How to break training habits

How to get out of a cycling rut

With limited riding time it’s easy to find yourself always doing the same thing in the same way. We take a look at some common cycling ruts, how to get out of them and why a change can do you a world of good.

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Most of us have to fit cycling in around other commitments, so we find routes, time slots and ways of riding that allow us to make the most of every minute. That’s perfectly reasonable, but over time these proven, workable routines can become habits, then ruts.

We each have an energy ‘pool’ that has to get us through work, family responsibilities and social life, as well as cycling. It’s a finite resource, and sometimes, something has to give.

None of us wants that to be cycling but the desire — need, even — to keep riding come what may can quickly turn something that’s meant to be fun into just another function. Instead of loving your bike you’d cheerfully hand it to the first person who offers you a fiver for it.

So, if that’s got you nodding (or squirming) in recognition, some of the following points may apply…

1. Always riding too hard

In the 2010 documentary Chasing Legends, HTC-Columbia manager and former pro Rolf Aldag expressed a widely held view when he declared that “suffering is the key to success in cycling”. Fair enough for aspiring Tour winners, but for us mere mortals, constantly hammering into the tarmac can actually prove counterproductive.

Give yourself a new focus every month and work on your weak areas, whether it’s climbing, riding in the wheels or against the wind

“The most common rut to get into is using too much volume,” says coach Jon Sharples, who runs TrainSharp Cycle Coaching. “Most people ride too hard too often, mainly due to time pressures. When you’re constantly looking at the clock you can easily end up doing too much ‘redline’ work.”

That can have serious physiological effects, according to Dr Gary Brickley, senior lecturer in sports science at the University of Brighton, coach, and former exercise physiologist to the British Cycling team.

“Too much intensity depletes the glycogen levels in your muscles. The transport of glucose is compromised and your body simply doesn’t have the energy it needs. You become fatigued, especially if your diet doesn’t match the stresses your body’s under. Overdoing the volume also affects your immune system, which means your muscles can’t repair themselves so easily, and can lead to long-term damage.”

If you’re feeling worn out mentally as well as physically, Brickley offers an explanation for that too: “There’s good evidence from studies using the Profile of Mood States (POMS) questionnaire that if you’ve set unrealistic goals or your friends are doing more than you are, playing catch-up all the time can really affect your mood,” he says.

He points to a landmark study by American scientist Dr Carl Foster, which highlighted the importance of variety within a training routine. “This showed that monotonous training left athletes stale and under-performing,” says Brickley. “You need to mix it up a bit, not keep doing the same stuff.”

Sharples agrees: “Your training needs to be variable and specific. Give yourself a new focus every month and work on your weak areas, whether it’s climbing, riding in the wheels or against the wind. Your strengths will take care of themselves.”

2. Eating and drinking the same things

If a particular drink or cereal bar got you round an epic sportive, it’s easy to imbue it with mystic powers. But if your favourite product is out of stock or the sportive organiser is handing out a different brand, the psychological impact can be surprisingly great.

“Apart from the nutritional benefits, some people get a placebo effect from products,” says Brickley. “If they drop their energy bar mid-race or find the only drink on offer is water, it can throw them.

"As a rule, the better riders are more adaptable: they’ve trained without water or in a glycogen-depleted state so they can cope on longer rides.”

He believes homemade foods can be as good as off-the-shelf products, and recommends analysing the energy content of food you like and using it alongside bars and gels on long rides.

“There’s also evidence that simply swilling an energy drink round in your mouth, then spitting it out, can be effective,” he says. “The sugar receptors in your mouth tell the brain that glucose is coming in and you get an energy boost even though you haven’t ingested anything. It’s been shown to increase performance in time trials.”

Don't let your computer dictate your riding
Don't let your computer dictate your riding

3. Not pushing yourself enough

The other side of the ‘too hard, too often’ coin is ‘too long, too easy’.

“Many riders end up training to the speed they know they can sustain,” says Brickley. “As a result you may find you’re spending a lot of time in the same gear or always riding at the same cadence. If you’re pushing a big gear all the time, do some work at a higher cadence. This will wake up other muscle fibres that aren’t usually recruited. By the same token, if you are a spinner, try some lower-cadence work to develop extra strength.”

And if you find you’re getting dropped when the pace increases or the road tilts upwards? Remember what skills/fitness you already have, then vary your riding to bring other muscle groups and energy systems into play. “It will give you an extra gear when you need it,” says Brickley.

To go further and faster, you have to get out of your comfort zone and push your body beyond its natural limits. Only then will your heart, lungs, muscles and other systems make the physiological adaptations required for higher performance: the ‘compensation effect’.

“You need a progressive overload in order to increase your VO2 max [the amount of oxygen your body can use per minute] and lactate threshold,” Brickley explains.

“A higher lactate threshold and VO2 max give you an increased capacity for exercise. Increasing intensity also causes changes in the mitochondria in your body’s cells, boosting metabolism, and capillary density, aiding blood flow.”

But don’t be tempted to increase your training load too much too soon. “People get very excited by intervals because they see quick results,” says Sharples. “But that kind of high-intensity work is the icing on the cake. Muscular endurance is still the key to being a good cyclist.”

4. Thinking in terms of time and distance

Bike computers and GPS units can add massively to our enjoyment by providing real data against which we can measure improvements. Over time though, your riding can become mechanistic.

You’re watching the display to see how long before you’ve done your two hours, or doing laps of your street at the end of a ride to hit the day’s target mileage. In effect, the tail starts wagging the dog.

“There can be real satisfaction in completing the task but some people can get demotivated if they’re consistently failing to reach goals,” says Brickley. “If you’ve set out to do five hours and after four you’ve achieved the required training stress, don’t keep pushing.

"Find a shortcut home or just spin easily for the rest of the ride. If you get back and find you’ve done 4hrs 59mins, adding on the extra minute isn’t going to make much difference!”

Riding with an unfamiliar group of riders can help to mix things up
Riding with an unfamiliar group of riders can help to mix things up

5. Always riding with the same people

One of the great pleasures of cycling is finding a bunch of people you enjoy riding with. But if you’re the same standard you can find yourself in a rut where you’re always comfortable but never improve.

On the basis of their individual strengths, riders can end up with unofficial but well defined roles within the group. If you’re the one who always leads up the climbs or in the wind you could be missing out on opportunities to train your weaker areas. And just as parents don’t really notice their children growing day by day, it’s hard to measure changes in your performance when you’re comparing yourself to the same people every week.

“Riding with an unfamiliar group is a way to self-assess and track your fitness parameters against your peers,” says Sharples. “When you’re preparing for an event this can be an invaluable tool, giving you insights and indications as to where you are in your training and helping you set realistic goals.”

If time and money allow, a training camp — overseas or in a different part of the UK — is a brilliant way to escape another common rut: always riding the same roads and terrain.

“Seeing how you measure up against other riders over varying surfaces lets you adapt and tailor your training plans. It’s useful to monitor how you feel at the end of an endurance ride, especially a long day out of 120 miles or so,” says Sharples. “You can ask yourself whether your nutrition was correct or you went too hard, and assess whether you’re confident your training is working.”

While some of us actively avoid hills, a training camp — or weekly ride — in a location that’s lumpier than usual can bring huge benefits. “You can instantly see how your climbing is coming along,” says Sharples. “Do you have enough power? Is the muscular endurance there? Are you comfortable in your own pacing?”

Similarly, unfamiliar roads are a great place to work on your descending, especially when to brake when cornering.

A cheaper alternative to a training camp is an audax: a great way to explore new territory and ride with different people. With entry fees generally under a tenner it’s not going to break the bank.

A 100km (62-mile) ‘populaire’ is an ideal first metric century; 200km (125 miles) is a more serious challenge but doable in a long day, and will take you well outside your usual orbit. And if you get dropped by the group or find they’re holding you back you can ride at your own pace, safe in the knowledge that you’ve got a route sheet to follow. See Audax UK or Randonneurs USA for events.

Sportives and gran fondos are popular too in the UK and US too and also offer the chance to try out new routes.

Not taking enough rest

Many riders don’t like taking rest days, perhaps because they fear their condition will drop. But recovery is as much a part of your training regime as riding. Training stresses your muscles — in fact, it inflicts minor damage on them.

Recovery means giving your muscles an opportunity to repair themselves, replenish their glycogen stores and build up enzyme levels to increase your lactate threshold — the point at which your body can no longer remove the lactate produced by your muscles.

“You need time off the bike for your body to absorb the training, or you’ll become more fatigued and won’t see any improvement,” says Sharples.

Resting doesn’t mean lying on the sofa doing nothing though. Aim to take ‘active rest’ — some low-intensity activity such as walking or a gentle swim — that keeps your muscles moving but doesn’t put your system under stress.

As a rule of thumb, you need to take at least two rest days per week. For many of us, Monday and Friday are ideal; Monday lets you recover from the club run in the winter or racing in the summer, while Friday lets you rest ahead of your weekend riding.

Escape route

The good news is that escaping ruts generally requires tweaks rather than a wholesale rethink. Because the problems develop over time, it may take a while to escape them.

Don’t forget there are psychological factors at work here, as well as physical and time ones. Remember, you’re only human, and cycling is something we do because we love it.

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