Want to get speedier? Start forming these habits to make your next season the best one yet. – By Molly Hurford
Keep Your Gear Dialed
“The biggest difference between pro and amateur athletes, especially cyclists, is their equipment,” says coach Brandon Davis, owner of Wattage Cottage Performance Consulting. Surprisingly, he’s not talking about the fact that pros have access to the most expensive equipment and latest technology: He means that pros keep their bikes in perfect condition at all times. Some racers are lucky and have team mechanics to help them out, but most domestic pros are dialing in their own gear.
Learning basic bike maintenance and getting in tune with your bike is a huge part of getting faster. “Professionals always expect their stuff to be dialed, so that’s the only feel that they know,” says Davis. “But the average age-grouper doesn’t know how bad their gear is until they decide to get it fixed, and then it’s instant daylight.”
Haven’t had a tune-up in a while? Take your bike to the shop to get it looked over—and even consider getting a bike fit. And always, always keep your bike clean: A dirty chain slows you down, and mud and other gunk in your cables will cause poor shifting performance.
Listen to top pros—or observe them casually—after races, especially races that didn’t go their way. You’ll notice that after a setback or a tough day, the racers that go on to do better and get back on the podium (and stay there for years) are the ones who don’t sulk. Sure, they may get a little down after a bad race, but after taking a couple hours for a pity party, the cyclists who recover from setbacks the best are the ones who rationally reflect on the race or the ride, and make changes to improve their riding. That might mean changing gear, practicing a forgotten skill (like riding rock drops for mountain bikers) or putting more time into high intensity efforts (for a road racer).
Fast cyclists don’t get that way overnight—it’s a process. There will be setbacks, but it’s how you handle them that makes the difference for your success.
Grow Your Base
Getting faster isn’t all about intervals and high intensity training, especially if you’re new to cycling. While interval training is important (we’ll get into that next), don’t forget the value of endurance. Your best bet is to spend a significant amount of time growing your aerobic base—your ability to ride hours at a time. Use the early season and the tail end of the off-season to focus on these endurance rides so you’re ready for high intensity training as your season starts.
Get in the (Right) Zone
All of us know the importance of training at specific intervals—from fast-paced sprint efforts to ultra-easy recovery spins—but the riders doing intervals right are the ones getting faster. Doing intervals right means actually doing each timed interval at the prescribed effort: actually hitting your threshold when you’re doing threshold intervals, and putting everything out there for a sprint. Davis says the biggest mistake he sees people making in intervals is going ‘kind of hard’ all the time, and never actually hit the proper heart rates or wattages. “It’s a common theme: Everything becomes tempo,” Davis explains. “Recovery, hard workouts—there’s just this steady state that cyclists fall into and it’s never hard or easy enough. That may be because they’re not recovering well enough, or because they don’t understand the zones.”
Power meters have opened a lot of amateur eyes, he adds. “A lot of my clients who have gone from heart rate-based training to power-based training on the bike have been like, ‘Wow, what I thought I was doing in tempo was really threshold work.” Once clients learn what their threshold/tempo/endurance zones actually are, Davis says they tend to see gains in performance quickly. If you’re not sure if you’re doing intervals right, try to borrow a power meter from a buddy and see what your numbers really look like—and get a coach to analyse them.
Practice Good Off-Bike Nutrition
A fast cyclist knows that good nutrition begins long before you start pedaling. Eating healthy off-bike may not be as much fun as bingeing on doughnuts after a century ride, but it will make you faster over time. Focus on clean eating all the time, and you’ll see improvements in your legs (and likely, in your overall power-to-weight ratio).
Dial Your Skills
No matter how many times you practice bunny hops, you can always get better. Even once you think you’ve nailed a particular skill, it’s worth a quick refresher now and then: After all, it’s no-cost time savings without the wattage! A rider that can navigate corners at speed saves lots of energy compared to one that has to slow down, negotiate the turn, then sprint back up to speed. “Foundational skill work is critical,” Davis says. “Even at the highest level, it’s still important to continue working on that.”
Be Honest with Your Coach
If you are working with a coach, it can be tempting to leave out details of your daily workouts—especially when things don’t go so well. But that’s hurting you a lot more than it’s helping. “As a coach, we don’t always get the subjective data, and even the objective data is hard to get sometimes,” Davis says. The best thing you can do for your coach is to share as much data as possible, so he or she knows how to plan for the days ahead—and how to make you faster.
If you’re going to ride hard, you need to recover to match. “Amateurs spend so much time planning their workouts—with or without a coach—but they don’t plan their recovery,” Davis says. Make sure that you’re scheduling time not just for time off the bike, but for active recovery, including stretching, yoga, and light, easy riding.