The top contenders in the pro peloton are all very fit and winning races requires more than fitness. Team Sky uses a strategy called “the aggregation of marginal gains.” The coaches identify different ways riders can improve slightly, which when taken together produce better performance and more wins.
Here are five simple things you can do this winter to improve your performance.
Improve Muscle Firing Pattern
Your quadriceps is composed of many motor units, each of which is controlled by a different nerve. Each motor unit is burning a tiny bit of energy. When your brain tells these motor units to contract they don’t all naturally contract simultaneously. If you can get the motor units to fire simultaneously then you get more power without expending more energy. This is like dialing in the timing of your car.
Here’s how to improve the coordination of the motor units. When you sprint you are demanding maximum power. Over time through repeated sprints your body learns to better coordinate the firing your motor units to give you more power. Even if you don’t normally sprint during your rides practicing sprints will improve your overall performance. When you’re riding throw in two or three short (30 to 60 second) all-out sprints with full recovery between each sprint. You can do these on a road ride every 30 to 60 minutes or on the trainer at least five minutes apart. Don’t think about your heart rate or power — those are irrelevant, just go as hard as you can. If you want to impress your buddies tell them you’re working on “neuromuscular facilitation.”
Increase Pedaling Economy
You can increase your power and speed by learning to ride with a smooth round stroke. Experienced cyclists pedal with a round stroke that applies power over most of the stroke. You can improve your pedaling by concentrating on four parts of the stroke:
- Top: Apply power forward, imagining that you are pushing your knee forward toward the handlebars.
- Front: Apply power downward.
- Bottom: Apply power backward, with your toes pointed slightly down. Imagine that you are scraping your toes across the floor.
- Back: Don’t try to pull up on the pedal (which is inefficient); rather, just lift your leg so that your other leg doesn’t need to push it up.
Riding a fixed gear bike is the classic way to improve your stroke but may be hard on your knees. Riding on rollers is another great tool—if your stroke is jerky you may find yourself on the floor. Riding a bike through gravel, especially uphill, also helps to develop a smooth round stroke. Some computerized trainers have programs to help you balance the power of each leg and to develop a rounder stroke. Finally, one-legged pedaling on the trainer will improve both your muscle coordination and your functional leg strength. The French have a term for a smooth, round stroke: souplesse. Tell your buddies you’re working on “souplesse” this winter.
Get A Bike Fit
Bike fit is dynamic. As you change your goals, or get a different bike, or get fitter, or lose flexibility, your correct bike fit changes. I’ve been to the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine many times with clients to have bike fits with Andy Pruitt, one of the leading experts on bike fit. I’ve seen a rider’s power increase by up to 5% just by improving the bike fit!
Riding around Boulder, CO probably 25% of the roadies I see have their saddles too high. If a rider’s hips are rocking up and down as the rider pedals then with each leg the rider is reaching for the pedal at the bottom of the stroke, which causes friction between the groin and the saddle with every stroke. Over time this can cause saddle sores. Conversely some riders’ saddles are obviously too low, which may cause knee pain. Sometimes I see a rider where one hip drops down with every pedal stroke. The leg on that side is shorter and the rider may develop a saddle sore on that side. If a rider has tight illiotibial band (IT band) he or she may develop pain on the outside of the knee or along the outside of the upper leg. Each of these problems can be solved with a proper bike fit.
There’s an article on my website about how Pruitt does bike fits.
Train Your Upper Body
It’s easy to spot the pro racers who live and train around Boulder. Unless they are climbing hard when they ride they don’t waste a lot of energy rocking their upper bodies back and forth. Contrast this to some roadies whose shoulders rock with every stroke.
The pros also ride with flat backs, which reduces the strain on the back muscles, especially when climbing. Riding with a flat back also allows a roadie to look ahead with less strain on the neck. In the first photo I’m riding with a rounded back and in the second photo with a flat back.
The easiest way to learn to ride with a quiet upper body and a flat back is to ride the trainer in front of a mirror.
Learn To Relax
In any activity from riding to giving a speech you’ll do better if you’re excited and even a bit nervous. However, if you get too nervous your performance will suffer. Psychologists call this the arousal curve.
By learning to relax you can manage your excitement for optimal performance. There’s simple technique called progressive relaxation, which only takes about 10 minutes. You can learn how to do it from two of my columns: Learning to Focus on Your Breathing and The Importance of Progressive Relaxation.
I raced ultra events when roadies first started using heart rate monitors. I did my intensity workouts on the trainer where I could train by power. I found that if I consciously relaxed by focused breathing I could produce 2 – 3% more power!
As we age consistency becomes more and more important. My eArticle Off-Season Conditioning Past 50 applies to roadies in your 50s, 60s, 70s (like me) and beyond. Whether your goal is long-lasting physical health, the joy of physical activity or continuing athletic performance, this eArticle will teach you what to do in the off-season. It’s divided into three parts:
- Review of the physiological effects of aging.
- Training modalities to combat these.
- A 12-week off-season training program with a range of options.
My eArticle Productive Off-Season Training for Health and Recreational Riders explains in detail what you can do to become a better rider this winter. The article includes:
- A 12-week off-season exercise program to keep you healthy during the winter months.
- A 12-week, more intensive off-season program for recreational riders to build your endurance, power and speed, preparing for base training.
The 28-page Productive Off-Season is just $4.99.
The 26-page eArticle Off-Season Conditioning Past 50 is just $4.99.
My Off-Season Bundle includes Productive Off-Season Training and two other articles, which teach you how to make the best use of your available time this winter. The Off-Season Bundle totaling 60 pages is just $13.50 (and only $11.48 for our Premium Members with your 15% discount.”
Coach John Hughes earned coaching certifications from USA Cycling and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. John’s cycling career includes course records in the Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200-km randonnée and the Furnace Creek 508, a Race Across AMerica (RAAM) qualifier. He has ridden solo RAAM twice and is a 5-time finisher of the 1200-km Paris-Brest-Paris. He has written nearly 30 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John's full bio.