The drive to improve performance is common at all levels of cycling.
The motivations range anywhere from wanting to get to work faster to friendly competition between friends when tackling a local hill segment. For the purposes of this article, we will address power, endurance, and grit as aspects to develop for improved performance. There are, however, many other aspects that will improve cycling performance, including but not limited to: technique, equipment, and route preparation.
The ability to improve in any one aspect varies greatly among individuals. Each person has the ability to improve performance in each category, and there is a myriad of factors at play. We will try to distill the seemingly endless advice in the cycling community, into the easiest and best value implementations which will help you make the desired changes to your performance on your next ride.Let’s start with some common definitions.
Aerobic vs. Anaerobic Training
- Aerobic exercise (using the body’s aerobic energy system) is often associated with endurance training that happens at a heart rate where the body can still use oxygen along with fat and glucose for energy creation in the body. The activities that improve your aerobic function are generally rhythmic in nature: brisk walking, cycling, light running, and swimming.
- Anaerobic exercise is usually high-intensity and short duration, at a high heart rate. The body must break down glucose in the absence of oxygen to create energy, with lactic acid as a byproduct (this contributes to the burning sensation experienced during high-intensity training). Activities include: sprinting, high-intensity interval training (HIIT), and weightlifting.
Training Zones & Aerobic Heart Rate Training
Training zones are levels of output based on specific percentages of an individual’s VO₂ max. As most people do not have the ability to measure their VO₂ max in a lab, exercisers began using their max heart rate to identify the zones.
Dr. Iñigo San Millán of the University of Colorado School of Medicine has more accurately identified these zones based on activation of the various muscle fibers in the body.There are 5 or 6 ‘zones’.For zone 1 and 2, Type-1 muscle fibers are used, meaning fat is the preferential fuel source. This piece of knowledge is extremely useful for those who want to lose fat and/or build endurance.Training in zone 2 (or in an aerobic state) is done by monitoring the heart rate and staying just below maximum aerobic heart rate (MAHR). This is often identified as 50-60% or 60-70% of a max heart rate (the community is divided on which specifically).
A more specific and targeted formula is outlined by Dr. Phil Maffetone (Clinician & coach of world-class endurance athletes). This method factors in some extra variances among individuals to give a more accurate number. Find this number and then complete around 80% of training at, or just below, this heart rate to build endurance and, according to Dr. Maffetone, help avoid injuries and overtraining.
The Brain’s Effect
Modern scientific understanding is that human performance is not only limited by one’s physical capability, but it is impacted greatly by the strength of mind and the brain’s own internal regulators.
There are two main theories related to the brain’s role in performance outlined by Alex Hutchinson in his book Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance.
- The first is that the brain is a “central governor”. Tim Noakes, a South African professor who studies the brain’s effect on performance, posits that the brain controls endurance with protective anticipatory mechanisms that stop you from over-exerting yourself, avoiding, for example, overheating (resulting in heatstroke).
- The second is that performance is limited by a balance between perceived exertion (how hard the effort feels) and motivation (how hard you’re willing to push). This theory has been put forward by Samuel Marcora, a professor of clinical exercise physiology at the University of Wales-Bangor.
Both beliefs are likely to be true to a certain degree, and thus a picture forms of the important interplay between the brain, individual strength of mind, and physiology. This means that in order to improve performance it is vital to train the body and the mind, so you have the ability to push through adversity and unlock your potential.
High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) Cycling Workout
One guaranteed way to improve your overall performance fitness and mental toughness is by using HIIT.
This training method involves rotating intervals of high effort and low effort. On a stationary bike, this may look like 30-90 seconds at 80-100% effort (very high resistance), followed by 30-90 seconds of active rest (low resistance). The formula is flexible, as long as it is both challenging and includes enough recovery time. HIIT is more suitable as an indoor cycling workout, as resistance can be changed at will and it is safer to be stationary while giving max effort.
HIIT helps improve overall cardiovascular fitness, while also providing a chance to push through unexplored pain barriers. Trying to maintain max output (e.g wattage or RPM) on the exercise bike for a given time may help push you past what you thought you could do. High-intensity exercise has been shown to improve pain tolerance and thus may cause equal performance gains through an ability to push through the pain (lactic acid build-up) during big efforts on the bike.
Set Goals & Track Progress
In any aspect of life where you hope to improve it is important to set goals and cycling performance is no different.
When setting goals, ensure they are incremental, measurable, and achievable. Always be flexible with time frames, as life will inevitably get in the way be it through injury or simply a busy schedule.It is important to remember that even a 1% improvement toward your goal is worth celebration.
If you face setbacks, be encouraged by the “body’s memory” and, according to science-backed research, it will likely be easier to make back the lost gains the second time around.Setting incremental goals is important: it is motivating to reach a goal you have set. Getting in the habit of periodically measuring goal markers (like how fast you can climb your local mountain road) when working toward an end goal allows for better analysis of your system so you can make necessary modifications along the way.
Another strategy for goal setting is breaking down a goal into relevant skills, and even further into simple actional areas. With cycling performance this may look like:This is a simplified representation, yet it’s easy to see how including each training modality into a cycling workout plan will contribute toward the overall goal. Consider setting a goal that slightly pushes the limits of what you believe you are capable of, so that you do not stay within your comfort zone and become complacent.
One last tip for goal setting relates to strengths and weaknesses. People have a natural tendency to gravitate toward their strengths; spending less time on weaknesses. This often comes at the detriment of the skillset as a whole. In these situations, an individual would benefit more by dedicating extra time to weaknesses, in order to support all-round performance.
The exception to this rule is if the individual wants to specialize. This will require greater time dedicated to one area of performance regardless of others. A real-life example of this can be seen in a cycling sprinter who struggles greatly in mountain terrain because of the training focus on strength and power in short bursts for enhanced sprint finishes.
Is cycling a good workout? Cycling is an excellent way to train your cardiovascular fitness, as well as improve leg strength. There are different ways to train while cycling, and depending on the one you choose, there will be different outcomes for your fitness, which we have highlighted above. Cycling should be supplemented with other exercise types to evenly train the whole body.
What muscles does cycling workout? Cycling primarily uses the quadriceps muscles (a group of 4 in the front of the thigh), the muscles in the buttocks (glutes), and the hamstrings (back of the thigh). The calf muscles are used secondarily, along with the core for stabilization, and the shoulders and arms.
Is indoor cycling a full-body workout? It depends. There are some indoor cycling classes (spin cycling), that include upper bodywork as part of the class, however, this varies from gym to gym. Regular spin bike cycling will have very similar effects to cycling on the road or trail.
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