Each time a muscle fires, a waste product is produced—lactic acid. Think of it as exhaust, only the tailpipe empties into your bloodstream. When your effort level is low to moderate and your legs are recruiting slow-twitch muscle fiber, your bloodstream can flush away the lactic acid and supply fresh oxygen fast enough to keep up with demand.
If you produce lactic acid too quickly you will become fatigued. When you pedal at an RPE of 10, your heart rate and lactic acid production will hold steady, but as your RPE increases, so does your heart rate and lactic acid production. When your effort rises to an RPE of 18 or more, you produce lactic acid faster than your bloodstream can flush it from the muscles. The point at which your muscle’s production exceeds the bloodstream’s ability to flush it away is called your lactate threshold (LT).
Once you exceed your lactate threshold, you are riding on borrowed time. The terminology that cyclists use to describe the experience of exceeding their LT is plentiful and colorful. It is often referred to as “blowing up.” The accumulation of the lactic acid in the muscles causes a burning sensation, which is the muscle’s way to announce it needs a break. Once your heart rate drops back below your LT, you will recover. The lower your heart rate drops and the longer you take to recover, the better you will feel. Your LT is the most important determiner of your performance; careful training can raise that number.
To find out your lactate threshold, you can perform a Conconi Test. A Conconi Test will reveal the current state of your fitness as well as tell you the range of heart rate on which you must focus to raise your LT.
The King of Numbers
Not all numbers are created equal. To paraphrase George Orwell from his seminal novel Animal Farm, some numbers are more equal than others. Some numbers are more relevant to judging your fitness than others. For instance, most racers don’t track the number of miles they ride each year; rather, they track the number of hours they spend on the bike. Why? Your body doesn’t know how many miles it pedaled yesterday, but it can tell the difference between a one-hour ride and a five-hour ride. Carmichael confirms, “Your body can’t tell how far you rode, but it does understand time. All the pros I coach track their time, not their mileage.”
Wattage is the king of all numbers. Simply put, wattage is the purest measure of how much power you can generate on the bike. Heart rate for a given workload can vary depending on not just your current level of fitness, but also your current level of fatigue and even your degree of excitement—adrenalin does wonders. Professional coach and racer Dotsie Bausch of Empower Coaching Systems confirms that wattage is king. “Power-file analysis is the best way to quantify your training. This is an invaluable tool for you to set intermediate benchmarks as you work toward your goals.”
Athletes who train by wattage don’t have to judge what the numbers mean. Either you hit your target wattage figures during the workout or you don’t. Pros are now compared on the basis of how many watts they can generate per kilogram of weight. A top-level pro will generate more than 6 watts per kilogram (watts/kg) for as long as 20 minutes at a time. By comparison, an entry-level racer may only generate 2.5 watts/kg over a 20-minute effort.
Knowing your wattage values for efforts over given terrain (flat or hilly) and duration (5 seconds, 1 minute, 5 minutes, and 20 minutes) will give you a clear picture of your fitness. Bausch says, “Training with wattage eliminates almost all of the guesswork about how you are responding to the training stimulus.”
Basics of Training
Track the time you spend riding, not the number of miles you ride. Every hour you spend on the bike matters and there is a big difference between 40 miles you ride by yourself and 40 miles you do tucked in a group.
Fitness is increased through a cycle of stress, rest, and adaptation. This cycle is used on many levels: during individual workouts, planning your week, your month, and even the year. The body responds to repeated cycles of stress followed by rest by making a physiological adaptation.
The biggest mistake most new cyclists make is to ride too hard most of the time. This happens for two reasons: a lack of understanding about the role rest plays in getting stronger and a lack of planning. Riding hard frequently robs the body of the opportunity to recover from the previous workout.
Pay attention to how you feel. If you’re tired, give your body a chance to rest. Go for an easy ride, or skip the ride altogether. You’ll feel more energetic once you have recovered.
Plan ahead in order leave opportunities for rest. Making sure you get adequate rest will ensure you get the most out of each hard ride. This is where having a training diary becomes important.
Macrocycles and Microcycles
Macrocycles and microcycles of stress/rest/adaptation define every aspect of training:
• Training rides are broken up into periods of hard riding followed by recovery.
• Each week of training mixes hard days and easy days.
• Each month of training will feature a series of three hard weeks followed by a recovery week.
• Each year of training will feature periods of intense training followed by periods of recovery.
“Only during ongoing and increasing stimulus and stress can an athlete adapt to the new intensities and then recover, repair, and grow,” says Bausch. “Repeating this cycle over and over by injecting new stimulus to challenge the athlete to change and adapt will yield forward progress and results.”
To gain specific forms of fitness, you must do specific workouts. Just as there are different kinds of fitness, there are different kinds of workouts designed to strengthen each of the systems you need to perform at your best. Efforts are categorized relative to stress level and are called training zones, or just zones. The best workouts group specific stresses to fatigue that system or muscle group sufficiently in order to promote adaptation:
• Base miles are made up of easy rides that increase the efficiency of the aerobic system. They are the foundation upon which your fitness is built. Zone 2.
• Intervals are hard efforts followed by short periods of recovery. These rides are generally flat, and while the length of the effort can vary, the effort and recovery are proportional in length. Zone 4.
• Hill repeats are essentially intervals performed on a hill. The number of repeats will be based on the length of the hill. The longer the hill, the fewer the repeats. Zone 4.
• Sprints are absolute maximal efforts. While the pace of the sprint might not be that fast as compared to a group ride or race situation, a sprint will be as hard as you can possibly go on flat ground for 10–15 seconds. Zone 5.
• Recovery rides are easy rides that help flush the lactic acid out of the muscles following a hard ride. These are the easiest rides you will do and the easiest to get wrong by going too hard. Zone 1.
Fatigue and Overtraining
For most of us, the fun of riding inspires us to ride even more. We get stronger, have more fun and ride even more. And while it’s no secret that a hard ride will make you tired, however, what does shock nearly every rider at some point is that after four days of hard rides, the body runs out of gas. Fatigue accumulates like leftovers in the fridge. Unless you are willing to finish off that mu-shu pork, you’ll have no room for the new groceries.
Sooner or later, most riders overestimate their body’s ability to recover. After a couple of weeks of group rides Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday, there comes a day when the body simply won’t go. This lack of planning and simply following whatever the group is doing is sometimes referred to as ad hoc training. Group rides are the gateway drug to overtraining.
Carmichael says, “I see overtraining as a problem of too little recovery rather than training too hard. Don’t do a hard workout if you are still tired from your last hard workout. You’ll get stronger faster if you give your body the opportunity to fully recover.”
Nothing, not the cancellation of a favorite show or the breakup of a favorite rock group, can induce an existential crisis in a cyclist as deep as overtraining. You can find yourself wondering why you took up cycling or even hating the sight of the bike itself.
Common signs of overtraining include:
• An excessive desire to nap
• Snacking on foods you can usually resist
• Feeling unexpectedly irritable
• Experiencing restless sleep
• Unexpected weight loss
If you display a combination of these, chances are you are overtrained. Take a week off the bike and then start back slowly with short, easy rides. Skip any hard group rides for at least two weeks.
A flexible muscle is a happy muscle. Cyclists need to stretch in order to promote strength through the full range of the pedal stroke and to reduce the chance of injury. A muscle that is supple due to periodic stretching will display strength through broader range of motion than one that does not experience flexibility training.
Cyclists typically benefit from the following stretches:
• Iliotibial band
“I give all of my athletes a regimen of stretching,” says Carmichael. “By maintaining flexibility, they enjoy strength over a wider range of motion and reduce the possibility of injury.”
A good training plan will take an assortment of workouts and assemble them in increasing cycles of length, intensity, and rest. There are books out by Carmichael and others that can guide you through the process of creating your own periodized training plan. Alternatively, you can hire a coach who will create a plan for you based on your current level of fitness.
Having a coach is like having a tour guide for your fitness. A coach has the ability to look at your experience on the bike and make sense of it through the cycle of stress, rest, and adaptation. While it may seem simple enough to analyze, many cyclists lack the experience and objectivity to properly analyze their current physical state so that they may pursue the best workouts relative to their needs. A good coach can help you turn your dreams into achievable goals.
“A good coach,” says Carmichael, “can help you understand your body’s response to cycles of training and rest.”
Coaching comes in many forms today. Software programs can provide sound feedback based on downloaded GPS or wattage-device data. Coaching services give you the services of a real, live coach through a computer interface, e-mail, and phone. And for those who want a traditional hands-on coach, there are usually a few to be found in any nearby metropolitan area.
Commitment and Lifestyle
Before committing to a particular training regimen, give some thought to where you want cycling to fit in your life. Will it be a major priority or just a way to enjoy yourself with a friend or two on the weekend? Naturally, there are no right or wrong answers. If you want cycling to occupy a central role in your life, you’ll need to strike some bargains. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to ride well on Saturday morning following a late night at the bar on Friday. Similarly, few cyclists can bounce back after a five-hour ride and have the strength necessary to mow the lawn.
If you are inclined toward a healthy lifestyle and already eat well and get plenty of sleep, the transition into cycling will be easy. But if you have a demanding career and a family, cycling might only fit in at the edges of your day.
Those cyclists who have a career and family enjoy the most success if they’ve planned their training well in advance and negotiated with their family when they will be on the bike. Riders will frequently refer to the “hall pass” that gives them a finite amount of time to be out. By planning your training around your greatest priorities, you can make the most of the time you have to train.