Monday, August 18, 2008

Cycling has a place for every body!

I was watching the Olympics on TV this weekend, and marveled at the wide variety of athlete body-types, and how their physiologies suited them for their chosen sports. Then I read a related article on VeloNews that contained a very nice quote:

In order to be good at anything you have to make an accurate assessment of where you are at, feel good about your strengths, and recognize what the weaknesses you need to improve.
That sums things up nicely (albeit with poor grammar). Our strengths and weaknesses are determined in part by training, but also in large part by the DNA we inherited from our parents.

And this also relates to a discussion Team Bicycle Trip's coach, Mark Edwards, and I had regarding body types for cycling. We agreed that cycling is so inclusive; there's a niche for just about any body type! You don't have to be big, or small, or skinny, or muscular in order to win bike races. You don't have to have good endurance or a high VO2max. You just have to understand your strengths and weaknesses and work with them so that you race to your strengths.

We all have what sports physiologists call a "power profile," which is a fancy way of describing how some people are fastest in very short efforts, others in very long efforts, and others somewhere in between. The extremes could be represented by using runners: Sprinters have a very high, but short, power profile, while marathon runners have a lower, but much longer, power profile. Sprinters are faster than marathoners over short distances, but in longer races the marathoners will win.

Our power profiles are mostly determined by our muscle composition. Muscles are made of two primary types of fibers; slow-twitch (type 1), and fast-twitch (type 2). Sprinters have more fast-twitch, endurance athletes more slow-twitch. I've even read that the ratio of the two types of fibers can be as high as 80% of one, and 20% of the other in extreme cases. But most of us fall somewhere in between the extremes, of course. If I had to guess I'd say I'm about 60% fast-twitch, 40% slow-twitch.

I made this table that you can use to figure out where people of any given body type would fit in to various racing types. It shows what type of courses would best suit any combination of body size and power profile. Everybody fits in somewhere.

Athlete Body Size
Athlete Power TypeSmallMediumLarge
Endurance (mostly slow-twitch muscle)Long, steep climbsLong, moderate climbsFlat courses with headwinds
General (even mix of fast- and slow-twitch muscle)Medium length, steep climbsMedium length, moderate climbsFlat courses
Sprint (mostly fast-twitch muscle)Short, steep climbsShort, moderate climbsFlat sprints

OK, so now you know where you might fit into bike racing, assuming you have a good understanding of your own power profile. If you don't know your strengths and weaknesses you should test yourself. It took me many years of random events before I figured out that I'm a small sprinter. So now I'm always hunting for races that end in a sprint, but held on courses with hills that will tire out the big sprinters, but not so hilly that the small climbers tire me out!

You can take a shortcut and buy a power meter for your bicycle, or pay a lab to test you, so you can figure out what type of racing suits you best. The knowledge you gain will help you avoid the frustration of racing your weaknesses as I did for so long!

Of course, knowing what races to enter is no guarantee of success; the final results will reflect all of the other variables that affect the outcome of a race. And other athletes similar to you, who have already figured out what races suit them best, will be fighting for that same finish line!

Good luck,