You don’t have to be a pro or train like one to benefit from these expert tips on riding, fueling, and recovering. – By Selene Yeager
You may not have 20 hours a week to spend on your bike like a pro, but that doesn’t mean you can’t reap the benefits of a little pro-level training—especially the habit-building that doesn’t always happen in the saddle. Try these tricks from pro trainers’ playbooks to train, ride, and race better than ever, no matter your riding style or goals.
1. Save the Efforts for the End
Instead of pumping out intervals 15 or 20 minutes into a ride when you’re all warmed up, save them for the finish when you’re a little fatigued. You’ll reap both mental and physical rewards, says Rob Pickels, team manager of BCS Elite Devo at Boulder Junior Cycling and lead exercise physiologist at CU Sports Medicine and Performance Center. “Doing efforts when you’re slightly tired improves your mental toughness. It’s easy to ride well when you’re fresh, but race-winning moves are often [needed] exactly when you least want them to occur. Being able to settle in and do work when all the alarm bells are going off in your body is worthwhile,” he says.
It may also make you more efficient, he says. “Doing higher-intensity efforts in a glycogen-depleted state, like the end of a ride, may help build your mitochondria. So your fast-twitch fibers that you use during higher power-output efforts become more oxidative—they burn more fat and less glycogen.” Being a better fat burner at higher intensities is a definite performance booster in endurance sports like cycling.
2. Go to Bed a Little Hungry
“The best pros go to bed just a little bit hungry,” says Allen Lim, PhD, who has worked as a sports scientist for pro Tour teams and now runs Skratch Labs in Boulder, Colorado. You don’t want to be ravenous, but going to bed full generally means you’ve overeaten, says Lim. “It helps you maintain weight,” says Lim, which can be a challenge for many recreational athletes. “When you go to bed a lot hungry, you’ll probably lose one to two pounds per week. Go to bed moderately hungry, you lose about a pound a week. Just kind of hungry—you could eat, but no big deal if you don’t—helps maintain weight.”
3. Learn to Ride Steady
Pros spend a lot of time riding at a steady pace to build and maintain a strong foundation of endurance fitness, where you have optimum fat-burning and capillary development, says longtime pro trainer Iñigo San Millán, PhD, director of the Exercise Physiology and Human Performance Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado. “The bulk of your riding should be in ‘Zone 2,’ or at an intensity where you can have a conversation—about a 5 to 6 on a 1 to 10 scale,” he says. This intensity isn’t slow or easy; rather, it’s a steady, moderate pace from start to finish. So while it feels almost too easy when you first roll out, by the time you finish you should feel as though you’ve done some work.
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4. Write Your Script
Many recreational riders allow negative self-talk to dictate their training and racing, says Kristin Keim, PsyD, a performance consultant and member of the US Olympic Committee Sport Psychology Registry. “Maybe your legs are feeling heavy as you’re warming up for a key ride or race. That’s not the end of the story. It doesn’t mean you’ll have a bad day. It’s just a sensation,” she says.
“Deal with whatever sensation you have—nerves, heavy quads, a high heart rate, whatever it is—by acknowledging it and choosing the story around it,” she suggests. “Say, ‘Okay, my legs feel heavy, but lots of riders put out great performances even when they don’t have ‘good legs,’ so I can, too.’ Because it’s true. That feeling could go away in 15 seconds and you could have the best race of your life. But if you let it be the whole story, that won’t happen.”
5. Take Some Real Time Off
“Many pros take significant time completely off the bike,” says Pickels. “Not riding for a month is not uncommon. They do this as a relief from all the training stress they endure the other months of the year. For us regular people, our training stress may be lower (although not much for some!), but we need to also consider our life, financial, and family stress as well.
“It is a wonderful thing to give the body a break. This recovery period allows the body to better handle more stress in the months to come. Often when we do not take breaks, our training workload needs to be reduced to accommodate the reduced recovery. To take three steps forward, you need to take one back,” he says.
6. Learn to Cook Performance Food
You can’t properly fuel, mend, and build your hard-working muscles with lots of processed food. Eating out or grabbing take out isn’t ideal either because you really don’t know what you’re eating as far as sugar and other hidden ingredients go. “The best pros learn to cook with whole-food ingredients,” says Lim. “When a rider takes the time and makes the effort to cook for themselves, they perform better because it improves their diet and eating habits.”