There’s a lot to learn when starting a new sport and that includes what the best training practices are. With cycling, we are quite lucky as it is a very measurable and controlled activity, and so the research papers into training principles are extensive.
However, when starting out, it’s daunting enough just to go out riding, let alone to know where to start with structured training and which approaches to believe and which to not. This is where having a personal coach is extremely useful as you can chat to them most days, letting them know how you’re feeling and how you found the session that day. They can then adapt your training accordingly.
Gwyneth and I have shared some of the things we’ve learned coming from a running and tennis background respectively.
Personally, coming from a tennis background, I have experienced a few significant learning curves in the last year from when I started training more seriously on the bike.
Most rides have to be easy rides!
When playing tennis, in almost every session is a series of very short max efforts, whether that be basket drills or practice points. I tried to take this mindset into cycling which resulted in going far too hard on my endurance (Z2) rides and abusing intensity (rides Z3 and above in the 5 Zone Model) and I very quickly worked myself into a ‘hole’. As a mathematician, I’m interested in the reasoning behind things and so have started to learn more about training principles. Working with my coach, my new training weeks are greater in volume but with far fewer high intensity sessions (above Endurance Zone 2) and as a result, I feel fresher and I’ve seen my best numbers.
It might seem counterintuitive that riding really easy for 80% of your week will make you faster overall but all the science backs this up! Hit the hard sessions fresh and give 100% effort; then ride easy, chat with friends, and stop at cafes the rest of the time! I know my story is only anecdotal but here is an example of my training week from November where I was really struggling to sleep and couldn’t concentrate even for short periods of time. This is in comparison to one of my training weeks now where I’m riding much more and feel fresh most of the time.
Hours on court do not equal hours on the bike
As a full-time tennis player, I used to spend around 20 hours a week on court and 5 hours on track, strength & conditioning, and mobility sessions. When we went into the second lockdown and the courts were shut again, I tried to swap my tennis hours over to cycling hours and I lasted about 4 days… There’s a lot of rest time in those 20 hours on court whereas there definitely isn’t as much rest with 20 hours on the bike, apart from the odd descent or stopping at traffic lights!
Since running is also an endurance sport, a lot of the training principles I was applying to my running transferred to cycling nicely. However, I’ve found with cycling that I can put in more hours than I could running since it is a lower impact activity and can be performed at a lower HR and lower intensities.
While the physical principles of training were similar to my first sport, I’ve focused more on the bike-handling aspect of my rides as this helps conserve energy in races. An example of this is ensuring you are staying on people’s wheels and not doing all the work in the front!
How does this apply to you?
While we don’t expect most of you reading this to have been tennis players or runners, the lessons we have learned are definitely applicable for anyone starting to take cycling more seriously. To summarise:
Be careful with intensity. Don’t go hard more than 2-3 times a week (Seiler, 2010) and you will be surprised how much fresher you feel, how many more hours training you can do and how much faster you can get.
Understand that cycling puts stress on your body, and to build up your training progressively to avoid overtraining and injuries.
Training doesn’t have to be all about improving fitness! Improving your handling skills and confidence out on the roads will help you go faster for less effort.
Seiler, S., 2010. What is best practice for training intensity and duration distribution in endurance athletes. Int J Sports Physiol Perform, 5(3), pp.276-291.