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Intelligent Cycling Training

Distance Cycling
Your Complete Guide to Endurance Cycling
By John Hughes and Dan Kehlenbach

John Hughes Distance Cycling book from Human Kinetics.

Description   Table of Contents   Authors   Reviews   Excerpt   Order the Book ]
Early Training Excerpt
If you haven’t been working out regularly, then your body needs at least two months of baseline conditioning to prepare it for an event-specific training program, whether it’s an 8-week or a 15-week program. [Kyle and Erika are characters used to illustrate the training programs.] Kyle’s century is six months away, and he’s eager to start. He plans to do 8 weeks of preliminary conditioning and then the 15-week century training program in chapter 6. Erika ia a runner and plans to do the 8-week century training program

The baseline conditioning program should include aerobic training to improve endurance, resistance workouts to increase muscle strength and muscle balance, and flexibility exercises to relieve soreness and improve comfort on the bike.

Aerobic Training
Aerobic base training provides the foundation for training, and the stronger the foundation the better it will support the demands of harder training. Think of building this aerobic base like building a house. If the foundation is not solid, the house will shift or crumble.

Aerobic base training builds the endurance necessary for a successful cycling season; it’s like putting miles in the bank. In Serious Cycling the late Dr. Edmund Burke writes that endurance cycling is a must for all cyclists because it

  • increases the potential of the muscles and liver to store carbohydrates,
  • improves the respiratory system, bringing more oxygen to the circulatory system,
  • boosts the pumping efficiency of the heart so it can pump more blood to the working muscles,
  • helps the thermoregulatory system by increasing the blood flow to the skin,
  • brings about increased neuromuscular efficiency of pedaling,
  • enhances the capacity to burn fat during long rides, and
  • improves the endurance of the cycling muscles by increasing the number of mitochondria, the subcellular structures in the muscles where aerobic energy is produced.
Adapted from Burke 2002.

Depending on where you live and what you enjoy, building the base could include riding outdoors, cross-training, and indoor sessions. Kyle lives in the North. Following the principle of specificity, Kyle should ride, either outdoors or on his trainer. But if weather is a problem or for variety, he also may cross-train.

Outdoor Riding
When conditions permit, Kyle spends time with friends on weekend club rides and with family members on appropriate rides. He meets new people and shares the joys of being on a bike.

The rides should be at moderate intensity and a conversational pace. If Kyle is not able to talk, preferably in complete sentences, he’s riding too hard. Ultimately Kyle wants to ride faster and be a better climber. After he’s built his aerobic base, he’ll be fit enough to work on those areas.

Rather than just riding, he uses his base period to develop specific aspects of his cycling. On group outings he becomes more comfortable riding with others.

Kyle practices riding with a smooth pedal stroke of 80 to 90 revolutions per minute (RPM) in his middle gears. To improve his climbing and overall speed, he might be tempted to ride in higher gears, but if he rides too hard too early he risks an injury because he hasn’t built his foundation yet. His muscles aren’t ready for the effort.

Riding for long distances requires regular nutrition, and being able to eat and drink on the bike is more convenient than having to stop. Kyle practices eating and drinking regularly while riding safely. He uses this period to try different fuels and to get his digestive system used to processing food and drink while riding. One endurance rider we coached ate breakfast on her trainer every morning for this reason. We talk a lot more about fueling in chapter 4.

Kyle also uses this base period to test his gear. He has a new bike with clipless pedals, which handle differently. For safety’s sake, he’s getting used to the equipment. He also has a new heart rate monitor and cycling computer and uses these rides to become familiar with their operation and the information they provide. We discuss equipment in detail in chapter 5.

Besides riding with the club and his friends, Kyle explores new roads. His friends give him suggestions, and he uses maps, mapping software, and websites to find new routes. He plans rides to try a new restaurant, to visit a friend, and to enjoy a picnic with his family. Base training should be fun, not just grinding away at the distance.

Weather permitting, Kyle could commute to work. He could drive to work once a week to take in clean work clothes and pick up the dirty laundry. He could take a short route to work to avoid getting too sweaty and take a longer way home. He should eat something before he starts his cycling commute and carry fruit and breakfast bars to eat at his desk. By commuting he could save on gas, help the environment, and have fun.

Recovery during base training is important. We’ve explained to Kyle that his body adapts while he is resting. Kyle rides outdoors when he can and does cross-training, stretching, and resistance training. We suggested that he keep track of the total time he spends each week on training and increase the volume by only about 5 to 10 percent each week. We recommended that he at least level off a bit every three or four weeks and, if he feels fatigued, cut back for a week. These planned recovery weeks in training will help Kyle recover both physically and mentally before the next increase in volume.

Although getting on the bike is important, off-the-bike aerobic activities are fun and can contribute to greater overall health. Think about the mechanics of cycling. You are sitting on a saddle and bearing no weight. Your leg muscles are making circular motions using a specific set of muscles in a specific movement pattern. Your core muscles should be engaged to provide a platform against which your leg muscles push and pull. Your upper body controls the bike, but the demand on the muscles of the upper torso is limited. Cross-training involves muscles and movement patterns different from those used in cycling and will help you become fitter. In addition, doing other activities prevents boredom and offers the opportunity to work out with those who may not enjoy cycling.

When cycling, our legs move in one plane. When we skate ski, swim, in-line skate, or play team sports, we move our bodies in multiple directions. These activities use different muscles and stress cycling muscles and joints in new directions.

Finally, cross-training provides a mental and physical break from structured training. Kids don’t outline their games or activities on a week-by-week basis—they play to have fun! One day they may play baseball, the next start a game of hide-and-seek, and the next go running in the woods. Kids aren’t slaves to heart rate monitors, power meters, or average speed. Their objective is to enjoy themselves. We encourage Kyle to emulate kids when cross-training; heck, he should play with his kids! One day he can go for a run, on the next he can play sandlot football with the kids, and on the weekend he can take his family hiking or snowshoeing. All exercise is healthy.

Running Running is a versatile, efficient form of cross-training. You can squeeze in a run with friends at lunch or a jog before dinner. Running develops eccentric strength, the muscle’s ability to generate force while lengthening, and thus balances cycling. During the running stride, the muscles of the lower body decelerate the leg when ground contact occurs—an eccentric action. In cycling most of the power is from shortening of the muscles (during the first 180 degrees of the pedal stroke), which is concentric strength. Cycling involves little eccentric activity. Thus, cycling is less stressful on the joints and muscles and therefore is often prescribed for injured or deconditioned people.

If you decide to start running or to add volume, be conservative. Avoid pavement if possible; running on grass or trails reduces the chance of injuries. Listen to your body. If your body cannot handle the demands of running, plenty of other enjoyable activities are available.

Hiking You can hike to enjoy the fresh air without the impacts of running, and you can share the experience with friends and family. While hiking, youngsters can learn the value of protecting our diverse yet vulnerable environment. Carrying a pack and using hiking poles can turn a simple walk into a calorie-burning adventure.

Cross-country skiing and snowshoeing For many riders, snow may prevent consistent outdoor riding, but provide cross-country skiing and snowshoeing opportunities. Cross-country skiing engages both the upper and lower body and arguably produces the most conditioned endurance athletes. The traditional diagonal stride and the skating technique provide a low-impact, highly demanding, and enjoyable cardiovascular workout. Cycling legends Andy Hampsten, Greg LeMond, Ned Overend, and Davis Phinney all used cross-country skiing as an integral part of their base conditioning.

As an alternative to skiing, if you can walk, you can snowshoe. An easy summer trail can become a strenuous cardiovascular workout. Poles help your balance and work the upper body.

Mountain biking You can get out your mountain bike, put on low-pressure studded tires for traction and enjoy packed roads and trails. Some riders participate in multiday endurance events on MTBs that are equipped to ride in the snow.

Swimming Swimming provides an excellent low-impact, total-body workout. Swimming improves the aerobic base, but you should complement it with activities that use the primary cycling muscles. Good swimming requires good technique to avoid overuse injuries to the shoulder. A new swimmer should invest in lessons with a swim coach.

Rowing Like swimming, rowing provides a challenging full-body, low-impact workout. Many health clubs have rowing machines, which are less popular and therefore often more available than treadmills and elliptical machines. Rowing can expend as much energy as running, so people unable to run may benefit from an indoor rowing workout. Peter Lekisch, the first 60-year-old to finish the Race Across AMerica, trained in the winter on his rowing machine and by cross-country skiing.

As with swimming, technique is important to avoid injury. About 80 percent of the force should come from the lower body and only 20 percent from the upper body. Concept 2 is an excellent resource on indoor rowing; see

In-line skating Eric Heiden set 15 world records as a speed skater and won five gold medals in the Winter Olympics before he raced for the 7-11 professional cycling team. Besides strengthening the primary cycling muscles, skating develops the muscles on the inside and outside of the leg. In regions where snow for skate skiing is nonexistent or unpredictable, in-line skating can be a valuable and enjoyable form of cross-training. Protective gear is essential. Every year emergency rooms treat hundreds of injuries from in-line skating. Wear a helmet (a cycling one is fine), kneepads, elbow pads, and wrist guards.

Recreational team sports Depending on the season, kids have fun playing basketball, volleyball, baseball, and other sports. We can follow their lead! Competing in team sports develops speed, power, agility, coordination, and balance, and can include family and noncycling friends. Playing team sports also reminds us of the value of teamwork. Bicycle racers compete on teams, and a club century is a team effort that involves rest stop volunteers, sag drivers, and fellow riders. Some cyclists choose to train alone, but riding with a group requires less effort because riders take turns breaking the wind. It’s more fun, too.

Getting outside in the winter is a lot of fun and provides much-needed variety. The sometimes-barren landscape of autumn becomes a wonderland of possibilities to improve your fitness. But be careful to avoid frostnip and frostbite (see chapter 11). Kyle is intrigued by the cross-training options we outlined for him. He wants to train for the century, but he also loves doing things with his family. He decides that one day each weekend they will hike, snowshoe, or shoot hoops indoors depending on the weather. What activities fit your goals and interests?

Indoor Riding
Despite the fun of cross-training, specificity is important. For overall fitness Kyle can cross-train, but he should ride his bike at least a couple of times each week. If he can’t get outside on his bike, he can bring the bike inside, turn on some tunes, and pedal away! Indoor riding can be enjoyable and productive.

Training inside can be efficient if you keep the trainer set up. You can hop on the trainer as quickly as you can get ready for a run.

On the trainer you can work on specific skills, such as pedaling with a rounder stroke or learning to grab your water bottle without looking down or worrying about traffic or weather. Extra layers of cold-weather clothing can alter your positioning while riding outdoors, but riding on a trainer allows you to wear the clothing you plan to wear for a warm-weather event. If you are trying a new piece of equipment such as a shifting system or electronics, you can master it safely while riding indoors.

Many gyms offer group cycling classes that can provide a fun workout. Some instructors are avid riders and pattern the workouts like rides on roads or trails with simulated hills, headwinds, intervals, and sprints. Indoor classes are usually intense. Remember that your reason for taking a class is to improve cycling strength and endurance, not to ride to extreme fatigue. Backing off a little is fine.

Some class leaders may introduce moves on the bike that are potentially risky. Don’t attempt anything on an indoor bike that you wouldn’t do during an outdoor ride. Sustained out-of-the-saddle climbing, push-ups, and working with dumbbells or bands will not help you achieve your cycling goals, nor will getting off the bike to perform explosive movements.

You can organize indoor workouts with friends by setting up the bikes and trainers, putting on some music, and riding together. Riders of all abilities can train with one another because no one gets dropped! Take turns leading workouts or use one of the commercially available DVDs to coach you through specific rides.

Cooling and hydration during an indoor workout are important. Some riders set up the trainer in the cooler garage, and others mount a huge fan in front of the trainer. Be sure to drink enough, and take breaks if necessary. A towel under the bike and another on the handlebars will help protect the bike and the floor from sweat.

The key to effective indoor training is to have a plan for each session. The plan should include a 5- to 10-minute warm-up, main set, and at least a 5-minute cool-down. Here are several samples of main sets for after warming up:

  • Tempo workout. This workout will boost average speed. Ride for 5 minutes at a pace that is a little harder than normal cruising effort and then pedal easily for 5 minutes to recover. Do two brisk efforts in the first couple of workouts, three brisk efforts the next couple of times, and then four.
  • Isolated leg workout. This workout improves pedaling efficiency so you can go a bit faster with the same effort. Unclip the left foot and rest it on a box or stool. Select a moderate gear. Pedal for 1 minute with the right leg, then with both legs, and then 1 minute with the left leg. Concentrate on moving the pedal through the full circle. At the top of the stroke imagine kicking a soccer ball or pushing the knee toward the handlebars. At the 6 o’clock position point the toes down a bit and imagine scraping mud off the bottom of your shoe. Even pro racers don’t pull the pedal up at the back of the stroke; rather, try to unweight the pedal so that the momentum from the first 180 degrees carries your foot back to the top.
  • Hill climb workout. Simulate a series of 2- to 4-minute hill climbs with a couple of minutes of recovery after each. Vary your gearing and resistance to simulate different grades. You can make this more realistic by elevating the front wheel on a block of wood.
  • Pyramid workouts. Pyramid workouts are a classic form of interval training. Ride 1 minute hard and 1 minute easy; then go 2 minutes hard and 2 minutes easy. Progress up to 4 or 5 minutes hard and then easy and then work your way back down to 1 minute.
  • Sport-themed workout. Improvise! A football fan we know pedals hard every time the ball is in play and recovers during the huddles.

These are challenging workouts, so always warm up and cool down adequately to avoid injury.

Cross-Training Works!
By Muffy Ritz

Cross-training means training in different ways to improve overall performance as well as combining exercises to work various parts of the body. We all know that a balanced diet is the best diet. The same can be said for a balanced training program that incorporates all the body’s systems—endurance, strength, and power—by changing the routine and introducing different stressors on the body. This means getting off the bike and training in other ways.

I placed in the top five overall (men and women) in the RAAM in 1993, 1995, and 1997. In 1993 I set the long-standing women’s RAAM rookie record, 9 days 16 hours 29 minutes for 2,910 miles (4,683 km) from Irvine, California, to Savannah, Georgia, or 12.49 miles per hour (20.1 km/h) including all sleep breaks and other off-the-bike time.

Muffy Ritz.

In every RAAM, my road bike training was minimal compared with most other riders. I trained for three to four months on the road bike to prepare. I would come into cycling season in April in great shape after having Nordic skied and raced all winter and hiked, mountain biked, and weight trained all fall. I was never sick of the bike when RAAM rolled around because I hadn’t ridden enough to be tired of cycling!

I have also raced three times in the grueling Leadville 100 mountain bike race, placing as high as second woman one year. I owe my success to my overall fitness from combining Nordic skiing with mountain biking, road biking, strength training, and keeping fresh in every sport.

I’ve found that Nordic skiing is the best sport for overall conditioning. You cannot ski year-round (unless you live at the North Pole!), so you must cross-train in the off-season. Most Nordic skiers train on dry land by roller skiing, running, hiking, biking, and incorporating a strength program. Because of all their cross-training, they do extremely well in running races, road and mountain bike races, and running and hiking hill climbs. One of the top mountain bikers in the United States, Carl Swenson, was also an Olympic Nordic skier.

My advice for long-distance cyclists is to make sure your training program is balanced. Get on your feet and hike or run. Go to the gym and lift weights. Use your upper body in combination with your lower body. Get your core working and keep your back strong. Do your speed work and your long days and take at least one day off per week. You’ll be fitter and have more fun!

Safety: Staying Upright!
Group riding is more fun than riding alone and can require less effort. When riding on the flats at 15 miles per hour (24 km/h) you are primarily overcoming aerodynamic drag, which increases exponentially as your speed increases. If you ride (draft) behind another rider you can cut your workload significantly. But it takes skill to ride with other riders without an accident. To stay upright in a group, observe these points:

  • Pay attention to your riding even during a fun conversation. Don’t become distracted.
  • If you are the first rider in the group, call and point out hazards to your companions. Point at the hazard and call out, “Hole,” “Gravel,” or “Glass,” as appropriate.
  • For your own safety, particularly in a new group, don’t assume that riders in front will call out all the obstacles. Ride slightly to the left or right of the rider ahead so you can watch the road ahead and spot potential problems.
  • Learn to ride a straight line so you are not a risk to other riders. Always signal or call out before you move.
  • Ride smoothly. Rather than speeding up and then hitting the brakes to stay with others, accelerate gently and when necessary soft-pedal or feather the brakes.
  • Protect your front wheel; do not overlap your wheel with the rear wheel of a cyclist ahead of you. If you’ve overlapped wheels and the rider moves sideways, you’ll both be in trouble.

These tips apply any time you ride with others. In chapter 6 we describe the more complex technique of riding in an organized pace.

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