Four ways to become a stronger, faster cyclist

After 18 weeks of preparation, it all came down to 3 hours and 46 minutes. That’s the time it took me to find the finish line after 65 grueling miles at the Tour of the Battenkill. I was elated and exhausted by the end. Sure I was ecstatic over my performance, but I was also extremely proud of (and a bit surprised by) the athlete I had become over those four months. I knew when I signed up that I wasn’t going to half-ass it until April. I tend to do things in a big way and this was no different. I planned to carefully follow my training plan and to use my diet and recovery tactics to see just how great I could become. It turns out these strategies paid off big time.

Strong first

I’m a huge believer in the principle that to perform well as an endurance athlete, you must first develop a strong base or core. The core is much more than just six-pack abs. You can have a rock-solid stomach and still be dysfunctional, meaning you have muscular imbalances or weaknesses that can result in early fatigue on the bike or even injuries. A paragraph or two doesn’t even begin to touch this subject (I’ll spend more time in a future post), but the point to drive home is that it’s imperative to balance on the bike efforts with off the bike strength and conditioning work. I’ve seen so many seemingly fast and strong cyclists skip this fundamental work and it always seems to catch up to them in the end.

For instance, in addition to my cycling training plan I did squats, lunges, deadlifts and transverse plane (side-to-side) core exercises. I focused on developing a strong back to counteract the hunched over cycling position and any upper body weight work was done at handlebar width. I wasn’t in the gym trying to gain big muscles and most of the exercises consisted of either body weight, resistance bands or light dumbbells. In fact, I never set foot in a gym. I didn’t gain any weight during this time, but I did lose something—fat, about 7% of it was replaced by lean muscle. My goal was simple: build strength and develop stability first. A strong core is the foundation of your house. Spend less than an hour off the bike each week and put in the time and effort where it really counts. 

High Intensity Interval Training/ Sticking to a plan 

I won’t go into great detail about this, but I will say one thing: It freakin’ worked. For once in life, less is more. I’ll leave the long, slow base miles to the pros and take short, intense workouts any day. Granted, I wasn’t going hard all the time and I still put in my base training period, but any time spent on the bike was highly focused, not just miles for the sake of miles. In a little over four months, my functional threshold power shot up 27% and for the first time ever I was keeping up with the strong climbers on hills. If you want to read more about the science of high intensity training or pick up a plan, check out this coach’s blog.

My confidence was high going into Battenkill because I had trained and practiced the way I wanted to perform. I followed a training plan designed specifically for the course and with the exception of a few additional recovery days, I followed the plan exactly as it was written. 

Recovery

Part of  following a training plan meant that I was forced to take days off and work easier weeks into my training. Recovery days didn’t mean I was out running or riding the bike for fun. I was taking it easy and letting all that hard work settle in and giving my body the time it needed to grow stronger. Some recovery days I felt fantastic (give me more intervals!), but I still forced myself to rest. Recovery days are an important time to stake stock of what your body really needs. When all those feel-good, pain-relieving chemicals work their way out of our system, you finally feel the true fatigue that’s been accumulating on the bike. I focused on getting quality sleep, booking massages when my muscles were shot and stretching regularly.

Nutrition

Keeping a clean diet in the winter was hard. It was cold and the cookies were always calling. Instead of beating myself up, I focused on eating clean, unprocessed food as much as possible, reducing added sugars (except during workouts) and centering most of my starchy carbs around exercise. Was I always on top of this? Nope. Did I deprive myself of foods I really, truly wanted? Never. But the cleaner I ate, the less I craved the bad stuff. The other key piece was that I didn’t deprive myself of calories or sugar during exercise. This is the one place you should never cut calories. Try to lose weight off the bike, not on. And follow up hard or long efforts with a recovery drink or fast digesting carbs and protein in a 4:1 ratio to keep your body stocked and ready for the next hard effort. For more detailed nutritional information, especially during exercise, I constantly referred to Apex Nutrition’s blog and website. I also practiced my eating plan well before Battenkill, so I knew exactly which foods worked during hard efforts and how much fuel I needed to consume.

 

 

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