“No pain, no gain” is wrong. As is the corollary “More pain, more gain.”
Suppose you ride 20 miles on Tuesday, 20 miles on Thursday and then 40 miles on the weekend. You ride nearly all the time at a conversational pace. You want to improve. What should you do?
When asked the same question, Eddy “The Cannibal” Merckx famously said, “Ride more.” The Cannibal won the Tour de France five times and the Giro d’Italia five times. He won the Tour and Giro double in the same season three times. Only five riders have ever won the double. Marco Pantani was the last, in 1998. Merckx set the hour record, won the World Championships three times and won multiple spring classics. And he did all of this training without a heart rate monitor, much less a power meter—not even a speedometer! Note that the Cannibal didn’t say, “Ride harder.”
Although I’ve written elsewhere that coaching science has advanced considerably since he retired in 1978 – and that his suggestion is certainly not the only thing you can do to improve – the Cannibal’s advice, “ride more,” can still help you become a better rider.
Using the above example, your body has adapted to riding those 80 miles a week. To improve, you need to increase the overload, i.e., ask more of your body. Done correctly and with adequate recovery, your body will adapt to the new workload and you’ll be fitter. At which point you need to increase the overload again. You can challenge your body to do more in these ways:
- Increase the frequency you ride, i.e., ride four days a week. This amounts to decreasing the amount of recovery you get.
- Increase the duration of your rides.
- Increase the total volume you ride, which is the product of #1 and #2
- Increase the difficulty of your rides, e.g., do hillier routes.
- Increase the intensity of your riding.
- Change the type riding, i.e., do one-leg pedaling on the trainer and/or add a few sprints.
Warning: Only change one of the above at a time to avoid overtraining!
Note that only #4, 5 and 6 mean riding harder, which may or may not include suffering.
The first three are ways of implementing the Cannibal’s advice. Incorporating these changes one at a time will improve your endurance.
Why Endurance is Important
Why did Merckx emphasize endurance? Any race longer than an hour is primarily an endurance event! If a rider doesn’t have the endurance to ride many kilometers, then a powerful sprint is useless!
If you don’t want to significantly increase the intensity that you ride (and I don’t blame you!), how can you improve your performance in addition to increasing your endurance?
#1 Increase the tempo at which you ride. Endurance riding should be done at a comfortable conversational pace. If you increase the pace so that you can still talk inshort sentences but can’t whistle you are recruiting more muscle fibers. As your body adapts to riding with more muscle fibers activated you’ll increase your cruising speed.
When you start tempo riding, if you alternate tempo efforts and easier pedaling you can do more tempo volume than if you just make one longer tempo effort. More volume, of course, means more overload on your body and more adaptation. You can either do structured tempo intervals or just change the pace whenever you want to.
When you climb a hill you are recruiting more muscle fibers, so riding hills is an easy and often fun way of doing a tempo workout. You don’t need to hammer. Just breathe a little harder and keep talking in shorter sentences with your buddies.
#2 Increase the muscles used. Your leg has muscles in the upper and lower leg and muscles on the front and the back of each leg. Practicing pedaling with one leg will train your body to recruit different muscles in different segments of the rotation of your pedals. Although you can practice one-leg pedaling on the road, it’s easier and safer on the trainer. Put something on each side of the trainer, e.g., a box, on which you can rest one foot. Pedal with one leg for X revolutions until your pedal stroke is ragged. Then pedal with both legs for the same number of revolutions. Don’t bother to clip in the second foot, just rest it on the pedal. Repeat three times and then switch legs.
Concentrate on four parts of the stroke:
- Top: Apply power forward, imagining that you are pushing your knee toward the handlebars or kicking a soccer ball.
- Front: Apply power downward.
- Bottom: Apply power backward, with your foot pointed slightly downward. Imagine that you are scraping your toes across the floor.
- Back: Don’t try to pull up on the pedal (which is inefficient); rather, just lift your leg so that your other leg doesn’t need to push it up.
#3 Improve the coordination of your muscles’ firing. Each muscle is composed of many muscle fibers, each of which is controlled by a different nerve. When your brain sends the message “more power,” then more nerves tell more muscle fibers to fire, but they don’t all fire at the same instant. To get more painless power you want to improve the coordination of the muscle fiber firing pattern. This is like dialing in the timing of your car engine.
When you sprint, your mind sends the message, “max power,” and all your muscle fibers start firing. With repeated sprints you improve the firing pattern of the individual fibers.
When you sprint just put it in a big gear, e.g., a 53 x 13, and go as hard as you can. Don’t worry about power or heart rate. The sprints don’t need to be long: 20 to 30 seconds is plenty. Get plenty of recovery between each sprint—10 to 15 minutes is fine—so that you are fully recovered and can give a maximum effort on the next sprint. Start with two or three 20-second sprints and build up to three or four 30-second sprints. Or ignore the metrics and just sprint with your buddies a few times on each long ride.
#4 Increase the power. Your legs have slow-twitch endurance muscle fibers and fast-twitch power muscle fibers. (Slow and fast refer to how fast the nerves fire and the fibers contract, not to your cadence.) Endurance riding uses only slow-twitch muscle fibers. Sprinting also uses your fast-twitch muscles; however, sprints only train how your nerves fire. Sprints are too short to cause the muscle fibers themselves to adapt.
Warning: Only add one of these four at a time to your riding to avoid injury!
Train in the ‘Sweet Spot’
If you ride just a little harder than tempo riding, you start to recruit fast-twitch muscles in addition to your slow-twitch muscles. You aren’t breathless; you can still talk in short phrases. This is called riding in the Sweet Spot and is the opposite of the “more pain, more gain” approach to training.
The harder you ride (the more pain) the more fast-twitch fibers you are recruiting and training, which is good. However, the harder you ride, the more recovery you need between hard efforts and between hard days, so the total volume of hard riding you can handle is less. Riding in the Sweet Spot balances the level of intensity with the volume of intensity to achieve the maximum overload on your muscles.
Training in the Sweet Spot is the optimal way to improve your power. Done correctly, it’ll hurt a little, but you shouldn’t be complaining, “That was a hard workout that Coach Hughes told me to do.”
Ride slower. Your body only adapts and improves when you allow adequate recovery. Incorporating very easy riding into your weeks will yield more improvement than just adding the above types of riding! On a recovery ride, you should be riding so slowly that you’re almost embarrassed to be seen on the bike.
Next week I’ll describe the nuts and bolts of intensity training so that you get the maximum training benefit.
For more information on riding at different intensities, including the painless ones described above, get my eArticle Intensity Training for Cyclists. The 39 pages provide all the information you need to design personal workouts, workouts that you’d pay a coach hundreds of dollars to write!
Intensity Training for Cyclists: Using a Perceived Exertion, Heart Rate Monitor or Power Meter to Maximize Training Effectiveness is packed with current information and is available for only $4.99 ($4.24 for Premium Members after their discount).
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.