This article was written for Loughborough Students Cycling Club by Jack Adams, who has graduated from Loughborough University with a degree in Sports Science, I thought this was a very good article and may be very useful to HTRC members.
Here you will find tips for improving your riding, whether you like to cycle for fun, race hill climbs, time trails, mountain bikes, road races or stage races. All the information I have is taken from cycling gossip, journals, training books as well as word of mouth… There are many different ideas about training so find what works with you, but have an open mind with regard to new tips! Feel free to add your own advice by contacting the club secretary.
Training never gets easier, you just go faster. To put it another way, per Greg Henderson: “Training is like fighting with a gorilla. You don’t stop when you’re tired. You stop when the gorilla is tired!”
First, a look at the set-up and body position:
A lot can be gained by reviewing your body position on the bike. More power could be unlocked with no effort, hard training sessions, just a tweak of the saddle or bars.
The most efficient saddle height seems to be 105-107% of your leg length (measured from centre of bottom bracket to top of saddle). Raise this to 109% for maximum power, perhaps for the time trials. A simple guide is to set the saddle height so the leg is completely straight when you have the heel on the pedal, at the bottom of the pedal cycle. Ensure the hips do NOT rock side to side as you pedal.
The saddle set-back is the sliding position of the saddle, back and forth on the rails. Adjust this so that the front of your knee is directly above the pedal axle when the cranks are horizontal (i.e. a plum line would pass from the front of the knee down through the pedal axel). This will need to be checked if you change bike and the seat tube angle is different. Research shows that seat tube angles (inner angle of frame where top tube and seat tube meet, just near the seat post collar) of 72-76 degrees are most efficient for pedalling action.
The saddle angle should always be set horizontal to the ground to provide safe support.
When using clipless pedals the cleats should allow some degree of float. Fixed is OK as long as the alignment is set up correctly for each leg. Float allows the shoe some twisting movement, to prevent possible knee or ankle compensatory injuries. Varied leg length issues can be deal with by adding spacers between the cleat and shoe for most road setups, but be aware of crank length adjustment and saddle height when doing this!
Finally try to reduce the frontal area of the upper body by setting the bars/levers low and forward. This should not however compromise hip movement or give you lower back pain. Setup so the elbows are slightly bent as you rest on the top of the bars.
With all body position changes, adjust the setup gradually when you are not in a period of heavy training or racing. This allows the body time to adapt.
Psychology, its all in the head:
Good mental preparation and positive attitude is, I think, one of the most important factors to drive you to improve. When the body is under stress in training and racing you should be able to rely upon a strong mindset to carry you through, after all you will be constantly faced with decisions to slow down, skip training or stop. Follow some of these simple guidelines to help you deal with emotions and keep motivated:
Stay positive – there may be something to be gained from any situation on the bike. A bad race or ride gives you a chance to asses why and put it right and the opportunity to deal with it well, and so feel good about that! Review and feel good about positives but also address negatives objectively.
Expect to feel nerves during competition and use them to your advantage. Keep them controlled to a level where you perform best by relaxing, or psyching up – whichever is needed. This takes practise and should be tested in training, e.g. a rock hard turbo session.
Use mental rehearsal to prepare. The training session/race is going to hurt. Play it through in your mind. What is the aim? Your job on the day? Run these questions through your mind while listening to music during a warm up. If riding a technical course it is vital that you know it well and can ‘fly through’ it in your head. Just by knowing the layout of a course you can save energy or kick past/drop others by taking good lines.
When it does get hard, get tough yourself. Draw upon anything that helps you get through and push you to the limit. Everyone is maxed out – get yourself into the same boat and ride, its meant to be hard, so you are doing the right thing, just hang in there! Try tricking the mind, set markers and goals to get to, like the next tree/minute – and when you know the top of the climb is just ahead, or the end of the effort is approaching you will have second wind and should enjoy smashing out the last few seconds…
Preparation is everything, race with a clear head because you have printed off all the details, have not forgoten to pack kit and sorted bike, food and drink well in advance – all basics, all fundamentals.
The body performs exercise by breaking down fuels to allow muscle contractions to occur. Fat and carbohydrate are the main sources of energy in the body. For long distance cycling it is important to save carbohydrate by burning fat as much as possible. Highly trained endurance cyclists can burn up to 40g of fat an hour, at ‘fatmax’. Therefore fat reserves can be kept to a minimum (3-8% of body mass) whilst still providing enough energy.
High intensity efforts such as sprints and climbs will draw heavily on the carbohydrates, which are finite and responsible for ‘hitting the wall’ or ‘bonk’ when running low! Therefore endurance training helps to improve contribution of fat, sparing carbs and allowing you to cycle longer. Carbohydrate stores should be maintained during long training rides and races by eating and drinking regularly (up to 80g per hour). Most basic foods like flapjacks and sandwiches do this, but energy bars and gels may be a quicker way for you to get the carbs down. Energy drinks are a definite benefit as it is easier to drink than eat while riding and the absorption rates are faster with fluid based energy. To best save energy on long rides, avoid sudden changes of pace and hard efforts – but this is part of racing and should therefore be trained.
Protein is beneficial to top up as you train as it helps repair the muscles during the training. For long rides and stage races an energy drink which contains protein is recommended.
Hydration is a must as performance significantly drops when you get dehydrated. As a guide you should lose no more than 3% of pre-ride weight. Measure your sweat loss rate to find out how much fluid you need to replace, by simply measuring body mass change over a ride (taking into account the temperate/clothing/intensity and amount drunk) to establish and drinking strategy. Isotonic drinks are composed of water, energy and electrolytes in the same concentrations as the blood for fast absorption. They are designed to replace lost fluid and minerals and may help to prevent cramps. Energy drinks should not be regarded as rehydrating – but help top up carbohydrate stores.
Post-ride recovery food is vital to get the most out of your training. Taken within 20mins of finishing training or racing, recovery drinks including water, carbohydrate and protein help speed up repair and re-energise the body. They will help maximise the potential training gains.
Everyone has a genetic potential and with the best training you can hope to come as close as possible to this limit by changing your body. Professional road cyclists ride up to 40,000km per year in training and racing – there is no substitute for volume. At least 2/3 of this training should be controlled base training. This is riding at an intensity of 70-80% of your HR max. While riding at this intensity you are improving the efficiency of the body to burn fat as well as building a strong CV system. Essentially, you are building the ‘engine’…
Specific Interval Training:
The other portion (up to 1/3) should be specific intervals. These basic training fractions should be maintained to prevent overtraining and chronic fatigue. Intervals are a highly potent form of training. They involve riding at a set intensity for a set period of time with rest blocks in between. The aim of intervals is to raise thresholds and ‘top-end’ fitness. Essentially you are adding the race gears onto that big ‘engine’!
By riding above your comfortable intensity you stress the body to adapt to provide more oxygen to the muscles, more energy, to meet a higher power demand.
By reducing the recovery periods you train the body to deal with efforts quicker and efficiently remove waste products – essential for racing.
Intervals should be designed to replicate a race situation, so training for short criteriums requires multiple max sprints with short recovery periods, whereas training for long hilly road races needs long threshold intensity intervals with more recovery in between.
To identify how hard you are riding in ascending order of accuracy use the following techniques: perceived effort, breathing rate, heart rate, power output. From HR and/or power readings you can establish training intensity zones as percentages of your max.
Be aware that perceived effort, breathing and heart rates may vary depending on form, temperature and illness and so only really power can quantify exactly what intensity you are riding at.
Measuring and Monitoring your fitness:
Keep regular checks on your fitness to see if training is working, indicate if you are showing signs of overtraining or under training. A simple test is resting heart rate, which should get lower as you gain fitness. High resting HR values indicate tiredness or illness. More accurately you can look at your power out put at a certain HR or vice-versa. Lower HR values at the same previous power out put shows improved form. Time trials on set courses directly test your speed, but take into account weather conditions! Lab based testing will give you numbers if you are keen, such as VO2 max (your maximum oxygen uptake – an indicator of aerobic fitness) and power tests. Often student led studies require cycling volunteers so sign up for free testing at uni… Remember not to neglect race results as well.
Extra Training Rides:
The following are some useful rides to be aware of which should be included in your training:
Pre-race Ride: A chance to open up the legs and CV system with and gentle spin including a few 2-5min comfortable efforts. This will prepare you for a hard race by raising the energy systems and building up the lactate buffers. Do this the day before a race. Go for up to 2hrs with perhaps 4 efforts.
Recovery Ride: A gentle spin to clear the legs the day after a race or hard training session. This can include a few short sprints (8-10seconds) with plenty of easy spinning in between to raise recovery rates. The whole ride should be slammed down into the lowest gear and keep the legs spinning at a high cadence. Usually up to 1hr in duration.
Pre-Breakfast Ride: A short ride which could include intervals for training, or used as a recovery ride. By riding on an empty stomach (even better is a light snack containing little carbohydrate) you help to teach your body to mobilise fat. Be careful not to run out of energy.
Strength and Conditioning:
Cyclists need to maintain a strong core, upper and lower body for power generation and to help avoid injury. Your core stability is generated by the deep postural muscles of the lower back and stomach to maintain a good aerodynamic position on the bike whilst pushing out large forces through the legs.
The core can be strengthened by Swiss-ball exercises, and floor exercises such as sit-ups/crunches. The legs, arms and shoulders should also be strengthened, also by floor based exercises. Circuit training is a good CV workout while building strength.
Weight training is beneficial to the cyclist to build strength and lean muscle mass. Depending on the discipline the reps and sets should be adjusted appropriately. Sprint type cycling requires explosive strength, gained through explosive heavy weights (e.g. 3 sets of 4-8reps). Strength endurance needed for longer races requires a weights programme consisting of lifting more, lighter weights (e.g. 2 sets of 20-30 reps). Specifically work on main muscle groups and full body exercises such as squats and dead-lifts.
Always build into a weight training programme and use good technique for all strength and conditioning exercises.
Rest and Illness:
During the rest you have in between training sessions the body rebuilds and adapts to the training to improve your fitness and strength. The training has a negative effect on the body by causing micro-trauma to tissues and depleting your energy stores but it is the stimulus for change.
By taking too much rest adaptations made from previous sessions may not hold through to the next session and fitness levels will only be maintained. Conversely, too little rest does not give the body time to fully adapt and after many sessions the body will become overreached. Catch it in time and with sufficient rest you will bounce back possibly with super-compensation effects. However if rest is neglected too long overreaching becomes overtraining and weeks or possibly months of rest will be needed before you can start training again.
At any sign of illness you must take a couple of days off. If the signs pass, then ease back into training otherwise recover fully from the illness as long as it takes before training again. Training and illness don’t combine, in fact you will be detraining in such as state.
Remember to rest to get the gains you deserve from hard training.
Planning and Reviewing the Year:
The year can be broken down into a rest period, off-season and racing season. It is usually during the end of the rest period that the past season is reviewed and the following season is planned for.
When reviewing past performances brainstorm every aspect of your lifestyle, training, injures, equipment, diet and of course results. Think about what could be improved, what your strengths and weaknesses are and if you met your goals. When planning ahead it is easiest to start by pencilling in the races for the following season (often similar dates to the past). Decide on your major goals, and minor goals along the way. Then work backwards planning when to peak, race tapers, race build period, strength building period and base training. You may plan to have more than one peak, but when doing so allow the body a mini base build period and time to work back up to the next peak. This is important as being in peak condition and racing hard drags energy and motivation out of the body, so a dip and rebuild period must come next. Planning the training itself should be done in 4 week blocks. Based on the races during the calendar the blocks should aim to build into the type of race you are approaching. Once racing regularly training can be cut to simply recovery and preparation rides.
During the rest period, don’t feel bad about taking complete rest, both a physical and mental break from a season is needed and only you know when it is complete. Also have medical checkups and go through your equipment and plan any changes to the bike setup now.
Once into the off-season, you will have a race plan and should be feeling energised and ready to begin training again. Take things easy, perhaps a couple of weeks of unstructured training and expect to feel tired at first from small amounts of training!
The aim throughout the off season is to build the engine, get ‘full-body strong’ and start to raise thresholds as you approach the race preparations. Cross training such as hiking, running or xc-skiing can be a fun alternative to riding, but soon you will riding steady long miles and specific intervals.
Try not to let the diet slip just because you are not racing – in fact you can use this time to begin to fine tune the diet and get lean.
Training camps are a chance to pack in a large volume of training a month or so before the first race starts. This can pick up the training and have a super-compensatory effect, but should be no longer than 2 weeks to avoid overtraining. This is also a chance for a new team to train together.
Monitor progress with fitness tests, ideally every 4 weeks and once you approach the race season you need to bring in more top-end intervals and really start to train for speed. By the first race you will have built a solid base, good strength and top-end power. You are ready to race.
With every training ride you go on and every race you build on your cycling ‘skills’. Of course successful cycling is largely dominated by fitness and power, but the winner of any race will have surely outwitted riders of a similar physical condition with skill?!!
Basics start with drafting and energy saving techniques on the road, technical skill and power transfer off road and good teamwork when riding with others. You will always pick up tips like slipping back through a bunch on a climb to save energy, or picking a fast line as you race.
Try to learn from experiences in training and racing so that race tactics become second nature. The most important decisions are usually based on positioning and when to ride hard and when to ease up during tactical races. Even in time trails you need to practise your management of exertion.
Here is a brief season plan to summarise this disgusting amount of information!
Rest – review/plan/equipment/health/diet/body positioning
Base Training – 2/3 of training, controlled/monitor
Ill – expect some illness and don’t train/race through it!
Strength and Conditioning – weights programme/circuits tailored to discipline
Intervals – 1/3 of training, specific work:rest ratio blocks building to specific races, vary the sessions
Training Camp – pack in a large volume and boost fitness with just over a month to the first race
Fitness Testing – continuous log of fitness tests show response to training/possible illness
Race season – competing, keep log of results and race summaries
Peak – hit the right race(s) with the perfect form
Rest/Recovery – always ensure adequate rest from training and racing
Nutrition General – Balance energy to maintain race weight, healthy balanced diet with good recovery food
Finally, as a fully balanced athlete you must not get bogged down in the science, but be aware of benefits which are yours for the taking. Always race with heart and enjoy the sport. This is the key to success as we are constantly told by class athletes from all sports…
References: A special Report From Peak performance. Training for cyclists: compiled reviews, J. Shepard et al. 2006.