From Couch to Podium: The Road to Fitness and Why It’s Not Too Late to Get Started
Bike racing is fun and exciting. Bike racers are generally happy, healthy people. They have things to do on weekends. They have goals that give meaning to their daily lives. This is all great for people who already race bikes or who ride a lot and are ready to give racing a try, but what about people who work too much and ride too little? People who have put on a few pounds per year for a lot of years since adolescence? What about people who spend more time planning to start riding than they do riding? or who can’t avoid saying “ooof” when they bend over to pick something off the floor? What about guys who work 60 hours per week and come home to families? With time and commitment they all can become bike racers. What does it take for a “couch potato” to become a bike racer? What are the milestones that one passes on the way?
Anyone who gets a racing license, even the one-day sort purchased at the race venue, and gets on the starting line is technically a “racer”, but really being one doesn’t just mean paying the entry fee. It means being able keep up long enough to affect the outcome. That takes tremendous fitness. Fitness is multi-dimensional. You can test all sorts of things, but there is no one test that predicts the ability to compete. If we define fitness by saying that fit riders have better chances of winning races than do unfit riders, then fitness must include physiological fitness (high VO2-max, and power at lactate threshold), but also many other factors, such as tactical and aerodynamic efficiency, and low body weight. Psychological variables like willingness to ride close enough to other riders for the aerodynamic benefits, and the ability to suffer when the race requires it also contribute. The combination of all these factors and several more rather than any one of them predicts racing ability. One rider may have low physical fitness but superior drafting skills, while another has higher physical fitness but poor skills. These two factors can balance each other out (figure 1). This balancing is particularly obvious in the lower categories where one can win while being strong but having limited skills, or while being super-efficient though weak. As one climbs through the categories, one has to approach one’s potential on more and more measures to continue to succeed.
Simply believing that one can take the next necessary step is the first step towards becoming a bike racer. At first, one doesn’t need to believe that one can win or even keep up but only that one is on a road that could lead to those goals. There are many potential psychological obstacles to that belief. Low current fitness is a big obstacle to the sense that one will succeed if one tries. People who are overweight, slow on the bike, get out of breath when walking up stairs and who say “ooof” when they bend over rightly think they are a long way from race ready, but that doesn’t mean that they ‘can’t get there from here’. I have seen a rider who got tubby living on beer, pizza and cigarettes through college turn that around enough to turn pro at 36. I’ve seen numerous riders lose dozens of pounds and add multiple miles per hour to their sustainable and peak speeds. Current couch potato status means that one is some time away from competitive success, but not that one can’t become successful eventually. Age makes some doubt their ability to become fit. The good news for older potential athletes is that the research literature says that at least through age 55 or so, there is no loss of aerobic potential. That is, a 55 year old who trains well for two or three years can be as fast as he or she was in his or her 20s and 30s, or as fast as he or she would have been had he or she trained then.
There are age-graded “Masters” races in five- or ten-year increments so athletes over 35 years don’t actually have to compete with younger riders, but the new racer should not expect that riding with the “old folks” means it’s going to be easy. In some districts the 35+ guys put on the fastest races of the day and the 45+ races are harder than the young cat 4s. Years without training have to be made up for. One cannot go from couch potato to champion overnight. It takes time because one has to gradually build up the ability to train. The training volume of a racer would destroy the beginning rider. Each month of consistent training increases the ability to survive and benefit from a higher training load, and only training the volume, intensity and speed of a racer will make one a racer. It simply takes 2-3 years for the gains to accumulate. First and second year riders with dreams of racing should not be discouraged by poor performance compared to riders who have been training and racing much longer. Riders over 65 probably can’t be as fast as they could have been in their youth. Still, there are several races every year, and more each year, specifically for older athletes. At the very least, there USA Cycling Masters Nationals in road, mountain bike, track and cyclocross as well as Age-graded District and World Championships and “Senior Games” in numerous venues. One doesn’t have to be as fast as a 20-to-40 year old to kick some butt. One only has to be as fast as the other 65, 75, 85, or 90+ year olds.
Chronic illnesses and injuries really are an impediment to getting fit enough to race. Some are show-stoppers, but many aren’t. For instance, I’ve seen riders with chronic knee or back pain get comfortable and race effectively. I’ve seen several amputees race competitively, even in higher categories, and I have helped clients who live with diabetes or who have survived cancer and heart attacks to race or ride strongly. Those who wish to race but aren’t sure it is possible for them should consider what they think might hold them back, and then what they need to do to overcome those limiters. A coach who has seen the process before can guide one through this part of the transformation from couch potato to bike racer.
Once one begins to think of oneself as a future racer, one starts on the road. The first milestone is commencing to behave like a racer. One doesn’t necessarily rent an apartment in Girona or grow a goatee, but one starts to make decisions based on their impact on performance. One tries to eat the healthy diet of a racer, though not the large portions unless training volume is high. One starts to consider social opportunities or work commitments in terms of their impact on training. One thinks of bike fit and equipment choice in terms of speed and competitive advantage as well as comfort and style. One concerns oneself with getting enough sleep, avoiding smoky environments, staying off one’s feet and, most importantly, riding more and more often until one is habitually riding 4-7 days per week and more than an occasional day off feels wrong. A coach or experienced rider can help one learn to behave like a racer. Riders who don’t have a coach, certainly should get a book on training and create a training program. At this point, one might take up weight lifting, stretching or other forms of cross training. Most future racers subscribe to a cycling magazine or two. Some put up posters of their cycling heroes or map out their cycling goals.
Once the former couch potato adopts the lifestyle of a bike racer in terms of training, eating and sleeping, fitness and skills begin to develop. At first they come so rapidly that there is no particular need to keep careful track of training results: The changes are obvious. Pants become looser in the waist and tighter in the thighs and butt. The “ooof” disappears. One can ride farther and faster without collapsing from fatigue, and can ride several days per week without losing motivation or energy. There are less obvious changes too. During harder exercise sedentary humans breath rapidly. They gasp or get “out of breath”. Trained humans also breath faster, but they increase the volume of air going in and out by breathing more deeply as well. Eventually the tendency to get out of breath disappears and riders say that their legs are the limiter rather than the heart or lungs. The speed that can be ridden comfortably begins to rise within a few weeks of beginning to train and, if training is approached correctly, continues to rise for many years, though many riders continue to push hard on every ride and never notice the transition.
The absolute beginner has only one speed: all out. At first any effort is a maximal effort, but soon the speed one can sustain rises enough that it becomes possible to ride without going all out. Riders who have passed this threshold are able to pass another: the beginning of training with controlled effort. Training with controlled effort is essential to the development of the aerobic fitness that underlies all bike performances longer than sprints. Different fitness measures develop at different rates. Absolute VO2-max, the total amount of oxygen that a rider can absorb and utilize per minute, reaches its ultimate level with just a few months of regular training. (So called “VO2-max intervals” don’t boost VO2-max. Rather they boost endurance at above-LT power). After absolute VO2-max is optimized, VO2-max relative to body weight can continue to improve through weight reduction. Oxygen consumption at lactate threshold maxes out after a couple of years of decent training, but the power than can be generated from that oxygen can continue to improve for several more years as the rider’s physiological efficiency improves. The speed and race results that can be extracted from the power generated can improve for many years as skills, bike position and other tactics improve. Climbing speed can continue to increase so long as there is weight to lose from the rider, the bike or the kit without compromising power disproportionately. (If one loses too much weight, power drops more than weight and climbing slows).
A coach can help a rider at this stage to identify the areas for most productive attention. The development of fitness can be arrested at any time by an injury or illness. The first time one faces a particular sort of problem it might take weeks or months to sort out, but once one figures out the nutritional strategy, stretch or bike position tweak that cures the problem, additional instances of the problem can be cleared up in days or avoided altogether. Knowledge of how to deal with particular injuries or illness is a part of fitness. Flexibility is also an important aspect of cycling fitness. One must be lean enough and flexible enough to pedal without losing power while bent into an aerodynamically efficient position. Unlike some other aspects of fitness, one should not strive to improve flexibility forever. Flexibility beyond that required to ride the bike comfortably in an efficient position reduces strength and power.
Starting to Ride With Racers: Getting Dropped
Once the couch potato has been training for a bit, usually after a year or so, training typical racer distances becomes possible, and a new kind of uncertainty can appear. The rider who routinely trains 45 minutes or one hour at most is not surprised that he or she can’t keep up with friends who race, but when one has been training 2-3 hours routinely and speed and endurance have risen, getting dropped may come as more of an insult and undermine confidence. There are two potential issues here: One is riding skills. The skilled rider drafts, takes advantage of pack dynamics, eats, drinks, sheds over-warm clothing and executes a variety of other tricks learned from group riding that allow him or her to keep up with far less effort and far less power produced than the newbie who hangs on the side or back of the pack, not quite close enough for optimal drafting, doesn’t fuel properly for fear of taking the hands off the bars, brakes unnecessarily or overheats due to fear of undressing while riding. Clinics and coaching can help, but ultimately the only way past these impediments is riding with groups. A second issue is the existence of fitness thresholds for performance. That is, if the physiological fitness plus skills are at 10% or 90% of that necessary to keep up with a beginner category race, the results are the same: one gets dropped and rides home alone (figure 2). Improved skills and fitness don’t prevent being dropped until they reach a certain threshold. The beginner who has been putting in the time and improving steadily should keep faith though: eventually a tiny increment of additional physiological fitness or skills will put one “over the top”. If one’s training is working, one will one day suddenly be able to keep up with the field. A coach can be supportive by helping the new racer understand the fitness and skills required. The coach can also help the aspiring racer know when it is time to change the training plan or start looking for reasons why the training might not be working.
Keeping Up, Placing and Upgrading
Believe it or not, the jump from keeping up with the group to climbing the podium is much smaller than the jump from not keeping up to keeping up. One who can keep up is already fast enough. He or she just needs to improve fitness or efficiency a tiny bit more to be able to keep up without getting too tired to sprint, or to develop the tactical savvy to beat other equally fit riders to the line. Then at some point one upgrades and has to learn to keep up again. Any male who enters 10 massed start road races or criteriums is eligible to upgrade from the 5s to the 4s. The subsequent male upgrades and all upgrades for women depend on earning points for top finishes in the current category. Fours who beat 4s become 3s. Threes who beat 3s become 2s. Twos who place as 2s become 1s and are eligible for professional contracts. The upgrades are not all equally difficult. The difference between the skills and fitness needed for the 5s and 4s or the 4s and the 3s is relatively small. Anyone who gets on the podium every week in the 4s is likely to be finishing in the top half in the 3s right away. Same for 3s who place routinely, become 2s and enter 2s-only races. Often however the 2s race with the 1s and professionals so winning for 2s and upgrading to the 1s usually means beating 1s and pros. That’s tough.
The path from the couch to the 4s is well worn. One needs only commitment and minimal luck to get that far. Then things get iffier. Some do and some don’t have the talent to make any additional upgrades. Talent is a mysterious substance that some people are oozing with, while others lack. Just as fitness is the sum total of all the factors that make one an effective bike racer, talent is the sum total of all elements of potential as a bike racer. If someone trains to the limit of their ability and can’t place in the 4s, we say he or she lacks talent. If someone sails through the 4s and 3s and into the 2s, we say they have lots of talent. Sometimes talent just means a long history of training for other sports so that one has fitness beyond most beginner cyclists while still a beginner. Other times, talent means distinct genetic advantages in terms of muscle fiber type, heart size or body shape. Even the willingness to train a lot and having the time to do so are parts of talent. In any case, talent can be thought of as one’s potential as a bike racer, and each person has a talent that sets the level to which, with effort, they can eventually rise. Some riders will rise to be mid-pack riders in the 4s and then due to genetics or job-stress, they may stall out. Other riders may zoom away from the perma-4s, but then stall out as mid-pack 2s (figure 1).
In my book, the successful cyclist is the one who has a complete cycling career. A complete cycling career means striving to be the best one can be on the bike, moving from beginner to experienced rider and racer, going from student of cycling to teacher and reaching one’s potential. The later stage of a successful cycling career is full expression of one’s talent and then struggling long enough to prove and accept that one has actually reached one’s potential. If all goes well, the journey includes the passage of many satisfying milestones, the winning of races and plenty of friendship, fun and excitement. Some people can probably convince themselves that they are perfectly satisfied as couch potatoes, that they have discovered their potential while watching the Tour and drinking beer. At times I envy the people who really are satisfied with that life, but deep down, I doubt. Just about any one can get off the couch and head off towards the adventure that is being a bike racer. Call me a false prophet if you disagree, but I think that even sedentary, overworked, overweight individuals who have trouble making time to exercise would be better off for experiencing the struggles and satisfactions found on the road that starts from the couch and leads towards the podium in some sport, preferably bike racing.