cycling training misconceptions

4 Cycling Training Misconceptions We Need to Clear Up

I have always enjoyed getting to know people and hearing their cycling stories during group rides, and it’s also interesting to listen to the advice riders give to each other in the pace line or at the coffee stop. Most of the time it’s good advice but there are several cycling training misconceptions I commonly hear repeated at ride after ride. So, when the rider next to you gives you the advice below, just smile, nod your head and take it with a grain of salt.

Riding more is the best/only way to get faster

With the popularity and widespread usage of training tools like TrainingPeaks and Strava, cyclists have grown familiar with the concept of Chronic Training Load (CTL), which is also displayed as “Fitness” in Strava’s “Fitness and Freshness” graphs. TrainingPeaks’ CTL represents a weighted average of daily Training Stress Score over the past 42 days. Athletes have adopted this value as a measure of current fitness, with a higher number meaning greater fitness.

The problem with giving CTL too much importance is that keeping CTL high over a long period of time means keeping daily TSS high, and the higher your CTL the more dramatically it will drop after just a few extra rest or low-TSS rides. This drop is natural, and necessary for improving actual performance, because rest allows time for adaptation and supercompensation, leading to higher power outputs and speed on the bike. CTS Coach Adam Pulford illustrated this from his own power data in this Instagram post. After months of maintaining a high CTL, he had a period of increased travel and less training, and his CTL dropped significantly. Upon returning to training he set his highest 20-minute power of the year.

So, yes, riding more (creating a higher Chronic Training Load) will make you faster, to a point. But riding too much – in an effort to keep the line on a graph from dipping – will make you slower. To incrementally get faster over time, you have to allow for periods when you rest long enough for “fitness” to decay a bit.

A high VO2 max is most important predictor of performance

VO2 max is your maximum aerobic capacity, or the maximum amount of oxygen your body can take in and process per minute (it can also be expressed relative to bodyweight as milliliters of oxygen per kilogram of bodyweight per minute). It represents your maximum potential as an endurance athlete, or the “size of your aerobic engine”. To be a top professional athlete you need to have a high VO2 max just to get in the club, but even for the pros, the biggest engine doesn’t guarantee the highest performance. For amateur and age-group cyclists on the group ride, VO2 max may be even less of factor for differentiating athletes.

For amateur and age-group cyclists, a more important factor for actual performance is lactate threshold power (or Functional Threshold Power) as a percentage of power at VO2 max. Power at lactate threshold is more responsive to training than VO2 max, which is trainable but largely limited by genetics. This means that even though you may have a good-but-not-great VO2 max, or a VO2 max that is gradually declining due to age, you may be able to dramatically improve your sustainable power output at a higher percentage of VO2 max. So, even if you can’t raise your performance ceiling, you can still go faster with the potential you already have.

Lighter is always better

Although there has definitely been a move toward de-emphasizing bodyweight or body shape in cycling culture, some group rides have gotten the message more than others. I still hear a lot of comments and conversations about who has put on weight, who has lost weight, and who has purchased lighter components and wheels. Cycling is a sport that generally rewards lightness, but lighter is not always better and an excessive focus on reducing bodyweight can contribute to the development of eating disorders and a negative body image.

As an athlete you will perform best within a bodyweight range that is specific to you. For some athletes, this means you will be stronger, faster, recover more quickly, be more resilient against injury, and stay healthier with a few more pounds on your body. Other athletes may be able to maintain a much lighter weight while retaining power output and staying healthy. Focusing on training quality and supporting your training and recovery with adequate energy intake is more important than bodyweight. Focus on fitness and performance, and let bodyweight follow.

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You shouldn’t eat anything for the first 90 minutes

I overheard this piece of advice several times in the past year and I think it comes from a misunderstanding of sports nutrition guidance meant for rides that are only 60-90 minutes long. During rides lasting 60 to 75 minutes (and perhaps up to 90 minutes) you have enough stored muscle glycogen to complete a high-quality workout. As a result, consuming exogenous carbohydrate may not be necessary during short workouts. However, that should not be confused with the need to consume exogenous carbohydrate within the first hour during rides that last longer than 90 minutes. So, when you’re heading out for a two- to 4-hour group ride, you should start eating within the 30-60 minutes, particularly if it’s a group ride that features intermittent high-intensity efforts.

What if you’re trying to improve your ability to oxidize fat for fuel? Well, for most amateur and age-group athletes, improving aerobic endurance through high-quality workouts will do more for improving fat oxidation than manipulating carbohydrate availability. Training with low carbohydrate availability has its place, for some athletes in some circumstances, but being a fat-adapted endurance athlete may not a high priority and training strategies that manipulate fuel availability are best used once you have already maximized aerobic endurance through fundamental training.

By Chris Carmichael,
Founder and Chief Endurance Officer of CTS

Some terms in this blog post including Training Stress Score (TSS), Chronic Training Load (CTL), and Functional Threshold Power (FTP) are registered trademark terms owned by TrainingPeaks.

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Comments 11

  1. Lighter may not always better when it comes to equipment. After folding 2 front wheels racing XC MTB, and similar issues with road wheels, I started inquiring with companies as to what the weight limit on their wheels were. I had a couple companies tell me their wheel weight limit was 175 pounds, I’m 6’2″ 200. On a side note, If I buy aluminum wheels, I only buy wheels using rims with a welded seem, no pins or bonding.

    At one point years ago while trying to get my Cat 1 upgrade, I was down to 180 pounds. At a local TT, I could barely stand after the race and didn’t feel well. In my attempt to get lean, I leaned myself out of Vitamin B12 and my cholesterol was dangerously low. It took a couple weeks to regain good levels and a little weight and I felt much better.

  2. I once heard the comment by a dietician that it takes about 60 minutes for nutrients to go “mouth to muscle”. We are use to thinking we take in nutrition and it is available for use. That really made me realize that our body needs process time to get that nutrient to our muscle in a form it can use. I changed my nutrition real fast when I heard that comment. Not sure if it is true but made sense to me.

  3. How much rest (days) is recommended after a period of high training load. Should you ride the bike easy during the rest period. What is a good ratio of weeks of heavy training to weeks of rest such as 8 on and 1 off?

  4. Had my first high speed wobble in texas hill country and I can assure you it had nothing to do with being to lite. Body position was probably the reason for me.

  5. If your bike is unstable going downhill fast lock your legs tight to the top tube and the wobble should cease.

  6. “Lighter is always better” I’m 6’1″, broad shouldered, small boned. My ideal weight is +/- 170-175 pounds. A few years ago, my weight fell to +/- 155, and on a rapid descent in the Texas hill country on my 2007 Trek Madone SL, I experienced SERIOUS wheel wobble like I’ve never experienced on that bike. I was actually too light to maintain stability! It messed with my head big time! I have not experienced that again since getting back to a more reasonable weight for my overall build. So no, lighter is not always better.

    1. Not sure that makes sense, how do Tour riders who weigh in the 130 to 160 Lbs. range stay stable on the huge descents that they have at high speeds, also women wouldnt be able to have stability either, something else is going on with your bike on that un-stable descent you had.

      1. Stability is comprised of a number of factors, bike frame geometry, wheel type, tire choice and environmental factors like crosswinds. I had a front wheel-tire combo that was unstable almost to the point of being unrideable on fast descents with any kind of cross wind. Changing the tire from Rubino to Continental fixed the problem in this case.

      2. Weight does add stability and cdertainly speed during a descent but the doesn’t mean a 130 lbs TDF pro can’t descend ridiculously fast with stabilty cause they do. Descending fast is a skill no doubt. I have found at my 165 lb weight that pushing my nose forward–rather than sitting up to slow down–and pressuring the pedals down helps a lot a shaky descent. Changing my rims to much lower profile rims–say like 20-30 mm deep from the 40-50 mm deep wheels helps tremendously on descents with heavy cross winds too. Little things matter when you don’t have the extra weight.

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