It was Eddy Merckx who once said, “The race is won by the rider who can suffer the most.” Back in The Cannibal’s era that largely came down to who’d put the most training miles in. However, contrary to a long-standing belief, our ability to endure physical pain on a bike isn’t simply acquired by racking up as many miles as possible, but rather, as I’ve been discovering, a finely balanced combination of work done on and off the bike.
Evolution of Training
I will be the first to admit that back when I started cycling, my training – and I use that word in its loosest sense – consisted of little more than just riding my bike as and when I could. There was no structure to my sessions, no thought of a longer-term plan and certainly no focus on eating the optimal diet to support my riding.
But that was then. This is now. Gradually, my approach to training evolved to incorporate structure both in the short- and long-term. I started using a power meter and ensured I consumed a healthy diet – although as I mentioned in my previous article, even that wasn’t optimal until a few months ago.
Despite this evolution I had, until earlier this year, always felt that there was something missing from the process, something that would enable me to seek out the sort of marginal gains many believe to be the penchant of professional cyclists only. Quite what that missing component was I didn’t know – not until I met Derek Teel of Dialed Health, who quickly opened my eyes to the performance benefits that could be gained from incorporating strength training into my regime.
Core Strength and Muscular Endurance
I’m no stranger to strength work, although back when I was shunting heavy weights and focusing purely on developing my physique, I had more free time, so I knew that I’d need a practical solution to integrate cycling-specific strength work into an already busy schedule. This is where Derek came into his own, providing me with a full-body programme that not only could I do from home, using a kettlebell and weighted band, but could do twice a week and still reap the benefits of added power and stability on the bike.
“Strength training can help make you a healthier and more powerful athlete,” Derek explains. “And, as we all know, when it comes to cycling, power is king, no matter what our aim is, be it a 10km time-trial or a three-day multi-stage event like Haute Route Ventoux. As cyclists we need to be looking at increasing overall core strength and muscular endurance. The stronger we are, the less fatigue we will experience, the greater our potential to increase power and the less likely we are to be injured.”
So, to Mercx’s point, the stronger we are, the more we can suffer on the bike and, as studies have shown, we can greatly increase our muscular strength through regular strength training, thus both prolonging the point at when the suffering begins, as well as endure it for longer periods before completely blowing up and pedalling squares. The latter of which I’m hoping my recent training, which has included a bigger focus on longer intervals, will help me avoid.
|90 mins @ zone 2/3, including [5 mins @ zone 2 and 25 mins @ zone 3] x 3 TSS 120.00
|60 mins riding, including 5 x 6 second sprints – flat terrain – TSS 120.0
|105 mins riding, including 15 sprints TSS 100.00
90 mins riding, including 2 x 8 min intervals + sprints at the end of the ride – flat terrain – TSS 105.0
|90 mins @ zone 2/3, including [5 mins @ zone 2 and 25 mins @ zone 3] x 3 TSS 130.00
|90 mins @ zone 2 with 2 x 20 mins @ zone 3 – TSS 100
|2 hours @ zone 2 with 3 x 20 mins @ zone 3 – TSS 115
2 hours @ zone 2 with 3 x 20 mins @ zone 3 – TSS 115
|3 hours @ zone 2 – TSS 130
For weeks 1-2 read Part One.
For weeks 3-4 read Part Two.
For weeks 5-6 read Part Three.
It’s been during these sessions that I’ve noticed the impact of the strength work I’ve been doing with Derek during recent months. It’s one of those things where I can’t specifically show the exact benefit in terms of numbers – after all, the increase in my FTP (functional threshold power) and reduction in weight are the result of a combination of factors – but rather it translates into how I feel on the bike. Not only do I feel stronger in terms of generating power but I’m noticing a lot less fatigue in my muscles on longer rides with harder intervals, in addition to feeling rock solid on the bike, as if I could cycle through a wall.
“It’s not an illusion – you do feel more solid or planted on the bike from strength training,” explains sports scientist Daniel Healey, “especially if you’re doing a complete body programme, so that’s upper body, lower body and your core. The wobble you see in inexperienced cyclists is down to the fact that they have poor strength in general but, in particular, around their core.
“So, there are two reasons you are experiencing this feeling. The first is simply because you are stronger and you can handle the torque that’s generated by the lower limbs that can cause you to be thrown side-to-side. The second reason is down to proprioception, which is knowing where your limbs are in three-dimensional space.
“General fitness, upper body, lower body and core, develops that proprioception, so when you’re on the bike and you feel the side-to-side motion generated by the torque from the uneven action of pedalling, you are on autopilot. Your brain is connected to those muscles and it sends a message to the nerves saying, ‘Stop moving left, stop moving right’, and the result is you feel planted. The key being that when you’re not planted, you’re bleeding power.”
What’s become increasingly clearer to me over recent weeks, during which time I’ve begun to understand the finer details of a number of scientific processes key to cycling training, is that my continued improvement in the quest for optimal performance cannot be attributed to one single factor. Rather, it’s the combination of many stimuli that are reliant on each other to bring about optimal performance, and while they might be focused on the physiological adaptations, I can’t underestimate the impact those improvements have had on my mental state.
While I would never have approached Haute Route Ventoux with anything other than a mindset of giving my absolute best, it’s fair to say at the start of this journey that ‘best’ would have been more focused on riding the event. However, now, thanks to the improvements I have made, and the subsequent confidence they have given me, I’m heading into the final stages of my training with the belief that I can go to France ready to race to the best of my ability. But, for now, I need to stay focused on the remaining sessions and ensure I don’t leave anything to chance.