According to longtime cycling coach Chris Carmichael, a quality bike training regimen should emphasize the four components of aerobic development, pedal cadence, consistency, and stretching more than most other training systems.
So whether you want to make your own run at the Tour de France or you just want to boost the cycling in your triathlon training, here’s how to do it.
1. Aerobic Development
“Aerobic development-that is, increasing the ability to transport oxygen to working muscles-takes up 95 percent of our focus in training,” says Carmichael.
Many cyclists, according to Carmichael, place too much emphasis on raising their lactate threshold-the level of exertion at which the blood lactate level begins to increase-instead of concentrating on building their VO2 max, which is the maximum amount of oxygen a person can use to fuel exercise.
“I see a lot of triathletes focusing on getting their lactate threshold up as high as possible,” he says. “But there’s a point of diminishing returns. If your lactate threshold is 85 to 90 percent of your VO2 capacity, it’s just not going to get any higher. So what you’ve got to do now is go back and build a bigger engine, which means you’ve got to grow your VO2.”
There’s no single method or type of workout that increases aerobic capacity, says Carmichael, but perhaps the biggest VO2 bang for the pedaling buck comes from tempo rides. In these, the goal is to maintain a steady heart rate-just a hair below your lactate threshold heart rate.
2. Pedal Cadence
When prescribing workouts, Carmichael includes numbers not only for duration and heart rate but often for pedal cadence, as well. Why?
“You start to develop efficiencies at certain pedal cadences the more time you spend at them,” explains Carmichael. “Generally, at lower pedal cadences, say 60 to 80 rpm, people have the greatest efficiency (on flat terrain). Once you get above this level, you start to lose efficiency and you start to consume more oxygen and your heart rate increases.
“Well, that’s a great training opportunity for improving aerobic development. You need to keep moving cadence upward in order to keep gaining efficiency at higher cadences. You’re going to be uncomfortable at 90 to 95 rpm if most of your training is at 70 to 75 rpm, but over time you’re going to start improving your aerobic capacity and your efficiency at that higher rpm level.”
This leads directly to faster cycling, as there are only two ways to cycle faster: by pushing higher gears and by pedaling faster.
Machine-like consistency is the key to achieving the high training volume through which an athlete continually builds his aerobic capacity.
Says Carmichael, “People are often amazed to see how little high-intensity training I prescribe. If you look at any particular workout, you might say, ‘Hey, that’s not so bad,’ but if you look at the consistency with which we train, it’s pretty numbing.”
Try being more consistent during your next offseason and see what a difference it makes.
Stretching will take your cycling performance to a new level by increasing your power output and pedaling efficiency, reducing muscle recovery time, and keeping injuries at bay-all results sure to lift your cycling performance as well. So give your muscles a thorough stretching after your workouts.
A version of this article first appeared in Triathlete magazine in 2009.