When I lived in Ottawa I spent a a lot of my time in the saddle climbing to the top of the Champlain lookout in Gatineau Park, nearly 1000m of climbing over 20km of road with some tough vertical ascents (e.g. the infamous Pink Lake climb). Because of this I spent a lot of my riding time sitting upright with my hands on the bar tops, the standard climbing position. When I moved to London, which is predominately flat terrain, and started training for Ironman, I quickly discovered that I could not produce nearly as much power on the aero bars as I could riding on the bar tops. Even though I was far more aerodynamic, I could not produce the same speed in this position as I could riding upright into the wind.
I started doing some digging and, as it turns out, hip angle is very important to power output. This might not seem shocking to most riders as it is well known among riders that changing the hip angle alters which muscles are recruited. Typically an upright position engages the quads while getting low engages the glutes and hamstrings. Often coaches and trainers will compensate by using the gym to strengthen all three muscle groups for optimal power output from each. Developing an impeccable spin technique also aids in sharing the load on front and back. What is not widely known is the longterm effect of riding in one position on the musculature of the body. Regardless of which muscles are being recruited, changes in the musculature by riding in the same position all the time can have an effect on the efficiency of the muscles to produce power in that position.
If you ride in the same position all or most of the time, your body’s musculature will adapt to produce the most efficient power output in that position. When you change positions, all else remaining equal, you will not be able to produce the same power. These changes are so subtle that even a change of bike and/or minor adjustments in bike fit can see disruptions in power output.
What does this mean for the racer?
In order to be an effective racer and ride as efficiently as possible, a racer must determine what position they will be in during their races and do the majority of their training in that same position. You wouldn’t ride on the bar tops in a fast criterium so don’t ride on the bar tops during training. This is especially important during those long base hours spent on the road/track/trainer when riders want to position themselves as comfortably as possible for the long ride. Even though it may be tedious try to focus on riding on the hoods or drops during these rides. If you can’t spend the whole ride in this position, try doing it in intervals. Ride in race position for 10 minutes then take a 5 minute break in a more comfortable relaxed position. If you are doing a workout with intervals, try riding in race position during the work interval and a more comfortable position during the recovery intervals.
Whatever you do, don’t underestimate the importance of your position during training.
Heil D.P. & Whittlesy D.S. 1997. “The Relationship Between Preferred and Optimal Positioning During Submaximal Cycle Ergometry,” European Journal of Applied Physiology, 75: 160-165.