How to Train for Bicycling

The Modesto Roadmen, training, ca 1967.

Who am I to write an article on training for bicycling? I am a guy who tried to figure out how to train so that I could ride a 1200 kilometer Grand RandonnĂ©e, missed some obvious points in the training literature I read, and, independent of those mistakes, I unexpectedly found that my goal was unattainable1. It occurred to me that I might not be the only person on the planet to make these training mistakes and so am writing this article to share what I learned the hard way. I have no credentials as a cycling coach, I'm not even a particularly good cyclist, but this article describes what I think I have figured out from my reading, from a couple of years of experience, and by pondering that reading and experience. My experience is that of an old man returning to cycling after many years of an inactive lifestyle. If this describes you, this is a good thing. If not, then you should be even more skeptical of the value of this article to you than you would be otherwise. This article is most definitely not intended to compete with the many great books by the likes of Joe Friel. Rather, this article is intended as something to read before you read real training books.

Assume you want to ride your bicycle. Perhaps you want to race, maybe go professional, even win the Tour de France. Or maybe you want to ride your bicycle around the world, or just from Paris to Brest and back. Imagine you, like I, got too involved in your work and haven't been on a bicycle or even had a regular exercise plan for many years. If you hop on a bike, you probably won't be able to ride very far or very fast. If you start riding, gradually increasing speed and distance, you will rapidly get better. This is training. You might not call it training, you might even belong to the "Just Ride" movement, but it is training. You may not do any rides that you call training rides, maybe you just ride events. If you ride enough events, that is training. Riding, if done regularly but not to excess, makes you a better rider. If you are like me, some questions you might have about this process are:
  1. How long will it take me to reach my goal? (Win the Tour de France, complete PBP, whatever.)
  2. Is there any limit to what I can do? If so, what?
  3. Assuming I want to do deliberate, focused training, what is the best way to train to reach my goal?
  4. I hate the training plan I came up with in Question 3! What will happen if I do something different?
In summary, you can come close to your peak fitness fairly quickly, but depending on what it is, you may not be able to reach your goal at all, ever. There are very definite limits to what you can do and those limits are very different for different people. Whether you reach your goal has much less to do with exactly which training plan you pick than it does with your inborn limits, so if you are realistic and just a little bit flexible about your goals, there are many different ways to train, very likely one that fits your preferences and lifestyle. So on to the details.

    Your Potential is Your Limit


    Have you heard the old joke about the farmer, who when one of his cows had a calf, went out and picked up that 50 pound calf? He figured if he did that every day, in a year or two, when the calf had grown into a bull, he would be able to lift 2,000 pounds and be the strongest man on earth.

    Consider an hypothetical article in an hypothetical magazine we shall call "Bicycling". Assume a title for that article like "Training Plan for your Best 60 Minute Time Trial Ever!" (A 60 minute time trial is a race where each rider rides by him- or herself and sees how far she or he can ride in an hour.) Imagine you are over 18 and have been following a reasonable training plan for the past year and that you have a state of the art time trial bicycle. Imagine you typically ride 24.8, 24.9, or occasionally 25 miles in your 60 minute time trial. If you follow this new training plan, and if it is every bit as good as it claims to be, you might hope to ride 25.5 miles in your next time trial. That's wonderful! You are so happy and have every right to be. But be aware of two things:
    1. Next year, when you ride the same time trial, you cannot necessarily expect to ride 26 miles. You might be lucky to ride the same 25.5 miles.
    2. The world record for a 60 minute time trial, on a modern bike, is 35 miles. You are never in your life going to get anywhere close to that.
    Each of us is born with a basic level of skill. The difference between the best training plan on the planet and any good training plan is maybe a 10% difference in performance2; your basic level of skill dominates how fast or how far you can ride. Once you have become reasonably fit, training just tweeks that basic skill level. Further, by the end of your first year of diligent riding, you will know what your basic skill level is. A truism among cycling coaches is that you don't reach your full potential until you have been training for 10 years. I think that may apply more if you start training when you are 15 or 20 years old than if you start when you are 50 or 60, but that aside, assume it is true. What I am saying is that although it is true you will improve over 10 years, the amount of improvement during years 2 through 10 will be closer to a 10% total (not per year) improvement than to the many-fold improvement you will experience the first weeks and months after you first start riding.

    You Cannot Be at Peak Fitness All the Time


    Imagine you are the time trialist from above. Imagine you belong to a cycling club that holds monthly 60 minute time trials. Having discovered Bicycling Magazine's "Training Plan for your Best 60 Minute Time Trial Ever!" means you can now ride 25.5 miles in each of these time trials, instead of your previous 25 miles, right? Probably not. Assuming this training plan is close to optimum, what you will find is that you will be able to reach that 25.5 mph level of fitness for the first time trial, maybe maintain it for the second and conceivably the third but at some point your performance will start to fall. The reason is that an optimal training plan by definition draws on your physical resources at a rate that is not sustainable in the long run. That is what periodized training is all about, managing your physical resources to save them up for the most important race of the year, and then deploying those resources for your optimum performance in that event. Having done that, you need to reduce your training significantly to replenish your resources before repeating that process. (Whether periodized training even makes sense for someone like me is another question entirely, one on which I do not yet have an opinion.)

    You Can Train Too Much


    A typical training plan you will find in a bicycling magazine will be weeks long. If you have not been warned, you might think that when you reach the end, you should start over at the beginning and repeat indefinitely. (That's what I thought.) Imagine that you followed the above training plan for a 60 minute time trial, and that in your next trial, your performance improves from a previous personal best of 25 mph to 25.5 mph. You like the sound of that, so you follow the plan again. Imagine you are lucky, and your next time trial is also 25.5 mph, but this time you are disappointed by the lack of further improvement. Worse, the one after that you are down to 24.5 mph, a low that you haven't seen for quite a while. Maybe you keep trying, having read "winners never quit, quitters never win" or maybe you even double down and make your workouts harder. What you will find is that your performance will drop drastically, you will start getting sick much more often than usual, your mood will deteriorate, your performance at work will suffer, and you will have no energy for anything else. Hopefully, you will be lucky enough to read something or talk to someone who tells you that you are suffering from over-training, and that the only cure is to take a long rest break, probably months long, a major setback. It is always better to train slightly less than you can than slightly more. It is sort of like the old TV show "The Price is Right"; the winner is the person who comes closest to the price of an item without going over. A professional cyclist with an experienced coach can manage to get very close to their training limit without going over. Someone like me with little experience and no coach can go over quite easily so is well advised to stay well below where they think their limit is, and to watch carefully for symptoms of over-training.

    One Size Does Not Fit All


    You are having a delightful training ride through the hill country of Texas, when a yellow blur flashes past. As it passes, a piece of paper blows off onto the road. You pick it up, and it is labelled "My Annual Training Schedule by Lance Armstrong." You realize that you have just been passed by a post-professional Lance Armstrong, and not only that, you have his current training schedule. It is carefully periodized with an appropriate number of rest days and rest months built in. He is no longer professional and is starting to get on in years, so you should have no trouble following his schedule, right? Maybe, but probably not. Just as people vary in their peak speed and endurance, they also vary in their ability to absorb training. What is just below the line for an aging, post-professional Lance Armstrong is probably way over the line for most of us.

    My Conclusion


    By all means, seek out the best training plan and the best coach you can find and afford, if that is your thing. Be all that you can be. But remember, there are limits, and there are no prizes, only pain, for trying to exceed those limits.

    Future of This Page


    I made this a page rather than a blog post as a place to put all my "final" conclusions about training. As I have ideas, questions, and tentative conclusions, I post them to the blog. As I start to reach firm conclusions, I put them here. I definitely expect to edit this page as my opinions evolve. I imagine there will be other sections on this page as time goes on, but I have no clear plans for what those might be. Stay tuned.




    Footnotes


    1) Is this goal really unattainable? Am I maybe being too negative? Possibly. This is especially true for two reasons. Firstly, I have made so many mistakes in my training, I may not have seen my true potential yet. Secondly, I think it is much harder to know your endurance limits than your speed limits. Some randonneurs have noted that once you can ride 400 kilometers or so, there is almost no limit to how long you can ride, assuming you manage eating and drinking correctly and are careful not to ride too fast. All of that said, based on my experience so far, I would bet a nickel that 1200 kilometers in 90 hours (a Grand Randonnée) is beyond my limits.

    2) Please don't take any of these figures as anything but illustrations and examples. When I talk about a 10% increase in performance, all I am trying to say is a relatively small increase. Could it be 20%? Sure, but it probably is not 100%.

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