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Can cycling with single leg improve endurance and increase slow twitch muscles with shorter workouts?

Theory

When muscle groups fatigue, they start to recruit larger motor units. That may explain why when you're exhausted, the workouts feel harder, and why polio victims fatigue sooner.

With single leg cycling, one leg VO2 max is close to that of two legs. That means the larger motor units can be targeted sooner given the same oxygen consumption. More of our muscle fibres would be given the signal to increase capillary density, increase mitochondria, increase mitochondrial enzymes, increase antioxidant defenses, and other kinds of adaptations.

My understanding

Based on my understanding, if we cycle 1 hour with one leg, the exercised leg may think it exercised up to 2 hours in terms of recruitment pattern! Having a meal in between two rides may refuel the smaller motor units, preventing some of the larger motor units from being trained.

Possible benefits

If this works, we may be able to break fitness plateaus or maintain endurance with more flexibility in our schedules. According to some commentators, long rides should be done all in one go so biking to work, working 8 hours, and riding home feels different for our bodies than riding twice the distance to work then staying overnight at work.

If you're doing group rides, it can help the slower riders keep up with you while you have a good workout.

It may also decrease blood pressure because a study showed that higher type I fibres reduce blood pressure. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15837823

Another benefit is that the exercised leg could push harder than in two-legged workouts at a lower heart rate without causing breathlessness. Those with health problems such as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy or high blood pressure may need to limit their heart rate during exercise to stay safe.

Challenges

What we may need to do is make sure that we don't pull on the upstroke. We might use the counterweight on the pedal of the unused side or redesign the chainrings to make the upstroke easier. We also need to remember to exercise the other leg on another workout.

Does this actually work in practice?

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Working out one leg at a time in the stated way does not shorten your workout time. If your assumtion is correct it says: 1h per leg equals a workout of 2h normal training, but you have to do 2h to get both legs trained. In the end you get a 2h workout within 2h.

If you want to push harder it would be easier to just choose a harder gear.

  • It's true that the workout time stays the same. The problem is that some of us feel that it's better to have a long ride than to split it into two. Our muscle groups don't use all their muscle fibres at low intensity. To increase the power, they recruit more fibres so at higher intensity, more fibres get exercised. We don't have to wait till we're exhausted like on a long ride to use them. An issue with simply pushing harder is that we're no longer in the easy zone because of the lack of blood flow. Instead of 2 hours, we might be able to handle only 10 minutes. – Brian Jan 15 '19 at 3:44
  • Based on a study, they recommend one legged cycle training for those with COPD. What could it do for fit cyclists? ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26291542 – Brian Jan 15 '19 at 3:50
  • @Han-Lin - They recommend it be included in the choices as well as for other rehab modalities other than COPD, not that they solely recommend it for COPD. And there are some studies available on single leg cycling, they can be found here – JohnP Jan 15 '19 at 20:05
  • Kathy - If you take a look at some of the studies I linked, there are possibly greater improvements to be had by doing a block of training as two single leg sessions. One study speculates that the leg that is resting isn't taking up O2, so the working leg has more available to do work. Most of the studies I took a very quick scan through suggested improvements in both trained and untrained when utilizing single leg approaches. – JohnP Jan 15 '19 at 20:07
  • My opinion: If you want to get more training benefits in shorter workouts, rather change what you do. For example, long climbs in the big ring builds power. Doing interval training definitely has benefits for stamina, changing your cadence,and adjusting gearing for that also works your legs different than a normal ride would. Pedaling with one leg is fine to train for smoother strokes, but I don't believe you will get as much fitness benefit as some of the other things I mentioned – baldy Jan 16 '19 at 9:39

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