There is no secret to becoming a good athlete. If you train lots, at the correct intensities, recover well and eat well, you will get very fast indeed. You need to train smart, however, not just hard. This is a guide to the jargon behind good training.
If you’ve already got your training dialled in, have a look at this blog by Sgt. Sue Pugh of the RAF. She gives an excellent account of how she manages to train for ultra-endurance events whilst working full time.
SOME (VERY) BASIC BIOLOGY
At risk of stating the obvious, humans, like all living creatures, respire. Respiration provides the energy to break down glucose in your cells, fuelling the cell’s chemical reactions. Aerobic respiration requires oxygen and is highly sustainable whilst anaerobic respiration does not, but is very difficult to sustain.
When you breathe in, air goes into your lungs, where oxygen is absorbed by your red blood cells. Your heart then pumps this oxygen around your body, distributing it to your cells. The more you exercise, the more efficient your heart and lungs become. With the correct training, lung capacity, red blood cell count and the volume of the heart’s chambers can increase, whilst the heart will itself become thicker and more muscular.
When exercising hard, however, your cardiovascular system cannot absorb enough oxygen to fuel your cells. Instead, your cells break down glucose without oxygen but in doing so produce lactate (often mistakenly referred to as lactic acid). Doing this indiscriminately can damage your muscles, so lactate production hurts as your body’s way of telling you that it is unsustainable. This is the ‘burn’ of hard exercise. The moment you start working anaerobically your body goes into ‘oxygen debt’, and when you work less hard you start to get rid of the lactate by oxidising it.
By training, the point at which you start respiring anaerobically—or ‘lactate threshold’ (LT)—will go up. On top of this, you will become more efficient when respiring anaerobically.
SLOW-TWITCH VS FAST-TWITCH
Your body has two types of muscle fibres: Type I and Type II. Type I are often known as slow-twitch fibres and, as the name suggests, move slowly, but can be used sustainably. They kick in when you are respiring aerobically and are used the overwhelming majority of the time in cycling. Type II, meanwhile, are split between Type IIa and Type IIb. Often called fast-twitch, these move more quickly but are inefficient and fuelled by anaerobic respiration. You use Type IIa in longer, harder effords and Type IIb when sprinting or lifting weights.
Quite what proportion of your muscles are slow-twitch versus fast-twitch is largely a matter of genetics and, indeed, is hard to measure. With training, however, you can force your body grow more of one type of fibre than another.
TYPES OF TRAINING
You can train your body for almost anything and quite what you choose or need to do depends on your goal. Cycling is an endurance sport, so training is mostly aimed at improving your ability to ride for a long time at a relatively low intensity. This said, however, it’s generally more efficient to have some variation in your training, and there are times on the bike—short, punchy climbs, sprints etc.—when you need to work extremely hard for short periods. Here are the basic types of training:
Endurance training (often called base training, though this can be a bit of a misnomer) will account for the vast majority of your time spent in the saddle. Long miles at low levels of intensity are the foundation of everything else you do on the bike and really cannot be replaced. Work here typically lasts from 1 hour up to 6 or even 7. This type of training uses Type I muscle and the benefits are almost endless. Your body will start burning fat efficiently, and with more miles in your legs you will be able to work hard for longer. In brief, you need a base of longer, slower riding to be efficient when going fast.
Threshold work is the hardest you can ride whilst still oxidising all the lactate you’re producing. This predominantly uses Type IIa fibres and can be sustained for an hour at most. The higher your lactate threshold, the faster you will be able to go in a competitive situation. Training to increase your threshold does not need to be exactly at the limit of your aerobic system, and can instead be longer efforts just under threshold. For a look at how to calculate your threshold see ‘FTP’ in the next section.
Interval training increases your anaerobic capacity, or your heart and lungs’ ability to cope with extremely hard efforts. In cycling this helps with sprinting, attacking and going fast up short climbs. Anything under 4 or 5 minutes. The key to interval training is controlling your break between efforts, as this forces your body to recover more efficiently under extreme stress. You’ll be able to sprint for longer and recover faster between attacks. Intervals are a great way to improve your performance in a short space of time but need to be balanced out by a lot of endurance and threshold training.
No prizes for guessing that strength training is exclusively focussed at making you stronger. This works your muscles exclusively, not your cardiovascular system, and for many years was thought the bane of the serious cyclist as forcing muscles to grow inevitably makes you heavier. Thankfully, however, cycling is now more enlightened. The most obvious benefit is to make you stronger for extremely short efforts, i.e. sprints (for a clear example of this look at the physiques of Marcel Kittel and Nairo Quintana). More than this, however, specific strength training in the gym can decrease chances of injury, increase comfort on the bike and make your muscle recruitment much more efficient.
Muscular endurance trains your muscles’ ability to work under a sustained load. Though vital for cross-country skiing, rowing and other endurance sports, it has a somewhat limited use in cycling. It often requires training close to or above threshold, but muscular endurance is not primarily aimed at increasing your cardiovascular capacity. It comes in especially useful if you need to perform sustained, seated attacks in a big gear, especially over cobbles or dirt.
Cross training, something of a curveball, is training at anything other than your primary sport (cycling, in this case). It should provide enough mental and physical variation to keep you fresh and keen to cycle, and is normally best used for recovery work. Suggestions vary on how much cross training you should do, but 10% of your training spent off the bike should be more than enough. Running, swimming, skiing and rowing are all popular choices.
A FEW KEY METRICS
Keeping an eye on these will allow you to measure your performance and, ultimately, improve. It’s important to note how you feel on the bike, but feel needs to be combined with objective data if you’re going to get the most out of yourself. Here are the metrics with the biggest effect on your riding:
Power is, quite simply, the energy put into your pedal stroke multiplied by the speed at which you’re applying it. It is measured in Watts (W). Power is by far the most useful metric in cycling because it never changes—‘a Watt is a Watt’, as the saying goes. It indicates how much energy you are producing independently of speed, road gradient, weather, other riders or anything else.
To measure it, you need a power meter. They vary in price, size and accuracy, but generally speaking use a strain gauge to measure the force exerted by your pedal stroke and expresses this in Watts. They are normally integrated into the chainrings, crank arms or pedals. When you have an idea of your training zones (see below) and have a power meter, it is possible to train extremely precisely.
Heart rate (hr) is the next most useful metric. Measured in beats per minute (bpm), it tells you how your body is responding to an effort. When combined with power, heart rate gives you an almost complete picture of how effectively you are working—your body’s output and that output’s cost.
In cycling weight is crucial when going uphill and a rider’s ‘power to weight ratio’ (W/kg) will tell you a great deal about their climbing ability. When climbing, gravity works against you far more than wind or rolling resistance. You lessen gravity’s pull by losing weight, so being lighter will help you to go faster. The flatter the terrain, however, the less weight matters.
Scales are of course the best way of measuring your weight. With more advanced training, however, you may wish to see your body fat percentage. There are ways of estimating this without specialist equipment and training, but if you’re thinking about getting seriously lean you’re best off having a professional do it.
VO2 max is the maximum amount of oxygen you can intake during exercise, normally expressed as litres of oxygen per minute (L/min). It is the best suggestion of an athlete’s ability in endurance sports. Whenever there is an uphill time trial at a grand tour, one or two pundits will always joke that the prizes could be awarded more easily if riders just submitted their weight and VO2 max to the race committee—it’s that good an indicator. Genetics plays a huge role in deciding your VO2 max, but thankfully so does training.
VO2 max can be estimated, but with varying degrees of accuracy. The only hard and fast way to measure it is to work to exhaustion whilst wearing a mask which measures your breathing. It is both wildly expensive and extremely unpleasant. You don’t really need to know your VO2 max, though it can be useful if training at a very high level.
Functional Threshold Power (FTP) is the maximum power you can sustain for an hour. It takes VO2 max and efficiency on the bike in hand and provides you with an objective measure of your ability to race fast. It is crucial to tracking fitness, improvement and performance, and as you will see below it can be used to calculate training zones.
Measuring FTP is relatively easy to do. Ideally you would cycle all out—on empty roads or an indoor trainer—for an hour and record your average power for the whole time. This is your FTP. An hour on the limit is not for the faint hearted, however. For an easier alternative, cycle all out for 20 minutes, then record your average power. Multiply the number by 0.95 and you’ll have a good estimate of your FTP.
Functional Threshold Heart Rate (FTHR) is, as the name suggests, your heart rate when working at FTP. It can be used to estimate training zones in a similar manner to FTP but doesn’t require a power meter to calculate. Your heart rate can take some time to catch up with your effort, so make sure you are warm and breathing reasonably hard by the time you start the test. The average over an hour is then your FTHR as is 95% of your 20 minute average, roughly.
As we’ve alluded to, your training can be divided into different zones. These specify the varying intensities required to train the different muscular and cardiovascular systems, and using zones is vital to training correctly.
One big proviso, however, is that all the intensities summarised below are estimates. Individual physiology plays a huge role in determining your zones, and it is always better to be tested for your zones when possible. Furthermore, the classic seven zone system is a simplification of the picture of human exercise, designed to be as broadly applicable as possible. In reality there is no limit to the degree of personalisation in calculating training zones. The table below is still extremely useful, but needs to be taken with a pinch of salt.
If you are serious about training, the best thing is to have a physiologist perform a blood lactate test. This involves a number of efforts at increasing intensities, from extremely easy to maximal. After each effort, a physiologist will take a small blood sample (usually from the ear). From these samples, your zones can be calculated very precisely.
Suggested training zones are as follow:
|Zone||Training use||% FTP||% FTHR||% max HR|
Hopefully this has helped to explain some basic training science. We won’t recommend a particular programme because one size doesn’t fit all, but the physiological principles behind every programme are constant.
Seeing yourself improve is unbelievably satisfying. Sure, there’s a lot to enjoy in the speed and freedom of a cycling, but there’s a deep, instinctive pleasure in putting in hours of work and seeing your body change as a result. It’s the same whether you train to outpace the competition or your time up a climb. Putting the miles in will only get you so far if you’re doing it inefficiently, so for the best results, find out your zones.
If you train intelligently, you’ll improve more.