How to work out smarter – not harder – so you can get the most out of your time on the bike. – By Selene Yeager
The answer to these crestfallen cyclists is rarely ever, “Yes, you should train harder.” Many of them dig so deep, they’re already a few inches shy of six feet under, metaphorically speaking. Instead, what they really need to do is to train smarter.
Next time you think, “I need to do more,” consider that maybe that more is actually less, and try these six training strategies that are all but guaranteed to help you make gains.
Step 1: Take a Rest Day (or Two) Already!
Many of us (guilty as charged) get sucked into pushing ourselves too hard too often, because it feels good to go hard and blow off stress, whether you’re on your bike or in a CrossFit box or running on your favourite trails. That is, until you start to feel flat and sluggish because you’re breaking your muscles down without ever giving them the proper and complete rest they need to build back up. That’s not just bad for your bike performance; it’s bad for you.
In a study published earlier this year, Canadian researchers found that Olympic rowers had lower levels of bone-building protein in their blood and higher levels of inflammation during hard training blocks, compared to recovery periods, where they took days completely off. Research has also found that successive intense workouts without a recovery break can lower your immunity. When you’re riding hard and training lots, schedule one day off each week to recover.
Step 2: HIIT Your Max
I feel bionic. That was my exact thought while I was out doing an interval workout a few weeks ago. My legs felt fresh. I was hitting my max heart rate. I wanted to push as hard as I could and nail my workout—a sensation I hadn’t felt in a while. What made the difference? I had taken a very easy week with two rest days the week before. That’s the magic of actually following Step 1; you have a full tank of gas and a head of steam for Step 2—go really hard.
Sprint intervals are the quickest way to get strong and fit fast. They literally take almost no time – mere minutes (this is also a good way to psyche yourself up for doing them; remind yourself that they’re really short). The key is going mad-dog frothing at the mouth hard for 10 to 40 seconds. Do six to eight efforts with about one to two minutes recovery in between to let your heart rate come down. If done a couple times a week, this type of training raises your V02 max, lactate threshold, and levels of human growth hormone and testosterone, which help you build muscle and burn fat. In a study of 22 trained cyclists, those who replaced part of their usual training with intervals for eight weeks improved their power output during a 40K time trial by nearly 8 per cent, while the others saw no measurable gains.
Step 3: Lift (Really Heavy) Things Up and Put Them Down
When I’m just riding lots, I feel pretty fit, but after a few months, I definitely feel a loss in torque and power. Intervals help. So does strength training—another scientifically proven way to get stronger and faster in less time. Strength training especially benefits women and masters riders (who have less muscle mass to start or are at a point where lean muscle mass dwindles with the passing years), but it has been shown to produce gains for young riders, as well.
When Scandinavian researchers had a group of young elite riders swap in some heavy “leg days,” including moves like half squats for their usual endurance training once or twice a week for 25 weeks, they significantly improved their peak wattage during a 30-second sprint test, as well as their average wattage during a 40-minute all-out TT, compared to a group of their peers who stuck to their usual on-the-bike endurance training, despite the fact that the strength trainers actually spent a little less time training overall.
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Step 4: Use Those Recovery Tools
Stiff, knotted muscles are not smooth, snappy pedaling muscles. For easy gains you can make during an episode of Stranger Things, get on your foam roller and work out the kinks. You’ll get myriad muscle benefits, says Scott Levin, MD, sports medicine specialist at Somers Orthopaedic Surgery and Sports Medicine in New York. “Foam rolling breaks down adhesions and scar tissue and also warms and stretches muscles, increases circulation, and prevents soreness,” he says.
A 2017 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research reported that sprinters who began foam rolling performed better on agility tests after hard muscle-damaging exercise bouts than those who didn’t roll their muscles out. Other research has found foam rolling significantly improves range of motion and decreases soreness and fatigue.
Step 5: Amp Up the Repair Process – While You Sleep!
Who doesn’t love a bedtime snack? Well, get this: you can hasten your recovery and make muscle while you sleep (yep, that’s actually a thing) by eating protein before you go to sleep. A study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise reported that exercisers who ate a high protein snack 30 minutes before bed enjoyed a rapid rise in amino acid levels as they slept, which stimulated muscle repair and recovery.
For the best results choose a protein source that is high in the amino acid casein (the most abundant protein in milk), which digests in a slow and steady fashion. You could go with a straight-up protein shake or have a dish of Greek yogurt with some nuts and berries.
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Step 6: Go to Bed Earlier
A coach once told me, “The race is won in bed.” He wasn’t being inappropriate. He was referring to the importance of quality sleep for full recovery, especially during hard training blocks, because your body pumps out HGH as you slumber.
Before you use that as an excuse to hit snooze eight or nine times tomorrow morning, it’s better for your recovery to tack on those ‘zzzs on the other end of the sleep cycle, says Dr. W. Christopher Winter, sleep specialist and author of The Sleep Solution. “The majority of HGH secretion is between 11 pm and 1 am, and then it starts shutting down.” Start winding down around 10 and hit the sack shortly thereafter. Bonus: You’ll be more awake for those early morning rides and gym workouts.