trainer test protocol.

However, just because it’s hard to measure, doesn’t mean you can’t work to improve it in general, as this can support your performance. And even just understanding cycling economy and the factors that play into this metric can help you become a better cyclist.

Why is cycling economy important for riders to understand?

Rothstein says that cycling economy suggests that you are efficient at using the resources you have—that means oxygen, glucose, and fat, all of which make adenosine triphosphate or ATP, the energy currency of the body.

“The more efficient you are at using energy, the more likely you will be able to compete and perform for an extended period of time and/or at a higher level of intensity without fatiguing,” he says.

According to Warloski, in practical terms, that means that “a cyclist with a better cycling economy will use less energy to maintain a given power output compared to a cyclist with a poorer cycling economy.” For example, a pro cyclist with high cycling economy may be able to push 200 watts for an hour at a low RPE of 5 or 6. For a new cyclist, pushing 200 watts for an hour may come close to an RPE of 10, or maximal effort, because of a lower cycling economy.

What factors affect cycling economy?

More than a dozen variables can affect your cycling economy at any given time, according to exercise scientists and cycling coaches.

Training Status

Highly trained muscles will naturally have a greater level of efficiency, Rothstein says, because they have greater strength, endurance, and stamina—they’re better equipped to handle the physiological challenge of cycling.

The same is true for cardiovascular fitness: A strong, well-trained cardiovascular system is more efficient at providing the working muscles with the fuel required for the work.

VO2 Max

Maximal oxygen consumption is a key player in cycling performance. It’s a direct indicator of how well your body is able to take in and utilize oxygen for energy.

The Environment

Exercising in temperatures you are not used to affects your performance. Research has shown that men who are acclimatized to cold environments exhibit better cycling economy in those environments than men who are not acclimatized.

Altitude, wind patterns, precipitation, and terrain also affect your ability to cycle more or less efficiently, thereby affecting your cycling economy for a given ride or race.

Muscle Fiber Type

A genetic predisposition to having more type I muscle fibers (the “endurance fibers”) will naturally help cycling economy, Rothstein says. This can be trained to some extent, but Boynton points out that endurance training alone won’t always improve cycling economy for individuals who are already trained, according to a meta-analysis on the topic.

Cycling Position

Seated cycling generally produces a greater cycling economy than standing on the bike. However, research shows that the difference in economy diminishes as exercise intensity increases—meaning, don’t worry much about losing cycling economy when standing up for short, intense bursts, but don’t spend the bulk of your time standing.

What’s more: Upper-body positioning enhances or diminishes aerodynamics, which also plays a role in economy.

Cadence and Pedaling Technique

It’s well-known among cyclists that cadence has a significant effects on performance. According to some research, higher cadences are ideal during high-effort sprints (around 100 to 120 rpm), while lower cadences are ideal during endurance cycling (around 70 to 90 rpm).

Similarly, biomechanics are a big part of cycling economy, Boynton says, and pedaling technique falls into that. “Smoother and effective pedaling technique” correlates with greater metabolic economy, according to one paper.

Bike Fit

A bike fit optimizes your body positioning for the bike you have, which can reduce discomfort on the bike and improve power transfer to the pedals. Both of these changes should improve your cycling economy, according to Warloski.

Gear

Wearing loose or bulky clothing, or having unnecessary gear on your bike, can reduce cycling economy by increasing wind resistance and decreasing your power-to-weight ratio. Importantly, Rothstein says this is minimal over short distances, but can “result in a dramatic difference” over the course of longer rides or races.

Fuel and Hydration Status

Nutrition and hydration are critical, Warloski says, because they ensure muscles have enough fuel to function and produce energy. Riding under-fueled or dehydrated is a surefire way to reduce cycling economy for that ride.

How do you improve cycling economy?

If you want to improve your cycling economy, you’re in luck: Almost all of the above factors are modifiable (exceptions being genetic muscle fiber type distribution and environmental factors).

Improve Your Fitness

This one is especially true if you’re a new cyclist. Training status—or current fitness—is one of the most significant determinants of cycling economy and performance.

A high percentage of type 1 (slow-twitch) muscle fibers drives a high cycling economy. Some athletes are born with a greater percentage of these muscle fibers, so they’re genetically predisposed to having a higher cycling economy. Other athletes must specifically train to increase the volume of these muscle fibers in their bodies.

A lot of slow, zone 2 endurance training helps activate a higher proportion of slow-twitch muscle fibers, Warloski says. “This ‘teaches’ your body to utilize fat as a fuel, which is more metabolically efficient than burning carbohydrates, and produces more mitochondria, which in turn will be more effective in producing energy,” he says.

At a certain point, endurance training seems to stop supporting this adaptation, says Rothstein. “Endurance training can improve cycling economy for individuals who are previously untrained. However, endurance training does not appear to improve cycling economy for individuals who are already trained,” he says.

This doesn’t mean you should stop doing low-intensity training, as there is plenty of research to support the various benefits of including zone 2 training in your plan. It just means it might not change this metric specifically.

Get a Bike Fit

A good bike fit will improve your economy, Warloski says, noting that “being in a good body position that’s aerodynamic and comfortable minimizes energy loss.” A proper fit on the bike is also essential for optimizing your biomechanics, which will improve economy, too.

Nail Down Your Technique

One of the most controllable factors in your cycling economy is form, Rothstein says. “Improving the symmetry and continuous motion of your pedal stroke will enhance the amount of power you generate,” he says, “while decreasing the amount of energy spent to generate it.”

To improve technique, Rothstein recommends including form-specific training bouts in your training program. It can start with focused five- to 10-minute sessions before or after a longer ride where you perform drills to help enhance your riding form, he says.

Assess Your Gear

Another entirely controllable factor in improving cycling economy is gear, Rothstein says.

Tight-fitting clothing, for example, reduces unnecessary drag. A lightweight bike improves your total power-to-weight ratio. High-quality chains and components can reduce mechanical drag. Good cycling shoes can improve power transfer—the list goes on.

Of course, there is a cost associated with investing in good cycling gear, and the best gear can be extremely cost-prohibitive for recreational riders. Investing one piece at a time can help you make gradual improvements. And just because you don’t have all the gear doesn’t at all mean you can’t improve your cycling economy.

Become Excellent at Pacing

“Pacing can help prevent an individual from overreaching during a workout or race which will cause excessive fatigue and result in diminished form,” Rothstein says. “Practicing good pacing techniques can help prevent bad cycling economy habits from forming.”

To start dialing in your pacing strategies, it’s helpful to find your functional threshold power first. You can then use that number and percentages of it to create target power zones for different rides.

Start Strength Training

Strength training off the bike is a great opportunity to provide different kinds of stimulation to muscles, bones, and connective tissues, Rothstein says.

“As a cyclist, it is important to maintain the health of muscles and joints both on and off the bike, and off-bike resistance training is a powerful method to do this,” he says. “Off-bike resistance training provides the opportunity to improve muscle strength through greater weight stimulus. Improving muscle strength will result in one’s riding requiring a lower percentage of peak strength and this will inherently improve cycling economy.”

Plus, strength training can help cyclists avoid potential muscle imbalances between muscle groups and related range of motion limitations and overuse stress.

Rothstein stresses the importance of focusing on high-load (heavy) strength training and not endurance training when performing off-bike resistance training sessions. This is because “the endurance improvements gained from off-bike resistance training will not transfer well to cycling endurance since the rep ranges and intensities are very different.”

Numerous studies show that strength training has a positive impact on cycling economy. In fact, maximal strength training, specifically training to one-rep max, improves cycling economy and time to exhaustion at maximum aerobic capacity, according to 2010 research in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning. In 2017, research in Physiological Reports found that adding heavy strength training—defined as three sets of four to 10 reps—to endurance training improved cycling economy in female cyclists.

Amanda is a content writer and journalist with extensive experience in the health, fitness, lifestyle, and nutrition niches. She is a certified personal trainer and sports nutrition coach, as well as a triathlete and lover of strength training. Amanda’s work has appeared in several notable publications, including Health Magazine, Shape Magazine, Lonely Planet, Personal Trainer Pioneer, Garage Gym Reviews, Reader’s Digest, CNET, LIVESTRONG, Health Journal, CleanPlates, Verywell Fit, Verywell Mind, and more. 

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