Workout of the Week: Slow Frequency Bike Reps

Build bike-specific strength—and improve your pedaling technique—with this big-gear workout.

female cyclist riding bike
Photo: Shutterstock

This week’s Workout of the Week comes from Julie Young, cycling coach and co-host of our new podcast series, Fast Talk Femmes.

This workout, which I call Slow Frequency Reps (SFRs), is one of my favorites—it’s basically your gym workout on the bike. Endurance is a game of efficiency—and SFRs improve the ability to recruit the right muscle at the right time around the pedal stroke, ultimately improving specific cycling strength, pedaling technique, and neuromuscular recruitment.

The warm-up includes some single-leg pedaling drills, which I like to include as they provide feedback on your pedal stroke left to right, as well as within each pedal stroke in terms of motor control and fatigue. You can then take this feedback into the main set as areas of focus to improve in your pedal stroke.

Some tips on technique

During the main set, I encourage athletes to focus on an efficient pedal stroke, of early initiation at the top (push) and bottom of the stroke (training the relatively weak hamstring to scrape across bottom of the stroke) to reduce dead spots, and complete the circle by actively unloading the pedal on the up stroke. I like to think of pedal stroke as more oval than circular, to reduce the dead spot at the top and bottom by applying more consistent pressure to the pedals. Remember that the “push” part of the pedal stroke is easy for us humans, that is what we do all day long when we walk, but it is the other parts of the pedal stroke that demand more training.

It is valuable to remind yourself of the role of the ankle—this joint does not produce power but directs and transfers the power produced above onto the circular pedal stroke. While the ankle articulates to get this force into the pedal, avoid unnecessary, extraneous movement through the ankle and maintain a more stable (not stiff) ankle to transfer the power efficiently and effectively.

Finally, and maybe most importantly, challenge yourself to maintain your neutral pelvis and spine during this workout, to establish a stable platform (and protect your back) to drive the power from the hips into the pedal. Be quiet in your upper body and smooth in your pedaling to achieve the objective of the workout versus just wrestling the bike to turn over the heavy gear.

Getting the most from this workout

While I prefer to do SFRs on a gradual (4-5%) consistent gradient outside, in a pinch I will use the trainer. In this case, I personally prefer to use the “level” function when doing SFRs and manually operate the workout.

In order to progress this workout, you can gradually increase the main set intervals by 30-60 seconds every workout or every other workout to ultimately reach 8 x 6 minutes. Doing it overgeared is important, you’re aiming for a cadence of 40-60 RPM, but do take individual joint health into consideration, of course. I typically like to do this workout in my big ring as it keeps me honest with higher resistance. If riding outside, return down the hill to the start point to recover at a high cadence pedaling of 90-120 RPM to train the neuromuscular system to be efficient with cadence changes. If riding indoors on the trainer then do a high-cadence spin of 90 seconds to recover between reps.

We typically do this workout during transition season and early prep season in conjunction with the main phase of general strength work in the gym. Once you have established a solid foundation at 8 x 6 minutes at 76-90% of FTP then gradually start to transition the ratio of time to sub-threshold then threshold to transition the workout to being more power-focused to improve cycling specific power and threshold.

Workout of the Week: Slow Frequency Bike Reps

Warm-up

15-20 min. to include 3 x 30-60 sec. of single-leg drills (at self-selected cadence and resistance/gearing).

Note: Only pedal the amount of time that you can pedal smoothly to help develop good mechanics, once you feel a hiccup in your pedal stroke stop and change to the other leg.

Main set

8 x 3 min. @ 76-90% FTP @ 40-60 RPM

If doing this outside, do it on a 4-5% grade hill and spin at a high cadence (90-120 RPM) back downhill to recover. If doing on the trainer, do a high-cadence spin for 90 sec. to recover between reps.

10 min. on flat terrain @ 56-75% FTP @ 90-110 RPM

Cooldown

5-10 min. easy spin

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