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Conditioning for Cyclists

Part 1 - Introduction

When we were children, we just got on our bikes and rode, usually in and around our own neighborhoods. We didn’t give a thought to what it takes to ride long distances or the need to change our riding pace because we seldom, if ever, went further than the corner store or a friends house down the street. As active cyclists, we need to prepare ourselves for the type of riding we do, whether we race, tour, or just want to cover long distances as fast as possible. Wherever our cycling interests lie, conditioning can help us achieve better results and increase our muscle strength, endurance, minimize the possibility of injury, and therefore increase our enjoyment of cycling.

What do we mean by conditioning? 

In a nutshell, ‘conditioning’ is the way our body adapts to a training overload. To get maximum benefit, the overload needs some specificity to the goal of training, must be progressive, and must include time for recovery and adaptation. So, we have to get ourselves to overload by specific types of training, which leads to muscle adaptation, and must be done in a progressive manner.

How then do we condition ourselves for cycling? 

Conditioning covers a wide array of exercises to properly prepare our body for the effort and energy we will need for any cycling activity. We need to train the endurance elements of our muscles, heart and lungs by doing a lot of steady, long rides as part of our conditioning, but also we must include an element of strength and speed work. Training specificity relates to the way our muscles work. As an example, we use our legs when cycling or running. Running can improve the cardio element of our training, but does little to improve leg power needed for cycling and vice versa.

What about overload and adaptation?

Ever decide to climb 2 or 3 flights of stairs instead of taking the elevator? The first time, your heart was probably pounding by the time you got up those stairs. You might well have been out of breath also! But if you did that climb often enough you would hardly notice the difference after a few weeks. Those 2 or 3 flights were an overload - an extra activity your body was not used to. Gradually, your body adapted by increasing blood flow to the muscles and the strength improved so that the activity was no longer an overload. In cycling, we must aim to ride further and faster to get to overload, though too much overload results in fatigue and possibly injury instead of adaptation and improvement in fitness.

What is progression?

We can’t get better at any activity without practice. As cyclists, we need to ride to improve our fitness and strength, but we need to do other activities as well. Progression involves the following FITT system.

Frequency - how often you train
Intensity - how hard or how fast you try to go
Time - how long you ride or train
Type - what the training activity is ( bodyweight exercises, hill climbs, intervals, weight training etc.)

We only want to overload one of the above FITT areas at a time - then let your body adapt before changing anything..this is know as progression.

Ugh, Isn’t this boring?

We need to include a bit of variety in order to challenge ourselves and keep our motivation elevated in order to improve. And, we have to fit all these FITT activities into the rest of our life! When cycling, vary your routes. When training by exercising other muscles, work different muscle groups each time. Keep track of your activity so you can see progress. Progress is motivation in itself!

Why is recovery important?

When you go out for a training session, you come back tired and hopefully exhilarated, but you won’t feel fitter at that moment. You need to allow your body to recover from the activity. It is important to ensure adequate nutrition ( good carbs and protein), hydration, and sufficient rest and sleep. If enough time for rest and recovery doesn’t occur, overtraining is the result. That is why it is essential to track performance of each activity.

What if I stop conditioning? 

It is important to maintain the training or the level of fitness will decline.

What’s next?

In Conditioning Part 2 we will suggest ways to train including some effective exercises.

Credit for the information in this article goes to Dr Auriel Forrester, former Director of British Cycling, accredited personal cycling coach, British Cycling Coaching Tutor, Sport’s Coach UK Senior Tutor and owner of Scientific Coaching.

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