cycling training

The 10 Truest Statements About Cycling Training

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By Chris Carmichael,
Founder and Head Coach of CTS

I’ve been a coach for more than 30 years and I’ve seen many innovations and technologies come and go in that time. And in the past several years there has been a surge in the number of devices, products, apps, and supplements promising to improve the effectiveness or convenience of training. Some are useful tools and others are not, and my coaches and I spend a lot of time evaluating which new technologies and products to use or recommend to athletes. Coaches and athletes have to be careful, however, not to lose sight of the truths we have learned about effective training and coaching over the decades. Here are my 10 truest statements about cycling training.

This is certainly not an exhaustive list, and in the comments I’d love to know what you’d add to it from your experience as an athlete or coach.

No individual workout is more effective than working out consistently

Athletes are always after the “perfect workout”, the one training session that is going to be a game changer or break the barrier to reaching new heights. The truth is, no individual workout is more important than the aggregate impact of your training history. Fitness and performance start to decay almost immediately without added stimulus. That’s acceptable and necessary in order to recover and adapt, but inconsistent training allows for more decay than necessary, often to the point that training progress is hindered.

Intensity must have purpose

I’ve always said that making an athlete tired is the easiest thing a coach can do. Intensity – in the form of intervals and hard training sessions – is very effective for improving fitness, but it is easy to overdo it. You need less time at high intensity than you think, and that time-at-intensity must have a purpose. More than that, you need to know what that purpose and objective is – not just your coach or the person who wrote the training plan. For the same interval workout, let’s say 6 x 3-minute max efforts, the objective could be to accumulate as much time as possible at the highest average power across the 18 minutes of time-at-intensity. Or, it could be to repeat the highest-possible peak power outputs at the beginning of each of those efforts, knowing that the power output will decline by the end of each effort.

The harder the effort, the more you need to understand why and specifically how to execute it.

Adaptation takes time

Stop looking for hacks and shortcuts and stop falling for BS pumped out in 30-second soundbites on social media. Training is a long and ongoing process and it takes weeks – at minimum – for measurable physiological adaptations to manifest. Yes, you can improve short-term performance with stimulants (caffeine), better hydration habits, better sleep, etc. That will improve the quality of your workouts and the conditions for potential adaptations, but the adaptations still take time. When athletes are impatient they change training, recovery, and nutrition habits too quickly and shortchange adaptations that are already in process.

Only sweat the small stuff after you’ve sweat the big stuff

Don’t step over opportunities for 20% improvements to chase 2% improvements. The fundamentals of endurance training aren’t the most exciting workouts, individually, and they must be repeated over and over again to yield results. But the gains are worth the commitment, in part because they are a sure thing. We know that consistent focus on aerobic endurance and power at lactate threshold will make you faster. The extra credit stuff, like altitude exposure and low-carbohydrate availability training, works in certain conditions for certain people and carries higher risks of displacing time and energy that would be better spent on fundamental training.

Fitness matters more than bodyweight

At the extremes – being either excessively lean or overweight – there are both health and performance motivations to moving toward the middle. For the majority of cyclists who are in the middle of the bell curve, I’d rather see you focus on training for fitness and eating to support your level of activity. Particularly for Masters (40-55yrs), Gran Masters (56-70yrs), and Senior (70+) athletes, the bigger battles are maintaining the consistency and intensity to overcome the increasing challenges to building and retaining fitness.

If you want to get better on the bike, ride your bike

I am a big advocate for strength training, yoga, and diverse weight bearing activities for cyclists, but there is no escaping the fact that riding your bike is the best way to get faster, stronger, and more comfortable on your bike. The challenge for older cyclists – myself included – is that the importance and benefit of off-bike activities for overall resilience and durability increase as we age. From a coaching perspective, this is why we spend so much time talking about goals and priorities. It is fine to focus primarily on cycling for a period of time when you are preparing for a specific goal, but we also have to keep the bigger picture in mind and plan for times when athletes will address more generalized aspects of fitness and physical resilience.

Cyclists spend too much time at moderate intensity

All training intensities have value, whether that’s an easy EnduranceMiles (Zone 2) effort, a challenging aerobic intensity like Tempo or Sweetspot, work at lactate threshold, or high-intensity sprints or VO2 max work. Where cyclists run into trouble is with the distribution of time spent in various intensities. What we see most often is that cyclists without structured training plans spend too much time in the middle, going too hard when they should be riding easier and not hard enough when it’s time to go hard. The result is a cyclist who performs in the middle: fast enough to avoid getting dropped but not strong enough to ride at the front.

The best time to train is whenever fits in your schedule

Every reputable sports scientist I have ever worked with has viewed research into “the best time of day for training” the same way: the benefits of training consistently, fueling properly, sleeping well, and following an appropriately structured training plan are way more important than any potential benefit of exercising at a particular time of day or night. That said, the research studies are still valuable. They provide insights into how the body responds to stimuli and how circadian rhythms and daily hormone fluctuations interact with exercise and nutrition. It provides valuable context but is not as useful for guiding exercise prescription.

Eating enough matters more than what you eat

There are limits to this statement. What you eat matters if you’re eating junk food or trying to maintain an excessively restrictive nutrition strategy. However, the bigger risk for most athletes is failing to meet the total daily energy requirements to support your level of training. Even before you reach the detrimental state of Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S), failing to consume adequate total energy keeps you from achieving your training goals. It keeps you from moving forward and making progress. Before you focus too much on the macronutrient composition of your daily food choices, do the math to make sure you’re meeting your energy needs.

No matter how good or bad you feel, it won’t last long

Whether it’s in an individual workout, a block of training, or during an event, you will experience times when you feel great and times when you are struggling to keep going at all. Neither feeling will last. This is the nature of endurance sports and something athletes need to embrace. When training is going great or you’re race day performance is on fire, enjoy it and take advantage of it – and expect it to end. Likewise, when everything is going wrong, your performance is terrible, and you feel like quitting, trust that the low point will pass as well. In both cases, you need to be smart and proactive–keep working the problem when things are rough and take steps to extend the duration of the good times–and trust that neither the best of times nor worst of times will last forever.


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Comments 20

  1. Memories in the legs once awakened, bring back lost stories of days long ago and far away when hanging tough is stiff cross winds on cold rainy days, stage after stage earned us the respect of our hard nosed peers, many of whom are gone now while others of us are still out there remembering the old times while sitting towards the back of some younger guy’s group ride.

  2. I’m stuck between finding time to train and training at productive intensities. The majority of my training time is a 10-mile bike ride to work, mostly trails, with short sprints through towns. I ride hard, but mostly sweet spot to lactate threshold, rarely reaching a VO2 max, only when traffic necessitates.
    Any recommendations to get more training benefit out of commuting?

  3. Those are good life lessons, not just training lessons. Especially the last one. Funny how similar life is to endurance training.

  4. As a long time proponent of CTS and the training structures, attending a camp I’ve measured my coaching against/with CTS.
    Agree with everything CTS and questioned that as I’ve gone through the process with individuals. Watched folk do themselves in by working too hard all the time or working their moderate intensity all the time. Not spending time in endurance recovery which is still time on the bike and time well spent when the focus is on technique.
    Thanks for sharing Chris, that’s what makes an amazing coach, knowing that knowledge is power, sharing it even more so!

    1. I’m with you…how did that happen? And next year, I’ll be a “Senior.” In the last year, I’ve finally backed off riding 5 days a week to 3, and have gradually dropped my weekly mileage from 100+ to about 75-80 with the longest ride about 35 miles. Regardless, I love to ride and will continue to do so as long as I can. On my fifth bike mostly riding about 5,000 a year as previously noted above; and have 70,000+ on my Trek Madone.

  5. Older athletes need as much info as possible. there is not a whole lot out there. this is a great start. I went running for the first time in a couple of decades. This was forced as, due to bike issues and no gym, there was nothing else to do. My superomedial tibial bones, just below the inside of both knees, are brutal, most unhappy. This is not a shin splints. not sure what it is. Disappointed as my run was only 20 minutes total. I do not plan on running any more than 20 minutes, twice per week. Older adults need more inspiration for perspiration. I improved so much with CTS via Strava over this summer. I was blown away. Set so many personal records, lost count. I’m in the best shape ever, even my racing shape from way back when! thanks CTS!

  6. Well said and well written too, Chris. As I read I found myself thinking, “It’s as though he’s written this for me alone.” Turns out a lot of others felt the same way. Thanks.

  7. I want to amplify the comments of Teri deCocq, and, to be snappy, I’d say, ‘Start at the End.’

    I.e., have a specific goal – race, hard century, whatever – that challenges you, and that you can always point to, and keep in mind for motivation.

  8. Great basic info! thank you! I’m a very active senior lady but am concerned about bone density so I hike and do some weights as well as kayak and xc ski. Hope to keep moving for a long time!

  9. I so agree that the athlete needs to know the “why” behind their training plan when working with a coach. I worked with one coach who did a tremendous job of sharing why I was given the workouts on my plan. It was motivating and really increased my determination to getting each of those workouts done as written. I had great results and was very inspired. I recently worked with a coach who did not share the purpose behind my workouts and I found myself frequently questioning my plan. Needless to say, the results were less than I expected. Knowing the “why” is vital behind building commitment.

    1. I would counter you chose to be less than inspired and have less than results. You also chose to not ask why if your coach. You are the athlete desiring results.

  10. Hi Chris, good to read your thoughts again! After six years of coming back from devastating injury I’m finally making small gains again!
    I agree consistency is key to maintaining, increasing training effect. I have ben paying close attention to octogenarians that are cyclists. I just turned sixty! Their main truth they share is don’t stop! Never stop riding! I believe if I had followed this axiom even if I’m just spinning in the basement I would be in a better position right now!
    Thanks again and keep up the great work with CTS!

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