Mike races bikes. He has been getting faster on all sorts of terrain and has become competitive on flats and descents, but not on climbs. A photo of Mike shows beautiful mountains behind a rider cornering aggressively on a long descent. In the photo, Mike is wearing a tank top that nicely displays the most bulgingly muscular shoulders and arms I’ve ever seen outside of a bodybuilding competition. I burst out laughing when I saw it. It looks like an advertisement, maybe for protein powder.
Dean is at the other end of the spectrum. He wants to climb better and knows he has to be light, but no matter how light he gets, his climbing doesn’t seem to improve. He couldn’t sprint his way out of a wet paper bag and he often gets dropped from groups where most of the riders train less than he does.
What’s the connection? Both Mike and Dean are failing to perform due to misplaced priorities. Racers have to make time for training, pay attention to stress and recovery, eat right, make race weight, sleep enough, overcome fears and so on. There are always things to improve so it should be possible to keep making progress, but some riders get stuck because they have another, possibly subconscious, goal that blocks them from excelling in their chosen sport.
You Look Marvelous, and So Strong!
Be honest about your goals. Do you want to look good or do you want to win hilly races? Bike riding is a great way to get in shape. Ride enough and eat right and you’ll get some muscle tone in your legs and become lean. Mix in a bit of upper-body strength training and you’ll be looking good in a bathing suit, but winning races other than flat crits requires a mental shift. Bike racers who can ride uphill don’t have great pectorals and biceps. They don’t have curvy hips and big bosoms on willowy frames. Muscle or fat, upper body mass is just weight that has to be hauled up the climbs and needs to come off.
Bike racers do need some upper body strength for support and stability, and to pull on the bars in a sprint. A small amount of weight lifting makes sense, but racers are competitive, so once they start, they often want to lift heavier and do more reps. Unless a rider does high-volume endurance training, hard lifting adds muscle mass, and slows climbing. Lift, but when you do, keep your priorities in mind. For competitiveness you want enough strength to control the bike, but even a short sprint is a few dozen reps so a racer who prioritizes winning over a muscular appearance has no reason to be pushing heavy weights or building bulk.
You Can Be Too Skinny
Bike racers need to be light so that they can climb, but getting light can make your climbing worse if you do it wrong. First, if you are not eating enough to recover after workouts, you get weaker rather than stronger and your riding suffers even as you lose weight. Many riders have a mistaken idea of their minimum performance. They got down to some particular weight in the past by dieting hard, became weak, and concluded that they had gotten too light when in fact they were just malnourished but not underweight. Getting to your minimum effective racing weight requires excellent nutrition, rather than just strict calorie limitation. To lose weight for improved climbing, prioritize nutrition that supports performance with gradual weight loss.
Losing too much leg muscle mass reduces the power you can produce. Climbers have thin but muscular legs. If the majority of your races are determined on shorter climbs or by wind or sprints, being super light won’t be an advantage. You need some muscle mass to win sprints, close gaps and hang in the field on a wind-blown course. Rather than prioritizing being as light as possible, aim for a weight that optimizes your performance in the races you actually attend. Click here for a table of weights of successful bike racers by height, sex and course type: https://www.wenzelcoaching.com/blog/cycling-body-weight-chart/.
Did You Make You Numbers This Month?
Training plans often include weekly volume goals, measured in miles, hours or TSS points. Some riders want to check off the workout for each day and take pride in sticking to a plan for an extended time. We assume that these intermediate goals are like rungs on a ladder we are climbing to better performance. If your plan is in fact perfect for you, sticking to it will optimize your performance, but perfect plans are rare.
Whether you made your own plan, bought it from a website, or had it created for you by the world’s best coach, things come up that should cause you to change intermediate goals. The plan maker didn’t know when you would get sick or your work project would blow up, but continuing hard training through illness or stress will make you weaker rather than stronger. You’d do better to let your numbers drop and focus on recovery and getting through the stressful period.
In my work with thousands of riders I have seen one clear distinction between the folks who make progress, get faster and win events on the one hand, and those who stall at a low level on the other. The perennial fours are the folks who call me to say, “Hey Coach, I did all the intervals. I did my time. I pushed hard!” The ones who eventually win also do most of their assigned workouts, but they call occasionally to say, “I wasn’t feeling so great so I took an easy day,” even though that meant getting fewer miles for the week or bagging an interval session after one or two repeats rather than the assigned six.
Remember that we train to improve performance, not to tick boxes or accumulate volume or TSS points. If you want to give yourself credit for sticking to a plan every day, do the right thing each time. Focus on the exercise your body is ready for rather than the larger number of hours or higher average speed.
Calories In and Calories Out
Many people ride to expend calories in an effort to lean out or lose weight, another area where confused priorities can block progress. The farther and harder you ride the more calories you expend of course, and the less you eat on the ride, the more negative your calorie balance, but both riding hard and failing to fuel during exercise make you hungrier post-training and make it much harder to avoid overeating the rest of the day. Weight loss will come from negative calorie balances sustained over weeks, not from large negative balances established over a few hours and then corrected shortly afterwards. If you are exercising for weight loss, eat enough during training that you are not starving after a session. If you find, as many people do, that hard riding makes you hungry a few hours after a ride, don’t ride that hard.
Many riders have trouble sticking to the appropriate training pace for the day when riding with a fast group. When riders prioritize showing off or not being seen as weak over good training, progress slows. One of the silliest examples of mixed priorities around pacing that I’ve seen relates to bike racers who swear they would like nothing more than to have a significant other who also races. When a single rider of the appropriate sexual orientation finally does get up the nerve to come on the group ride, the desperate riders have to show their alpha-dominance by “winning” all the climbs and city-limit sprints, making the ride miserable for the new rider, or outright dropping him or her. Meanwhile, some slower, often more mature rider is at the back making time.
Once I saw a similar effect in a race where a woman was actually the stronger rider. A national level female competitor joined the men’s field. She had the power to hold her own and even contribute to a break, but every time she joined one, it detonated as if she were a torpedo hitting a ship. The goofballs in the break all started taking harder and harder pulls once she caught them. I don’t know if they were trying to drop her or just showing off. Either way, they blew themselves sky-high and sank their own chances of being in a successful break.
Riding For Health: Hydration and Aerobic Decoupling
This is a tough one. While exercising is good for your health, and bike racing is a good excuse and motivator for staying active and fit, there is some serious doubt as to whether training hard enough for racing is good for you, with several studies suggesting that folks with long histories or extreme endurance athleticism — stage racers, half-Ironman and Ironman triathletes, and marathon and ultra-marathon runners –have more cardiovascular disease and die younger than their more moderately athletic counterparts. Research has not yet clearly determined whether some specific and avoidable aspect of training for and competing in long events causes the problems or if they are inevitable in athletes who train for these events.
Blood viscosity increases as athletes sweat away water and as fluid moves out of the vessels and into the surrounding tissues during long exercise sessions. I personally suspect that the increased blood viscosity and resulting cardiac load actually damages the cardiovascular systems of extreme endurance athletes. If I’m right, then aerobic decoupling is the a key variable to note on longer rides. Aerobic decoupling is a measure of the decrease in power produced at the same heart rate. Greater aerobic decoupling means your heart is working harder to maintain the same riding speed. Decoupling is reduced if you have a good endurance base and maintain hydration well.
Staying hydrated and building base before riding harder are standard coaching recommendations, so if I’m right about the reason that endurance training leads to cardiovascular disease then it is possible to train and race well without negative health effects. The health benefits of exercise training are maximized with roughly one hour per day of “vigorous” exercise. There is no additional health benefit from additional exercise beyond that level, so the training volume required to optimize health is much less than the amount needed to optimize racing fitness. If I’m wrong about the reason for the link between endurance racing and cardiovascular disease, you will actually have to choose between training for racing and exercising for health.
The Forest and the Trees
If you measure success in bike racing as most people do, by podium spots, prizes and upgrade points, then it requires high training volume, low body weight, and appropriate training paces among many other things, but remember that high volume, low weight and appropriate pace are not in themselves measures of success. Keep your priorities straight. If placing better in bike races is your main goal, maintain your volume, diet and pacing so long as they bring you closer to that goal. When a short or easy day or more food would allow you to train better, take them. If your real goal is showing off, being healthy, meeting a potential significant other or something else other than improved race placings, be honest about that and make your decisions accordingly. Either way, you are more likely to reach your goals if you remember what they are.
Scott Saifer, M.S. would be happy to talk with you personally about your goals and how you can reach them. Please inquire about working with Scott or one of the other Wenzel Coaches by calling 503-233-4346 or visiting www.WenzelCoaching.com. You can find prices and an inquiry form there.