Improving your speed isn’t super hard and doesn’t have to be very painful. Here’s how the training paradigm works:
Overload -> Damage + Recovery = Improvement
Your body is used to riding a particular amount of miles at a certain speed a week. If you want to improve you have to ask your body to do more. You could:
- Do longer rides.
- Ride more days a week.
- Ride more miles a week, the result of #1 and #2.
- Ride harder.
These are the overload.
When you overload your body you do a little damage to your muscles. After a hard ride — the overload — your legs hurt, which are symptoms of the damage.
Your body only repairs the damage when you aren’t riding. If you just keep riding won’t get faster. You need give your body time to recover.
While your body recovers it also adapts to the new workload. The adaptations are the improvement.
Here are lessons from professional cyclists on how to use the training paradigm to improve your speed.
Ride more. When Eddy Merckx was asked how to improve his answer was simple, “Ride more”, which is one kind of overload. Merckx is a retired Belgian professional road and track racer who raced in the 1960s and ’70s. Many think he’s the most successful pro in cycling history. He won 11 three-week Grand Tours (the Tour de France five times, the Giro d’Italia five times and the Vueltaa Españaonce), more than any other racer as well as many other races and setting the hour record.
Paradoxically riding more at a conversational endurance pace will improve your speed by improving the efficiency of your heart so it can pump more blood per beat and deliver more oxygen and fuel to your muscles.
How to ride more. If you add too many miles too quickly you may actually get slower because you’re starting to overtrain. Here are five rules of thumb on how to ramp up your riding:
- Week to week increase your volume by 5 -15%.
- Weekly long ride is no more than half your weekly volume.
- Include easier weeks so you recover fully. You could ramp up for two or three weeks and then ride a little less for a week or alternate progressively harder weeks with somewhat easier weeks.
- Month to month increase your monthly volume by 10 – 25%.
- Year to year increase your annual volume by 10 – 25%.
Suppose you’ve been riding 50 miles a week. You could ramp up about 10 % per week like this:
- Week 1 55 miles
- Week 2 60 miles
- Week 3 65 miles
- Week 4 50 miles recovery week
- Week 5 70 miles
Note that these are endurance miles ridden a conversational pace, which bring about specific physiological changes, improvements that don’t happen if you ride harder. In my column Eight Tips for Endurance Training this Winter I describe the benefits of endurance training at an endurance pace and make suggestions on how to how to do it this winter.
Vary the intensity. If you always ride at the same speed you’ll always ride at the same speed. You need to add in some harder rides than you normally do. At same time change some of your days to active recovery rides.
Ride harder. “When it’s time to train, I don’t like being on the bike for no reason … So some days I add in intervals or do more specific training or more intensity.” — Chris Froome. Froome is a British-Kenyan pro cyclist who has won the Tour de France four times, the Giro d’Italia once and the Vuelta a España twice.
Riding harder simply means riding harder than you usually ride. Froome can climb at over 400 watts for 40 minutes so hard for him might be intervals at 450 watts.
You don’t know your power output and I don’t know mine either because it doesn’t matter. We’re not racing with the pros. You may ride at a conversational pace with your buddies most of the time. When you’re riding a little harder into the wind or climbing you probably can still talk in complete sentences but can’t whistle. For you harder is just riding a little harder so you can only talk in short phrases not full sentences.
Note also that Froome has a specific purpose for each ride and so should you. Decide in advance if the ride will be an endurance ride, an intensity ride or a recovery ride and stick to your plans.
How to ride harder. You’ll improve faster if you ride harder at your personal hard pace, harder than you are used to riding but not by a lot. Some people like to ride intervals, e.g., repeat 3 times [5 minutes hard and 3 minutes easy]. Some people don’t like structured intervals and just mix up the pace to include the intensity. Both work. For my hard workouts I ride a hilly course and push just a little harder climbing.
Some riders want to gauge how hard they’re riding with a heart rate monitor. Some use a power meter. Others use perceived exertion by paying attention to their legs feel and their breathing. All three work. I go by perceived exertion. See my column Enjoy Your Riding More: Training by Perceived Exertion.
Here are rules of thumb for hard rides:
- When you add hard rides to your training cut back on your total riding.
- Do no more than two hard rides a week with at least one easy day in between.
- Always warm up for at least 15 minutes before the main set of hard riding and cool down for at least five minutes after riding hard.
- By mixing up hard and easy riding in the main set you’ll be able to do more hard riding.
- Finish a hard ride feeling like you could have done more. You’ll recover faster and have a better workout the next time than if you trash yourself.
Intensity is like prescription medicine. The right kind in the right amount at the right time helps; the wrong kind, amount or timing of the medicine won’t help and may make your worse. For more information in my column How Should Cyclists Approach Intensity Training for Maximum Benefit.
Change your perceived exertion. “When my legs hurt, I say: ‘Shut up legs! Do what I tell you to do!’ ” — Jens Voigt. Voigt is a retired German pro who won many one-week stage races, wore the yellow jersey twice in the Tour de France, won many one-day races and in 2014 set the hour record.
Perceived exertion is how your body feels and your perceived exertion changes depending on how hard you are riding. When you feel like you’re riding as hard as you can, then you can’t ride any harder. However, your muscles and cardiovascular system aren’t actually working as hard as they can. They’re sending signals to your brain, which then interprets the signals and decides you’re riding at your limit. To go harder, for example to set the hour record, Voigt changed his perceived exertion.
Ride with faster riders. “You can’t get good by staying home. If you want to get fast, you have to go where the fast guys are.” — Steve Larsen. Larsen was an American pro athlete in road racing, track racing, mountain bike racing, cyclo-cross and triathlons. Larsen is the only American to race in the World Championships in all four cycling disciples.
Riding with faster riders will help increase your speed in three ways.
1. Reduce drag. At speeds over 10 mph aerodynamic drag is the biggest obstacle to going faster. Aerodynamic drag is the resisting force of the air rushing past you. Drag increases much faster than your speed increases. If you’re riding at 15 mph on a flat road with no wind it will require 20% more power to ride just one mph faster!
The rider(s) at the front of the group fights the full effect of the drag. Riders behind the leader(s) are “drafting” and are partially sheltered from the drag and don’t have to work as hard. If your normal cruising speed is 15 mph and you’re drafting in a group going 16 or 17 mph it won’t feel any harder.
If you ride with a slightly faster group without drafting you’ll learn you can ride faster than you thought. Drafting in a group that requires you to ride just a little faster will have the same effect.
2. Group effect. Another advantage of riding in a group is you can ride faster without it feeling any faster. Here’s an example.
3. Change your perceived exertion. I rode up the canyon to Jamestown, CO the other day chatting with my buddy as we climbed. At our speed there was minimal drag so we rode side by side when it was safe. I didn’t have my computer and was surprised we’d climbed 10 minutes faster than I usually do. But it didn’t feel any harder — my perceived exertion changed. The next time I ride up the canyon I’
4. Intensity workout. If you ride with a group that’s significantly faster you’ll get a good unstructured intensity workout trying to stay with them as long as you can.
To ride safely in groups requires skills and an understanding of how groups behave. Here are two good articles.
Progressive overload “It never gets easier, you just get faster.” — Greg LeMond. LeMond is a retired American pro who won the World Championship twice and the Tour de France three times. Many think he’s the best American pro cyclist ever.
If you continue to ride more or you ride harder then you get continue to get fitter and faster. If you don’t continue to ride progressively more miles or harder rides then you’ll plateau. LeMond’s point is you need to accept that riding progressively harder rides will continue to hurt but you will get faster. Of course, if you’re riding as fast as you want to ride then you don’t have to continue the harder rides.
Recover more. Brent Bookwalter advises that if you have a choice between an extra 20 minutes of riding or spending the time recovering use it for recovery. Bookwalter is an American pro currently riding for the UCI WorldTeam Michelton-Scott.
Merckx is right that you can improve by riding more miles; however, there are diminishing benefits to continue to ride more miles and if you ride too much you’ll start to overtrain. The key is ride just enough more miles or harder miles so you continue to improve and to balance this with sufficient recovery. Remember your body only adapts while you’re off the bike recovering. This means:
Easier weeks. As explained above don’t just continue to ride progressively harder weeks. Mix in easier weeks so you get more training benefit from the following weeks.
Easier days. If you’re a veteran rider you’ll recover faster if you include a couple of days with active recovery rides. Some riders don’t go slowly enough that it’s really a recovery ride. A recovery ride is at the pace you’d ride if you’d just finished a big meal, so riding slowly you’re almost embarrassed to be on the bike.
Days off. Every rider should take at least one day a week off. If you’re a new rider you’ll recover faster if you don’t ride two or three days a week instead of active recovery rides.
Real days off. I recommend as do many other coaches doing strength training along with riding. Strength train on your endurance days so your recovery days are real recovery days.
Use recovery techniques. Proper post-ride nutrition, stretching, self-massage and icing can all help you to recover sooner. My 16-page eBook Optimal Recovery for Improved Performance explains 10 different recovery techniques.
Upgrade your equipment. If you’re willing to spend the big bucks you can get a lighter more aerodynamic bike with less rolling resistance and a smoother drive train. But I’m with Merckx who said, “Don’t buy upgrades, ride up grades.” Buying a much better bike might increase your speed by half a mile an hour. Training to ride faster will increase your speed a whole lot more. If you go for a lighter bike don’t sacrifice comfort for weight. For example, don’t buy a light saddle that’s so uncomfortable that you ride less.
Lose weight. Losing weight may make you a better climber and increase your overall speed but don’t obsess over it. A retired pro told me the secret to losing weight is simple: ride more and eat less. Don’t try to cut back significantly on calories. If you do you won’t have enough energy to train. If you reduce modestly how much you eat, especially high calorie foods, and ride more and / or harder miles you’ll lose weight. Losing ½ lb. per week is a reasonable, sustainable rate.
My 26-page eBook Learning from the Pros has tips from 35 pros on how to become a better rider. Learning from the Pros is just $4.99.
My 41-page eBook Intensity Training: Using Perceived Exertion, a Heart Rate Monitor or a Power Meter to Maximize Training Effectiveness is the comprehensive guide on how to use the points made in this column. I explain the importance of training at different intensities from active recovery rides to very hard racing intensities and everything in between. I discuss the pros and cons of using perceived exertion, heart rate and power to gauge intensity and then how to use each. I explain how create a training program of appropriate intensities for a health and fitness rider, for a club and endurance rider and for a performance rider. I conclude with 10 sample workouts at different intensities to meet different goals. Intensity Training: Using Perceived Exertion, a Heart Rate Monitor or a Power Meter to Maximize Training Effectiveness is just $4.99.
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 over 40 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John’s full bio.