On August 1, 2019, Patricia Anne Baker set the Masters Women’s 80-84 Hour World Record of 27.447km (17.96 mi). Wow!
Although this column describes how an older rider can improve, the principles apply to all roadies.
RBR reader Jane (67), inspired by Baker’s ride, wrote, “My question to you is what do I need to do to start building my cycling fitness? How much does one have to ride per week to maintain and how much to increase one’s cycling fitness? Is there a minimum number hours per week or miles per week to get stronger? I know for sure that I am not riding often enough.”
According to legendary cyclist Eddy Merckx, to improve you should “Ride more.” Merckx raced from 1967 through 1977. He won the Tour de France 5 times (’69, ‘70, ‘71, ’72 and ’74). He also won the Giro d’Italia five times (’68, ’70, ’72, ’73, and ’74). Note that he won both the Giro and the Tour in the same year three times! He won stages and one-day races an astounding 525 times.
Science based coaching has advanced considerably since Merckx’s day. In The Cyclist’s Training Bible Joe Friel writes, “An athlete should do the least amount of properly timed, specific training that brings about continual improvement.” (emphases added)
How much you should ride depends on your current level of fitness. Here are the training principles you should use. The nine principles work together to provide a solid foundation and to reduce the possibility of overtraining and injuries:
1. Training overload leads to adaptation. When asked to do something it can’t, the body adapts so it can handle the new workload. Of course, when asked to do too much, the body may rebel. To improve you need to ride more than you are now.
2. Progressive overload. To continue to improve, the body needs new challenges. There are five types of overload:
- Duration. How long you exercise, for example, how far you ride on your weekday and weekend rides.
- Frequency. How many days you do a particular kind of exercise, e.g. cycling or strength training. To improve you need to ride at least four days a week.
- Volume. The result of a. and b. The right volume for you is more – but not a lot more – than now.
- Intensity. How hard you exercise, e.g., adding faster or hillier rides.
- Modality. The type(s) of exercise, e.g., cycling, running, hiking and XC skiing are different modalities of aerobic exercise. Periodically changing the type of overload will help you to improve and prevent boredom.
3. How much overload. How many challenging workouts you can handle in a week depends on both your chronological age and your athletic maturity. Experienced riders in their:
- 20s and 30s usually can handle three or four hard training days a week with three or four easier days including two recovery days.
- 50s usually can handle two or three hard training days a week with four or five easier days including two recovery days.
- 60s and beyond usually can handle one or two hard training days a week with five or six easier days including two recovery days.
“Hard” means more challenging, e.g., more miles, or faster rides or intensity workouts. Hard also means changing the type of exercise, e.g., incorporating resistance training or cross-training. Every rider should take at least one day off the bike.
4. Ramping. You build fitness progressively. You need to increase the workload periodically to continue the overload-and-recovery pattern. Three rules of thumb:
- Week to week increase the weekly volume by 5-15%.
- Month to month increase the monthly volume by 10-25%.
- Year to year increase the annual volume by 10-25%.
The more athletic mature that you are, the faster you can ramp up; however, use caution! Your goal is improved fitness, not injury.
5. Variation. Your body has different types of muscle fibers and uses different metabolic pathways to produce energy for those muscle fibers. Each of the different types of fibers and metabolisms responds to different types and intensities of workouts. To improve, you need to vary your workouts. For example, if you always ride at the same speed you’ll never get faster.
6. Individuality. You are unique and you will respond best in your own way to a training program. Cyclists have different mixes of fast- and slow-twitch muscles, various fitness levels, and diverse psychological needs, so fitness programs should take into account your individual needs.
7. Specificity. Becoming a better rider requires spending time on the bike. The muscles and neurological system adapt specifically to the demands placed on them.
8. 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. When training stops, the body realizes it does not have to meet the demands of working out. Fitness declines to what is needed to meet the needs of daily activity.
9. Recovery. Recovery is an integral aspect of conditioning, because most adaptations occur when the body is resting, not during the training sessions. Recovery is especially important after high-intensity workouts, because some micro-trauma occurs in the muscles. To keep improving, the body needs time to rebuild.
Here’s how these to apply to Jane. She has a 21-mile urban loop that she loves. “I did that loop twice last week, and I am going to aim for 3-4 times this week.” Riding it three times this week would be a 50% increase over last week. Training principle 4.a. says to increase the volume by 5-15% per week. A possible build-up for Jane would be:
- Week #1 – 42 miles total miles (the two rides last week)
- Week #2 – 46 miles total miles (10% increase)
- Week #3 – 51 miles (10% increase)
- Week #4 – 60 miles (10% increase)
- Week #5 – Ride the 21-mile course three times (5% increase)
- Week #6 – 69 miles (10% increase)
- Week #7 – 76 miles (10% increase)
Principle #9 emphasizes recovery. A better less aggressive build-up is:
- Week #1 – 42 miles total miles (the two rides last week)
- Week #2 – 28 miles total miles (2/3 of week #1)
- Week #3 – 48 miles (15% increase over week #1)
- Week #4 – 32 miles (2/3 of week #3)
- Week #5 – 55 miles (15% increase over week #3)
- Week #6 – 37 miles (2/3 of week #5)
- Week #7 – Ride the 21-mile course three times (15% increase over week #5)
- Week #8 – 10 miles, a full recovery week before building up to four rides of the 21-mile loop.
Jane also asks, “Should I focus on hours in the saddle, distance ridden, or feet climbed? Or what combination of those?” If every ride has the same amount of climbing / mile, then training by miles works well. However, if the rides vary from flat to hilly then time in the saddle is a better metric. Jane’s 21-mile loop has lots of climbing and the two rides last week took about 3:30. Based on hours her build-up would be:
- Week #1 – 3:30 total time
- Week #2 – 2:20 total time (2/3 of week #1)
- Week #3 – 4:00 (15% increase over week #1)
- Week #4 – 2:40 (2/3 of week #3)
- Week #5 – 4:30 (15% increase over week #3)
Jane will progress faster with less risk of injury if she does somewhat shorter rides four days a week instead of just two progressively longer days. She’ll also progress faster if she varies the duration of the rides. For example, in week #1 she could ride 3:30 distributed this way:
- Day #1 – 0:30
- Day #2 – 1:00
- Day #3 – Recovery day
- Day #4 – 0:30
- Day #5 – Recovery day
- Day #6 – 1:30
- Day #7 – Recovery day
A final caution: My friend 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 former Director of Sports Science at the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine. He coaches clients ranging from novices to World and Olympic champions.
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