The title of this article sounds odd – becoming a better cyclist without actually riding your bike! However, it’s often the biggest actions you take when you’re not actively participating in your sport that make the biggest difference. Here are three factors to consider that will help your riding performance, no extra hours on the bike required.
A planned program:
You have heard the old adage, “fail to plan and you plan to fail”? It applies particularly well to sport. Although it is fun to head out for a ride without a particular plan or goal in mind, it may not necessarily improve your cycling fitness or athletic performance. It’s not only fun to map out various goals to train for, it helps improve your performance by applying the athletic principles of specificity, recovery, progressive overload and consistency. When there is an event to train for, a well constructed plan gives training meaning. How much you plan depends on what you wish to train for. For example, if you are training for a season of racing, culminating with a State or National championship at the end, the creation of a yearly plan consisting of various phases, which we exercise scientists call macrocycles, is optimal. A yearly plan is made achievable by breaking it down into smaller chunks, known as microcycles. Not only does a carefully constructed plan improve fitness and performance with appropriate exercise prescription and programming, commitment to following a plan improves exercise adherence and fitness levels increase. Thirdly, focusing on achieving the process rather than the end result frees you up mentally to think about other things – in other words, if you’re following the program, you need not fill yourself with concern about whether you’re doing things “right”.
Adequate Sleep and Recovery:
Exercise scientists describe recovery as “where the training magic happens”. It is after the training is done and we are recovering and/or sleeping where adaptations to training occur. Studies demonstrate time and time again the negative impacts of too much or too little sleep. Tom Rath, in his book, “Eat Sleep, Move” describes sleep and activity being complementary: “Eating right makes it easier to be active. Being active makes it easier to sleep. Sleeping well helps you to avoid non nutritive foods, and so on.” Most of us need a solid seven to nine hours sleep, so if you are getting up to train early, plan accordingly! A planned program is also complementary to the notion of recovery – a good program will build adequate recovery into it, which can be monitored via various fitness software or apps such as Training Peaks or Strava Premium. If you are training hard, consider the need for an increased sleep requirement. This can be difficult, particularly if you have other commitments such as work, family or study. Ensure you achieve the best quality sleep by undertaking simple steps such as making sure you darken your sleeping environment as much as possible, maintain a cool temperature (17-18 degrees is optimal) and avoid caffeinated beverages after midday. To ensure you recover well from your training sessions, consider choosing nutrition that replenishes muscle glycogen stores – hint – this is usually a carbohydrate rich snack with a little protein, and kicks off the repair and rebuilding process of muscle and red blood cells. An adequate recovery also has a protective effect upon the immune system.
A strong core:
Developing core strength improves stability, reduces the likelihood of injury and can help to improve cycling efficiency. Even though it appears we mostly use our legs for cycling, generating leg power from a stable platform (i.e. the core) ensures an efficient transfer of power through the lower limbs. If stability is compromised and there is excessive sideways movement of the trunk when riding, efficiency is reduced. In distance riding, the core muscles of the transversus abdominus, latissimus dorsi, spinal extensors, quadratus lumborum work hard to maintain an upright posture on the bike. Losing good technique on the bike, also means a loss of efficiency when you ride. Hence strengthening these muscles and training them for strength and strength endurance can benefit your riding. Stability through the trunk and the hips provides a stable platform for an explosive sprint, so if your event is sprint related, ignore core training at your peril. Best core training practise involves learning how to use the deep core muscles, using training techniques such as pilates. Global strength is achieved by carefully targeted hybrids of pilates and strength training movements. For example, a single leg bridge where the deep core muscles are engaged and neutral spine is effected first, will achieve a more functional hamstring activation as the strength work is achieved in conjunction with a stable core.
In conclusion, using these three performance hacks will improve your riding within a few training sessions. To find a good coach, consider using someone with both tertiary qualifications in exercise physiology/science and a Cycling accreditation and consider using a pilates trained physiotherapist for a postural assessment and core program – this is often covered by private health insurance, so check with your provider first.