by Andrew Randell and Steve Neal of The Cycling Gym
In North America, we seem to have come to a strange conclusion about training. Nothing but going hard will make us faster; anything easy, or at endurance pace, is junk miles. Does this view really make people better, faster riders? No. You can see it fail when you ask people to go hard, truly hard. They can’t. Then when you ask them to ride a consistent repeated aerobic effort, they can’t do that either. They are really good at going sort of hard, sort of threshold pace, sort of fast. But when push comes to shove, they can’t make the front group or they crack while out on their club ride.
Coaching in North America tends to focus on threshold, sort-of-hard training. There is a lot of discussion online about training your different energy systems. Yet pick any online training program, and it will most likely be largely based on threshold-type workouts. These can get you fit, but they are not the answer to becoming a better rider. At the gym, we get many clients coming to us looking for answers. Their thresholdbased training made them better at first, when they were new to cycling and couldn’t manage much work. Over time though, as they got fitter and were able to do more work, it exhausted them, and they ended up being unable to ride.
This mentality – that only threshold training will make you better, and that easy miles are junk miles – misses the point that in order to be a good cyclist, you need a good endurance system. The endurance system is the backbone on which you can build real fitness. Good endurance allows you to sustain your efforts without fatiguing, saving your energy for the truly challenging and decisive parts of your ride or event.
To develop that endurance system, you need to train it. What frustrates many cyclists is that when they start riding in their proper endurance zones, it is indeed very easy. It’s easy because they haven’t taken the time to develop this part of their riding abilities. Developing a proper endurance system and riding here, however, can become challenging, even too hard.
The other advantage to riding those endurance miles is that when it comes time to do a hard training session, you have the energy and motivation to do it. Stephen Seiler revealed in his studies of worldclass athletes that they followed an 80/20 rule: 80 per cent of their workouts were mainly endurance based,
20 per cent were above threshold and very hard. We have even found that in cyclists, who use a smaller group of muscles compared with other athletes, a 90/10 rule seems to lead to the greatest fitness gains.
Everyone talks about the need to train their different energy systems. Few actually do it. A great term that Seiler coined is intensity discipline: the discipline to train at the intensity of the energy system you are looking to improve. Few in North America take this approach. Club rides are always sort-of-hard. Each hill with friends is an acceleration. We should all be doing more easy miles, but then also pushing really hard when it is appropriate. It will make your riding both better and more enjoyable.