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Spin Faster for Greater Cycling Efficiency

All bicyclists learn that they tire earlier when they push very hard on the pedals. Spinning the pedals faster with less pressure saves energy. However, if you pedal too fast you lose coordination, which wastes energy. The key to riding a bicycle efficiently over long distances is to find out how fast you can pedal before you become uncoordinated.

A study from the University of Kentucky shows that most bicycle riders have very low efficiency at a pedal cadence of 40 revolutions per minute. Efficiency increases between 60 and 100, and decreases substantially over 120 (Journal of Biomechanics, May 2006). Muscles are made of two types of fibers: fast-twitch fibers that are primarily used for strength, and slow-twitch fibers that are used primarily for endurance. These authors showed that riders with a greater percentage of fast twitch (strength) fibers had faster optimal cadences.

Another study from Toledo, Spain shows that even experienced racers lose speed when their cadence exceeds 100 revolutions per minute (Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, May 2006). Maximal power output, a measure of how hard the cyclists pushed on their pedals, was nine percent lower at a cadence of 120 compared with 80 and 100. Lactic acid started to accumulate and cause muscle burning when the cadence exceeded 100 revolutions per minute.

That means that the more miles you ride and the faster you ride, the higher your optimal pedal cadence will be. Most inexperienced riders will ride best at a cadence of about 60; more experienced riders ride best at 80-90, and the best riders in the world start to lose efficiency at a cadence greater than 120. If you are a recreational bicycle rider, your optimal pedal cadence is the fastest you can spin without 1) becoming uncoordinated, as evidenced by bouncing up and down on your seat; 2) feeling burning in your muscles; 3) gasping for breath; or 4) becoming so exhausted that you have to slow down or stop.

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Dear Dr. Mirkin: Why do I wheeze and have trouble breathing when I exercise?

If you cough or become short of breath when you exercise, particularly in cold weather, you may have exercise- induced asthma. Exercise-induced asthma is not caused by exercise; it is caused by breathing dry cold air. All people who wheeze when they exercise may wheeze when they have other triggers such as barometric pressure changes before a storm, infections, irritants such as smoke, or allergens such as ragweed and cat dander.

Many people wheeze all the time and don't know it. They just wheeze more and notice it when they exercise. If you wheeze or cough after you start exercising, check with your doctor. He will listen to your chest while you open your mouth as wide as you can and breathe out as hard as you can. If the doctor hears you wheeze, you probably need more than the beta-agonist inhalers, such as Ventolin or Proventil. Most competitive athletes with significant exercise-induced asthma use steroid inhalers four times a day and oral steroids in the form of prednisone when their chest is too tight to allow them to compete. They also wear a face mask when they exercise in cold weather and use beta-agonist inhalers just before they start a workout.

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Dear Dr. Mirkin: Is weight lifting an appropriate exercise for older people?

A study from the University of Tsukuba in Japan shows that strength training for the legs of older men may help to prevent heart attacks (British Journal of Sports Medicine, October 2006). Men over 60 performed 12 weeks of resistance training involving bending and straightening the knees against resistance, three sets of 10 repetitions a day, two days a week. They increased their ability to move heavy weights by 16 percent.

Most measures of heart attack risk in the participants did not change, but their blood concentration of nitric oxide increased. Nitric oxide relaxes and opens arteries to increase blood flow to the heart and helps prevent heart attacks. This paper shows that resistance training may increase nitric oxide without stiffening arteries in healthy older men.

The vast majority of older people are so weak that they can't get out of a chair without using their hands, can't walk up stairs without holding a railing and can't even lift a 25-pound package. Virtually all recent research show that people can become stronger by exercising against progressively greater resistance, no matter how old they are. Strength training usually doesn't enlarge the muscles of older people enough to be measured, but we now know that you can become much stronger, even if your muscles do not look larger.

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Recipe of the Week

Catfish Gumbo

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June 26th, 2013
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About the Author: Gabe Mirkin, MD

Sports medicine doctor, fitness guru and long-time radio host Gabe Mirkin, M.D., brings you news and tips for your healthful lifestyle. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin is a graduate of Harvard University and Baylor University College of Medicine. He is board-certified in four specialties: Sports Medicine, Allergy and Immunology, Pediatrics and Pediatric Immunology. The Dr. Mirkin Show, his call-in show on fitness and health, was syndicated in more than 120 cities. Read More
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