get faster

How to Get Faster at Cycling

In recent weeks I’ve heard variations on the question: How do I get faster on the bike?” When the question comes from more experienced athletes, it’s sometimes: “Why am I not getting faster anymore?” As the spring heats up, events ramp up, and you pile on the miles, you may notice performance stagnate. You’re training a lot, but you’re not making much progress. Or, you’re progressing, but not at the rate you were a few months ago. Here are some of the reasons this could be happening, and how to get faster.

Your progress likely stagnated, or let’s say ‘leveled off’ to be more positive, for a combination of reasons rather than one glaring problem. All of the factors below can contribute to a scenario that is just not conducive to producing positive training adaptations. Some are easy to fix while others are not. Either way, you must address the issues that are holding you back. Just realize it will take some time before the changes you make will yield meaningful and noticeable results. In other words, you didn’t get to where you are overnight, and you won’t jumpstart your progress overnight either. So please, be patient and be kind to yourself.

Get Faster by Changing Training Focus 

Most time-crunched cyclists reach a limit of how much workload they can achieve weekly, based on available training time. The next step to increasing workload, in let’s say 8 hours/week, is to add intense intervals. That works very well, but again, you’ll reach a limit. A lot of athletes look at their Chronic Training Load (CTL) level in TrainingPeaks as their current level of fitness. The issue with that is it leads an athlete to believe that the only way to improve performance is to keep that blue line ticking upward.

To wring more gains from the same capacity for training workload, you must change the focus of your training regularly. For experienced athletes, you’ll recognize this as periodization. And when periodization is done well, performance in individual workouts will start to decline as athletes reach the point of diminishing returns for a given type of training. That’s not a bad sign. It’s a good one! It means you’ve wrung the most training stress you can handle out of that phase of training. As a result, it’s time to move on to another (after a period of rest). Just remember, CTL will decline a bit due to those less-than-stellar workouts and the rest period. That’s OK and part of the process.

Get Faster by Changing Your Training Intensity

Some athletes are good at following a training schedule, but not good about updating cycling power training zones as fitness changes. Read more about when to change your training zones. If you’re using heart rate instead of power, your heart rate ranges will change early on in your training program. However, after several months they’ll stay relatively unchanged even as you continue to get stronger. If you use both power and heart rate, you’ll notice your power outputs at a given heart rate will continue to increase. In TrainingPeaks, this is represented as “Efficiency Factor (EF)”, which is Normalized Power divided by Average Heart Rate.

Both power and heart rate are useful; power as a direct measure of work being performed, and heart rate as context for the body’s response to the work, and then with rating of perceived exertion as additional context on the effort required for the work.

Make Sure You’re Eating Enough Total Energy

Through the spring, some athletes are able to increase their weekly training hours due to longer days and warmer temperatures. This increase in energy expenditure often happens at the same time they are actively trying to lose weight (or not upset that it’s coming off unintentionally). The problem is, chronic underfeeding isn’t sustainable for an athlete looking to improve performance.

When you are in a chronic energy deficit over a period of weeks and months, your body adapts to use energy to cover the bare necessities, which means it’s not making it available for the physiological adaptations you’re targeting with training. Take a look at your weekly energy expenditure and intake (not daily). If expenditure has gone up but intake hasn’t, and you’re not performing as well as you used to, consider bumping up your total energy intake. Listen to a Trainright Podcast with Wilfredo Benitez, MScN, M.Ed. on fueling tough training blocks.

Make Sure You’re Eating Enough Carbohydrate

If total energy intake is sufficient to support your weekly training workload, and your periodization plan is good, but you just don’t have the ‘umph’ for high-quality workouts, take a look at your carbohydrate intake. You have to look at both your total daily carbohydrate intake as well as your exercise-associated carbohydrate intake (immediately pre-, during-, post-workout). To achieve maximal performance during periods of higher training volumes, particularly with higher volume-of-intensity, you need more carbohydrate than you did during periods of more generalized, moderate-intensity training.

On a three-day rolling average, look to consume about 50-60% of calories from carbohydrate, 20-30% from fat, and 20-30% from protein. During workouts longer than 60 minutes, aim for 40-60 grams of carbohydrate per hour (up to 90 g/hr with mixed carbohydrate sources and during higher intensity/longer duration training). Here’s a more in-depth look at what to eat on rides of any length and what to eat before a workout or race.

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If too little carbohydrate is holding you back, the good news is that the adjustment is quick and the difference is noticeable. You won’t necessarily see a huge fitness jump right away. Rather, you’ll notice you feel and perform a lot better during workouts (particularly later in endurance rides or at the end of hard interval sessions). It will still take a little while for those better workouts to yield meaningful physiological improvements.

Eat Enough Protein

As coaches and endurance athletes, we tend to focus a great deal on carbohydrate intake. As you can tell from the previous section, it is important for performance. But the focus on carbohydrate to fuel workouts sometimes overshadows the importance of protein for recovery and for doing the work of physiological adaptation. It’s hard to point to a tell-tale sign you’re not consuming enough protein. However, you might feel like you’re not bouncing back from even an extra day of recovery.

First look to see if you’re at least getting 1.4-1.8 grams per kilogram of bodyweight per day (1.8-2.0 g/kg/d for athletes over 60). Hint: if you’re eating a lot of carbohydrate and being conservative with total calorie intake at the same time, it’s pretty easy to end up low on protein intake. You can read more about why athletes struggle to get enough protein, as well as myths about protein and recovery.

Get Faster by Getting More or Better Rest

You can have everything above dialed and still experience stalled progress if the balance between work and rest is off. The enthusiasm brought on by longer days and warmer temperatures leads some people to ride more and rest less. Unfortunately, you can’t sustain that very long before there’s a price to pay. If you ramped up the workout side of the equation without adjusting the rest side, flip the balance for two weeks and get more rest than stress. Then return to a more balanced approach so you can train hard, rest appropriately, and reap the rewards. Here are articles on optimizing sleep for endurance athletes, nutritional recommendations for improving sleep, and why you might have trouble sleeping after a hard workout.

By Chris Carmichael,
CTS Founder and Head Coach

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Comments 6

  1. At 75 and still very active on bike, 10 plus per week. It’s very hard to sleep 8 continuously my normal sleep pattern has always been 6 hours. Question do naps count?

  2. Pingback: Carefully Curated Triathlon News for May 20 2021 - TriathlonWire

  3. Excellent article!! As a retired chef, I am always looking for new guidance on training nutrition. Also a veteran runner. I cycle every week and wear a heart monitor almost every ride. I just turned 70 and I am very interested in Garmins new power meter pedals. To be able to coordinate watts and heartrate, I feel will be beneficial. You mentioned “Rate Perceived Excursion” Can you explain this further? Is this a measurable data that may appear on my Garmin screen, or simply how my body will feel. Seriously considering a monthly subscription to your training app. Looking forward to pushing myself in a race and seeing how I do against others that are 70!!!

    1. I have a Stages power meter on my pedals and love it. Great addition to heart rate training. Perceived exertion is just that; how you feel during an effort. No way to measure this. One days where you’re tired you may feel a moderate effort to be harder and when you are rested a moderate effort may feel easier. That’s why heart rate and power are important. Power is especially good for short intense intervals since heart rate lags.

  4. If I’m not training, I’m not living! Although I’m living inside my cocoon now, I live to read your training blogs and am feeding my head for when I shall emerge. Excellent food for thought, love CTS!

  5. Damn – and I thought it was because I’m approaching 72! I might even have lost a tiny bit since my mid 20’s. I’m just going to have to work harder. Where is that Belgian mix when I really need it?

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