rules for cycling training

Chris Carmichael’s 5 Most Important Rules for Cycling Training

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By Chris Carmichael,
Founder/CEO of CTS

With the world hopefully returning to normal over the next few months, cyclists are eager to get faster, stronger, and more powerful this summer. Whether you are new to training or an experienced cyclist I encourage you to remember the following 5 essential rules for training.

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Training Rule #1: Train the Fundamentals First

The most effective components of training are also the simplest. Riding consistently is more beneficial than any specific type of training performed every once in a while. Moderate-intensity rides at a conversational pace are not junk miles; they are essential for developing aerobic endurance. Intervals don’t have to be complex to be effective. Increasing the intensity to a challenging aerobic pace, sometimes referred to as Tempo or Sweet Spot, for 30 minutes or more applies more stress your aerobic engine and stimulates progress. Working on maximum sustainable power for climbing or prolonged hard efforts can be as simple as 10-minute repeats at a perceived exertion of 7-8/10 (on a 10-point scale where 10 is an all-out effort), with 5 minutes of easy spinning recovery between them.

There are certainly more specific and specialized ways to improve fitness and performance, but the biggest mistake athletes make is conflating complexity with effectiveness. And during a time when people are using training as a time to think through or cope with other stresses in their lives, it is important to recognize the fundamental training value of an unstructured or minimally structured ride.

Training Rule #2: Be Patient

In the simplest terms, you improve athletic performance by applying training stress (overload) and then allowing adequate time for recovery and adaptation. Creating training stress is the only part of that equation that can be accomplished very quickly. You could ride yourself into the ground today and create a big training stress in a matter of hours. But even with pro-active recovery strategies like rehydration, post-workout nutrition, pneumatic compression boots, massage, or a nap; recovery takes time and there is a limit to how much you can accelerate that timeline. Acute recovery from hard workouts takes at least 24 hours, and it takes even longer for masters cyclists and novices of any age.

Adaptation takes even longer than acute post-workout recovery, on the order of weeks instead of days. Meaningful improvements in aerobic endurance, sustainable power, or peak power require repeated applications of training stress, separated by adequate recovery, over at least a week. We see the clearest example of this following training camps.

When cyclists come to camp or conduct a DIY camp at home, their training volume typically increases by 1.5 or 2x. Athletes who normally ride 8 hours per week ride 14-16. Cyclists who typically train 10-12 hours per week will put in more than 20 hours during a camp. Following the camp we schedule a week or so of easier activities for recovery, and we see the significant bump in the athlete’s fitness about 10-14 days after the end of the camp. This improvement is noticeable for athletes because the stimulus was so large. The incremental improvements that occur during long-term training also take time to become noticeably significant. Novices will see larger improvements more quickly because their fitness has a lower baseline and a greater capacity for growth.

Rule #3: Do Your Own Training

Obviously, no one else can do your training for you; the point is that your training has to be specific to your current fitness level, your physiology, and your goals. The basic overload-and-recovery principle works for all athletes, but how to achieve overload and how your body responds to it varies a great deal. Your heartrate and power zones can be based on the same methodology and calculations, but your individual zones will be different than your buddy’s because the initial values from a lab test or field test will be different (threshold heart rate and threshold power).

Your ‘training age’ will make your training unique as well. If you have been riding for less than a year, you are not likely to be as resilient against cumulative fatigue as an athlete who has been riding for 15 years. This means that the long-term workload you can withstand is not just based on your current level of fitness, but also the miles and hours and years you have in your legs.

There’s also a highly individual response to rest, not only during rides and workouts, but also between rides and after long training blocks. Masters athletes may need more recovery following intense or long workouts than they did when they were younger, but even that is not a given. Some masters athletes have better post-workout habits than they used to, eat better than when they were younger, and get more sleep.

The personal variables that affect the way you respond to training are a big part of the reason athletes who start with static training plans often progress to working with a coach. It’s not that the training plan was bad, but rather that aspects of the plan were incompatible with how they respond to training.

Training Rule #4: Train it or Lose it

Thankfully, generalized cycling fitness is relatively simple to maintain, even when you reduce your weekly training hours for a while. This is why consistency is so important, and perhaps more important than any particular workout type. However, the more specific strengths within your cycling fitness will go away unless you train them. If you want to keep your maximum sustainable power for climbing, you have to make sure it’s addressed in your training plan.

On a larger scale, masters athletes need to keep in mind that once lost, maximum aerobic capacity is very hard to regain. The older you are, the more important it is to avoid prolonged periods of inactivity, because you may not be able to get back to VO2 max value you had before the time off. That doesn’t mean you can’t regain fitness or improve performance, because there are many ways to measure improvement, but it should incentivize athletes in their 40s and 50s to hold on to as much of your maximum aerobic capacity as you can.

Training Rule #5: When in doubt, make it a recovery ride

There will be days when your training data indicates you’re rested and should have great form, but you end up feeling empty and exhausted on the bike. What training data doesn’t show are the lifestyle stresses you have outside of training. During the past few months, there have been and continue to be a lot of things weighing on people’s minds and keeping them up at night. Those stresses count in the overload-and-recovery balance, even if they are harder to quantify in TrainingPeaks charts or Strava’s ‘Fitness and Freshness’ graph.

Rather than skip a ride altogether, I encourage athletes to start their ride with an open mind and re-evaluate after 15-30 minutes on the road, trail, or trainer. Sometimes getting started is the hardest part, and you’ll feel great after you get going. Other times your legs will feel heavy, you’ll be distracted, or just lethargic. From a data standpoint, your heart rate may be suppressed and slow to respond to efforts, and there will be a noticeable discrepancy between your heart rate and/or power output and the perceived exertion required to produce them.

The question athletes always ask is: Do I suck it up and power through, or back off and take it easy? For athletes working toward specific goals and with a coach or who have a good understanding of the science of training, there are some times when it makes sense to power through days when you don’t feel good. But as a general rule of thumb, when in doubt, it is nearly impossible to go wrong converting a hard workout into a recovery ride or an easy endurance ride. There is nothing so special about the workout you have planned on a specific day that means missing it will cause irreparable harm to your performance. More likely than not, listening to your body and your emotions and taking it easy will allow you to return to focused, high-quality workouts sooner.

These rules are just equally applicable to new cyclists and riders with decades of experience, as well as athletes who want to be competitive and athletes who ride recreationally or for fitness. Even when you get into the granular details of training plans, work-recovery ratios, and power files, effective training for any cycling discipline abides by these rules.


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Comments 10

  1. Not sure if I am the right type of client for you. 65 this summer love biking for over 15 years. Have had several minor surgeries (Jan & Feb). Off bike for a month, can only lightly bike now. Want to get back to my 20 mph avg for 100 miles. Gained 15 lbs by eating poor foods.
    Goal is bike speed as well as light weight lifting. With massive road construction around me currently I stuck riding indoors.
    Your call whether or not I am a candidate

    1. The key is not to lose the will to get on the bike. Sometimes exercise is not easy. If necessary put the bike in your car and drive somewhere to bike unrestricted. Set a time limit for yourself and relax. just get into the habit of cycling, after a few weeks it will take care of itself.

      I’m in my 70’s, been riding for over 50 years and there are days when I don’t feel like it but then draw on all the great memories of riding. Its not about being the fastest, the toughest, etc. Its about embracing exercise. Then you will build endurance. You will become mentally tougher.

      A short story…We were in France several years ago riding one of the grand tour climbs in September. On the way up we passed two older (70’s) riders, British man and woman, on touring bikes at a leisurely pace. An hour or so later we were at the summit, changing our wet jerseys before the descent and they came along. So we chatted. They had been riding forever, had done 15000 kilometres that season alone and still weren’t done for the year. Just keep moving, challenge yourself once in a while, try and find someone to ride with for the company, and enjoy the fresh air. We all only get so much. Stay safe.

  2. Where can I dig deeper into the phenomenon “your heart rate may be suppressed and slow to respond to efforts”? I often experience the opposite – when I am tired, or fighting a mild virus, my heart rate tends to go higher for a given power output, and during sweet spot or FTP intervals can climb towards max. Context: 72 yr old life-long recreational and touring cyclist, trying to be more methodical about training so I can continue to enjoy long rides.
    Thanks.

  3. Thanks for the great article. This one in particular contains many nuggets of information I will draw upon. I’ve been training with CTS for quite a few years and the article will help me keep things in perspective! Thanks!!

  4. Even for a long time cyclist this was helpful! Given my goals, I think I should just re-read this once a month and stop reading/watching other experts. In other words – stop sweating the small stuff and ride more 🙂

  5. Ref #2 – when one is done with camp and back to normal schedule, how long can one sustain those gains with lowered training volumes??

    1. Post
      Author

      Olav,
      The short answer is several weeks. The longer answer can be found in this article from CTS Coach Jason Koop. He talks about it in the context of ultramarathon training, as that’s his speciality, but the physiological concepts transfer over to cycling and other endurance sports. A specific quote you may find interesting: “While complete training cessation (meaning zero training) for several weeks can result in performance declines of >20%, adding in as few as three sessions (~50% training reduction) per week can keep those losses in the 5-10% range, even if the detraining phase is several weeks in length. Meaning, if you cut your training in half, you are only going to pay a single digit penalty for it.”

      To read the whole article, visit: https://trainright.com/detraining-truth-about-losing-fitness/

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

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