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Training for Endurance Cycling – 80/20 and Strength & Conditioning

The key to cycling faster and longer?

Train slower

Lift weights

That’s it. Nothing too complicated.

But you will still read plenty of blog posts, books or just people talking at the gym:

“High Intensity Intervals – that’s what you need to be doing”

“Why would you want to lift weights if you just want to cycle 100 miles?”

No pain, no gain

(usually said by someone who has just injured themselves

or is about to)

Ignore them. At best they are well-intentioned but don’t understand what it means to train for endurance sports. At worst they are going to get you injured, maybe badly enough that you won’t be able to take part. Trust us – you want to train slow and lift weights.

Let’s look at both parts of that:

Train Slow

We often have a natural inclination to always cycle as fast as we can. Even if we are experienced cyclists and know that we need to pace ourselves, it’s still hard to hold back so we have enough left in the tank to finish. But when we are training, why not always go as hard as possible? That’s when we get the most benefit, right? When we feel like our heart and lungs are about to burst – that must be good for something, surely? There’s all those articles in the weekend papers about High Intensity training, written by a trainer to the stars. He must know!

So, on one level, the guy in the papers/down the gym has got it partly right. Intensity is a useful training tool. And if you were simply trying to improve your overall health, burn some fat and hopefully reduce your chances of heart disease, then short, brief bouts of highly intensive exercise (1-2 minutes at a time), are certainly an efficient way of doing so.

But that’s not you. You want to do more than just ‘get fit’. You want to push yourself. You want to prove something to yourself. You want to go above and beyond what normal people expect. You want to cycle your first century. Or do it for 6 days straight. So, you are going to need a different approach. And that approach is long and slow. This is how elite endurance athletes train – be it Mo Farah, Paula Radcliffe, the Brownlee brothers, or Bradley Wiggins – they all do most of their training at low intensity. Why? Because it has been scientifically proven to provide the best increase in overall speed over long distances of any training method.

The reasons for this still aren’t completely clear, but the key benefits are:

  • It enables a higher volume of training. I.e. you can ride for longer at low intensity than if you are pushing yourself as hard as you can. And that means less fatigue, too.

  • High intensity training may have MORE of an impact if your body is conditioned by lots of low intensity training

  • High intensity training is very stressful on the body, and so you can’t do enough of it to get sufficient performance gains

Whatever the mechanisms for why it works, the science shows that it does, and elite athletes, who are highly competitive by nature, have not yet found a better method of training.

So, what does it mean to ‘train slow’?

  1. Do 80% of your training at low intensity and 20% at moderate and high intensity

  • There is a caveat to this: there may be some specific periods in your training when it is beneficial to vary that ratio slightly – either slightly more low intensity training (usually when building your base fitness, or tapering just prior to a race), or slightly more moderate/high intensity training (when adding a little more speed in your peak training). But 80/20 is still the general rule to follow.

  1. Train in macro-cycles of no more than 24 weeks, and then have a couple of weeks rest. You will lose a little fitness during those 2 weeks but start again at a higher level than in the first cycle. This will stop you from getting chronic fatigue from overtraining.

  2. Within those 24 weeks, have meso-cycles, where you increase your training load, each week, but every 3-4 weeks you reduce it to give your body time to recover. 4-week cycles are best if you aren’t training quite so hard and so can train for longer without worrying about building up fatigue.

  3. Hard/Easy micro-cycles. Each week should be a micro-cycle. Make sure you split up your hardest workouts with the easy ones. Trying to do hard workouts back to back is never going to end well. At best you won’t achieve the intensity or duration you want, and at worse you may injure yourself.

  4. Cycle more. It is more effective to initially ride for shorter distances more often than to immediately start going long and then not being able to get off the sofa for 3 days. Once you are cycling 5-6 times a week, then you can look to increase the distance. Think about how far you have ride per week, rather than just in one go. The training effect is cumulative

  5. Stick to the key workouts: recovery rides, foundation rides, interval training rides, etc. They are tried and tested by thousands of athletes and they work. But understand what benefit each kind of workout gives you and use it accordingly. Don’t just do the same workout every single time.

  6. Make sure you are training progressively. That each week is gets you closer to the race/event you are training for.

Before we move onto strength work – what exactly do we mean by ‘low’, ‘medium’ and ‘high’ intensity? Simply put, low intensity is when your body is functioning aerobically (i.e. using oxygen to produce energy), below what is known as your ventilatory threshold heart rate. Medium intensity is training at the upper limit of your aerobic threshold (also known as your lactate threshold), and High intensity is training above your threshold when your body produces energy without oxygen (anaerobically). The easiest way to monitor and track what intensity you are training at is with a Heart Rate Monitor. You can find out more about how to determine your own threshold and specific Heart Rate Zones here.

Strength & Conditioning

A lot of cyclists will tell you that lifting weights just isn’t necessary – you get all the workout you need on the bike, and unless you are sprinter big muscles just make you heavier. Plus, time spent doing strength work is time you could be riding. But that’s not really true, for several reasons:

  1. Improved strength can help reduce injuries, especially around key joints like the hips, knees and ankles.

  2. Improved core strength is key to reduced back pain while cycling long distances and will also help improve your performance.

  3. It’s possible to build strength without adding muscle mass.

  4. Cycling is great for your cardiovascular health, but not so brilliant for increasing your strength. And as you get older, you will need to do all you can to maintain the muscle mass you have, let alone increase it.

  5. Strength work can be done on rest/easy days and it’s perfectly possible to get a good workout at home, so you don’t even need to join a gym.

But for those who are used to letting one foot go in front of the other for a couple of hours, the whole weights thing can seem quite scary. Especially if your only experience is seeing wannabe Schwarzeneggers hanging around the free-weight section of your gym, gulping down protein shakes and grunting a lot.

So, here’s a few simple things to know about strength work:

  • All strength work is based on exhausting your muscles and putting them through stress such that your body responds by building them up after your workout to be ready for the next time you need them.

  • Your main goal will be to build muscular endurance – i.e. improving the efficiency of your muscles to use as little oxygen and energy as possible, and therefore to keep working longer. This is achieved by lifting lighter weights, but more times (repetitions) – from 12-20.

  • Pick a weight that is heavy enough that by the time you have finished each set of repetitions, you feel like you couldn’t do much or any more.

  • Do 3 sets of repetitions, with a 30 second rest break in between. This will train your muscles to work continuously rather than short intermittent bursts.

  • Where possible we recommend using free weights such as dumbbells, kettlebells or, if you have space, barbells. These are technically more challenging, but once you have learned the correct technique they give you a better all-over workout, especially your core which is needed to stabilise your body while you lift.

  • Given that cycling requires a degree of balance and symmetry, try to do single-leg exercises (single-leg deadlifts, single-leg split squats, lunges, etc.) if possible. This will also help develop your core. But always make sure you use the same weight and same reps for both legs – you don’t want one side stronger than the other.

  • Your focus should be on your lower body and core, but don’t neglect your upper body – chest/arms/back are all important for balance, comfort and performance.

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