There have been a lot of comments asking about the “force reps” workout described in my last post about Base 1 training. And since many readers receive my blog as an RSS feed they may not have seen my replies to those questions. So I’ll describe this workout in more detail here.
First of all—the name. If you’ve read one of my Training Bible books you know that I define workouts based on 6 abilities—aerobic endurance, muscular force, speed skills, muscular endurance, anaerobic endurance and muscular power. The first 3 are the “basic” abilities and are the focus of the Base period. The last 3 are “advanced” abilities and are developed in the Build period. (The only one that overlaps both periods is muscular endurance which is started at a low level in Base 2 since it is slow to develop.) All of the workouts I use fall into one of these categories.
I call them force “reps” but they could just as easily be called “intervals.” This is just semantics, but I use the word “interval” to mean a workout in which the duration of the recovery interval (the rest or “off” time) is defined very precisely. An example would be anaerobic endurance intervals done as 5 x 3 minutes with 3-minute recoveries. The recovery period is quite open-ended in force reps, as you will shortly see. Hence, “reps” instead of “intervals.”
To do a force reps workout on the bike (they may also be done for running which I’ll get to shortly), after warming up go to a hill that is short (30-50 yards/meters is long enough) and relatively steep (5-8% grade). These may also be done on flat terrain but I find a hill helps exaggerate the resistance—which is always the key to force training. In this case the resistance is gravity. It’s much like doing one-leg squats in the weight room, only it’s done on a bike.
I need to warn you before doing this workout that there is a fair amount of risk associated with it. On the bike you will be putting a great deal of stress on the knees. If you are prone to knee injuries this workout is probably best avoided. For runners the areas of concern are the lower legs and feet. For swimmers it’s the shoulder. As with most all high-risk workouts there is also a potential high reward. I’ve written here about this risk-reward element of training before.
I have riders do 1 to 3 sets of 3 reps each. That means a total of 3 to 9 reps within a workout. On the bike it is best done with a power meter so you can measure the result (power) of the “force” being generated on each rep. You can do this workout even if you don’t have a power meter (shame on you!) but you just can’t measure progress quite as precisely. A heart rate monitor is of no use here. Each rep is done as follows.
BIKE FORCE REPS
1. Select a high gear such as 53×14. This should be high enough that your highest cadence on each rep is lower than 50 rpm. The steepness of the hill will also play a role in gear selection. The first time you do this workout experiment with gearing.
2. Coast to the base of the hill so that speed is less than 10 mph (16 kph) at the start.
3. As you start up the hill, stay seated, drive the pedals down at a maximal effort for 6 revolutions. A rev is one complete pedal stroke, so, for example, just count your right foot driving the pedal down 6 times. (I once had an athlete interpret this as meaning pedal with one leg only. That’s not the case. You will pedal with both legs but you’re counting only one of them.) I’d recommend that you trade off the leg you count on subsequent reps as you will more than likely push harder with the “counted” leg.
4. After a rep, recover by pedaling easily for at least 3 to 5 minutes allowing your legs to recover. Some overly aggressive riders will try to make the recoveries a high effort thinking this will improve their fitness. It won’t. You can’t make a tired muscle stronger. The purpose of this workout is to increase muscular strength. You must allow the muscle to recover before doing the next rep.
5. Repeat steps 1 to 4 two more times for a total of 3 reps. That makes 1 set. If doing a second set (I’d recommend doing only 1 the first time you try this workout) pedal easily for 5 to 10 minutes to ensure full recovery. Be very aware of your knees on each rep. At the first sign of any tenderness stop the workout. Do not continue even if the tenderness is only slight. No amount of fitness is worth an injury.
Each set, with recoveries, will take 15 to 20 minutes. So 3 sets with a warm-up and cool down makes for at least one hour and as much as 90 minutes.
It’s advisable to do an easy workout the following day. While doing the workout it may not seem all that challenging. It often shows up the next day in very tired leg muscles.
RUN FORCE REPS
These are done the same as the bike force reps only, obviously, without gearing. You will need a steeper hill since you can’t shift to a high gear to increase resistance. And the hill can be quite short—less than 10-15 yards/meters. I like to have runners do these on a grassy hill as the softer surface somewhat reduces leg stress.
Count one leg striking the ground 6 times. Use your arms vigorously while maintaining good form. Do not bend over at the waist. Head up. Back straight. Walk back down the hill and then walk and jog slowly for 2 to 3 minutes before doing the next rep.
This workout is even riskier for runners than for cyclists due to the extreme stress placed on all of the muscles and tendons that drive and stabilize the ankle, so be very cautious. The first time you do this workout hold back on each rep—perhaps 80% effort—to see how your body reacts. At the first sign of tenderness stop the workout.
The recovery can be somewhat shorter than on the bike (2-3 minutes between reps and 3-5 minutes between sets) with most of it being walking. Otherwise, the workout is done just as described above for the bike.
Whether doing bike or run force reps do this workout only one time per week for each sport. Within 6 weeks you should be aware of feeling much stronger during this session. If you have a power meter on your bike you’ll be able to precisely measure the improvement as a max power increase. For running, if using the same hill and start point for each session, you should go farther up the hill in 6 revs indicating that you are getting stronger. This latter measurement method for gauging run progress also works on the bike if you don’t have a power meter.
By the end of Base 3, if you started in Base 2, you should have accomplished nearly all of the benefits of this session so it’s time to cut back. From this point on do only 1 set once every 1 or 2 weeks to maintain your strength gains. This can easily be built into other workouts. It’s best to do force reps early in a workout just after the warm-up.
I’m going to say this one more time: If you are susceptible to knee (bike) or lower leg and/or foot injuries (running) do not do this workout. Otherwise, you are very likely to end up injured. Even if you don’t have a history of such injuries, if you feel something that you might describe as being “uncomfortable” or “strange,” stop the workout. Do not train through it. If you are new to the sport do not do this workout. It is for advanced athletes only. If you are tired or sore from a previous workout, do not do this workout. Do it only when fresh and well-rested. In other words, treat this workout with great respect. It’s risky.