Recumbent power training

Observations on sweaty self-abuse in the garage, as I have one last mid-life crisis fling with bike fitness!

Observations on sweaty self-abuse in the garage

This spring I’ve had a turbo set up in the garage with the High Baron on it, and I’ve been doing 2×20 minute intervals.

I haven’t ridden a recumbent seriously since August, and I wasn’t in the best shape then either. However, I’ve kept up my hundred miles a week commuting on a DF through the winter, and a fair bit of running.

I’ve never done structured training before for any sport. I’m aiming to do better at a couple of sportives (Etape Caledonia in May, Tour o’ the Borders in August) than I have previously from just commuting mileage. Call it an early midlife crisis…

Potential FTP / diamond frame performance

I’ve assumed my recumbent FTP could get as high as ~300W since I climbed Alp D’Huez last summer, on a normal bike, at an average of 291W – which took me just over 58 mins.

I was halfway through a week of big climbs and riding solo, so maybe that’s even an underestimate (I’m sure I could have gone harder with someone to chase!)

Either way, it’s some kind of line in the sand – if the physiology of recumbent riding was the same as diamond frame, I should be able to hit an hour at 290W in short order.

Rude intervention of reality

My opening session on the High Baron was three five-minute intervals, just to avoid destroying myself after six months of upright riding.

Optimistically I started at 304W, which dropped to 285W for set 2, then just 263W for set 3. I couldn’t push it any higher. Depressing stuff!

One Month

After a month, I could scrape out 2×20 minutes at 265W in exchange for much sweat and pain.


The interesting thing is that I’m challenging my cardio more than I expected. 20 minute intervals at 265W on the High Baron got my max HR up to 165bpm on the first interval, 170bpm on the second. In contrast, climbing Alp D’Huez for an hour at 291W on the DF only got my heart up to 159bpm (one factor that makes me think my FTP was actually quite a bit higher).

From “real life” riding I always feel “leg limited” on the HB versus “lung limited” on diamond frames (and I can hit 185bpm running, so I have the ability to deliver a fair bit more O2 than I’m using on either bike). In contrast, the turbo is definitely exposing a central cardiovascular limitation.

This leaves me with a bit of a puzzle over what sort of training I should actually be doing, not to mention a worry that riding the High Baron on a turbo might be structurally different from riding it on the road somehow.

The plan was to keep churning out my hundred miles a week of diamond-frame commuting at a low wattage, then add in two high intensity workouts each week on the recumbent. However, I figure that since my wattage can be so much higher on a different platform, maybe 20 minute intervals on the recumbent are not ideal, as they won’t really be working on the intended energy pathway?

At the same time I think this is an unrealistic way of reasoning. If the hardest I can go on the recumbent for an hour is 265W, then that’s my threshold power and I should be using that for threshold intervals on the recumbent (and go up to 290W for threshold intervals on my DF, if that was relevant).

Let’s not even consider whether 2×20 is the appropriate type of workout! 😐

Two Months

Towards the end of the second month I started to get pretty tired (I think adding these workouts, simultaneously increasing my commutes as the weather improves, plus running, was having a cumulative impact).


I took a “rest” week (actually a hiking holiday) then did an FTP test loosely following the Coggan protocol – a short hard interval to drain your legs a bit (8 minutes at 301W) then a 20 minute all-out effort.

I did want to die, but I managed 288.5W (first ten minutes at 285W, second ten minutes at 292W) which gives an FTP of ~275W based on 95% of the longer interval.

This is still at least 15W shy of my diamond frame FTP, although I should probably validate that by riding the same test protocol on the turbo on my racer – but it’s definitely progress.

I’m not sure how much of this is improvement to my general fitness, to recumbent-specific muscles (hip flexors etc) that were lagging behind, or maybe just to my pain tolerance… but I’ll take it.

I now have five weeks until the Etape Caledonia, so armed with this FTP estimate, it’s time to think about what sort of training to do – probably don’t want to turn up at an 80 mile ride having only done 20 minute turbo intervals, for starters!

Etape Caledonia -4 weeks

Four weeks to go before the Etape Caledonia, which is my “B” event (I mainly entered it so I would get my recumbent out of the garage before June!)

As I haven’t ridden the High Baron for more than an hour since last summer, I decided it would be a good idea to [URL=””]ride the route[/URL]. Partly to check for any corners that I can’t take at full speed, partly for the long ride training aspect.

It’s 80 miles / 130km but only 1,200m / 4,000ft of ascent. It took me 4:10 moving time (19.5mph average) with just under 25 minutes of stops (half of that was getting breakfast, the other half was watering the verge… FFS!)

I felt my power was pretty poor on this ride, but I think my expectations were unrealistic considering I had no taper and didn’t eat any carbs before heading out / only had a light energy drink on the bike.

Interestingly it felt like my efforts at short rises were noticeably stronger (even though this is above-threshold wattage) whereas I wasn’t able to ride anywhere near my threshold otherwise – the sustained central portion of the ride I was just putting out 200W, and the long flat finish I was right down at a 160W average.

There are a few niggles with the High Baron to sort out, then I think I’ll repeat the dry run in two weeks’ time. That will give an ample taper into the event, and we’ll see what happens!

Tour o’ the Borders is the goal, but the Etape Caledonia route is also quite a bonny one. It will be fun to ride this event in its own right 🙂

9 thoughts on “Recumbent power training”

  1. Hi Dave, I’m not surprised about the lower power output. Mike Burrows confirms this in his book, something about the body not being able to absorb lactatic acid as effectively at higher outputs. He also reminds us that the aero efficiencies (and general happiness) more than compensate. I’ve gone from many years of mainly riding upright with occasional long recumbent rides to now commuting by recumbent and occasionally mountain biking. I hadn’t realised how much the body tunes in to one kind of riding. I compound the difference by using 150mm cranks on the recumbent and 170 on MTB so the transition is less than ideal, indeed, I used to get knee pain on the short cranks – the very thing I was trying to avoid by using them!…. Things are much better now that I mainly ride laid-back. Any chance you could borrow a less racy recumbent for your commute and use that for your training?
    BTW, I have some great 150mm cranks with a very low Q, I’m pretty sure they make an improvement for me as a spinner, I’d be interested to know what your thoughts are on shorter cranks. All the best!

  2. It’s not that the High Baron is too racy to commute on, it’s mostly just that I don’t want it to get covered in salt! That, and I take no pleasure from extended commutes in the bleak winter 🙂

    Yeah, I don’t think that matching power output is really a goal – I’m not trying to match my max HR from running, after all. Still it’s hard to avoid seeing extra performance on the other position as untapped potential.

    The High Baron is definitely faster than I could be on a road bike on the right course, and way more comfortable. It’s not actually particularly aero judging by the power numbers / speeds I see posted on BROL – I can’t get into the mid-20s mph on 200W, but it’s OK considering my priorities in life 🙂

  3. Very interesting . . . having recently picked up a Kingcycle, I have been surprised that I am struggling to raise my Heart Rate to the levels I would expect on an upright.
    Whereas I would normally cruise about 135bpm, on the KC I struggle to get out of the 120’s
    Any thoughts? Maybe I am just still finding my ‘bent legs?

    Excellent work, BTW

    1. Hey Mel,

      The more miles you do the better it will become… after a few thousand miles it should seem fairly normal, if not as powerful as riding upright. Beyond that, you need to make sure you have the firmest possible connection to the bike and then hopefully your riding position works for you in terms of making power…

  4. Hi Dave

    This is interesting! Do you think that the extent to which strength in upright riding transfers to recumbent riding depends on the upright riding position? As I understand it, riding on a racing bike uses slightly different muscles to riding a very upright bike (e.g. a roadster). It would seem to me that the recumbent riding position is more similar to that of a roadster, but with the whole body rotated backwards by about 90 degrees. Therefore perhaps someone who already rides a very upright bike would transfer more easily to a recumbent.

    This also made me wonder about the popularity of recumbents in the Netherlands. I understand that even keen racers there would still use a roadster for everyday trips around town. Perhaps when such a person tries a recumbent they immediately feel reasonably powerful, whereas when a UK racing bike enthusiast, who only ever rides a racing bike, tries a recumbent they feel quite weak and conclude that recumbents are slow. (I’m sure there are lots of other factors as well…)

    Perhaps if your commuting bike had a more upright riding position then it would be more useful as recumbent training? Of course, you might have other reasons for not wanting this.

  5. Just wondering what difference seat recline angle makes to power output?
    Have you done any measurements with varying angles?
    I certainly climb steep gradients better on a fairly upright p38 than on the more reclined m5 despite it being over a kilo heavier
    Of course lose the aerodynamic advantage with a P38
    Is there an optimum seat recline angle for maximising power out put?
    How does seat angle affect breathing capacity and ability to move around a bit to use different muscles?
    Unless you use a full fairing(scary in windy old Scotland) I suppose it’s always a compromise between angle and aerodynamics ,unless my intuition and limited experience are wrong and the same power can be indeed be produced from a very reclined seat compared to a more upright position- it being perhaps more a case of acclimatisation than anything inherent in the angle

  6. Just spotted this post. I think it might be to do with venous return. Whilst the heart pumps blood to the extremities it is pumped back through the veins by physical movement and it may be that when pushing pedals vertically downwards on a DF that greater return is achieved that when pushing horizontally on a recumbent. As you are not returning blood to the heart as fast heart rate in pumping it out again drops. I know it sounds strange but it corresponds with my own experience of riding both types of bike and was an explanation given to me by a sports doctor.

  7. Training regimes

    Just found the site and this post is exactly a year out of date. However I can add another point of view based largely on my time as an oarsman.

    First endurance training, doing more than 45 mins at 70% of your maximum heart rate is supposed to build mitochondria numbers in the muscle and improve the performance accordingly. In my experience it does build endurance ability but doesn’t do much for strength.

    On the other hand short, flat out bursts against the heaviest load you can carry, push, exert for about 30 secs before you simply cannot repeat it again (eg standing on the pedals in high gear going up a steep hill) do wonders. You repeat this, after a recovery rest of say 2 mins, as many times as you can but not more than 10 (increase the load if can do more). You should be truely busted after this. The limits of lifting no more than your own weight on a bike / trike may limit the power you can deliver so it may be more effective with adjustable weights in a gym.

    The great thing is that you should spend several days recovering from the stiffness after this mighty effort and the recommendation is to do it only once a week. So that’s less than 30 mins training once a week! Rest is wildly underestimated as a performance enhancer. You should always wind down for the 2 weeks before a major competition with just enough exercise to stay loose but certainly nothing hard. if you’re really quite fit you shouldn’t lose much strength and what you have lost returns very quickly when you go back out again after even 4 weeks.

    So the message is, you don’t have to spend much time training to get fitter and keep fit so long as you work very very hard for a short time when you do go out. It sounds good but it is tough to do because you should be aching for several days a week as you build up the strength.

    This book is a good source – but assumes you are in a gym:
    Body by Science: A Research Based Program to Get the Results You Want in 12 Minutes a Week Paperback – 1 Jan 2009
    by John R. Little and Doug Mcguff

  8. Hi
    Long story but i’m about to switch from two wheels upright to 3 wheels reclined ( back issues) 🙂 Currently a bit unfit and over weight. Can you recommend any good exercises I can do at home to get my recumbent leg muscles in-shape ( I believe i’ll be using some different once as a laid back rider 🙂
    all the best

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