Feeling sluggish in the saddle? One of these common mistakes might be holding you back. By AC Shilton
No matter your ability level – whether you’re a racer or a first-timer on a coffee ride – that powerless feeling of watching faster riders slowly roll away without you sucks. If you constantly seem to get stuck in reverse when the pace picks up, you probably have a handful of good excuses you lean on: your chain dropped, you didn’t drink enough water yesterday, your dog ate your mojo.
But it’s time to put those excuses to rest. (And seriously, stop feeding mojo to your dog; it’s bad for him.) “Usually I see that it’s a lot of little mistakes and a lot of misconceptions that are holding riders back,” says cycling coach Bill Elliston. But you can get faster on a bike fairly quickly – no new carbon fibre purchases required – by fixing these easily corrected mistakes.
You’re Riding Too Hard – And Not Hard Enough
Bad news for “hammer time” fans: Going hard all the time isn’t going to result in gains. “That ‘no pain, no gain’ mentality is really detrimental,” Elliston says. “The idea that it has to be hard every time you work out is really hard for people to let go of.”
Instead of putting your head down and beating your soul into submission each day, Elliston says you’ll improve more if you include both hard and easy days. And when you go hard, go really hard. “You need those short intervals that put you on the edge of vomiting to really raise the ceiling on your fitness level.”
Your Pack Handling Skills Are Poor
“Pack handling skills are gigantic. That’s a huge limiter for people,” says cycling coach Aidan Charles. “If you don’t have good skills, you’re either scared – so you ride in the back or you ride out front and sit in the wind,” he says. Either of those scenarios can gobble up as much as 30 percent of your energy, he says.
To get better at riding in a pack, Charles suggests starting with a group you trust and being frank about your abilities – or lack thereof. “Be honest about your goals and your abilities and people will help you,” he says. Also, push yourself to ride with new, and faster, groups. The more time you spend in a pack – especially when you’re pushing your limits – the better you’ll get.
Your Bike Doesn’t Fit
Most of the time, bike fit issues are really comfort issues – but if you’re not comfortable, you’re less likely to get out there day after day. Two problems, however, could impact your power output. “Saddle height and seat setback can affect efficiency because most of your power is derived from your hips downward,” says Elliston. In a recent study, research found that a 2 percent increase in saddle height resulted in a significant drop in pedalling efficiency. While lowering the saddle didn’t result in such a stark change, there was an almost one percent difference in pedalling efficiency between having the saddle at optimal versus sub-optimal heights.
You’re Not Getting Enough Sleep
Charles says this is common among busy riders who go hard in the predawn hours. There’s nothing wrong with working out while the rest of the world sleeps – so long as you aren’t consistently averaging only 5 to 6 hours of sleep. “Long-term it’s just not sustainable,” Charles says.
Cycling can help you sleep better, but not getting enough rest can hurt your performance on the bike too. A 2013 study published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found sleep-deprived cyclists reached exhaustion faster and reported higher levels of perceived exertion during hard efforts. The same study also found that cognitive response time slowed by 8 percent after sleep deprivation – so if you’re ditching sleep to meet a group ride, be especially careful.
If you can’t get to bed earlier and consistently have to wake up early, Charles says to focus your morning rides on quality, not quantity. “Do a 30-minute ride and sleep an extra 30 minutes,” he says, adding that it’s more important to consistently ride a little bit than to ride super hard for two weeks and then be unable to drag yourself out of bed for the following two weeks.
You’re Not Thinking Ahead
If you fail to plan, you plan to fail – especially when it comes to long rides. “You need to be eating before you’re hungry, drinking before you’re thirsty, thinking about what’s coming up in the ride,” Elliston says.
This goes for more than just fuelling too. Elliston sees a lot of riders not shifting in anticipation of hills, then being stuck grinding it out to get to the top. “That’s going to fatigue your muscles very quickly,” he says. As soon as you feel the road tip up, shift. This will allow you to keep your cadence high and your muscles fresh. If you aren’t sure exactly how fast you should be pedalling on an incline, look around. “If everyone else is at 90 [RPM] and you’re at 70 [RPM], that’s a good indication that you should be doing something differently.”
You’re Overly Obsessed With Your Gadgets
Many cyclists love riding with power metres and GPS units. But there’s a downside to tracking every watt, heartbeat, kilojoules burned, and altitude gained. “I tell my riders that you’re going to see numbers you’ve never seen before while racing,” Elliston says, and sometimes those numbers freak them out. Who hasn’t seen their heart rate shoot up to 211 and thought, “Goodbye, cruel world?”
The problem is that those thoughts can precipitate self-fulfilling prophecies. Sure, without your data you’d likely have known you were entering the “oh please let this be over soon” zone. But you probably wouldn’t have known exactly how deep into that zone you were digging. That might have helped you push just a little bit harder, and helped you cling onto that wheel long enough to stay attached to the pack through the duration of the attack.