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by Matt de Neef
June 12, 2018
Photography by Jered Gruber
There’s something majestic about the sight of a road cyclist in full flight, out of the saddle, dancing their way up a mountain. And while we mightn’t all climb with the grace and poise of Alberto Contador, riding out of the saddle is something we all do from the day we hop onto our first road bike.
It’s something almost subconscious, something we just do when we’re out riding in the hills. But it turns out there’s much we can learn from digging into the topic.
First and foremost: Why is it that we ride out of the saddle? There are a few obvious reasons. The main one is that it can help to reduce muscle fatigue. Standing up on the bike takes the pressure off muscle groups that do the work when you’re in the saddle, distributing the load elsewhere. Getting out of the saddle can also be used to maintain a given pace through a steeper section of road, given we can produce more power out of the saddle than in.
From a biomechanical perspective, getting out of the saddle allows us to shift our centre of mass up and forward, providing greater freedom of movement for our arms and legs. The muscles of the upper body and trunk take up more of the work, while also stabilising us as we rock our bike from side to side.
So that’s why we get out of the saddle. But what does the research say about the efficiency of the standing position? Should we try to spend time out of the saddle where possible? Or is it more efficient to stay seated?
Anthony Bouillod is a French sports scientist and trainer at the Groupama-FDJ professional cycling team. In the past half-decade he’s done a handful of studies comparing the efficiency of standing and seated positions for road cyclists, both in the laboratory and in the field. In a study published this year in the Journal of Biomechanics Bouillod and his colleagues sought to replicate real-world cycling conditions in the controlled environment of the laboratory.
“If you look at the studies about standing positions there is some time protocols where the participants make four minutes in standing position, five minutes in standing position — it’s not what we can observe in the field with a top level cyclist,” Bouillod told CyclingTips, explaining the genesis of his lab study. “We wanted to make a protocol near to the real cycling condition. That’s why the cyclists [in the lab study] alternate 30 seconds seated, 30 seconds standing because for us this duration was according to the real cycling locomotion.”
In Bouillod’s study, 13 elite male cyclists (with a solid average VO2max of 71.4) rode a series of tests on a giant adjustable treadmill while the researchers captured data for various physiological (e.g. oxygen consumption) and biomechanical (e.g. power output) factors. They also tracked how much the riders’ bikes swayed from side to side as they did their intervals.
The riders rode the three-minute test protocol1 nine times, gathering data at gradients of 5%, 7.5% and 10%, and at intensities of 3.8, 4.2 and 4.6 W/kg. The riders were free to change their cadence between sets, so long as they kept their cadence steady for the duration of each three-minute set (i.e. so that the same cadence was used in and out of the saddle.)
What Bouillod and his colleagues found was that the standing position did not increase the riders’ physiological cost (or more specifically, their oxygen consumption2) for any slope or intensity tested. While there’s conflicting research in this space, Bouillod and co’s finding is somewhat unexpected.
The prevailing wisdom is that when you’re climbing at less than 75% of your VO2max, getting out of the saddle will lead to an increase in oxygen consumption compared to staying seated. That’s because when you stand up at lower intensities, the work required by your upper body muscles seems to account for a greater proportion of the overall work you’re doing. As a result, an increase in oxygen consumption is expected3.
While Bouillod and co found no increase in riders’ oxygen consumption for their lab study, they did find that riders had to increase their power to maintain the same speed when getting out of the saddle. That’s not a particularly surprising finding — in fact, it makes intuitive sense.
“When you are in the standing position there is a mechanical deformation of the frame, of the tire, of the wheel,” Bouillod said. “You must increase your power if you want to be at the same speed. That’s the reason why you have no physiological increase but a mechanical increase.”
The extent of the power increase required? 4.3% over all slopes and intensities considered. In other words, for a given speed, it takes a bit more power to climb out of the saddle than while seated, but doing so doesn’t come with any greater physiological cost. To a point.
So what lessons can we cyclists learn from the research that’s been done in this area? Bouillod offers some advice that seems to contrary to what his laboratory study found.
“For me, there is no need to ride out of the saddle under 75% of the VO2max because all the studies shows under this intensity you increase your oxygen consumption,” he said. “But higher than this intensity you don’t increase these physiological parameters but you can find other [benefits] like increasing your strength, alternating the position for muscular fatigue. So I think it’s better to use this [standing] position at high intensity4.”
This suggestion to ride out of the saddle at higher intensities correlates with the findings from another study Bouillod published in July 2017 with fellow Groupama-FDJ trainer Frederic Grappe. By tracking a group of elite riders as they climbed a 3km ascent (average gradient 7%) as fast as they could, the researchers showed that there was no increase in physiological cost when the riders got out of the saddle.
Of course, we can’t all climb like Alberto Contador, riding out of the saddle for long periods of time. It varies from person to person how long staying out of the saddle is viable. But at a certain point, standing up will start to feel difficult and we all inevitably sit down. Bouillod’s field study demonstrated this. While the riders spent an average of 22.4% of the climb out of the saddle, they each differed in how long they stood for.
“I saw it individually in my results — some riders with a lower weight can stand a lot because the lower weight doesn’t increase the physiological parameters during the standing position and the rider can stay in standing position for a long time,” he said. “Contrary to this, heavy cyclists will make maybe 30 seconds in standing position and after this 30 seconds he will increase the physiological parameters and after he changes to seated because he feels a heartrate or respiratory increase with this position.”
Bouillod’s lab study shows further evidence of this. While getting out of the saddle didn’t increase a rider’s oxygen consumption, it did increase their heartrate, breathing frequency and breath volume, compared to staying seated. That’s something we can all relate to – while getting out of the saddle is great to rest tired muscles or get a bit more power through the cranks, at some point it starts to feel uncomfortable and feels harder than sitting back down.
So what of cadence? Most of us will instinctively flick the chain down a cog or two when we stand up, slowing our cadence. Elite riders too.
“During the field study, the rider was free to use [their own] cadence,” Bouillod said. “And we observed 8 RPM in difference. And so for me, normally there is just a difference of one or maximum two [cogs], and not more. Sometimes some riders will stand and decrease three or four [cogs]. And for me it’s not really good to have a big difference with this.”
Ideally, Bouillod says, you want your out-of-the-saddle cadence to be 5-10 rpm lower than when you’re in the saddle. Reducing your cadence in this way makes pedalling more efficient, while not loading up your muscles with too much unwanted fatigue.
One of the most compelling findings from Bouillod’s lab study is how inefficient it is to rock the bike violently from side-to-side while climbing out of the saddle, Fabio Aru style.
“If you increase, too much, the sways of your bicycle during standing position, you increase also your mechanical loss and for the same speed you must increase too much your power,” Bouillod said. “During the standing position I think it’s important to work on the technique and to not increase the lateral sways.
“The [best] standing position would be to have a good work at the pelvis and good work at the wrist and not to [rock] the bicycle to the left and the right because you increase the loss and you increase the cost.”
So where does that leave us? Ultimately, there’s no magic formula to work out when, or how long you should ride out of the saddle for. Much of it is about doing what feels best. If you need to give your muscles a rest, or power through a steeper section, stand up. If it gets hard again, sit back down.
That said, there are some basic guidelines you can follow. Try to stay seated at lower intensities, and if you’re going to drop your cadence while out of the saddle, try not to go beyond one or two cogs difference. And finally, keep that side-to-side swaying to a minimum. Sorry Fabio.
1. Each test consisted of a one-minute stabilisation period at low intensity, before two sets of 30 seconds seated then 30 seconds standing, for a total of three minutes.
2. While no increase in oxygen consumption was detected Bouillod and co did measure an increase in the respiratory exchange ratio: the ratio of CO2 expelled vs O2 used. Why?
“We think that, the change in position between sitting and standing is very fast and this fast change … needed a fast increase in energy,” Bouillod said. “And for this fast increase in energy, for me, the aerobic pathway is not the good pathway. After analysing the results we have seen that there is maybe an increase in the glycolytic pathway [ed. where glucose is used] contrary to the aerobic pathway.”
3. By contrast, when you’re climbing out of the saddle at higher than 75% of your VO2max, research suggests there’s no increase in oxygen consumption. That’s because at higher intensities, the forces you apply to the handlebars while seated increase quite significantly, effectively cancelling out the extra work done by your upper body when you’re out of the saddle.
4. How hard is 75% of your VO2max? It corresponds to roughly 80-85% of your maximum heartrate.