Whether you ride sportives, road races or just want to get fitter, most training advice makes cycling seem hard work. Between the high-intensity sessions, cutting down on the things you like to eat and staying off the booze, being a better cyclist doesn’t always leave much room for enjoying yourself.
It doesn’t have to be this way, at least not all the time. Here are some lazy ways to get faster and be a better cyclist without living giving up the things you enjoy.
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1. Get some ZZZs
You snooze you lose? Apparently not, according to research by Cheri Mah of Stanford University’s Sleep Disorders Clinic and Research Laboratory.
Mah’s study found that elite basketball players performed better when they got more shut-eye. They were asked to stick to a normal sleep routine (sleeping six to nine hours a night) for two to four weeks. For the next five to seven weeks they aimed for 10 hours sleep a night. At the end of the study, the players could average 15.5 seconds for a 282ft sprint, an improvement of 0.7 seconds. Shooting accuracy also improved by 9 percent.
“As the season wore on and they reduced their sleep debt, many athletes testified that a focus on sleep was beneficial to their training and their performance,” says Mah.
Instead of setting the alarm for an early training session, maybe you should get some more duvet time instead.
2. Zip it
Being more aerodynamic on your bike doesn’t have to mean contorting yourself into an uncomfortable position. Something as simple as zipping up a jersey can make you go faster.
In the wind tunnel he tested the speed of a 155lb rider, with their hands on the brake hoods, their jersey unzipped and putting out 200 watts (a brisk but sustainable effort level for most club cyclists). He found that the cyclist could achieve a speed of 19.9mph.
Changing nothing else except zipping up the jersey improved the rider’s speed to 20.16mph, enough to eke out almost a minute’s advantage over 40km.
“That’s quite a difference and it helps show the effect of airflow across the chest area,” says Cobb.
So remember, not only does nobody want to see your pasty pigeon-chest, you’ll go faster if it’s covered up.
3. Hands down to go faster
Cobb’s research also looked at the importance of your position on the bike. Moving your hands from the brake hoods into the drops gains more speed for no extra effort, and the difference was more marked than simply zipping up a jersey.
Tucking down out of the wind, the rider’s speed went from 20.16mph to 20.86mph: that’s two and half minutes saved over 40km.
“Because human beings are not very good engines, it takes many long hours and a lot of miles to increase the power of the rider through training,” Cobb explains. “Decreasing drag is much easier to achieve than building rider power.”
4. Pootle power
Don’t ride hard all the time, says coach Andy Cook. Training needs light and shade.
Cook says many committed riders need to be persuaded to go on easy rides. “One of my hardest jobs is to get riders to include recovery rides,” he says. “We’re so used to a ‘no pain, no gain’ mentality that we think if we’re not suffering there’s no benefit.”
Recovery rides help get the blood flowing and flush the toxins from your legs without stressing the muscles. You should gently turn your legs over the day after a really hard session — don’t be tempted to push yourself. “Leave the bike in the little ring and just pootle for 45 minutes,” says Cook.
If you take your training seriously, include recovery rides as part of a training programme. Enjoy a lazy spin. It’s doing you good.
5. Take a break, come back stronger
Having a break from structured training can be beneficial. Just ask JLT Condor rider Graham Briggs. After he got married back in 2011 he went on honeymoon and came back to win the British National Circuit Racing Championship.
“I had five days completely off the bike,” he says. After nearly a week of no riding, Briggs managed to include “a little bit” of training. More serious training started again when he got back from honeymoon, but he only had five days before the crit.
“Before the event I didn’t think I’d prepared well but after one lap I knew I had good legs. I got in the winning break and with 10 laps to go I started to believe in myself. It worked out perfectly.”
Briggs believes the break from training worked in his favour. “The time off made me hungry. After taking a rest I was ready to really press on the pedals again.”
6. Let them eat cake
There’s a wealth of energy bars and gels to choose from to keep your body fuelled before and during a ride. But compared with a slice of cake, a highly processed tube of sugary goo doesn’t really get the taste buds going, does it?
If you’d rather fill up on cake fresh from the oven than gel fresh from a tube, there’s good and bad news, according to Sophie Heath, a nutritionist and personal trainer. “Cakes aren’t a great choice as they are generally high in fat. Fat can reduce the rate at which food is emptied from the stomach into the intestine; this means that the absorption of nutrients will be slower.”
But that doesn’t mean all cakes are a poor choice. Set aside the never-ending argument about whether they’re actually a biscuit, a Jaffa Cake will taste good and top up your energy levels. “Jaffa Cakes are great for sport as they are mostly made up of carbohydrate which will help to keep you going and each cake only has 1g of fat, so as long as you don’t eat five packets they’re a top choice!”
Banana cake/loaf is another healthy option. “Although it has slightly more fat, banana cake contains a lot of carbohydrate, around 35g per average slice; this is similar to a bottle of sports drink. Battenberg has slightly less carbohydrate than banana cake, but still quite high, and is slightly lower in fat.”
7. Drink to success
Getting fitter doesn’t mean drinking nothing stronger than herbal tea. Alcohol in moderation won’t destroy your hard-won fitness, but making smart choices about what you drink will help keep you on the right track.
“Alcohol has many ‘empty’ calories,” says Heath. “This means they are high in calories but do not have the nutrients you need to fuel your muscles when you exercise. If you are watching your weight, a good drink would be a spirit such as gin or vodka, with a slimline or diet fizzy mixer to go with it.”
If it has to be beer, bitter is better than lager. “Bitter has slightly fewer calories,” says Heath. “There are about 180kcal in a pint of bitter, 250 in lager.”
There’s also evidence that red wine, which contains antioxidants including resveratrol, can be good for the heart, so long as you remember wine comes by the glass as well as by the bottle…
8. Bounce back from injury
Sickness forces the most determined rider off the bike, but if you’re laid low for a while it doesn’t have to be a disaster. ONE Pro Cycling rider Pete Williams proved this after colliding with a car while training in Mallorca a few years ago. “Luckily the only bone I broke was my nose,” he says, “but I had a lot of deep cuts, and chipped my front teeth. Initially I had 10 days off, pretty much bedridden.”
Just over a month later, he clinched two stage wins and the overall in the Tour of Ulster. “I was motivated to train to try to put the accident behind me and move forward with the season.”
More recently, Mat Hayman bounced back in under two months after fracturing his arm to win the 2016 Paris-Roubaix. Hayman managed to do this by training indoors using Zwift. “I rode Zwift twice a day,” Hayman explains, “racking up over 1,000km in my garage.”
So, if you’re forced off the bike, accept the need to rest and adapt your training, then come back more determined than ever.
9. Don’t take out the takeaway
Enjoying the odd takeaway won’t turn you into a couch potato. You can indulge your craving for a curry or pizza guilt-free if you choose healthily and don’t overdo the portion size.
“Sharing a vegetarian pizza is always a good way to reduce the intake of fat,” says Heath. “Thin base pizzas are a good idea too.”
The choice of takeaway depends on what you’re doing the next day. “The night before a ride or on the day of a ride, try to have a low-fat meat such as chicken with vegetables to get those antioxidants in. Steer away from creamy sauces high in saturated fat. Having a tomato-based pizza with no cheese will reduce the fat intake and increase the rate of absorption of the other nutrients needed for fuel.”
If you want to reward yourself post-event while still helping your body to recover, a high-protein dish is best. “Protein is not needed so much before exercise but is very important for recovery. Most meat curries with boiled rice would be beneficial. If you love the creamier sauces, having this after a ride would be better than before because you will have used up some fat to fuel your muscles and so you’ll replenish these stores.”
10. Play hard, ride hard
Most clubs have at least one — a rider who stays out half the night then gets up the next day and rides everyone off their wheel. Andy Cook remembers doing the same when he was an aspiring young racer. “Some of my best performances were when I stayed out until 3am.”
King of the ‘party tonight, win tomorrow’ school was five-time Tour de France winner Jacques Anquetil, famous for staying up at night drinking and playing cards before pinning on a race number and beating the world’s best.
Modern sports science and racing rules beg to differ with his approach nowadays though, but Cook believes riders should let off steam every once in a while and avoid taking riding and racing so seriously that it ceases to be fun.
“Too much emphasis is placed on being someone you’re not,” he says. “Be realistic, take a step back and chill out. You’ll be surprised what you can achieve.”