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CYCLING PERFORMANCE TIPS

  Last updated: 1/15/2016

AEROBIC TRAINING BASICS



Note - This section will focus on training for cycling and other aerobic sports rather than resistance or strength training.

A focused training program can increase your VO2max by 15 to 30% over a 3 month period and by up to 50% over 2 years. But the converse is true as well. There is a drop off in performance and metabolic adaptations within a few weeks of stopping a regular training regimen although certain physical changes (such as the number of muscle capillaries and skeletal/cardiac muscle fiber size) occur more slowly (see detraining below).

Metabolic adaptations facilitate aerobic energy production (from glucose and glycogen) as well as improving lactic acid removal from the muscle cell. These changes lead to performance at a higher level % VO2max for longer periods of time. In addition an increase in lipid metabolism at any level of exertion results in extra energy Calories from fat to supplement those from glycogen and glucose metabolism for any specified level of activity (%VO2max). The net result of these changes? An increase in your maximal performance - as well as endurance (the ability to maintain that high level of performance for a longer time interval).

Training also improves the physical structure of the muscle which can then better withstand the stresses of prolonged exertion. These include strengthening of the connective tissue between muscle fibers which in turn minimizes the microtrauma (and post exercise discomfort) that often occur with further training.

Not every training session needs to stress the cardiovascular system. In fact a successful program needs a balance of aerobic stress and rest to allow mental and physical recovery minimizing the risk of overtraining and burnout. It has also been demonstrated that a focused rest in the week prior to competition improves performance.

Before we get into the the details of training, let's remember the first rule of a successful program - starting from with a good training base. If it is early in the riding season, or you have just decided to get back into riding after a period off the bike, the key to minimizing injury while preparing to get the most out of the training tips that follow, is a good mileage base. You may be fortunate enough to live in warmer, dryer climes, or been able to drag yourself to a spin class all winter, but if not, the first step in your training program is to log unstressed (no intervals, no sprinting up hills) miles on your bike (and body). It's not that intervals or hills are forbidden - but not too hard or too often. Remember, you're banking foundation miles for the season. The best strategy early in the training year is to let the terrain and how you feel (perceived exertion) dictate when to add additional effort. If, at the end of the long ride, you feel you could go out and put in a few more miles - you are probably doing it just right. A good target is a base of ~500 miles - and as a rule of thumb, don't increase your weekly mileage by more than 10% (over the prior week) as you get there.

TRAINING INTENSITY

Is more better? Not necessarily. The optimum training intensity varies by a few percent between individuals (that's where a coach can be helpful in working with you to find the extra few % that gives a performance advantage to an elite athlete).

There are 3 levels of intensity to consider.

It is generally accepted that aerobic improvement occurs at >85% of your VO2max (approximately 90% of your max. heart rate), and although REGULAR training is needed, excessive training above this level only increases the chance of injury and burnout without a corresponding benefit in cardiovascular (or musculoskeletal) adaptation. Lower levels of exercise - 60% maximum heart rate for 45 minutes or 70% maximum heart rate for 20 minutes - will modestly improve (or at least maintain) general cardiovascular conditioning. The use of the "long slow distance" approach, where your maximum heart rate is kept at or below 60 to 80% VO2max will not improve performance for high level aerobic events but is instead a strategy to prepare your musculoskeletal system for endurance training alone. A West Virginia U. study assigned 15 women to either a low intensity (132 beats per minute) or high intensity (163 bpm) group exercising both for 45 minutes, 4 times a week. There was an increase in VO2max for members of the high intensity group, but not the low intensity one.

TRAINING DURATION

The optimum length of a training session depends to a great degree on the intensity. Ten minutes of 70% maximum heart rate will be of some benefit, but 30 to 40 minutes are even better. Does that mean 60 minutes gives you a proportionally greater benefit? That is less clear, and it seems logical that at some point the negative effects of exercise to break down and injure muscle tissue outweighs the cardiovascular benefits.

Does 30 minutes of 80% MHR equate to 40 minutes at 70% i.e. increase the intensity to compensate for decreasing the duration? For endurance training perhaps, but not for improving your VO2max.

As proof of an upper limit for the benefits of aerobic training, a group of swimmers training 1.5 hours per day was compared to a group training with two equivalent 1.5 hour sessions. There was no difference in the final performance, power, or endurance between the two groups. For endurance aerobic training (continuous, not intervals) at less than 90% maximum heart rate it makes the most sense to look at the duration of the planned event, and train:


DO SIX 1/2 HOUR RIDES = ONE 3 HOUR TRAINING RIDE?

Q. As I have a rather flexible schedule I was wondering which would be most advantageous to build my endurance and fitness during the winter months of shorter daylight hours.. 5 days a week of 2 - 3 hour rides or 2 days 4 - 5 hour rides and recovery rides in between?

A second part is that I have had beginning riders ask a more extreme version: "What if I rode once a week for 2 hours vs four 1/2 hour rides, which would be best."

A. It all comes down to the purpose of your riding/training.

If you are training for endurance (length of time you will be sitting on the seat of the bike) you need to work up to riding at least one longer ride (near that time duration of that planned ride) a week. Thus if you are training for 3 hour ride, you need to work towards riding a single 3 hour training ride. 6 one half hour rides will not get your body (muscles, shoulders, butt) use to 3 straight hours on the bike like a single 3 hour ride will.

If you want to ride faster, then 2 one half hour rides at 80 - 90% VO2max may be almost as good a single one 1 hour ride (at the same clip).

TRAINING FREQUENCY

Studies indicate that maximum aerobic conditioning (measured as an increase in VO2max) occurs with 3 workout days per week. So unless you are trying to burn Calories to lose weight, or are working to get the musculoskeletal system (back, shoulders) in shape for a long endurance event by increasing mileage on the bike, it is better to take 2 to 3 days per week off the bike to allow for muscle and ligament repair and decrease the risk of cumulative stress resulting in an increase in training injuries. Interestingly, it appears that the 3 days per week will maximize aerobic conditioning equally in any combination - i.e. 3 days in a row with 4 off, alternating days of exercise/rest, etc.

Q. I was reading the other day in Joe Friels Cyclists Training Bible that he feels training twice a day is better because you release a second dose of growth hormone during the day. I haven't found any literature behind his comment. Have you got in more info about training twice a day compared to once? - J.

A.I am not aware of any literature supporting twice a day training other than as a "work around" for a training schedule limitations (such as work commitments). In fact I would suspect that if there is any effect it would more likely be a negative rather compared to a single longer session.

MIXED RESISTANCE AND AEROBIC TRAINING

Anecdotes abound about the negative impact of combining resistance and aerobic training on the same day. This phenomena, called "exercise antagonism" is described in this NY Times article.

Although resistance and aerobic training impact the muscle cells unique and different ways, scientific studies suggest that there is little difference ..."within muscles whether the men performed both aerobic and resistance training or aerobic training alone." And it apparently made no difference as to the order i.e. if one does their aerobic workout first that day - or the resistance training.

For those of you, especially triathletes, who have complex training schedules, this removes one additional worry factor about the interference of different training modalities and should make your planning easier.

DETRAINING

Studies on maintenance of the benefits of aerobic training revealed that a 2/3 reduction in training frequency i.e. going from 6 days a week to 2 days a week (keeping the same maximal intensity for each individual workout) maintained aerobic gains. Thus you can cut a 60 minute, 6 per week program to similar 60 minute sessions 2 times a week and maintain your aerobic fitness level, BUT you CANNOT maintain a similar fitness level by cutting the intensity of the 60 minute session and keeping them at 6 times per week. If intensity is held constant, the frequency and duration of exercise required to maintain fitness are much less than the effort needed to attain that fitness level in the first place.

METHODS OF TRAINING - anaerobic intensity versus aerobic intensity

Training needs to be structured for the intensity and duration of the planned sporting event. Anaerobic (oxygen independent) exercise is generally brief (less than 60 seconds in duration) and is fueled by the anaerobic energy pathways in the cell (ATP, creatine phosphate). The classic anaerobic sport is weightlifting. Sprint activities also use anaerobic pathways. If the sprint lasts more than 5 or 10 seconds, lactic acid production (and clearance) also becomes an limiting factor due to the negative effects of lactic acid on muscle performance. Training focused on anaerobic sessions will enhance the ATP and CP energy transfer pathways in the cell as well as improving the tolerance for and clearance of lactic acid.

Aerobic training (important for cycling and other sporting events lasting more than 60 seconds) provides its major benefits through improvement of the cardiovascular and oxygen delivery systems to the muscle cell. These include improvements in both cardiac output (amount of blood pumped by the heart per minute) and changes at the muscle fiber level that increase the removal or extraction of oxygen from the blood cells in the capillaries. In addition, there is an improvement in the efficiency of the cellular metabolic pathways which convert glucose into ATP in the presence of oxygen.

There is always a combination of ongoing anaerobic and aerobic metabolism in the muscle cell. As the level of exertion (measured by %VO2max) increases, there is a transition within the muscle cell from this balance of an almost entirely aerobic metabolism (and minimal anaerobic metabolism) towards an energy production process with a more anaerobic component. There are always areas of relatively lower perfusion within a muscle - and these areas are thus more likely to be functioning anaerobically. So even at 50 to 60% VO2max some anaerobic conditioning is occurring. But at 85% VO2max (the "anaerobic threshold" for most individuals) there is an abrupt increase in anaerobic metabolism throughout the entire muscle. Even though some cross training of the anaerobic systems takes place during exercise at 60 to 80% VO2max, a training program for sprint performance needs to include several exercise sessions per week above 85% VO2max. Long slow distance may be good training for aerobic, endurance events, but it will not improve your sprint performance.

A good training program will be designed to include both aerobic and anaerobic exercise sessions. It is the art of finding the balance of the types of exercise (aerobic vs anaerobic; interval training, continuous training, and fartlek training) in your overall program which will determine its effectiveness for the competitive event for which you are training.

INTERVAL TRAINING - improve your VO2max

"Doing intervals" refers to sandwiching periods of intense physical activity between periods of recovery. Intervals develop your ability to maintain longer periods of exertion at your peak performance levels - and get there more quickly. One study (in runners) demonstrated that continuous, maximal performance levels could be sustained for only 0.8 miles before exhaustion occurred, while a similar level of peak exertion could be maintained for a cumulative distance (duration) of over 4 miles when an interval approach was used.

If one is training for sprints of up to 20 seconds in duration (which do not involve significant lactic acid buildup and basically are training the ATP and CP energy systems), it is recommended that the duration of the training interval be 1 to 5 seconds over the usual best time for the sprint distance (with exercise intensity or maximum effort being that of the event for which you are training. For example, if one is training for a 100 yard dash, and has a personal best of 12 seconds, the training interval should be a 13 or 14 seconds sprint at the same pace (ignoring the total distance being covered in the 13 or 14 seconds) with a rest (lower intensity activity) period 3 times longer than the training interval recommended for recovery - 42 seconds in this example.

Using intervals to train for longer sprints (up to several minutes) produces significant lactic acid buildup in the muscles along with stressing the anaerobic metabolic pathways. To train for these longer distances (several minutes of maximum output), it is suggested that the distance for which you are training be subdivided, and the training interval effort focused on that shorter distance. For example, if one is training for a personal best in a mile ride on the bike, and the best time for the entire mile is 3 minutes on the bike (with the best 1/4 mile segment being 30 seconds and the best 1/2 mile segment being 80 seconds) the training interval could be set at either 1/4 or 1/2 mile and the time for this training interval set at your personal best minus 3 to 5 seconds. In this example the training interval might be chosen as 1/4 mile with a goal of a 25 second time. And the rest interval should be 2 times the training interval (as lactic acid clearance does not require the same recovery time as recharging the intracellular metabolic machinery).

A risk to be considered is that training program drop out rates can double when intervals are used, so they should be used judiciously. Don't use intervals all year round, limit them to twice a week during your peak season, and separate each session by at least 48 hours to allow adequate recovery. If your long ride is on the weekend, Tuesday and Thursday make the most sense for your interval training. The goal should be at least 10 to 20 minutes of hard pedaling per training interval session, not counting warm up, recovery, or cool down. A good place to start is with 5 minutes of peak effort per daily interval session.

Another approach is to use one day a week for short intervals (i.e. five - 60 second and five - 90 second intervals) and a second for longer intervals (two - 3 minute and two - 5 minute intervals). Allow 3 to 5 minutes for recovery between intervals and don't forget a 20 to 30 minute warm up and a 15 minute cool down. It has been shown that as few as a half dozen 5 minute intervals (separated by one minute recoveries) during a 300 km training week will improve both time trial and peak performance.

If you have a heart rate monitor, an alternative is to key intervals to your maximum heart rate. Ride your intervals at 80 to 90% of your maximum heart rate and spin easily until your heart rate drops to 60 to 65% of maximum.

CONTINUOUS TRAINING (LSD)

Continuous training refers to aerobic activity performed at 60 to 90% VO2max for an hour or more. When done at the lower end of this range, it is often referred to as long, slow distance (LSD) training. This level of training is ideal for those starting off an exercise program, those wishing to maximize Caloric expenditure for weight loss purposes, and as an option for an active "rest" day in a weekly aerobic training program.

This level of exertion can be maintained for hours at slightly less intensity than you may have used in personal competitive events in the past, and is particularly suited for endurance event training. It is thought to have a preferential benefit for the slow twitch muscle fibers (as opposed to the fast twitch fibers used in sprint interval training). It is suggested that a distance of 2 to 5 times the actual competitive event be chosen for this daily segment of a weekly training program.

FARTLEK TRAINING

This form of training is a combination of interval and LSD training. It is not as structured as an interval program and is based on a personal perception of exertion rather than specific time or distance intervals. It mimics the "sprint to the line" that is part of many road races. While there is little scientific proof of its benefits it makes sense physiologically; and psychologically it adds a feeling of freedom to those long slow days. How many sprints, and for how long?? The choice is up to you, but the intervals are probably in the neighborhood of those used for interval training.

SPRINTS OR DISTANCE?

People usually are changing their training program for one of two reasons - they want to ride further or they want to ride faster.

If you are training for the goal of riding a long event, and your speed is just fine, it is important to make sure you are putting in the weekly miles (at any intensity). No intervals needed. It is about getting your body use to sitting on the bike for longer periods of time.

If you want to increase your top speed (MPH), which means you need to increase your VO2max, you will want to train your cardiovascular system (heart and lungs) with at least 2 days of intervals a week, with the intervals increasing your heart rate to at least 90% of your max heart rate).

If you want to improve both you need a combination of intervals and longer rides in your weekly program. Doing more than 2 days of intervals a week increases the rate of training burnout and injury - so I suggest limiting interval (>90% VO2max) training to 2 days a week.

THE BOTTOM LINE - KEY POINTS FOR AN AEROBIC TRAINING PROGRAM

(see also USING A HEART RATE MONITOR)

Based on the above principles, the following outlines the design of an ideal weekly training program with the 7 days including:

Aim for a total time commitment per week of 10 hours. It's interesting that two of America's all-time great road riders, Greg LeMond and Connie Carpenter, both recommend the same total weekly training time -- 10 hours -- for fast recreational riders. They say if you devote that much to a mix to distance, speed, climbing and easy rides for recovery, you're likely to come close to your potential. And time on the bike seems to be the key, not the miles ridden. LeMond's Law is occasionally referred to in bike magazines. To paraphrase: when you record your daily workout, make your key entry the time you rode not how far you rode. The reason, says Greg, "twenty miles into a headwind is a lot different than 20 miles with a tailwind". The same holds for a ride in the hills vs. a ride on flat ground.

For most recreational roadies, 7-10 hours of riding per week is plenty for steady improvement if you have an intelligent training program. Wouldn't more be better? If you do try to add in extra hours, you risk bothy overtraining as well as the extra stress produced by more time on the bike. Both physical stress on your body and the pressure it puts on responsibilities to family, friends, and profession.

SPECIAL CASE - TEAM EVENTS/MULTIPLE CYCLES

Team events where each individual does multiple repetitions are a special case. The following question illustrates my thoughts.

Q.I am taking part in a 24 hour mountain bike event in July. There will be 5 of us in a team, so we will be taking it in turns on a course that takes approximately 40 minutes. That means we will have roughly 240 minute breaks between rides. The question is how do you train for that?

My main concern is the disjointed nature of the event. I have an idea what to do to train for a 6 hour event or a 40 minute event, but as we will be racing hard for 40 minutes, 8 or 9 times in 24 hours do I:

A. I would plan your weekly training program as if this was to be a 40 minute, high intensity event, with the additional focus being on what you need to do to maximize your recovery in the 4 hour break between "events".

I'd estimate the total mileage you think you would be riding in the 24 hours - and then be sure your baseline mileage (weekly) supports this distance. Train with your emphasis on intervals to improve performance for these 40 minute segments, and be sure you have one long ride a week at lower intensity equal to the total miles of the event + 10 - 15%.

Be sure you have maximized your glycogen reserves to start - and replace your expended Calories after each event using a liquid replacement as much as possible to minimize delays in gastric emptying and absorption. And be sure you replace sweat loses - dehydration over the 24 hours is probably the biggest risk to your performance. ( nutrition for performance, the interval ride section).



READER'S QUESTIONS

Q. I am a 30 year old dentist who is practicing in Canada. I have just got into cycling. I have been out about 6 times so far, I have been averaging 24 Km/h with some hills and flat roads. On the weekends I am out, I have been able to do a 60 Km ride by myself and I felt pretty good after. I notice normally that when I first start I get really tired after about 15 minutes and then for some reason I am good to go again for another 30-40 kms. I was wondering if you had any tips for me.

A. I think you are describing the warm up period that many riders experience - the first 5 miles, or 15 minutes, of a ride when the body cardiovascular and musculo skeletal systems are getting up to speed. It gets more noticeable with age and some riders are more bothered by it than others. I'm not aware of any shortcuts to avoid it - just listen to your body and don;t push too hard or your injury rate will go up


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