regain cycling speed

How to Regain Cycling Speed After Significant Time Off

CTS Coaches work with all kinds of athletes, including a large number of cyclists who want to return to high fitness or competitiveness following significant time off the bike. Life is seasonal, and many cyclists who were fast in their 20s redirected their focus to career and family for a few or several years. Now, the career is going great and the kids are getting older, so you have time to get back on the bike more frequently. Here’s how to regain your cycling speed and power after time away from significant cycling training.

Resurgent athletes fall into two broad categories: coming back from and injury/illness, or returning to training after other priorities took precedence. Post-injury and post-illness athletes usually accept they are slower than before and must adjust training goals accordingly. It’s different for athletes regaining cycling speed following a period of reduced training time/commitment. The post-career-change or post-had-our-second-child athlete is often tempted to “pick up right where they left off” and jump right back to training volumes and workloads they could sustain 2-4 years ago.

Here’s what many formerly-fast cyclists quickly realize:

  • You can still go fast, but you have low stamina. Before your prolonged break you could push the pace on climb after climb, or take strong pulls in a rotating pace line for hours. Now you can still hammer out one climb at nearly your old speed, but then you’re toast. Or you can pull as strong and fast as anyone else in the fast group ride, but after a few pulls your power is gone. (listen to this podcast on improving “Time to Exhaustion (TTE))
  • You have great days and really bad days. You lack consistency in performance throughout a week or period of weeks. When you feel good you feel like your old speed and power have returned and you’re flying. But then the next day or two days later you can’t get out of your own way. Your years of experience taught you how to dig deep, and that’s a skill beginners don’t necessarily have. So, when you feel good you tap into those skills for digging deep and bury yourself more so than a beginner with similar fitness would. Then you pay for it with diminished performance in subsequent days because you took so much out of yourself.
  • Your brain writes checks your body can’t cash. Memory can make you do stupid things, like going out on that 4-hour loop because you used to do it regularly a few years ago. Now it’s a 5.5-hour loop that leaves you shattered.

How to Regain Cycling Speed and Get Fast Again!

Set new baselines

Your old lactate threshold, VO2 max, Functional Threshold Power (FTP), and training intensities are irrelevant now. Getting back to those levels can be an effective goal. For right now, though, you must base training on the workload you can do now. Do a new field test or get a new FTP test and establish all new ranges. Don’t worry that your new FTP is closer to your Zone 2 aerobic endurance intensity from a few years ago. That doesn’t matter. What matters now is setting new baselines so you can apply appropriate training stress for your current fitness. As you start doing interval workouts again you’ll see those numbers rise quickly.

Don’t let your ego outrun your legs

Two groups of athletes gain speed and power quickly: novices and experienced athletes who have taken time off. Novices initially make rapid gains because they have so much room for improvement. That rate of improvement slows dramatically over time. Experienced cyclists with years of consistent training history experience a diminishing rate of return. More and harder work is required to make smaller and smaller improvements.

Experienced athlete regain speed and power rapidly. This is because the adaptations to training are cumulative and some are long lasting. That’s just one benefit of being a long-term athlete. But you still have to be patient and resist the urge to accelerate the process. Jumping into longer rides and bigger training weeks than you’re ready for will hinder your progress. Remember, you also have to regain your ability to recover from significant efforts. You’re not just adapting to being able to produce more work again. You’re also adapting again to recovering quickly from higher workloads.

Dust off your skills…

Part of the reason you used to be so fast was that you were so comfortable going fast. You were better at drafting, took cleaner lines through turns. Positioning yourself optimally in the pack was second nature. Some of that will come back quickly, and some of it will take some time to regain. Skills should be a priority. Get back into group rides and races with the specific goal of focusing on skills and comfort in tight spaces, not just speed and power.

… but evaluate your risk tolerance

As you return to serious training you may find you’re a different rider than you were. That’s OK. A lot of parents who return to racing after having children have a different perspective on risk. It happens to career professionals and artisans, too. If you make a living with your hands, you may become more risk averse. Arm and hand injuries may be a serious threat to your livelihood.

You may not be as eager to bang bars fighting for position, ride criteriums in the rain, or huck off three-foot drops on the mountain bike. The key is to be honest with yourself about those feelings and make decisions that enable you to train or compete at a level that’s both satisfying and has an acceptable level of risk.

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Ride smarter in groups

Masters (30-59 years old) and Grand Masters (60+) can go fast but fatigue after a limited number of hard efforts. This is even more true for athletes in these age group who return from a prolonged break. You will likely find you don’t have the capacity for as many high-power, high-speed efforts as you used to.

Part of the progression back to being all-day fast again is to ride with the fast groups again. Only this time you’ll be suffering more than you used to. Focus on using your skills for drafting and positioning to stay with the group as long as you can. Your goal is to accumulate more time riding at those higher speeds. Remember that making big efforts is going to cost you more than it used to. Because of this, ride conservatively and make big efforts only when necessary.

Consider motorpacing to regain cycling speed

Motorpacing is not for everyone and can be dangerous. However, if you know how to motorpace and have a safe place to do it then it can be a great supplement to training. There are two main benefits of motorpacing. First, there’s the increased speed you can maintain at a sustainable power output. The second is the specificity of hitting small rolling hills at higher speeds.

If you don’t have the opportunity to motorpace, sitting in during a race-pace group ride can be a good substitute. If you’re trying to use a group ride for this purpose consider going to a group ride that’s faster than you would normally go to. Let them know you just want to sit in and that you’ll happily work when you get more of your fitness back. If it’s a group or athletes you used to train and race with they’ll probably love seeing you back in the group!

By Jim Rutberg,
CTS Pro Coach, co-author of “Ride Inside“, “The Time-Crunched Cyclist”, and “Training Essentials for Ultrarunning

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Comments 3

    1. Ha ha, great article many of these techniques are ones I’ve used for exactly the reasons given, family and career, might’ve missed the point of the article, maybe reread it, you might have to go slower than you like to go fast, if you’re shattered and can’t train how are you going to get back quicker.

  1. I am 76 years old and have been riding a lot of fast, hilly group rides for many years. I usually get 70-74 & 75+ KOM’s in gran fondo events. However, due to a recent medical problem, I’ve been off the bike for about 3 months and will probably be off the bike at least another 3 months. I’ve been running to try to maintain fitness. However, I’m not a great runner and I can’t seem to push myself up to threshold heart rates like I can on the bike. Your advice on coming back is very helpful and I will follow it when I’m able to get back on the bike. Any advice on maintaining or improving before getting back on the saddle?


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