Cycling Training: Expert Advice

From our personal experience and from speaking with hundreds of riders after a big event, cycling glory doesn't come from grinding up the last climb in pain. Cycling glory is the result of a great training plan and riding to the best of your ability on your biggest ride of the year. 

The key to a succesful training plan is being smart. We gathered some of the best minds in the industry to run through some of the cycling training fundamentals to help you nail your next major ride & have broken down this into four categories - Training, Nutrition, Psychology & Physiology:

Cycling Training

Before you start, it's really important to understand what success looks like so we need to find a way to measure performance and therefore track our improvements. The best way to do this is power but this requires either a smart trainer (such as a Wahoo Kickr) and / or a power meter on your bike. 

The most basic way to measure performance is to use RPE (Rate of Perceived Effort). In its simplest form, you go and ride and ask yourself if you felt faster and stronger? If you answer ‘yes’ then there you go... You have improved! Not overly scientific? We can then give a scale to how we feel during exercise; in Sport Science the ‘Borg’ scale is used from 6-20 but we look to simplify this by using 1-10: 1 being super easy and 10 being maximal effort. You can then choose a section or hill which you ride frequently and compare times over time with the same RPE.

A more advanced but still low cost metric is heart rate using a heart rate monitor connected to a Garmin or similar device. Again, using a base section or hill that you can ride every 4 weeks, you should be able to improve your time at the same heart rate if your training is going well. 

If we now go the next step to using power, we can start to remove variables that can occur with heart rate like sleep, caffeine, stress and many more. Power is a true constant. Similar to getting a maximum heart rate, we need to find the golden numbers for our power and this comes in the form of an FTP test (Functional Threshold Power) which is the maximum amount of power you can sustain for one hour. You can use some formulas to work out FTP from a 20 minute or 30 minute effort but the best way to learn is to go and ride a time trail effort for an hour. Once we have an FTP, we can then focus on sweet spot, climbing and flat work. To read more about measuring improvement, check out this article - http://blog.sportivebreaks.com/measuring-improvement

So, once you know what you are measuring, here are some coaching basics. The main point that we can't stress enough - Consistency is Key. Our bodies are super clever and will develop through consistent patterns - our bodies work out what we are trying to achieve and adapts. If we just ride long sessions at weekends, the body has too long a gap to learn the patterns so smaller riders more often will bring greater gains. Coaching basics:

  • Find a local route you have ridden before and set this route as a bench mark ride (Bench Mark meaning a point to measure improvements from). Once a month go and ride this route again and see if you are quicker.
  • Choose a tough local climb to ride at least once a week to learn to control effort, if using heart rate then should be able to climb it at 40-50 beats below your maximum. If you are using RPE then this should be 6 out of 10 for effort.
  • Over winter months do not focus on average speed but average heart rate, miles and strength.
  • Going into Spring start to inject some higher efforts in your rides (not maximal)
  • While training practise your nutrition on the bike, perfect time to make sure it works for you
  • Use the gym for leg strength if you enjoy the gym, but follow a structure so not to overload too much.
  • Focus on staying healthy and well over the winter months so you can keep consistently training.

 Once you have set up a training plan, the key is sticking to it which is a real challenge, we are not professionals and we have full lives to live as well as do our training. So what can we do to help make sure we stick to our plan? After all I promise you if you follow your plan you will be ready mentally and physically for your Sportive challenge. Here are my top 10 tips to sticking with your plan:

  1. Look at what time you have before setting training goals, this will stop you trying to do more than can realistically  be achieved and so avoid disappointment further down the line. 
  2. Keep some fun in your rides, or social rides.
  3. Find a training partner, knowing someone else is out in the rain or cold as well helps keep you honest.
  4. Set bench mark goals, these help to keep you focused short term. If you just have the Marmotte as your goal then it’s very big and a long way off, maybe use some local Sportives to help. 
  5. Set up for morning sessions the night before, be it turbo or out on the road get all your kit out, including breakfast. This is called removing barriers.
  6. Think how good you feel after a session/ride, trick your mind into making you feel that you are really missing out if you don’t train. Do this over and over and it can have a positive impact of your motivation.
  7. Measure improvements - use Strava and watch your times improve, use goals set by Strava, like climbing challenge or monthly distance goals. 
  8. YouTube cycling video clips before you go to bed, you know the ones. It's highly motivating to watch Cav win the sprint or Froome taking the climb and these leave a subconscious imprints that can give you that nudge to get out and ride.
  9. Include family and friends with your plan, let them know what you are doing and they can add that pressure of you not wanting to be seen not to do your training. 
  10. Your Sportive is a big deal and by following the right plan you will get so much more from your big day. 

And finally for this overview on cycling training, lets discuss your approach to race day itself. Remember, it is only natural to have nerves before a big ride and don't worry if you have a sleepless night the night before, as long as you have slept well for the week before your adrenelin will get you through. Once on the ride itself, here are my top 6 tips to ensure success:

  1. Descend on your drops. In the UK we don’t get to spend much time on our drops but when we descend in the Alps we spend a long time on the drops in one go. We must ride the downhill on the drops because it’s the safest position. We need to build our muscle memory up for this, you will find triceps, hands, lats and neck will ache. All you need to do is build up time spent in this position, start with 5 mins and build this up. 
  2. Be smart on the climbs. Check out my guide to climbing technique here - http://blog.sportivebreaks.com/hill-climbing-techniques
  3. Eat and drink before you need to. Waiting for the feeling of thirst or hunger means the body is already having to work harder to find the energy. In your training get used to taking on fluid every 20-30 minutes and same with fuel. Believe me, prevention is better than cure on this one.
  4. Make your gluteals work. These are a key muscle group and will be needed on a long day in the saddle, if you can get them to fire it will take a lot of pressure off your quads! Tilt your pelvis forwards on the saddle, this will straighten your back and engage your glutes, when we slump in the saddle it means we work the muscles in our lower back causing back pain, so using your glutes will save you and help you.
  5. Ride like a Pro. Use the other riders around you to lessen the effort you are putting in, if there is a small group or large group of riders jump in with them as this will save you lots of energy being dragged along. Trust me, you will need your energy for the climbs so get a tow on the flats. It's good to be on your drops here as well as gives you better bike handling. 
  6. Take in the view. Use the amazing scenery to keep you motivated and focused, it’s a beautiful place to be riding and it's where you have dreamed about riding so use the energy it can give you to help you along your way. 

Nutrition

The biggest factor to people not succeding in a sportive is nutrition. Get your eating or drinking wrong on the day and it doesnt matter how much training you have done. We will look at what to eat & drink just before and during your ride but here are a few general points about nutition to think about during your training:

  • Don't focus too much on weight. Your body can take 4-6 weeks to make any changes after you start training and you may replace fat with muscle. Use a mirror to gage your physical change and concentrate more on your increase in power (FTP) and heartrate.
  • Get into the habit of replacing unhealthy snacks with water. Try and get more cycling superfoods into your diet. 
  • Keeping a food diary is hard work but you will see huge rewards.
  • Be smart about what and when you eat on training rides. This can make a massive difference to your weight control. Start your date with a good and healthy breakfast. Your body is very smart and pics up on cues quickly. When you eat during a ride, these calories are burnt and used straight away so start practicing this more and more finding brands and snacks that work for you. Do not starve yourself on the ride and then eat a lot when you get home, your body will remember being starved and then choose to store this excess food as fat, and just like that you have lost all the gains from your ride.

Read more about weight control and loss here - http://blog.sportivebreaks.com/weight-control-/-loss-for-cycling

Consider nutrition as important as part of your training plan and not just something that happens on the day. Make sure you try out and find race day snacks that work for you and use these on your big ride. Most feed stations will have bananas, water, coke and cakes but the energy brands will differ each time so bring your own. Practice your race day nutrition at local sportives and training rides so there are no shocks to your body on the sportive.

On the morning of the ride, get some slow release energy 1-1.5 hours before the start, something like porridge and honey. Top this up with a couple of slices of toast, some orange juice and a cup of coffee. Have a banana 20 minutes before the start and you should be in good shape.

This will last for 1 hour and then your nutrition plan kicks in, with regular snacks and drinks every 20-30 minutes. Keep going on this plan all the way to the end as the last food input will help with recovery. Check out more race day nutrition tips here - http://blog.sportivebreaks.com/event-day-nutrition

For hydration, again make sure you find a plan that works for you. We highly recommend taking the free personal sweat test and getting products tailored to your needs. Before a big ride, people can have a tendency to over drink. This can lead to you flushing out much needed electrolytes. In order to start the race well hydrated (without running the risk of diluting your blood salt levels down) it’s a good idea to pre-hydrate with a very strong electrolyte drink such at Precision Hydration 1500, which contains about 3x the sodium of a standard sports drink. The key thing is not to go mad with pre-loading…

On top of your normal day-to-day fluid intake, simply adding in around 500ml of a strong electrolyte drink the night before and then another 500ml on the morning of the race (finishing about 45 minutes before you set off to allow you to absorb the fluid/electrolytes) should be plenty to ‘top off your tanks’ ready to go without just peeing out lots of excess fluid. 

Like with food, the key to mastering hydration during a big ride is practice and incoporating this into your training plan. Some athletes need 1.5 litres per hour of sports drink on a big event, others only need 0.5 litres so keep listening to your body during warm up events and create a structured plan. Aim to get most of your calories from food. Find out more about race day hydration here - http://blog.sportivebreaks.com/how-to-stay-hydrated-on-your-big-sportive

Psychology

Psychology is more important and also easier to use positively than you may think! We focus on training our bodies with hill repetitions, riding on the drops, tempo and threshold power and heart rate but what about the grey matter that is telling us what to do? 

 Yes of course by simply following one of our training plans, we are building your confidence on the bike which helps the mental approach to the event. Nutrition on and off the bike has been practiced too perhaps which again is helping us feel better about going into the event. 

With all this helping your mental preparation, what else can you do? Well there is one thing and it's very simple and even fun to do and that's 'visualisation.' This is a psychological term used to describe the application of one's goal mentally during training and even during everyday activities such as washing up! 

What is visualisation and how does it help my cycling?

It is a mental process involving your already existing cycling/running experiences in the absence of actual running /riding… For example, you can see yourself riding up your local hill feeling the pedals turning and the muscles working in your legs, as you get further up the hill you can feel your breathing getting harder and your legs starting to hurt more.

Our mental processes are key to our activities and it’s proven that imagery can improve performance dramatically. Now, for people who are time crunched and who cannot always get out, this is perfect. You can practise this sat on a train or bus, at your desk , not for too long though! You can pick a moment where you have a few minutes and start practising this.

For some, working on visualisation comes easily but for others it can take a bit of practise. Don’t dive straight in and try to visualise yourself taking on the biggest climb or toughest section of a race, keep it simple and start with visualising putting your bike shoes or run shoes on… What this will do is set triggers in your mind off, as you start to feel the sensation of putting your cycling/running shoes on your subconscious mind will send messages thinking you are really going out on your bike. This means that you can progress your imagery to being on the bike. Try and put as much detail in as you can to get the most out of this technique.

Mental rehearsal is the name of the game, the more we go through a process in our mind, the easier and more natural it becomes when performed in the real situation.

Some tips for visualisation to help bring the experience to life;

  • How does it look
  • How does it feel
  • How does it smell
  • How do you feel
  • Pin point a specific part of your ride/run i.e. climbing
  • Break down the specific part into smaller parts i.e. pedal lift/knee lift
  • Break it down again i.e. your foot position as you lift

It is really important that when you visualise these cycling/running skills/techniques that you are doing them perfectly and that you always see yourself positively doing them, this will mean when you do them out on your bike, your mind will associate it with a good experience and help you to perform better.

Another easy sports psychology tool we can practice is self talk. 

Self-talk refers to intentional statements that we say to ourselves either covertly (in our heads) or overtly (out loud). We may use self-talk when experiencing anxiety about an event the coming morning, we would convince ourselves that we can cope and we can manage by saying “ride steady, keep a good, easy pace and you will get to the end” or if we are feeling competitive “you can climb that hill faster than anyone - be fast!” 

Self-talk can also just be used during an event when we get moments of doubt creeping in as we are half way through a tough event. Our mind is listening to the discomfort coming from our bodies and it tries to convince us to stop. At this point we may say “just keep going a few more minutes, this will pass so stay strong!” 

The self-talk we have been looking at so far is called motivational self-talk. The other common type is cognitive self-talk which focuses on a breakdown of a skill. For example, a cyclist climbing up a long, steep hill may say “sit up, back straight, lift on the pedals” and keep repeating to make sure they physically do as they are saying.

We can practise our self-talk while out training and while at home, the day before a ride. This will act as a reinforcement for our self-talk during a pressure situation and help us to believe we will get through or we will win. 

As with all types of training, practise is key. Try seeing if saying it out loud or in your head helps you more, look at your short term goals and can you add some self-talk to help you achieve these? For example, descending on a bike is a high stress situation for many people so on an easy descent practise saying “look where you want the bike to go, press the outside pedal down.' Using this saying as you progress onto harder downhills will trick the mind into thinking it's just the same as the easy hill. 

Physiology

Stretching should be part of any rider’s ‘off the bike’ strength and conditioning routine. Good flexibility is one of those key areas for helping to avoid aches and pains on the bike and for improving function. Muscles are not individual structures, being continuous with one another, acting together to produce patterns of movement and acting in opposition for balanced movement.

Modern life has us sitting much of the time, then we sit on a bike. Our bodies accommodate being in a sustained posture, muscles can become short and tight or long and weak, not great for efficient function. Unfortunately, age also has a negative effect on flexibility!

Set yourself 15 minutes a day for stretching - this will reap huge benefits. Follow a structure like this - http://blog.sportivebreaks.com/streching-an-introduction

You should add some off the bike conditioning exercises too. There is good reason for this. As more miles are put in along with more intense training sessions and being in that forward flexed cycling position for hours on end, the body needs to be conditioned to cope effectively with this and to help prevent aches and pains developing.

Conditioning exercises may also help to address any asymmetric, which most us will have, such as being stronger on one side, and/or more stable on the other. Perhaps an  old injury is impacting on flexibility and comfort. Sciatic and lower back issues can often cause reduced flexibility down one side which can be compensated for when bent forward by a pelvic shift to one side slightly. Here are some more stretching exercises and some strenght / conditionining work you can do at home - http://blog.sportivebreaks.com/strength-conditioning-for-cyclists

Finally, go and get a bikefit. 

Why get a bikefit? Many of us have been riding for a number of years without any issues of real concern or you’ve just started out and it all feels good so far putting in a few miles, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the position you are in is the best one for you. Sometimes a shop will set the bike up for you, but that is quite different from a bikefit. A bikefit is a holistic process, taking into account your body as a rider, its flexibility or of course, inflexibility, strengths, weaknesses, imbalances, previous injury, conditioning, your cycling history and an aspect none of us can do anything about, age. We all start out doing a sport for fun and as we get fitter and stronger and seek to progress to doing events or tough challenges, many of us seek advice to improve fitness, form and technique. Runners, from beginner to experienced, spend a lot of time sourcing the best shoe to fit their foot and a shoe that is appropriate for their mileage and type of running. Getting an appropriate bike fit is no different for comfort and performance, whatever your level.

Most of us as riders will experience some level of discomfort during our cycling lives, lower back, neck, on one side only or both sides, knee or knees, hip etc, so a good starting point is making sure that the bike fits you from the outset to help reduce the prevalence of any such issues. The fit should suit your body as it is at the time of the fit, taking into account all of the above mentioned factors, so a fit should be preceded by a thorough physical assessment as this will lead the fit in terms of rider position and the rider’s ability to sustain the position. Bike’s being too long and low in pursuit of emulating the professionals and getting an aerodynamic position is quite often the cause behind aches and pain felt. Professionals spend a lot of time working on their flexibility and off the bike strength and conditioning to be able to maintain their positions and be powerful in them. Not only does muscular tightness place restrictions on the position but so does neural tension. Hamstring tightness is sometimes mistaken for sciatic tension restricting forward flexion. The touching your toes ‘flexibility’ test isn’t an appropriate one for doing a bikefit either!

A position which works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for another. What is important for the individual is being comfortable in a certain position and being able to maintain it, without issue, which is especially important for riders tackling longer and/or more challenging sportives and triathlons. What may be good for a couple of hours won’t necessarily be comfortable and performance orientated for a hilly 6 hour sportive.

About our experts:

Jon Fearne - Head Coach at E3C, will be advising on all things training.

Andy Blow - Founder of Precision Hydration is keeping us hydrated and preventing cramps on our sportives.

Dr Ali Hill is a leading nutritionist and ensures we control our weight and fuel our rides.

Scott Cornish is a physio specialising in cycling who shares all his tips on stretching, conditioninig, bike fits, avoiding injury & more.

Lindsay Woodford is a sports physchologist helping us on the normally ignored mental side of training.