One of the truisms of sports is “No Pain, No Gain.” Like many truisms, it’s wrong!
I coach endurance riders – not racers – riders who are trainingto do a 100K rides or brevets or a weekend event or multi-day tour. They want to build up their endurance so that they can go the distance, and they often want to improve their cruising speed. They also don’t like to do painful intervals. So I don’t make them suffer.
Reader Joe Cursey wants to do the same. He wrote, “I’m 78 and a lifelong rider. Four years ago farm dogs ran me down and as a result a fix of the femur requiring a pin. My goal after the recovery was to gain fitness and motivation to take on club rides and do a few metric rides. That has not happened and I have tried training plans, i.e. climbing, cross-training and have not completed due to the boredom of indoor training. My motivation is lacking. Is there still a way to get faster with endurance?”
Coach Hughes Replies: Joe, You are asking three common questions, the answers to which can help all roadies:
- How to get and stay motivated, which I answered on September 7: How to Get and Stay Motivated
- How to build endurance, which I answered on September 14: How Endurance Riding Can Benefit Every Roadie
- How to get faster, which I’ll answer this week.
Three Ways to Build a Faster Cruising Speed Without Pain
Each of these three types of riding will increase your cruising speed without data and without electronics. And they don’t hurt except for the brief sprints. Because they all work, you don’t have to follow a strict regimen of progressively increasing one type of riding. Mix them up — the variety will keep you interested and motivated.
1. Ride a Little Faster than Normal
This seems obvious, but it’s often neglected. The fundamental rule of training is that you need to ask your body to do more than it’s used to doing and then allow it to recover. If you cruise at 12 mph on your endurance rides and do progressively longer endurance rides, then you’ll be able to ride longer, but still at 12 mph. Similarly, if you just ride at 15 mph, you’ll never be able to cruise at 16 mph. This applies at any speed — if you don’t ask your body to ride a little faster, it won’t.
Note that I said “a little faster.” If your endurance pace is 12 mph and you start mixing in some tempo riding at 13 or 14 mph, then over time you’ll increase your cruising speed to 13 mph. This won’t happen overnight. Or even over a month or two. Be patient.
Most amateur roadies ride at the same pace most of the time. The pros improve by varying the pace. So, in addition to riding a little faster, you also need to ride more slowly on some of your rides. Remember that Overload + Recovery = Improvement.
You can do this all by feel. Riding at an endurance pace you should be able to easily carry on a conversation talking in full sentences, even in full paragraphs. To build your cruising speed, ride a little faster at a tempo pace. You should still be able to talk in full sentences but won’t be able to whistle. You’ll be able to feel the difference between your endurance pace and tempo pace.
If you currently do all of your riding at an endurance pace, then mix in a little tempo riding, about 10 to 20% of your total ride. Mix tempo riding into your endurance rides with steady endurance riding between tempo sections. If you already do some tempo riding, then increase the amount 5 to 10% week by week.
You don’t need a heart rate monitor, power meter or even speedometer to do this. Just listen to your body. Take advantage of simple opportunities like riding into a headwind, climbing hills or hustling to get home before the rain starts.
2. Build Pain-Free Power
The most effective way to increase your power is not to ride hard. Why not? The harder you ride, the more you overload your muscles, so the more they adapt. However, the harder you ride, the more recovery you need both between hard efforts and between hard days.
Because you need more recovery, you can only handle less volume of hard riding so that the cumulative overload of your muscles is less than if you rode just slightly faster than a tempo pace. This is called riding in the “sweet spot.”
Riding in the sweet spot you should be able to talk in short phrases but not full sentences. If you’re breathing rapidly and/or your legs are talking to you, you are riding too hard.
Start with a few small sweet spot efforts, e.g., 3 to 6 minutes, with recovery that’s about half as long as the sweet spot effort, e.g., 1:30 to 3 minutes. Do 2 or 3 repeats and gradually build up to 5 to 6 repeats. When you can do 5 or 6 repeats, then increase the duration of the sweet spot efforts by 30 to 60 seconds and the recovery by 15 to 30 seconds.
Of course, you don’t even need a watch! Just push a little harder on those hills and recover on the way down. One of my favorite games is “Chase John.” My buddy, also named John, gives me a head start. I ride at a tempo pace and he chases me in the sweet spot. Then he rides away from me, and I chase him.
Remember: if it hurts, then you’re riding too hard. Slow down into the sweet spot.
3. Increase Your Efficiency
Your muscles are composed of individual muscle fibers. When you push a pedal down, your quads are contracting; however, each of the individual muscle fibers isn’t contracting at the same time. If you can improve the coordination of the firing pattern, that is, increasing your efficiency, you’ll go faster without expending any more energy!
Here are two drills to help improve your pedaling efficiency.
Sprints. Because sprints demand maximum power, your body learns to coordinate the firing pattern of individual muscle fibers. A sprint of 20 to 30 seconds is long enough to cause your body to adapt. Don’t worry about your heart rate or power. Just put it in a big gear, e.g., a 53 x 15, and go hard. Add 2 or 3 sprints to your endurance ride, with plenty of recovery between each sprint.
One-leg Pedaling: This is a great trainer workout when you don’t have much time. Rest your right foot on something, e.g., a box.
- Pedal using just your left leg for about 30 seconds.
- Put your right foot on the pedal (don’t bother to clip in) and pedal with both legs for about 30 seconds to recover.
Repeat this pattern several times and then switch legs. If you can easily do three 30-second repeats, then increase #1 the one-leg time and #2 the two-leg time by equal amounts, e.g., to one leg for 45 seconds and both legs for 45 seconds. Some riders attempt to do one-leg drills on the road. However, it’s not safe! It’s hard to ride a straight line doing the drill, and if you’re focused on your pedaling then your full attention isn’t on traffic, road obstacles, etc.
For more information, see my 3-article bundle Endurance Riding and Training, which contains:
- Beyond the Century describes the training principles and different training intensities you can use to build your endurance, both for centuries and for shorter endurance rides.
- Nutrition for 100K and Beyond provides the information you need to fuel your engine before, during and after endurance rides.
- Mastering the Long Ride gives you the skills you need to finish your endurance rides.
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.