Uncovering Three Misunderstandings of Cycling

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Despite countless advances in exercise science, outdated, counterproductive notions about training and fitness remain entrenched in cycling.

Misunderstanding 1: Basic training can only be long, slow, easy rides.

We love basic training. It develops your aerobic system, builds muscular endurance, and reinforces good movement patterns, preparing your body for hard work later in the season. It also directly benefits your fitness, since cycling relies heavily on aerobic capacity.

All that said, base training is an important part of building speed, but it doesn’t require the old-fashioned long, easy workouts. This approach takes a lot of time, which most of us unfortunately lack. Even if you have the time, it takes a lot of discipline and self-control to do a workout like this. Fortunately, there’s a better way: Target your aerobic system with slightly higher-intensity, shorter workouts.

Sweet spot training is a great example of how basic training can be done in a time-efficient manner. This approach also allows for more flexibility to incorporate group rides and even early-season races, and more fun means more consistency. Combined with individual adjustments of adaptive training, modern base training is one of the most effective and important ways to improve cycling.

Misunderstanding 2: As long as you can’t die in practice, practice to death.

Cyclists have always liked to celebrate the brutality of the sport, equating the ability to endure pain with a sign of strength. It’s easy to confuse the difficulty of cycling with the difficulty of training. Many people think that the harder the training, the better, but in many cases, the opposite is true.

To understand why, it’s important to realize that only by recovering can you become faster. Training puts the body under stress, stimulating adaptation and subsequent improvement in fitness. Apply too much stress or allow too little recovery, and your body won’t be able to make these improvements, and you won’t get any faster. This is why the principle of minimum effective dose is so useful in training, using as little pressure as possible to achieve the desired result.

There are also important physiological differences in how easy and difficult exercises affect the body. Training programs are designed around this fact, which means that some exercises are intentionally easier than others. If every workout is hard, not only will you tire yourself out, but you may actually be neglecting the development of an important aspect of your fitness. There is a time and place for hard training, but not every training session.

Misunderstanding 3: Losing weight will always make you faster.

Weight has long been a thorn in the side of cycling culture. Stories abound of athletes doing anything to lose a few kilos, and an unhealthy obsession with size exists at every level of the sport. But modern science has allowed us to separate fact from fiction, and the truth of the matter is that, in the vast majority of cycling situations, your weight simply doesn’t matter that much.

The most important thing is strength. Your ability to generate power by turning the pedals is what propels you forward, and most cycling is done on undulating or flat terrain, where overall strength is a key advantage. In fact, on all but the steepest climbs, it’s mostly this combination of power and aerodynamics that determines your speed; weight only plays a major role on long, steep climbs.

Still, many cyclists focus on the numbers on the scale. While cycling to lose weight is great for athletes with legitimate health reasons, it can backfire for others — the weight loss is often accompanied by a loss in strength. For this reason, focusing on getting fitter and stronger is often more productive than getting lighter. Eat a variety of high-quality foods to fuel your workouts and focus on continuing to train. Your body will most likely improve with your fitness and performance, and most importantly, you will get faster.

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