Listener Question - on big gear training and VLamax

We received a listener question from Cameron C. on big gear work as it relates to VLamax. Here it goes:

As I understand it, the goal is to recruit IIa muscle fibers at a low enough intensity level such that they are converting over to type I muscle fibers. One way to do this is to use big gear / low cadence at around “tempo”; this starts recruiting more FT fibers while keeping lactate low, which is imperative for not pushing these FT fibers the “wrong way” if lowering VLamax is your goal.”

Ultimately, the question is, “How can we, from a physiological point of view, make these sessions more potent for lowering VLamax?”

From what I’ve read, big gear work produces two effects:

  1. It has a strengthening/hypertrophy effect on slow twitch muscle fibers. Dr. Ronnestad did a few studies showing that slow twitch muscle fibers become stronger and can produce increasingly more power before type II fibers are recruited. I think you’re right that it has similar effects on IIa fibers. Pedaling at high cadence/low torque recruits fewer fibers and so likely doesn’t have the same effect and as placing a larger torque on the muscles.
  2. The other, and arguably greater benefit of big gear work is to improve the pedal stroke and therefore overall efficiency

The ultimate result of these two benefits is the ability to produce much higher power levels still relying on oxygen consuming/net lactate consuming fibers.

The other key thing to remember is a pretty accepted principle that all work causes a conversion from fast twitch to slow twitch. Just look at body builders. They do what’s considered to be almost exclusively anaerobic work, yet they develop huge veins. Much of that hypertrophy is actually in slow twitch fibers. And they do have a conversion of fast to slow. When you look at World’s Strongest Men contest, very few of them are well defined with a lot of veins. They do work that continues to promote IIx fibers. I think Sebastian’s VLamax protocols follow similar principles (though far less extreme.) High torque work on the bike is similar to the sort of protocol body-builders use – moderate weight with lots of REPs. Sprinters, to increase their VLamax, employ an approach similar to strength athletes – very high end low-REP work with lots of rest.

Influencing lactate production and particularly clearing has a big impact. We maximize our ability to clear lactate around 95% of threshold. I think that’s another reason big gear work is so beneficial. We tend to do it just sub-threshold where we’re maximizing lactate clearance and at the same time, with low cadence work, increasing torque and fiber recruitment.

My thoughts on ways of improving the intervals work:

  • Certainly using pure O2 has been proven to be beneficial if you have the option
  • Since we’re trying to train lactate clearance, I think anything that promotes dehydration would be counterproductive. That will decrease blood volume which will force the body to decrease blood flow to lactate-consuming tissues
  • Keeping the muscles warm would be critical. Part of the benefit is improving the firing patterns and cold muscles don’t fire as well.
  • Beyond that I think it’s mostly about finding that perfect intensity/cadence combination to maximize lactate clearance and type I/IIa recruitment

Hope that helps!
Coach Trevor

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To Trevor’s point of maximizing our ability to clear lactate at around 95% of threshold, I’ve found the same to hold true for one of my favorite workouts. In the spring, I’ll go out on big rides around Boulder with the goal of climbing as many canyons as possible while using cadence to control the effort.

On moderate grades, I’ll ride at 60-80 rpm as necessary to modulate HR to be just below threshold, very sustainable for repeated climbs. On steeper grades, I’ll get out of the saddle and ride a similarly low, or lower, cadence to keep the effort in check.

A few rides like this and I come out of it feeling ready for the season and am able to ride longer with less effort and improve sustainability dramatically.

Coach Ryan

Hello, question for @ryan and @trevor about big gear training. I have been reviewing the Cycling Interval Training Pathway and had some questions about the Put It in the Big Gear Fast Talk podcast episode.

I am certainly a big gear fan and believe it’s critical for mountain bike races, to improve sustainable power at threshold and above, for neuromuscular recruitment/coordination, and as a sneaky way of reaping the benefits of threshold and suprathreshold efforts at a subthreshold pace, ie- SST efforts in a big gear that will also lower your VLaMax and increase FTP. My questions are:

  1. When in the season is this most appropriate considering that this work does cause muscular fatigue and so maybe too close to races is not a good idea and considering the residual training effects of muscular/strength endurance to be 15 days (per Dr Issurin) perhaps not ideal too far away from target races.
  2. How long does this adaptation take to develop? How much work does it take to maintain?
  3. Where to insert it when you are doing 2 HIT workouts/week and the rest is LSS/LSD?
  4. Heard interesting take by Bjorn Kafka on a podcast where he said the best way to maximize is to look at what torque you produce at your Max Aerobic Power and then you can calculate what RPM you should aim for when working in your sweet spot range so in my case it would be 250-260W with an RPM of 50. Supposedly this would approximate the amount of torque I would produce at VO2 Max.


If you want to reduce VLAmax, don’t smash a bunch of carbs right before your workout. I like to do big gear work first thing without eating, but will eat during sessions that have over 45 min of it.

Early in the season is a great time to do these, and I tend to include them at this time to help build that endurance and resilience. In episode 125 as the reference point, Jim Miller says November-January as a general time frame when he does it, and that aligns well with the training calendar most of us go through as cyclists. The training is a good component of your foundation and base, so by the time you get into threshold training and eventually into your race blocks, Jim’s suggestion of spinning up at the end of an interval is one way to continue that torque focus without having to worry about too much muscular fatigue. As a MTB athlete, when I’m doing more training on the trails as races get closer, I find that there is plenty of torque training that comes organically on rides. Same for road cyclists - your group rides will present opportunities for that as well.

In my experience, I would expect changes to take place after a couple weeks. If we’re doing a larger block early in the season, you might continue overloading for 2-3 blocks as in Jim’s example timeline above. Dr. Issurin’s research suggests that generally the longer the duration training leads to longer residuals. So if you do a quick 4 week block with 6-8 sessions and then stop, those would likely decline fairly quickly. Whereas in Jim’s example of 4 months above, I would expect those residuals to last much longer, where you might only need to touch on them 1 or 2 times a week, relatively briefly, to maintain them as you travel through a race block.

My question would be, what kind of HIT workouts are you doing in those 2 sessions per week? Do they already contain some degree of torque focus (e.g., hard start or hard finish intervals)? You might not need anything else in some training blocks, assuming you’re maintaining those residuals with your current interval sessions. You can also include them, briefly, in your LSD rides. For example, the long ride where you throw in some 30/30s near the end - you might only end up with 8-10 minutes of work, but it’s a way to maintain those torque benefits you’ve gained.

@josemd, this is a nice summary paper on big gear training with a suggestion that 2 weeks could generally be considered relatively short while 4 weeks could be considered sufficient for initial neuromuscular adaptations. Twelve weeks could be considered appropriate for initial musculoskeletal adaptations. So to your question on how long the adaptation takes to develop, hopefully this helps inform that a bit.

Thanks for your reply @ryan, that’s great information. I suppose if it’s Nov/Dec, the “HIT” workout would be a muscular endurance focused session. Then, in Jan/Feb the HIT sessions would be threshold focus. You bring up an interesting point relating to the hard start or hard finish. Does that necessarily need to be in a big gear or are you basically accelerating from your self-selected cadence? So your at a cadence of 90 and then accelerating to 110-115, for example. Will a high cadence “spin up” (hard start/finish) (20-30 sec sprint/AC effort) as opposed to shifting into a big gear and grinding it out at 50-60 RPM provide the same stimulus to the muscle? Thanks!

Yes, you can get that neuromuscular work accomplished either way. I read a paper not too long ago looking at motor unit recruitment and you had increased recruitment with both higher cadence and higher torque (with the other held constant), although it seemed that you had greater recruitment overall with the higher cadence approach. So if I’m doing, say 4x4 supra-threshold work, I’m likely already in a big gear and will be spinning up with that already large gear from a self-selected cadence to something higher - maybe 20-30+ rpm or higher on those. Early in the season, I’m partial to lower cadence work as that seems to fit well with the overall training and helps to work on technique in addition to stimulating the muscles.

Got it; thanks again @ryan!