Training stress + rest = training success
When asked how to improve Eddy “the Cannibal” Merckx put it simply, “Ride more!” Merckx was the most successful professional racer of all time. Merckx achieved 525 victories over his eighteen-year career. He won the Tour de France five times, the Tour of Italy five times, the Tour of Spain, all the spring classics, the World Championship three times and set the hour record.
Ride more. Merckx is right – in order to improve you need to ride more miles that you are now, i.e., increase the training load / stress on your body.
- Minimum miles per week? There’s no minimum weekly mileage you have to ride to improve – just more miles than last week.
- Minimum days per week? To improve you need to ride at least four days a week. Three days a week are enough to maintain fitness.
- 1 or 2 challenging rides a week. A challenging ride is one that’s significantly longer or harder than you are used to doing. One or two challenging rides a week are plenty.
- 1 or 2 endurance rides a week. Also go for a couple of endurance rides that are about the same length as your usual endurance rides.
- 1 or 2 recovery rides a week. Do a couple of very easy recovery rides. How easy? You should almost be embarrassed to be seen riding so slowly!
- 1 to 3 days off the bike. Finally take one or more rest days.
- Mix types of days. Mix in your recovery rides and rest days with your challenging and endurance days.
Vary the Intensity
You’ll improve faster if you vary the intensity of your rides.
- No equipment needed. Merckx trained and won all of those races without heart rate monitor, a power meter or even computer! He just listened to his body, i.e., trained by perceived exertion. Here’s a column I wrote on Training by Perceived Exertion.
- Endurance first. Endurance riding increases how much blood your heart can pump, how much fuel your body can store, the endurance of individual muscle fibers and other changes. Endurance training is the foundation of all training. Here’s a column on How to do Endurance Training Correctly.
- Keep talking. On an endurance ride you should always be able to talk comfortably in full sentences. Even climbing you still be talk although on a climb you may not have enough air to whistle.
- Ride harder / faster. If you always ride at 15 miles per hour you’ll never get faster. If you always ride on the flats you’ll never be good at climbing. Here’s a column on Why Increasing Intensity Is Good for All Cyclists.
- How intense? It shouldn’t hurt a lot. Just riding faster than you usually do is increasing the intensity.
- Not too hard. You’ll get more benefit if you ride more miles a little faster than if you ride a few miles very hard.
Recovery is an integral aspect of conditioning, because most adaptations occur when the body is resting, not during training. Here’s a column on How Much Recovery Do You Need?
- Recover more. If you have another 15 minutes to train, then spend the time recovering, e.g., stretching.
- Include easy weeks. After three to five weeks of progressively more training cut back your riding by 20 to 40% for a week.
- How much recovery? There are two ways to tell if you’re riding too much and recovering too little:
- Performance – if you can’t ride as well as before you may not be recovered enough. We all have off days but if you have multiple days of poorer performance then you need more recovery. This is hard in practice. We think that if we aren’t riding as well we need to train more … but that’s wrong.
- Mood – If you really don’t want to get on the bike then don’t force yourself. Your negative mood about riding indicates you need more time off the bike.
- Tired legs. If you feel a little tired and aren’t sure if you should ride, you might get on the bike and if after a half hour or so you’re still tired, then go home.
- How much is too much? You should finish every ride feeling like you could have done a little more. If you rode 20 miles you should always feel like you could have ridden two or three more miles. If you climbed hills you should always feel like you could have climbed one more. You should not feel like you barely made it home.
- Take a week off. Every two or three months park your bike in the garage and take a complete break. You’ll recover fully and train better starting the next week.
- Do less. If you’re not sure if you should ride more than don’t!
I’ve written an eBook on Optimal Recovery for Improved Performance. I describe nine different recovery techniques illustrated with 14 photos.
- Progressive overload. To continue to improve, your body needs new challenges. There are four types of overload:
- Duration. How long each ride is.
- Frequency. How many days you ride.
- Volume. The result of a. and b.
- Intensity. How hard you ride, e.g., adding faster or hillier rides.
- Progress slowly and consistently. If you increase just one of the above at a time you’ll improve week by week. If you try to increase several at the same time you risk getting injured or burned out.
- Ramping. As you increase your miles follow these rules of thumb:
- Long ride is not more than 50% of your total weekly miles.
- Week to week increase your total miles by 5-15%.
- Month to month increase your total miles by 10-25%.
- Year to year increase your annual miles by 10-25%.
Use caution! Your goal is improved fitness, not injury.
- Individuality. You are unique and you will respond best in your own way to a training program.
- Reversibility. The gains made in training are not permanent. Taking days and an occasional week off for recovery are important, but if you take several months off you will need to build back up from scratch.
- Cross-training. Cross-training that’s aerobic and uses your legs is great, e.g., walking, jogging, hiking, roller blading, cross-country skiing, etc. However, you should still ride at least a couple of times a week.
- Have a goal. Having a specific goal will help to keep you motivated. Not just “be fitter” but “ride four or five days a week”’, or “climb a particular local hill this month”, or “build up to riding 50 miles a week by September” or “complete a 50-mile ride by October.” These goals are specific with target dates.
- Have a weekly plan. At the beginning of the week think about everything you have to do that week, talk with your significant other, look at the weather forecast and then write down which rides you’ll ride which days.
- Keep a log. By the end of the week write down what you actually rode. Note how it relates to your goal: number of days you rode, climbing you did, weekly miles or longest ride.
- Measuring progress. Use your log to measure your progress. I’m very old school and use a notebook for my weekly plan and training log.
- Use an online program. You could try an app like Strava that works with your phone and also with most GPS bike computers. Other apps include Garmin Connect and MapMyRide.
Your goals are to have fun on the bike and to get fitter, not to maximize fatigue.
I’ve written a 36-page eBookHow to Become a Better Cyclist: the Six Success Factors. I’ve been riding since 1976 and coaching professionally since 1995. I’ve ridden millions of virtual miles with clients that I’ve coached. I’ve learned that every rider improves most if we work on six success factors:
- Specific goals
- Effective training
- Sound nutrition
- Proper equipment
- Proficient skills
- Mental techniques
Cyclists achieve maximum improvement by working on all six of the Success Factors, not just on their favorites or the easiest.
How to Become a Better Cyclist: the Six Success Factors 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 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.