Improving your cycling fitness brings a number of key benefits: you’ll enjoy your riding way more, you’ll see new places because you can go further, and you won't be last one up the hills, to name just a few. Read on for our list of 25 pieces of friendly advice, follow as many as you can, and watch your fitness soar.
The biggest gains are made by improving your diet, working on cardiovascular fitness and strength, and getting plenty of rest. There’s a lot more to it than that, but these are the three key areas. There are plenty of ways to achieve it though, from Fartlek sessions to cutting out the junk food, eliminating screens in the bedroom to perfecting your own recovery smoothie recipe.
Read on for 25 effective ideas on how to improve these three key areas, and build your cycling fitness to a whole new level.
- Six of the hardest training sessions to take your cycling to the next level
- 11 common diet mistakes to avoid while training
- How to get a good night's sleep for a great day of cycling
Improve your diet
This is always where personal trainers start, and for good reason – no matter how much training you do, you can't maximise the results if your diet is crap. We won't lecture you on cutting out alcohol, but we will suggest some improvements that, when combined, can start to add up.
1. Shed some weight to improve your power-to-weight ratio. Remember that BMI charts are hopeless for athletic individuals – they're designed to identify unhealthy weights for the general population. A body composition monitor is much better for cyclists. Body fat numbers to compare yourself against are 15-18% for the average male, 8-10% for a well-trained rider, and 4% for an elite cyclist. Try varying between long, easy rides and short, intense ones to optimise your body's fat-burning ability.
2. Don't cut fat completely from your diet, though. It plays an important role in repairing muscle tissue after training, and helps provide shock absorption for feet and organs, thus preventing injury. There are different types of fat, with solid saturated fats (found in things like butter and animal fat) being the one to avoid. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats that are liquid at room temperature (like olive oil) have multiple health benefits, including lowering cholesterol levels.
3. Pack in the protein. Your body can only absorb 20g or so at a time though, so snack throughout the day, and remember to have a recovery shake or bar immediately after training. Bear in mind though that protein's only recruited to build muscle when you're training hard, and most people can't build more than 1kg of lean muscle in a month. So try eating more like Ron Swanson, mix your own protein shakes, and get biltong and nuts to graze on throughout the day.
4. Drink enough water. It's crucial for maintaining your body's ability to burn fat, rid itself of toxins, and absorb nutrients from food. We recommend getting a water bottle to keep by your side at work, and filling it regularly from the water cooler or tap.
5. Cut out the refined sugar. We all know that it abounds in ready meals, fizzy drinks and junk food, and is one of the leading causes of obesity and diabetes. But did you know it can also weaken your body's immunity system, and plays havoc with your energy levels? Natural sweeteners like agave syrup are a much better alternative for your morning coffee and cereal, but it's even better to wean yourself off entirely.
6. Get into the habit of snacking. You want to avoid starve-binge patterns, as these tempt you to indulge in all the wrong things. Plan your snack times so you're never without food or drink for longer than four hours. Nuts, fruit, yoghurt and dried meat are all good bets.
7. Try keeping a food diary. We don't mean for longer than a few weeks – it might start to become an obsession – but smartphone apps like MyFitnessPal are quick, easy and intuitive to use. They can help you get a good idea of what your diet currently looks like, and identify areas where you could improve.
8. Avoid processed foods. Not only are they much higher in sugar and salt, they'll also give you short energy spikes rather than a gradual release of energy. A good rule of thumb is to look at what you're about to eat and ask yourself, "How close to the raw ingredient is it?" For example, a baked potato is obvious, a ready meal lasagne… less so.
Develop your strength and fitness
This is stage two, if you like – stressing your body's muscles and systems so that they can then rebuild stronger and more efficient. The key is variety, mixing things up so you don't get bored or sink into a rut.
9. Practice brow sprints. How many times have you seen riders start freewheeling as soon as they reach the top of a hill? By drilling your ability to change into a bigger ring as soon as you reach the top, it'll become second nature, and you'll have a powerful advantage over other riders that lets you quickly create a gap. Attack!
10. Learn to lift. Hitting the gym's weights room will quickly improve your power, and mean you can muscle up climbs that previously left you gasping. Technique is crucial to avoiding injury, so practice good form and build it up slowly. The best exercise for cyclists is squats, with a barbell on your shoulders, as this works so many of the key muscle groups. The 5x5 programme has plenty of useful advice. Don't forget that diet and rest are also key to building muscle.
11. Try cyclocross: your bike handling and pedalling efficiency will improve in leaps and bounds. Riding off-road in the mud teaches you to spin in perfect circles, and how to pull your front wheel over obstacles. It’s bound to improve your general fitness, and help you learn to pace your high-intensity efforts. The cyclocross season typically runs from September through to June, with races happening all over Europe, the US and Australia. Check out our cyclocross guide and watch the video above on how to get into this muddy, addictive sport.
12. Find a fixie: they're not just a hipster fad, and can transform your leg strength and help you smash your personal bests. There’s a reason track cyclists are so strong. By being so 'connected' to the bike – there is no freewheel – you’ll quickly learn a smooth, fast cadence. This’ll strengthen not just your legs but your whole core, glutes and back, laying the foundations for a formidable sprint. And they're good for riding across town or doing the grocery run, too.
13. Pick up the skipping rope. It's a great way to warm up, get some impact training and high intensity cardiovascular work, and develop muscular endurance in the calves and shoulders. Aim to keep your head up and stay light and springy on your toes. Don’t ‘jump’ high over the rope, just elevate yourself enough to clear it and stay relaxed. It’ll take a bit of time to master the technique but stick with it because it’s a brilliant do-anywhere exercise. For a decent workout, try: 3 x 60 seconds with 30 seconds' recovery.
14. Do some Fartlek sessions. English speakers may find the name amusing (guilty as charged), but it means 'speed play' in Swedish, and basically involves adding some intervals into your training. There's no specific structure to it, just set yourself some goals like, "I'll sprint to that lamppost, then rest for 30secs". You'll burn more calories, improve your body's ability to react to changes in tempo, reduce the chances of injury, and keep things interesting.
15. Get a heart rate monitor, and learn your zones. These cover your full cardio range from resting on the sofa watching TV up to eye-popping-sprint, and usually number five or six zones. Most training plans will tell you, "Ride steady in Zone 2 for 5mins" or similar, which basically means you ride at around 65% of your maximum heart rate. To work out your maximum heart rate, a rough rule of thumb comes from our sister publication 220 Triathlon: subtract your age from the number 220. So for a 35-year-old, their maximum heart rate is around 185. This isn't 100% accurate though, there is a more accurate way to finding your max heart rate.
16. Join a yoga class. Elite athletes of all stripes swear by them. You'll discover flexibility you never knew you had, make new friends, improve concentration and breathing, and clear your mind on a regular basis. Weekly classes can be found all over the country, but once you've mastered the basics, it can be done anywhere.
17. Book a cycling holiday. You'll get to ride in amazing new places with fellow cyclists, soak up some sun, eat fantastic food and concentrate on yourself and your riding for a while. You'll return home fit and buzzing, relaxed and refreshed. You deserve it.
Get enough rest and recovery
Now for stage three, giving your body (and mind) the chance to repair itself after the stress you've put it through. This can be done in a number of ways, but getting enough sleep is the most important. Eight or nine hours per night is the ideal, if you're training hard.
18. Buy a wake-up light clock. Designed to mimic dawn and help your body wake up gradually through light, they're proven to help trigger the release of cortisol, a hormone which – among other things – helps your body prepare for the day ahead. We've been using a Philips HF3520 throughout the dark winter months and it has truly transformed our mornings. Highly recommended.
19. Get it on (giggity): regular sex brings many health benefits, from relieving stress and releasing dopamine to helping you sleep better. While plenty of sportsmen claim that abstaining before a big event helps their performance, there’s no scientific evidence to suggest that sex before an event reduces endurance or speed. But it will almost certainly help you sleep better.
20. Banish screens from the bedroom. Yes we're as guilty as anyone of scrolling through Facebook in the dark, but the truth is that the blue light emitted by your favourite iDevice seriously interferes with your body's production of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin. Try one of 2015's top cycling books instead, but don't blame us if you start dreaming of round-the-world adventures, hill climbs or Alpine descents.
21. Book a sports massage. There's a reason pros have their own soigneurs: their healing hands help aching legs recover more quickly, and identify any areas of tightness that could develop into injury. You can also do it yourself with a foam roller.
22. Do some active recovery: after a race or tough training ride, a gentle spin-down can help flush the muscles, improves circulation, and may actually help the body repair itself more quickly than complete rest. We should add that the science is debated, but many riders find it gives them a psychological edge. You may too.
23. Avoid large meals near bedtime. We're all familiar with the sensation of being a bit sleepy after a big, satisfying meal, but the truth is that your body has to work super-hard to digest it all. This can mean you don't sleep as deeply, and you won't wake up feeling refreshed. Likewise, alcohol also interferes with your sleep.
24. Power nap like a pro. Far from being the preserve of the lazy, a short siesta can have remarkable revitalising powers. It can even be just a 10min period of quiet, you don't need to be fully asleep to benefit either. The ideal length is 15-20mins if possible.
25. Try meditation or mindfulness. Courses like the Headspace series are well-thought-out for busy individuals, demand just 20 minutes of your day, and multiple studies suggest benefits include less stress, fewer negative thoughts, improved social relationships and an improved immune system.
That's it, our list of 25 tips on how to make yourself a fitter, stronger cyclist. Disagree with any of them? Think we forgot some? Let us know in the comments below!