by Fred Matheny
Every human activity has its own jargon, a unique set of words (or a unique way of using familiar words) that befuddles newcomers. Learning the lingo is the key to understanding the activity and getting accepted by its practitioners.
Training on the bike may not be as jargon-ridden as medicine, yachting, pipefitting or musical counterpoint—but it comes close.
For instance, take the word jam. Once when I was riding in a small group that contained a novice rider, the leader yelled that we were going to jam to the next stop sign. Hearing only the word — and not knowing its cycling application — the rookie started looking around for the snack stop and got left behind.
To help you avoid similar embarrassing situations here’s a list of absolutely vital bike training definitions.
Don’t ignore these definitions or you may get in a jam!
Training Terms Cyclists Need to Know
CIRCUIT TRAINING: Usually this term refers to a weight training technique in which you move rapidly from one resistance exercise to another with very short rest breaks or none at all.
Research shows that your lactate threshold (and therefore your ability to maintain a higher cruising speed on the bike) is increased by alternating a resistance training exercise like bench presses or squats with a hard effort on the indoor trainer. As a result, circuit training that combines weights with aerobic activity is becoming popular for off-season training.
CROSS TRAINING: Combining sports for mental refreshment and physical conditioning, especially during cycling’s off-season. Examples are running, swimming, Nordic skiing, skating, rowing, weight training, and court sports like basketball.
Some cross training activities even simulate the pedaling motion. A good example is snowshoeing, one of my favorites. The motion of lifting the ‘shoe out of the snow and pulling it forward for the next step strengthens the muscles that pull the pedal around the back of the stroke and move it to the top, ready to push down again.
Some forms of certain activities are more helpful to cyclists than others. For instance, running on the flats doesn’t seem to improve cycling specifically whereas running uphill works the quads in a similar way to pedaling.
FARTLEK: A Swedish word meaning “speed play,” it is a training technique based on un- structured changes in pace and intensity. It can be used in place of timed or measured inter- val training. Of course, structured training has a place in any cyclist’s training plan, but fartlek training is less demanding psychologically (although not as demanding physically).
A cyclist employing speed play would warm up and then do whatever faster riding seemed appropriate. Jam each short hill, time trial to the silo a mile down the road, or sprint for 200 yards every time you see a bluebird, a patch of glass on the road, or a white mailbox. It’s a fun, free-flowing way to add intensity to training.
INTERVALS: A structured method of training that alternates brief, hard efforts with short periods of easier riding for partial recovery. Alternating hard efforts with rest allows you to do more work than you could if you did just one long, hard repeat. Intervals also make it easy to vary the intensity of the workout. Several variables can be manipulated: length of the work phase, recovery time, heart rate (or wattage output), and number of efforts.
It’s important that recovery is incomplete. Usually heart rate is allowed to drop only to about 120 bpm before another hard effort is begun.
JAM: A period of hard, fast riding. Jams are completely unstructured. You simply go faster for as long as you feel like it (or as long as other riders make you). The terrain can dictate the length of a jam, too—harder to the top of a hill, faster on the flats when you have a tailwind or you’re trying to beat a thunderstorm home. Group rides often feature jams when the pack decides to chase down a rider or when riders are jockeying for position to contest the city limit sign sprint.
JUMP: A quick, hard acceleration. The ability to jump is vital to cycling skills. A good jump initiates the longer effort of a sprint. Most coaches suggest that riders work on their jump at least once a week with several quick, out-of-the-saddle accelerations in a moderate gear.
LACTATE THRESHOLD (LT): This is the exertion level beyond which you can no longer produce energy aerobically. Additional intense work means your body can’t deal with the resulting buildup of lactate (lactic acid). You experience muscle fatigue, pain and shallow, rapid breathing.
Lactate threshold is vital to training because the more power you can generate without going over your lactate threshold and becoming anaerobic, the faster you can ride at a given heart rate. LT workouts were the key component in a pro cyclist’s training program.
LSD: Long, steady distance is a training technique that requires an even aerobic pace for at least two hours. Many cyclists do long rides too fast and can’t sustain the pace for the distance. Others do them too slowly and fail to achieve an optimum increase in endurance. Most coaches suggest that long rides be done at heart rates from 70 to about 85 percent of max, a pace that feels “moderate” or “brisk.”
REPETITION (rep for short): Each hard effort in an interval workout. Also, one complete movement in a weight-training exercise. Varying the number of reps is one way to manipulate the difficulty of intervals or resistance training.
SET: In intervals or weight training, a specific number of repetitions. Riders (or weight train- ers) divide their reps into sets so they can recover and do more total work.
For instance, a common weight training prescription is “3 sets of 10.” This means you’d do 10 repeats of an exercise, rest briefly, then repeat the process two more times for a total of three sets. On the bike, you might do three repeat climbs of two minutes each with two minutes of easy spinning between each climb. That’s one set. Then you might do the three climbs again. That’s the second set.
SNAP: The ability to accelerate quickly. Snap is different from a jump because snap refers to a quick acceleration any time, not a formal out-of-the-saddle explosion. A rider with snap can simply remain seated and accelerate quickly with 10 or 15 pedal strokes to close a small gap after a corner or power over a short hill.
SOFT PEDAL: To rotate the pedals without actually applying power. This skill is crucial in a paceline if you’re in danger of running up on the wheel in front. You shouldn’t grab the brakes to slow because the resulting jerk of your bike might take down another rider. And if you abruptly stop pedaling, your bike will move “backward” in the paceline, endangering the rider behind you.
The trick is simply to keep the pedals going around without putting pressure on them. You’ll drift back to a safe distance from the wheel you’re following without spreading a ripple of con- cern among your companions. Then smoothly begin applying power again.
SPEED: The ability to accelerate quickly and maintain a very fast cadence for brief periods. Most non-racers don’t work on speed but it’s important for everyone who wants to ride athletically. Going fast for short periods makes your fast-twitch muscle fibers (the ones with little endurance but great capacity for speed) fire rapidly and often.
Without occasionally being asked to do some quick pedaling, fast-twitch fibers get little stimulation. Occasional bursts of speed are like weight training on the bike.
SPEEDWORK: A general term for high-velocity training such as sprints, time trials and motorpacing. Use this training to improve your acceleration and top-end speed.
Speedwork is similar to interval training but with this important difference: Each “on” effort is shorter and more intense, and you must allow complete recovery between efforts. Speedwork is tough. One session per week is plenty.
If you race, particularly in criteriums, speedwork is the key to coping with the many sprints out of turns. For all riders, speedwork gives you the ability to do things like accelerate away from chasing dogs, get through a traffic light before it turns, or win the group sprint. You’ll also develop the ability to stay in full control of the bike when pedaling with maximum speed and power.
SPIN: To pedal with a quick cadence. There are two ways to make a bike go, say, 22 mph. You can pedal a big gear at a relatively low cadence or you can pedal a smaller gear at a faster cadence. Learning to spin is crucial because a fast cadence means the effort each leg has to produce is divided into smaller units. You have to pedal more frequently but you don’t have to push as hard each time. You can save your leg muscles for later in the ride.
Spinning also is used to describe an easy ride done at a relatively brisk cadence with low ef- fort. And it’s the term for stationary cycling in a health club, using one-speed, fixed-gear “spinning” bikes.
SUPPLENESS: A quality of well-conditioned leg muscles that allows a rider to pedal at high cadence with smoothness and power. Also known by the French term, souplesse. It’s developed by hours of high-cadence riding. Many cyclists also develop suppleness by riding a fixed gear, like on a track bike. Because you can’t coast, you’re forced to develop a round, smooth stroke.
TEMPO: Fast riding at a brisk cadence. Tempo is done at a heart rate of about 75 to 85 per- cent of max. This isn’t as hard as a time trial so it can be maintained for long periods. Tempo rides often are done in the early season to build the base needed for intervals and other strenuous training later in the year.
TIME TRIAL (TT): A race against the clock in which individual riders start at set intervals and cannot give or receive a draft. For this reason it’s often called the “race of truth.” Time trials are great for training, too. Working at 85 to 90 percent of max heart rate for extended periods (15 to 60 or more minutes) increases your lactate threshold and thus the speed you can maintain for a given level of effort.
WATT: A measurement of the power you’re producing. It tells how much energy you apply to the pedals over time. A power output of 100 watts will illuminate a 100-watt light bulb. The average recreational racer can generate 200-250 watts for about 30 minutes. A pro riding up a difficult Tour de France climb might average as high as 330 watts over a 40 minute period.