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How To Improve Your Cycling

Zach Nehr

How To Improve Your Cycling

Cycling is a unique and wonderful feeling. Self-powered movement through the air, up hills, through traffic, and down mountains. It is such an amazing sensation to sprint up a steep grade, or go flying down a mountain at 70kph.

Part of Cycling Advice

And the best part is that it’s all you (and in the case of e-bikes, it’s mostly you.)

There are few feelings in the world like the wind blowing against your jersey, your feet ticking over the pedals, or steering your front wheel through a banked corner.

The allure of speed is what hooks many of us on cycling, and what started as a leisurely commute soon becomes a racing hobby.

Cyclists are competitive, and we always want to get faster. And so begins the dedication to training. Hard interval rides during the week, a few spins to the coffee shop, and smashing the group rides on weekends.

 

What You Need to Keep in Mind

Getting faster is fun, but it can also be complicated. For busy and working people, we can’t just ‘ride more,’ as many endurance physiologists will tell you.

There is also a lot of bad advice and wives’ tales out there, relating to training, recovery, and nutrition, and it can be difficult to distinguish between real benefits and marketing ploys.

Related: Benefits of Cycling

One camp says: get up at 4AM, lift heavy weights, race every day, and your body will adapt and get stronger. But that’s not healthy nor is it sustainable. In fact, you’ll probably go so far overboard that you’ll never want to ride again.

Another camp says: listen to your body – get up every morning, and see how you’re feeling. Go hard if you feel like it, or take the day off. It’s totally up to you. This method works for some people, but there is no real structure or science behind it.

That brings us to structured training and coaching.

These are the tried and tested methods to improve your cycling performance, backed by science, and employed by millions of riders around the world, from beginner-level riders to Tour de France professionals.

 

Structured Training

The Importance of Planning Ahead

Structured training is defined as the use of a pre-planned workout calendar to structure your cycling season. These calendars can be both detailed and expansive and cover a variety of timeframes such as micro (1 week), meso (1 month), or macro-cycles (3-6 months).

Riders typically structure their training around a certain goal event(s), such as the National Championships or a Gran Fondo. The best-structured training plans are written months in advance so that riders (and coaches) can time their fitness to peak at their goal event.

Why is structured training so important? Because your body (and mind) needs time to rest, adapt, and recover. Cycling training is like training any other muscle: following a period of intense exercise, your body needs time to rest, which will allow it to repair itself and come back stronger.

Related: Guide to Cycling Workouts

Without these structured rest periods, your body won’t actually get any stronger. In fact, it will continually get weaker as you continue to punish it with hard efforts and training rides, eventually leading to overtraining and burnout.

In this article, we’ll dive into all these aspects of training and more, as we help you improve your cycling, and work towards reaching your goals.

 

Proper Nutrition

Nutrition is one of the most important things when it comes to training

Believe it or not, nutrition is the most important aspect of cycling performance. It’s even more important than training, power, aerobic capacity, VO2 max, and any other metric you can measure.

If you don’t have fuel in your muscles, you won’t be able to perform.

Food and water are what keeps us alive and what fuels our performance, whether it is writing a paper, or running a marathon. Your brain uses carbohydrates for energy, and so do your muscles.

We won’t dive into the nitty-gritty details here, but in basic terms, your body uses carbohydrates, fats, and proteins for energy. Most exercise, especially high-intensity exercise, is fueled by 90+% carbohydrates, less 10% by fats, and less than 1% of protein.

Thus, it is crucial to stay topped up on carbohydrates during high-intensity exercise.

 

The Purest Form of Fuel

Food

Fueling in cycling is more unique than many other sports because of the duration of training and racing. Cyclists often ride for hours at a time. Grand Tour cyclists ride, on average, about five hours a day for three weeks straight. Burning crucial calories that must be replaced in order for their muscles to keep going.

The ‘hunger flat’ or ‘bonking’ is one of the worst feelings in cycling. This is the term for when your muscles run out of carbohydrates, which power high-intensity exercise.

Once your body runs out of carbs – the average human can store ~2000 calories of carbohydrates in their body – it must rely on fat and protein for energy.

The human body cannot process fat and protein very quickly. We’re talking hours, instead of the minutes that it takes to process carbs – and thus, you quickly run out of energy.

Pedaling through a ‘hunger flat’ feels like riding in slow motion. You can keep moving, but only barely. Your brain can tell your muscles to move, but it’s almost like they’re stuck on a limiter. Most of the time, you’ll have to pull over to the side of the road and eat.

Nutrition is also crucial for cycling performance in racing and training. Carbohydrates help fuel high-intensity exercises, such as sprints, intervals, hill climbs, and races.

But here’s the math problem: if the average human body can only store ~2000 calories of carbohydrates, and you do a 4-hour bike race while burning 800 calories per hour… That’s 2000 – (4×800) = -400 calories. You’re going to bonk!

 

Keeping the Energy Levels Up

SIS energy gels

In order to keep from bonking, we need to refuel on the bike. Some of the options include solid food, sports drinks, gels, candies, gummies, water, and more. Some of the most common cycling food are fruit, rice cakes, energy bars, and carbohydrate gels because they are easy to eat and digest.

There are too many factors to cover here that affect how much you should eat and drink on the bike, but here are a few:

  • Rider body weight
  • Rider sweat rate (amount and salt concentration)
  • Weather conditions (heat and humidity / cold and wet)
  • Ride intensity

 

The general recommendation is that cyclists eat ~200-250 calories per hour for any ride longer than 90 minutes. If you’re riding for less than 90 minutes, you can get by with just eating your normal meals before and after the ride.

Many athletes train their gut to process more than 250 calories per hour, but that is a deep dive for another day.

Salt and electrolyte fueling is a hot topic in cycling, but the general recommendation is to drink some salt and electrolytes on every ride, especially if you’re a heavy sweater. A good rule of thumb is to have one bottle of plain water for every bottle that you have of salt/electrolyte drink.

The hydration recommendation for cycling is to drink about one 16oz bottle per hour. Whether it’s hot or cold, humid or dry, or you’re riding hard or easy, the general rule is the same, and you’ll never overhydrate by drinking one bottle an hour.

Cycling nutrition and hydration boils down to this ideal schedule for a two-hour training ride, for example:

  • 3-4 hours prior to your ride, eat a carbohydrate-rich meal
  • Begin your ride with two bottles, one with plain water and one with electrolyte mix
  • Drink about one bottle per hour (switching off sips from both bottles)
  • 45-60 minutes into your ride, eat a 200-250 calorie snack (banana, energy bar, gel)
  • Within two hours of the end of your ride, have a carb-rich drink (650mL) or a normal meal

 

On that last point, studies have shown that the ‘two-hour protein window’ is more myth than fact. Sure, the body may absorb protein and carbohydrates faster when ingested after a workout, but science says that the window is much bigger than two hours.

In fact, you can still get the full effects of a post-workout to refuel up 6-8 hours after your workout. The human body is impressive and adaptable, so don’t worry too much if you can’t get a meal right after a big race or training ride.

 

Having the Right Mindset

Endurance sport is as hard mentally as it is physically, and that’s why having the right mindset is as important to your training as the actual training itself.

Without the right mindset, you will be second-guessing yourself, suffering badly during intervals, and struggling to find the motivation to ride.

It is important to maintain balance throughout your life, and balance between cycling, training, relationships, and work.

I’ve seen too many riders go all-in on cycling, only to burn out and regret the years of sacrificing time with family and friends to train. No matter how obsessed you are with cycling, there is a point where it can become too much.

We’ve even seen it in the pro peloton, with riders like Tom Dumoulin and Miguel Angel Lopez. They took a break from cycling when they were at the peak of their careers. And these riders were living as professional athletes, fighting for stage wins at the Tour de France, and traveling the world to race their bikes.

Cycling can be a cruel sport, but it is also one of the most rewarding. There are few experiences in life that will give you the same feeling as conquering a mountain, winning a bike race, or riding without training wheels for the first time.

It is equal part fear, excitement, thrill, and bewilderment!

Creating balance in cycling and in life is all about developing a consistent and sustainable structure for your training and racing. Winging it every day is a recipe for disaster, and could lead to anxiety, stress, burnout, or a plateau.

Here are a few ways that you can stay balanced, while also chasing your goals in cycling.

 

The Importance of Structuring Your Training

List of things that need to be done

Making a simple list of things that you’re planning to do, is a start too

Cycling is all about training, mental and physical, day after day, hour after hour, and year after year. That may sound daunting, but it’s all built in small steps. It all starts with your first ride, then your first climb, then your first sprint, your first group ride, your first race…and all of a sudden, you’re hooked!

Related: Strength Exercises For Cycling

As an endurance sport, cycling performance is based on a combination of physiological factors such as VO2 Max, aerobic capacity, cardiovascular fitness, and more. These are all things that can be trained over long periods of time, sometimes a few minutes, sometimes a few hours, and sometimes over many years.

Training is part of what separates the good from the great in cycling, but there are also many other factors such as genetics, anatomy, and bike handling skills.

Pro cyclists train an average of 20-25 hours/week and up to 40 hours/week in preparation for three-week Grand Tours. Amateur cyclists, on the other hand, typically train 6-8 hours/week, with elite cyclists training around 10-15 hours/week.

For amateur cyclists, consistency is more important than overall training volume, and just because someone trains more than you doesn’t mean that they’re going to be better. You can beat another rider with tactics, timing, energy-saving, and pure grit. But you can also structure your training so that you get the most out of each and every session.

You can get extremely fit on less than 8 hours of training per week. The key is to keep your workouts structured and focused and make every pedal stroke count.

With a well-structured training plan, you can still make time for work, family, and relationships, while maintaining a healthy and balanced relationship with cycling.

 

Recovery

Sleeping is the best way to recover

There are new recovery tools popping up each and every day, but in reality, the #1 recovery tool is sleep. Our body rests and regenerates during sleep, filling up our muscles with carbohydrates from dinner, repairing our sore muscles, and taking a break from thinking.

Science tells us that, more than ice baths, saunas, yoga, and massages combined, getting 7 to 8+ hours of quality sleep per night will do more to improve your cycling performance more than any other recovery technique.

Stretching is a hot topic in cycling – and in sport in general. Science shows both benefits and drawbacks to stretching before or after endurance exercise.

Before a ride, dynamic stretching can help you loosen up and achieve a better position on the bike, but it won’t help you increase your power output. Post-ride stretching can also help loosen up tight muscles, but there is no definitive link between flexibility and cycling performance.

I tell all of my athletes that stretching is a personal preference. It isn’t guaranteed to improve your performance, so I won’t tell you that you need to do it. But for many people (myself included), stretching is a calming, meditative activity that feels good.

 

Supplements

Different types of supplements affect the user differently

A supplement is a manufactured, dietary product that contains an amount or combination of nutrients, vitamins, minerals, fiber, amino acids, and fatty acids. Supplements come in multiple forms but are most often pills, capsules, tablets, or powders.

As they relate to cycling, most supplements are designed to either improve cycling performance or improve our body’s recovery.

 

Benefits

Supplements often target the production of certain molecules or hormones that affect our muscular or cardiovascular performance. In other words, supplements can tell our body to build more muscle, work our muscles harder, or recover faster.

Beta-Alanine, for one, has been shown to increase cycling performance in a four-minute time trial. Other studies have shown this supplement to help significantly improve time to exhaustion and increase a cyclist’s work capacity when taken for just four weeks.

However, not all studies agree. Some have shown that Beta-Alanine has no effect on cycling performance and that the supplement needs to be taken for at least four weeks before it has a significant effect on performance. That’s expensive.

That brings us to caffeine, arguably the most popular and affordable cycling supplement in existence.

 

Caffeine

Caffeine is the most well-known simulant

Caffeine is a stimulant that has been shown to improve performance by blocking adenosine from receptors in the brain. Translated: caffeine blocks the feeling of ‘drowsiness’ from your brain.

This is why we can stay up late while drinking a cup of coffee, maintain our energy levels throughout the afternoon, and feel energized during a tough workout.

The benefits of caffeine have been so widely documented and it was even banned at high dosages by the World Anti-Doping Agency from 1984 to 2004.

That is interesting to think when you learn that caffeine’s effect on performance is strongest when consumed in a moderate amount of 3-6mg/kg of bodyweight. For a 70kg person, that’s 210-420mg of caffeine or the rough equivalent of a 16 oz. coffee from Starbucks, or two cups of coffee at home.

To use caffeine to your advantage, drink 1-2 cups of coffee within 30-60 minutes of exercise for maximal performance benefit.

When it comes to recovery, there is no better supplement than real food. But if bananas, tofu, and rice isn’t available, a carbohydrate and protein drink is the next best thing.

The 4:1 ratio of carb to protein is said to be the best for recovering from endurance exercise. Its goal is to replenishing glycogen stores and enhancing muscle protein synthesis. You don’t need anything fancy here. A tasty drink consumed within two hours of exercise is better than any pill you could buy at the drugstore.

 

Potential risks

It’s no secret that doping and cycling have a history. The landscape has vastly changed in the last 20 or so years, and cycling is now one of the most thoroughly tested sports in existence. Everyone from Tour de France pros to elite amateurs can be tested. The bigger the event, the more likely there is to be anti-doping testing.

And there is where we see a huge problem with taking supplements. Not every over-the-counter supplement will have been rigorously tested and approved by the WADA, and so it is up to you, the consumer, to do your own research to make sure the supplement is legal.

Even your average protein powder can appear harmless, but it could have trace amounts of an illegal substance.

As we’ve said so many times before, every cyclist is unique, and our reactions to supplements are no different.

The number of supplements that you take, your size, body weight, and metabolism, the time at which you take them, and how different supplements interact with each other can all change their effects on your body and cycling performance.

In summary, it is almost impossible to know the effect a supplement will have on your body without months of vigorous testing.

Supplements can also be extremely expensive, and if they aren’t doing any good for you, you’re basically flushing your money down the toilet. So beware of marketing schemes and unproven products.

There are a handful of supplements that can help improve cycling performance, but the vast majority are just expensive placebos.

 

Altitude Training

Altitude training

Picture source: exercisenstitute.com.au

Altitude training is when athletes go to live and or train at a high altitude (above ~5000ft or 1500m) for weeks at a time.

At high altitudes, the air is less dense, which means that there is less oxygen in the air. Because our body relies on oxygen to help fuel our muscles – this is a very general overview. The less oxygen there is, the more we struggle to contract our muscles repeatedly.

This means that cycling and endurance exercise gets harder and harder the higher we go up, and this is why people use oxygen tanks to climb Mount Everest.

Studies have shown that cycling performance, specifically aerobic power, significantly decreases at high altitudes. One study by Joe Friel showed that aerobic power decreases by 12-16% at an elevation of 8000 feet (~2400m). That’s a decrease of 30-50w for a rider with an FTP of 300w.

Related: Power Meters Explained

 

Benefits

However, training at altitude can actually improve your cycling performance because of the effects altitude has on your body.

Within the first 48 hours of moving to high altitude, the human body begins producing more red blood cells, which carry oxygen to the muscles and fuel exercise performance. In general, the more red blood cells you have in your blood, the better your aerobic exercise performance.

High altitude stimulates the production of red blood cells in a way that interval training can’t. And the effects are impressive.

Altitude training increases your performance at high altitudes and may increase your performance at sea level. In the latter, studies have shown potential increases of 1-2%, but that’s not the main focus of altitude training.

The main goal is to perform better at high altitudes, and so cyclists use altitude training to prepare for races or events which are at or go up to, high altitudes. That’s why we see pro cyclists head to the altitude before the Tour de France, which includes many climbs that go up to 2000+ meters.

 

Possible Downsides

Cycling on higher crounds

Altitude training has the potential to decrease your fitness and cycling performance because of the immense toll that it takes on your body. Spend too long at altitude, or train too hard at high elevation, and you will push your body into a state of overtraining (more on that below).

Without adequate rest, your body won’t be able to recover from these high-altitude workouts, and your performance will steadily decrease.

It is easy to overtrain at altitude for two main reasons:

You don’t recognize your loss of fitness.

When we go to high altitudes, the effects are almost immediate. Within a few days, your aerobic fitness has significantly decreased as your body is working hard to compensate for having less oxygen. It can be difficult to accept your fate.

I’ve seen countless riders overtrain at altitude because they didn’t recognize their change in fitness. Their FTP was 350w at sea level, and they trained like it was the same at high altitude when in reality, their FTP is closer to 300w at altitude.

In just a few days, you can push your body into an over-trained/under-recovered state that will ruin the rest of your time at altitude unless you take the time to rest and recover.

Sleeping at a high altitude.

The effects of hypoxia (low oxygen levels) are not limited to periods of training. In fact, they’re acting on your body 24/7 when you’re at a high altitude. That means that it’s also affecting your sleep. With less oxygen to utilize, your body will recover slower at high altitudes, even during sleep.

 

Overtraining

Overtraining

Image source: ilovebicycling.com

Overtraining is a period of high training load accompanied by decreases in performance, psychological stress, demotivation, and chronic fatigue. This is what happens when you keep training harder and harder without taking adequate rest.

It is different from over-reaching, which is a well-established and proven training principle defined as the increase in training load over a few days or weeks which is followed by a period of rest that then brings performance to a higher level than before.

Overtraining is when you never give yourself that period of rest when you keep on pushing, but your body never fully recovers, and your performance actually worsens rather than increases.

You can spot signs of overtraining, such as the inability to recover from a race or workout within 72 hours of its completion. And that brings up another point: overtraining is as closely related to recovery as it is to training.

Some of the best pro cyclists in the world say that it is not possible for them to overtrain, but it is possible for them to under-recover.

When we’re talking about overtraining, we’re talking about the body’s inability to recover from training. Keep that in mind when life gets especially busy or stressful.

Even if you’re training the same amount as before, you could be under-recovering because of all the extra stress your body is experiencing outside of cycling.

It can take weeks, even months, to recover from overtraining. The next step up is complete burnout, which can take months or years to recover from.

Here’s what to look for to spot overtraining:

  • Chronic fatigue
  • Demotivation
  • Plateau in performance (over weeks or months)
  • Irritability and mood swings
  • Inability to recover from hard racing or training sessions within 72 hours

 

In terms of specific scientific metrics, you can also spot signs of overtraining in:

  • Increased resting heart rate
  • Weight and muscle loss
  • Poor sleep
  • Increased cortisol
  • Decreased testosterone
  • Decreased glycogen levels

 

Training is tricky because you need to go through periods of overreaching in order to improve, without ever reaching the point of overtraining.

This is where coaches and structured training plans come in. Using these outside sources, you can control your training load, while also building in crucial rest periods which will help your body recover and for your performance to improve.

 

Avoiding Overtraining

A good rule of thumb is to take at least one day of rest per week (no cycling, no gym sessions, no running), and one “rest week” every few weeks. A “rest week” is characterized by a marked decrease in training load, such as the reduction of weekly training volume by 30-50%.

In other words, if you’re used to training 8-10 hours/week, once a month, you should have a “rest week” where you ride only 4-6 hours.

You can still do the same amount of intensity. In order to maximize your long-term fitness gains, you actually should. But make sure to cut your weekly volume, and maybe skip the long ride over the weekend.

This structure will allow your body the time it needs to recover, while also being short enough to not lose the fitness that you have been working so hard to build up.

Want to learn more bout overtraining and how to avoid it (and recover)? See our in-depth article on overtraining.