Our fitness experts tackle your questions on clip-in bicycle pedals, coconut water as a sports drink, and breathing for heavy, structural lifts.
What do I need to know before I use clip-in bike pedals?
Q1: I want to take my bicycling to the next level and try clip-in pedals, but I hear beginners often fall over when using them. Are they hard to get used to? Are they worth the effort?
A: Once you get over the intimidation factor, it’s hard to find a reason not to make the transition to clip-in pedals (also called clipless pedals). Clipping in completely transforms your pedal stroke, making you more efficient on the bike. Plus, the stiff soles of cycling shoes support your knees and feet better, helping protect your legs from damage.
“With any type of pedal, you are pushing down with your quads,” says Robbie Ventura, a professional cyclist and founder of Vision Quest Coaching in Chicago. “With clip-in pedals, you are not just pushing down but pulling back and up, so you generate power through the entire range of motion of the pedal stroke. You get significantly more recruitment from the other muscles in your leg, including your glutes, hamstrings, and hip flexors.
“If you are riding at least two times per week for more than 20 minutes at a time, and you want to become faster, I would highly recommend clip-in pedals,” Ventura says.
A clip-in pedal system comprises three pieces: the pedal, cleat, and shoe. It’s an initial financial investment, but most riders find that it quickly pays for itself in improved performance. Ventura recommends working with a local bike shop to get a cycling shoe that fits you comfortably, then finding a compatible pedal-and-cleat system.
Before you hit the streets with your new gear, practice clipping in and out in a large, empty parking lot. “Ninety-five percent of falls occur because cyclists wait too long to clip out,” says Ventura. He advises freeing your foot from the pedal earlier than later — and donning protective gear your first few times out.
“People tend to have a few tip-overs in the beginning, mostly if they don’t practice,” says Ventura. “But in the long haul, clip-in pedals are something you will embrace.”
Can coconut water be used as a sports drink?
Q2: Coconut water seems to be everywhere lately, and I’ve heard it has similar benefits to sports drinks. Should I start drinking it, and, if so, when?
A: For general hydration purposes, you’re better off drinking plain old H2O, says Amanda Carlson-Phillips, RD, CSSD, vice president of performance nutrition and research at Athletes’ Performance in Phoenix.
First of all, coconut water can be a sneaky source of liquid calories. Most major brands contain at least 60 calories and 10 grams of sugar per serving (around 8 to 10 ounces), and if you’re concerned about body composition, that’s important to recognize. Cutting just 100 calories a day from sugar-sweetened liquids results in five times the weight loss of cutting 100 calories a day from solid foods, a 2009 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition study found.
And while the sugar in most brands of coconut water is natural, “it’s still sugar,” says Carlson-Phillips. “Your body still has to metabolize it.”
If you’re participating in a sporting event that lasts longer than 90 minutes, you may benefit from a sports drink to replenish lost electrolytes — but don’t substitute coconut water. “Coconut water is very high in potassium, but it’s very low in sodium,” Carlson-Phillips says. Potassium is a necessary electrolyte, but “the particular electrolyte you’re looking for in a sports drink is sodium. That’s what’s going to help with hydration and prevent cramping.”
So when, if ever, should you drink coconut water? “You need a combination of carbohydrates and protein after working out, so you can make it part of your postworkout nutrition solution,” says Carlson-Phillips, who suggests adding coconut water and protein powder to a smoothie to maximize recovery.
How should I breathe when lifting weights?
Q3: What is the best way to breathe while lifting weights during a strength-training session?
A: It all depends on the types of exercises you’re doing, the weight you’re lifting, and any preexisting medical conditions you have, says Greg Everett, CSCS, USAW, owner of Catalyst Athletics in Sunnyvale, Calif., and author of Olympic Weightlifting.
For exercises that do not require postural stabilization (think seated biceps curls or leg presses), or if you’re lifting light weights for a high number of repetitions (more than 10), breathe naturally, says Everett, and synch your breathing with your movements according to these guidelines from the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA): Exhale during the concentric, or “work,” phase of an exercise all the way through the sticking point (which is the most strenuous position in any range of motion), and then inhale during the eccentric, or less stressful “recovery” phase of the exercise. (The sticking point usually occurs right after the transition from the eccentric phase to the concentric phase. For more on eccentric and concentric movement, see “Put the Weight Down”.)
Breathing becomes more technical when you start lifting heavier loads, particularly with exercises that work the spine (think squats or deadlifts). “In this case, the most important element of breathing is the creation of stability,” says Everett. By exhaling very slowly or partially holding your breath and engaging your core muscles throughout a repetition, you create pressure to stabilize your spine, protecting yourself from injury.
It’s smart to consult a personal trainer or other fitness professional before hoisting heavy weights, especially if you’re new to bigger lifts. And you should not attempt any unique breathing pattern if you have a preexisting heart condition or high blood pressure. But if you’re comfortable with the movements and want to get started with some breath work, certified Olympic weightlifter Adam Rozmenoski, CPT, CSCS, offers the following guidelines for how to breathe through a weighted squat.
Breathing While Lifting Weights
1. While the bar is on your back, before descent, inhale to fill the lungs. Engage your core (imagine flexing your abdominal muscles as if bracing for a sucker punch to the gut) and attempt to expel air with closed lips and nostrils.
2. Keeping your core engaged, continue to hold your breath and lower into the squat.