With the new year underway and racing season and our All Women’s Ride Century approaching on March 6th, I thought this a good time to share some tips about becoming a stronger rider. It’s a wide-ranging topic, so I’ll break this down into a series of articles. How many is yet to be determined, so we’ll just roll with it.
Today, I’m going to talk about the basics of training on the bike and how to best use your riding time to get fitter and faster. Some of you may be thinking, “I just ride for fun; I don’t care about racing and getting fast…”. That’s great, I ride for fun as well, but these tips are super-simple, will give you some insight into how the human body does the work you ask of it while riding, and let’s face it, going faster for longer is just plain fun!
The human body’s energy systems can be sliced very thinly into 6 zones, with sub-zones as well, but let’s just talk about the 3 biggies: endurance, threshold and VO2. Easy.
Measuring your training. You can stay in the different energy zones by using heart rate, power, or rate of perceived exertion (RPE). Using heart rate requires a heart rate monitor and some knowledge about setting up your training zones. It simply measures how fast your heart is beating in response to the work you are requiring it to do. It can also be influenced by fatigue, dehydration, temperature, altitude, etc. When using a powermeter, the gold standard for training, you are measuring the actual work being performed regardless of your physiological response. It doesn’t care how tired you are or that you’re riding in Flagstaff as opposed to Fountain Hills. This also requires setting up your zones (everyone is different, and they change as you gain/lose fitness). Using heart rate and/or power to train without taking the time to get with a coach and set up your zones properly and keep them up to date is a waste of time. You’re shooting in the dark. My favorite way of measuring physical output on the bike is simply by perceiving my exertion. If you know what to look for and how each zone “feels”, it’s actually quite accurate. So let’s get into the zones.
The endurance zone is your all-day riding pace, and it’s different for everyone. The basic building block of cycling is aerobic endurance because it’s an aerobic sport. This is where your body uses oxygen and (hopefully) fat to generate energy. If you’re new to aerobic activity, you may be burning sugar here as well. One of the objectives in training is to get our bodies to burn fat further and further up the intensity scale. Even the leanest athlete has enough fat on their body to fuel a week or two of riding, but our sugar supplies are limited. You can stay in this zone by riding at an intensity where you can talk in complete sentences. This is what we call “conversational pace” and it can feel maddeningly slow, but training here is of monumental importance. If you view aerobic fitness as a pyramid, the endurance zone is at the base of that pyramid. Therefore, training this energy system cannot be skipped, so embrace it! Get with a friend and set out on nice long rides where the conversation flows… make sure you ride at that conversational pace. Pushing above that does more harm than good while training your endurance; you’d be shocked at how slowly the pros ride when on an endurance ride….do the same!
Before we move to the next energy system, let me pause and say a word about average speed. I know a lot of cycling enthusiasts who use average speed to train and to measure how fit they are becoming. Let me clear here: not one single pro or serious amateur rider does this. Why? TRAINING USING AVERAGE SPEED AS A METRIC DOES NOT MAKE YOU FAST; IT MAKES YOU AVERAGE. You heard me….if you have a cycling computer, a Garmin or whatever, do not put this metric in a field on your screen or ride with this in your mind. First, it’s a silly measurement of fitness, except on a velodrome in a controlled environment, because it’s grossly affected by so many environmental factors like wind, temperature and humidity. Silliness aside, it makes riders incredibly average because they tend to ride in the zone that is “sort of hard, sort of not”. You know the one; where you feel a little burn and feel like you’re getting a workout in, but it’s not so hard that it’s unpleasant. That’s called Zone 3, or Tempo, and it’s not evil if dosed in intervals as a part of an overall training plan. But if that’s how you ride most of the time, your body will adapt to just that; riding sort of hard, but sort of not. Zone 3 is called No Man’s Land for a couple of reasons: it’s too hard to build true endurance and it creates enough fatigue that you’re too tired to go out the next day and train the more intense energy systems, which truly enhance your fitness. For now, resist the urge to “feel like you’re getting a workout in”. Trust me, you’ll want to be rested for the other zones to follow, where I promise you, there will be no doubt that you’re getting a workout.
The next energy system to train is lactate threshold. It goes by many names, but let’s call it threshold and it’s your max sustained effort for one hour. It is called threshold because it is the point where the body can no longer process all of the lactate that is accumulating in the muscles and performance declines. Riding at this level takes concentration and conversation beyond a couple words or grunts at a time is impossible. The higher your threshold, the faster you can go for longer periods of time and so it has a huge impact on overall endurance. You’ll train this system in intervals of 10, 20 or 30 mins because to do a full hour at true threshold requires a great deal of freshness in the legs, a super high level of motivation and a solid recovery period. So it’s hard to fit that into a block of training, with workouts occurring before and after. Improving your threshold is hard but worth it. I do a lot of training in the bottom part of this zone, called the Sweet Spot. It’s just a tick below full-on threshold, and you reap most of the rewards with less fatigue, which means you can go out the next day and score another quality ride.
The last one we’re going to discuss is VO2 max, or maximal aerobic capacity. This is a measurement of how much oxygen the body uses in a max effort for several minutes. Ride as hard as you can for 3 minutes and you’ll know what that feels like! Work up to 3-5 of those 3 minute intervals with 3-5 minutes in between and you have one of the best one hour workouts around. You need to be rested to do these effectively, and stop when you cannot hold that level of exertion. Start with one of these and slowly build to several. It goes without saying, this is high-intensity training and conversation is impossible. Even if your events are based around endurance-level exertion, doing these workouts will pay huge dividends in riding at lower intensities or if you need to get up that last hill.
So how do I structure these together in a week’s worth of riding? Personally, I like to get the short, VO2 ride in right away after a day or more off the bike. Because it’s very high intensity, I like to take advantage of my rested legs so that each interval is as high a quality as possible. The next day I need a little recovery, so an easy endurance ride works well. The next ride is usually a threshold day, with intervals of 10,20 or 30 minutes at threshold or sweet spot, depending where I am in my training. Put simply, you will see tremendous gains if the bulk of your riding is in the endurance zone at a conversational pace and sprinkled with lactate threshold and VO2 work. If you spend a bunch of time in No Man’s Land, you’ll never be rested enough to make the high intensity efforts matter.
If you have 20 hours a week to ride your bike, you can pretty much ride however you want (as a recreational cyclist, anyway) and you’ll get faster. I don’t have that kind of time and I enjoy being fairly strong on the bike, so a little structure is in order, but only a couple days a week for the threshold and VO2 work. The rest of the time I’m just playing but making sure I’m rested for the hard days. When the smart riders ride easy, they ride really easy and when they go hard, they go really hard.
Thanks for reading and stay tuned for the next installment aimed at making significant gains in fitness and fun in 2016!