Bill P.: I’m 40 years old and my doctor says I need more exercise. I walk our dog and garden; otherwise I’m sedentary. I tried running and that hurt and I don’t know how to swim. I got a road bike and have been riding for a couple of months. I ride about 10 – 15 miles a day four or five days a week. I really enjoy it. What should I do to improve?
Coach Hughes: When asked how to get better, Eddy Merckx famously said, “Ride more!” Racing in the 1960s and ’70s, Merckx dominated the sport. The French magazine Vélo described Merckx as “the most accomplished rider that cycling has ever known,” while VeloNews of the United States declared him to be the greatest and most successful cyclist of all time. You can learn more about Merckx here.
Merckx is right – you need to ride more. However since he raced cycling science has advanced significantly. Here are 10 principles to follow:
1. Training overload leads to adaptation. In order to improve you need to increase the number of miles you ride. When you ask your body to do something it doesn’t usually do your body adapts so it can handle the new workload. As Merckx says you need to increase your mileage, i.e., create training overload so your body adapts to riding more miles. If you just ride the same miles every week you won’t get better.
2. Stress + rest = success. You get fitter if you allow your body to recover and then adapts to the new training load. If you don’t allow enough time for recovery you won’t improve and you may get injured or burn out.
3. Recovery. Most adaptations occur when the body is resting, not during the training sessions. To continue improving, your body needs time to rebuild. I’ve written a 16-page eBook on Optimal Recovery for Improved Performance.
4. Endurance first. You should build a good endurance base before you start riding harder. If you don’t have a good endurance base then you risk injury by riding too hard too soon. You can read more about endurance riding here.
5. Pacing. You need to pace yourself properly to build your endurance. It’s simple: you should always be able to talk comfortably.
6. Ramping. You build fitness progressively. You need to increase the workload periodically to continue the principle of stress + rest = success. Three rules of thumb:
Week to week increase weekly volume by 5-15%.
Month to month increase monthly volume by 10-25%.
Year to year increase annual volume by 10-25%.
As a new rider you should increase your volumes by the lower percentages. After you get fitter you can ramp up faster.
Ramping example. You’re consistently riding “about 10 – 15 miles a day four or five days a week” which is about 40 to 75 miles a week. Your consistency is great and by varying the weekly mileage your following the principle of stress + rest = success. Here’s how you could increase your weekly volume:
Week #1 – 75 miles
Week #2 – 40 miles
Week #3 – 80 miles (7% more)
Week #4 – 42 miles (5% more)
4 week total – 237 miles
Week #5 – 85 miles (6% more)
Week #6 – 44 miles (5% more)
Week #7 – 90 miles (5% more)
Week #8 – 46 miles (5% more)
4 week total – 265 miles, a 12% increase over the first 4 weeks.
Etc. The mileages don’t have to be exact – just follow the pattern.
7. Variation. By varying how you ride you’ll get fitter faster. You can vary your riding three different ways:
A. Weekly miles. You’re already varying the total weekly miles, which is great!
B. Daily miles. You should also vary the daily miles more. Instead of four days of 15 miles (60 miles for the week) you’ll get fitter if you ride in a week:
one 20-mile ride
two 15-mile rides
one 10-mile ride
C. How hard you ride. Your 20- and 15-mile rides are endurance rides and you should ride at a conversational pace. Your 10-mile ride can be a slightly faster tempo ride. You should still be able to talk but not whistle.
8. Consistency. You need to ride at least three and not more than five days (almost) every week. Three days a week is enough to maintain fitness. Four or five days will help you get better.
9. Recovery days and weeks. By varying your daily and weekly mileage you’re already incorporating recovery. Despite the consistency principle you need periodic recovery breaks from riding. Every two to three months park your bike in the garage and don’t ride. This full recovery break ensures you’re ready to ramp up your training some more with less risk of injury or burnout. If it’s the holidays or your daughter is getting married or your boss has given you a lot of work it’s okay to take a week off.
10. Individuality.You are unique and you will respond best in your own way to a training program. Cyclists have different bodies, various fitness levels, and diverse psychological needs. Modify the above principles and examples so they work for you.
It’s not about the bike. For several years I coached the Leukemia Society’s Team in Training. Over three to four months I prepared the participants to ride a 100-mile century. Some riders had already ridden metric centuries (100 km) and had top-notch bikes. Other riders hadn’t ridden at all and their bikes had been gathering dust in the garage. Donna was a particularly inspiring rider. She was almost totally deaf, inexperienced and riding an old bike. She was usually the slowest rider but she was persistent! On our longest training ride before the century I stayed with Donna. When we got to the end of the ride all of the other riders had waited and clapped and hugged Donna. By following the above principles everybody including Donna completed the century.
Coach John Hughes has been riding since the 1970s and coaching since the 1990s. He has earned coaching certifications from USA Cycling and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. He is the author of the best-selling Anti-Aging 12 Ways You Can Slow the Aging Process as well as over 40 other eBooks.
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.