How much should you train as a cyclist? The answer: Probably not as much as you think.
My friend and fellow cycling coach Neal Henderson says that 65% of the athletes he sees train too much, 25% train too little and 10% get it right – the pros who are paid to perform.
Henderson is the head of Apex Coaching and was named the 2009 USA Cycling Coach of the Year. He coaches clients ranging from novices to World and Olympic champions. And he says only 10% of his clients train the proper amount!
What should be your training goal?
Joe Friel puts it succinctly in The Cyclist’s Training Bible: “An athlete should do the least amount of properly timed, specific training that brings about continual improvement.” (emphasis added)
During the first year that I work with a new client, when I send the client workouts to do, the response often is, “But shouldn’t I be doing more?” My answer is, “You are doing enough X (specific training such as endurance riding, strength training, etc.) for the current period (properly timed).”
Improvement comes from asking your body to do more than it is used to doing. Your body thinks, “Hey, I can’t do this.” If you’ve given your body a moderate dose of overload and allow your body time to recover, then it thinks, “I’ve got a bit of a break so I can get stronger and do what you want.”
Important point: your body (and your performance) only improves if you give your body time to recover.
Your body won’t increase contractile force, repair muscle damage or create new mitochondria (where fat is metabolized to produce energy for endurance) if you don’t allow it to recover.
For more detail on proper and adequate recovery, see my eArticle Optimal Recovery for Improved Performance.
What happens if you train too much?
You could develop an overuse injury from muscles and/or connective tissues that aren’t strong enough to handle the overload. Or you could get sick. Or you could ask your body to do so much that it can’t compensate quickly and get fitter.
This is called overreaching, and you might not ride as well for a week or so, after which your body can return to where it was and then get stronger. But overreaching can easily develop into overtraining, from which it could take you weeks or even months to recover.
How do you know if you’re overtraining?
The key indicator is declining performance. Everybody has an off day. But if you’re not riding as fast or climbing as well, for example, watch out!
The other key indicator is your mood. We all have a day here and there when we blow off a workout or just don’t feel like riding. But if you think, “I really don’t want to train, or ride!” for several days, conider yourself warned.
Too often, a roadie responds to either of these key indicators by forcing himself or herself to get out there and ride – which is exactly the wrong response! If performance drops significantly and/or you aren’t excited about riding, take a few days off before you fall into overtraining.
(You may have heard that these, too, are indicators of overtraining: a change in morning heart rate, or a change in body weight, or a change in how fast your heart rate drops after a hard effort. However, research shows that there is little correlation between any of these and overtraining.)
Balancing overload and recovery in your training
Since you need to overload your body in order to improve, how do you manage your training so that you don’t ask too much of it and do, in fact, improve?
Remember the 80 – 20 Rule
According to the Pareto Principle, 80% of the benefit comes from the first 20% of the effort. Doing more training only brings marginal gains and risks the problems described above.
More recovery brings greater gains
Brent Bookwalter, who rides for BMC, advises that if you have a choice between an extra 20 minutes of riding or spending that time recovering, do the recovery. (VeloNews, June 2015) More training only brings marginal gains; however, more recovery brings greater gains.
Change only one overload at a time
You can demand more of your body in five different ways:
1. Volume: If you’ve been averaging four hours a week of riding this winter, then to continue to improve you need to ride more.
2. Duration: If your longest rides this winter have been 90 minutes, then to continue to improve you need to ride longer.
3. Frequency: In general, you need to ride three times a week to maintain fitness and at least four times a week to improve. If you’ve been averaging three days a week then you need to add another day.
4. Modality: If you’ve been doing strength training three times a week and then switch to riding (only), just changing the mode overloads your body. Although you’re using many of the same muscles riding, the movement patterns are different than in the gym.
5. Intensity: Conversational endurance rides are the foundation of all training. However, if this is all you’ve been doing, then you need to include some intensity in your training.
Change only one of these variables at a time to avoid overreaching and overtraining. Change slowly. For example, only increase your volume by 10% or so a week.
Use intensity training effectively
Intensity is like prescription medicine. Taken in the right amount, you improve. Not enough and you don’t get better. Too much and you get worse. Take the wrong medicine and something different may happen to your body! Here are a couple of good examples from VeloNews.
Polarize your riding
Top endurance riders spend about 75% of their training time riding at low intensity, 15 – 20% above lactate threshold and not much time in between. Low intensity means an easy conversational pace. High intensity means so hard you’re about to barf. Your fast weekend club ride isn’t easy enough to be low intensity and isn’t hard enough to be high intensity. (VeloNews, February 2016)
Target your hard riding
Most amateurs tend to ride at about the same intensity or spend too much time doing very hard riding or add intensity rides without reducing endurance riding. Because intensity riding increases the total overload on your body a lot, just adding it to your regimen risks overreaching. Instead, cut back on total volume at the same time as you add intensity.
Inspired by Sir Bradley Wiggins’ record-setting hour time trial, VeloNews Managing Editor Chris Case decided to do his own one-hour TT on the track. He already had a good endurance base. For seven weeks he prepared with only two short intensity sessions a week, fully rested for each. The rest of the week he did two or three one- to two-hour rides.
Testing showed that Case should be able to hold 275 watts for an hour. He did his intervals at 260 watts, 90% of his sustainable power. He did this because “training right on that edge [275 watts] can cause too much stress and actually target the wrong energy systems.” (emphasis added) (VeloNews, November, 2015)
Your body has three different energy systems:
1. Oxidative aerobic system (low power / long duration).
2. Glycolytic anaerobic system (moderate power / short duration)
3. ATP-PC (high power / short duration)
Each system responds to different types of training.
To complicate matters further, your legs have three different types of muscle fibers:
1. Slow-twitch (low power, great endurance)
2. Fast-twitch IIb (moderate power and endurance)
3. Fast-twitch IIa (high power and shorter endurance)
(“Slow” and “Fast” refer to how fast the muscle fibers fire, not how fast your cadence is.)
The mix of fiber types is determined genetically and varies by individual. Although you can’t change the mix of types, you can focus your training on a specific type, depending on your goals.
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.