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  • Writer's pictureMountain Abandon

5 Fitness Tips for Cyclists

From the pedal-less, wooden “swiftwalker” designed by German inventor Karl von Drais in 1817, to the modern aero machines of 2023, the progression of bicycles over time is indicative of the popularity of cycling. From an early age, children privileged enough to own a bicycle can usually be found at the local bike park or out in the neighbourhood streets most afternoons, pedalling their heart and lungs out! But the fun factor and social element allow for rapid skill development, and it’s easy to see how many of us grow up addicted to cycling.

Fit road cyclist on the tar road with road bike

Fortunately, cycling is one of the most effective and easily accessible forms of exercise all around the world. Being low impact in nature and offering various forms and disciplines, cycling is one of few sports that truly caters for everyone - young, old, able, disabled, extremely fit or even overweight.

Whatever your current level, however, there is always room for improvement! So whether you are a roadie, mountain biker or gravelist, here are 5 simple steps to enhance your cycling fitness.

1. Consistency - as with most things in life, consistency is key!

We recommend building up towards riding a minimum of 4 times per week. As humans, we love complexity and so often skip the basics. Before deciding what to do during your sessions, first make consistent riding a habit. Small gains compounded over time will always outdo sporadic “big” efforts.

If you can only fit in 3 rides per week it’s not a problem, but try to do that consistently then. We will get to how you can try and increase those weekly rides at a later point.

How long should your rides be? With a focus on keeping things simple and the assumption that most of us aren’t pro athletes, we recommend weekday rides to vary from 45 to 75 mins with longer rides over the weekend. Ideally you want one or two of your rides to be longer than 2 hours. We strongly recommend a progressive build up approach here, starting with more frequent, shorter rides and building up the duration as your endurance develops over time.

2. Specificity - include one interval workout per week.

Once you have achieved consistency in your training, it’s time to look at what exactly you are doing during those rides. If you have been cycling 3 to 4 times per week for about 3 months, consider incorporating an interval session. You don’t need to add a ride to your week - just convert one of your existing rides into a specific interval workout.

Intervals come in many forms, intensities and durations and it can be difficult to select the right session initially. We advise starting with a simple 2 x 15 minutes at a challenging aerobic intensity and 5 minutes of recovery in between. Over time you can include shorter, higher intensity intervals such as an 8 x 3 minute VO2 max workout, or if your focus is on building a sustained effort, longer and less intense intervals such as 20-30 min tempo intervals.

Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) is a great way to measure the intensity of intervals without the need for fancy or expensive equipment. Simply listen to your body and gauge your intensity level on a scale of 1 to 10. To give you an idea, a flat-out sprint would be a 10/10, while sitting on the couch a 0/10. Your steady state, aerobic development interval of 15 to 20 minutes would be about a 6/10 and you should be able to speak a few sentences. Cruising intensity is around 4/10 and you should be able to hold a conversation easily - think coffee ride! Your shorter intervals will naturally be at a higher intensity where you might only be able to blurt out a few words at an RPE of 8 or 9.

3. Variety - add the “spice of life” by increasing your range of options.

Ride outdoors, indoors, road, trail, solo and with groups. Not only will this variety aid in riding more regularly and consistently, but it will also keep your training interesting. This is good for both your motivation and physiological adaptation, as applying different training stimuli to your body typically leads to improvement. Doing the same rides day in and day out won’t stress your body in new ways, hence it won’t have the need to adapt and grow stronger. That being said, you can’t always go flat out on a different interval session. A weekend coffee group ride can be the perfect LSD (long, slow distance) session; your Wahoo SYSTM smart trainer is great for a hard but controlled interval session in a safe environment, and some fun mountain biking on your local trails could be exactly what you require to keep the training motivation up!

4. Nutrition - make a habit of fuelling during your rides.

When it comes to nutrition and hydration, each of us is unique. We burn energy in different ways and quantities, have different sweat rates, and digest foods and liquids differently. This can make it challenging to figure out exactly what works for you as an individual on longer endurance sessions, but it doesn’t mean you can ignore it until race week!

Fueling properly during training sessions will allow you to ride stronger, enhance your fitness and recover more rapidly. Remember that recovery is essential for adaptation to training and in having you ready for your next ride!

We recommend creating your own individual fueling plan, but a good place to start for any ride longer than 90 minutes is to drink 500ml of fluid per hour and consume between 40-60 grams of carbohydrates per hour. In severely hot conditions you would need to hydrate more, and at higher intensities you would consume more carbohydrates. But start conservatively and titrate upwards each week - training your gut is the same as training your muscles. Consistency, progression, patience.

5. Sleep - aim for 7-9 hours per night.

Sleep is the single most effective recovery tool we have, and, best of all – it ‘s FREE! Forget about recovery socks, ice baths, massages or the latest recovery supplement being promoted by some influencer. If you are not currently getting at least 7 hours of sleep per night, it would be more beneficial to cut those extra strength sessions in favour of additional shut-eye. Once you are consistently hitting your sleep target you can consider introducing smaller “bang for buck” recovery methods and training aids.

Prioritising sleep doesn’t just aid recovery from training but also enhances overall health. Think stronger immune system, lower risk of injury and a more positive outlook on life in general... It’s also important to note that it’s not just about sleep quantity, but also quality. To improve your sleep quality ensure that your room is cool, quiet and dark. Establish a consistent routine by going to bed and waking at the same time most days. Finally, try to avoid any screens or digital devices for at least an hour before going to bed.

Bonus Tip - keep it fun and simple!

To get better at cycling you need to ride more, and the only way you are going to want to do that is if you really enjoy it! Keeping your training schedule simple, consistent and aligned with your goals will allow you the best opportunity to see improvement and enjoy the process. And if you love riding your bike and find fun and fulfilment in the journey, then you will find yourself faster and stronger in no time at all - and with a smile on your face!

Mountain bikers riding on cliff edge in South Africa

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