Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Cycling - How Do I Become Better?

"Don't buy upgrades, ride up grades." - Eddy "The Cannibal" Merckx, World's Greatest Cyclist

It doesn't take too long to get exited and anxious riding a bike. After riding for a few weeks or months; one day you say, "Wow, I really enjoy riding and I'm starting to get faster."

Some of my Ironman Wisconsin athletes were elaborating on their grand plan to "ride the course" every week. Just imagine if everyone went to Madison every weekend? Oh, wait... people already do that. Milwaukee, Chicago, Minneapolis, Des Moines, St. Louis, Cincinnati - they come from all over to "ride the course". More on that topic tomorrow.

It is often said in cycling and triathlon circles that beginning riders best way to improve is to "ride a lot". To a certain degree, that is true. There's nothing like a little more saddle time for increasing your capacity for riding. In June before my first Ironman in October, I asked then Naperville resident Mark Bush for advice on training for Kona. His response was quite simply, "Put a trainer in your bedroom. Ride until you collapse from fatigue. Eat something. Then do another hour or so." Especially for Ironman, that is true. Your run fitness reflects your bike AND swim fitness. A lot of coaches blow off the swim fitness part because they see people collapsing on the run. I would argue that they collapse there because of the previous events.

So beyond simply "MORE!" how does an athlete improve? Simply put, a structured training plan which develops weaknesses and maintains our strengths. Some folks call problems issues or weaknesses limiters; which they are. Whatever the key word selected as athletes we have to consistently work on everything to emerge better and faster.

So what do I work on? What are the categories? I consider the following and how is something a weakness?
  1. endurance (aerobic conditioning): Do you finish long rides easily or struggle?
  2. speed: Do you struggle with high cadence? Is your pedal action smooth or are you a masher?
  3. force: Do you struggle with short climbs? What is your power to weight ratio?
  4. muscular endurance: Can you ride for extended periods at high effort?
  5. anaerobic endurance: Do you struggle when a group you ride with surges?
  6. power: Do you consider yourself a sprinter? Are you last to the "town line"?
*Training and Racing with a Power Meter - Allen and Coggan, pg: 61-71

Here is where I start to part with "conventional" coaching. I agree with some things:

A) UP the frequency first: if you ride 3x a week add another day, then another; BEFORE you add time or intensity.

B) Off the bike cross-training: Simply put - lift weights. I HIGHLY recommend working with a trainer. This winter I worked with a CSCS (Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist). My squat was significantly harder with 2% of the weight. However, my feet were in different places and even after only 15 repetitions my legs were feeling it. We RARELY needed weights. Everything involved balance. I know... shocker.

C) Hill Repeats - don't go below 60 rpms. Use a hill that has super low traffic. I'm fortunate enough to have several fairly deserted hills of considerable length within 3 miles of my house. If you are "stuck" in a city or limited on time due to family responsibilities; you can always create a hill. I use 4 - 4x4s and a piece of plywood about 4" high and a CompuTrainer. Don't have a CompuTrainer? Use a standard magnetic trainer and do some accelerations with your front wheel on the 4x4. ALWAYS recover after the effort by spinning easily down the hill and then go again. For ANY Ironman race, I go to Bull Valley here in IL. So a long ride would be from Barrington, IL around Lake Geneva, WI and back with several repeats in Bull Valley around mile 90+.

Trust me... you don't need to "ride the course" in Madison. I can kick your ass right here and save you four hours of driving and a hotel stay.

Other measures...
Power Meters - yeah, I have one. I can get you a discount on any one you want. I am an SRM preferred dealer. Do they help? Sure. Does understanding your power on a training ride make it more valuable? Potentially, if used correctly. I encourage folks to watch both heart rate AND power. BOTH matter to a certain extent. BOTH are irrelevant at certain times.

You need to be able to USE the data and have someone understand WHAT they are doing during a workout. This is very difficult for many people. The Thursday night ride (for example) is a balls out flurry of testosterone. At what point does the workout "cross over" into time wasting? For example the group I rode with, I let everyone go in front of me. I built into each interval. 150 watts, 200 watts, 250, 300, 380. No drafting. Heart rate hitting scary numbers. 110% of maximum heart rate (MHR) according to my last treadmill stress test at the hospital. So much for heart rate being the end all be all.

Power? It's a number. Relative to HR data over the course of the ride - THAT is the key. I was looking for a hard interval session. Hard means really hard. Lungs on fire. I'm shaking and close to blacking out hard. Muscular cramping and quaking after six repeats hard.

Don't have a power meter? Say it ain't so? You can use other things like your GPS or a speedometer and heart rate monitor to measure the effort. Now... it won't be wattage, but you'll know how hard you are working.

Long ride wattage versus heart rate - so, you're training for an Ironman. Its 78 F and coach says hold 200 watts for the long ride. Your heart rate is SOARING (95% effort) and your average watts are down around 175. You finish the ride. Was this a good training session? I would argue not. Though the wattage wasn't too bad, your heart rate was scary high. In an Ironman, NOTHING is fast. It is all about endurance and NOT SLOWING DOWN. A more productive session would have been to back the heart rate down a little and see what your wattage did.

In my opinion it isn't WATTS or HEART RATE. Its both. Most people have a PowerTap, SRM and heart rate monitor and have no idea how to use them. ESPECIALLY for an Ironman.

How do you maximize your fitness, time, wallet and enjoyment?
  • Patience grasshopper - "we are what we repeatedly do"
  • Get an outside observer of your workout performance
  • Ramp up SLOWLY
  • Listen to your body
  • Stick with it
  • Don't you ever quit, ever


  1. Hi Bob, Guilty as charged - I was planning on riding Madison but if I can get the same w/out from home...Can you pass on the route to Bull Valley? I always ride thru B Hills but would love to lengthen it with some harder hill work. Thanks! jamie@beelineimage.com

  2. Hi Jamie - I'll email you our ride route. I've done five Ironman races and have NEVER rode the course in training. Is it nice to be able to do it? Sure, but do it as a "race simulation" when you are closer to your race day and do it once, maybe twice.

  3. Bob, I respectfully disagree with you about whether or not to ride the IM WI course in preparation for the race. The course is less than 2 hours away and you cannot replicate the continuous ups and downs of the hills there, even with hill repeats. On a hill repeat most people climb to the top, slow down, then come back down doing a little braking and slowing to get ready to climb back up. People don't race that way. They climb to the top then on the way down carry a lot of speed into the next hill.

    I am training for Horribly Hilly and as much riding and hill repeats as I do here, riding the course 3 weeks ago was much more difficult than anything I could have replicated here. Plus nothing replicates the course like the course itself.


    Chris Barnes

  4. Hi Chris - I'm not saying "don't ever ride" the course. I'm saying that you don't need to go up there more than once or twice. Most amateurs, when coached correctly, can get a great workout without going to Madison and be more efficient in their recovery and following workouts. Come ride with me/us and I'll get you ready for Horribly Hilly and you'll never be farther than 1 hr from Barrington, IL.

    Thanks for the dissenting opinion. That's why the sport is great - more than one way to do things.