Thoughts on Active.com: 15 Training Tweaks to Improve Your Speed

When I’m not crushing candy (yeah, I’ll admit I’m somewhat addicted), I occasionally like to read a post or two on the internet concerning cycling.  You never know what you’ll learn, right?  My original plan was to post a bit more often in the cycling tips and tricks vein, but when I have the spare time, I’d usually rather spend it riding than writing – go figure.  And also, I’m no coach, I’m no expert, and really, why should anyone listen to me.  So, there’s that, too.

However, I will say that in the three and a half years since I’ve moved to California, I have experienced significant improvement in my cycling skills.  Part of it can be explained by the fact that there are more than three solid months of cycling weather in San Diego as compared to Idaho Falls (where I really did get snowed on in June), but I think much of it can be explained by advice from the incredible cycling community we have in this area (and actually listening to that advice – even to my husband *gasp*).  So, let’s see what Active.com has to say about getting faster – and I’ll add in my two cents. (Read the original)

#1 and 2 have to do with bike maintenance, and if any of you have ever seen my bike, you know I don’t put much store in that.  I probably should.

#3 – Spin Faster

“”As a general rule,” he [a coach] says, “pedaling faster is more efficient.” And when you put less force into the pedals you don’t fatigue as quickly, so you’re able to maintain the same power output for a longer period of time.”

This is all well and good and definitely something to pay attention to, but at the same time, I’ve seen it abused.  We’ve all seen those yahoos on the coast spinning so fast and going nowhere.  It’s all about balance.  And don’t put just enough tension on there to feel a little pressure – you want to find the sweet spot on flats where your cadence is on the high end but your speed is maximized.  All of our bikes are different, as are all of our bodies – you need to experiment.  As you are riding along, play with your gears and watch your speed.  It’s actually pretty easy to figure out.  Just simply finding the right “rpm” on its own is not enough.  Obviously, it won’t always be the same – wind, road surface, how you’re feeling, etc – all play a part.  Even when you are 100% dead tired and not sure you will make it home from your 90 mile De Luz adventure, keeping the cadence on the higher end with the right amount of tension will get you home much, much better than slowing down your legs.

And then there’s cadence on hills.  If anyone ever tells you there’s a right cadence for “hills”, don’t listen to them.  There are steep hills, there are shallow hills, and again with different bikes and different bodies, you need to figure out what will work for you.  I have found that most people newer to hill climbing tend to climb in too big a gear (this has been my personal classic problem).  You can also spin way too high on a hill and get your heart rate and breathing out of control.  On most hills that are not overly steep (>10%), a good full circle spin with even pressure all the way around with no specific point where you feel a “push down” seems to work for me (i.e., using quads and hamstrings).

Another thing I see is the anticipatory click-down – people see a hill and they start lowering their gear before they are even on it.  You’ve just lost a ton of your momentum there.  You can carry your speed way farther up the hill than you think.  Drop the gears gradually just as you start to feel your legs slowing – you can wait too long as well and burn yourself out.

Lastly, crest it!  What do I mean by that … as you start to reach the top of the hill, don’t drop your speed and start congratulating yourself for making it up.  Feel the decrease in grade and start picking up your cadence (and potentially your gear if the spin is too loose).  I should have my husband explain the physics of it, because he sure told me about enough times… and I would say, “But I’m so tired at the top, I need to rest up a little.”  However, I hate to admit this, but he’s right – that little bit of extra effort pushes you over the top and propels you into the downhill – making the whole thing faster.

I pick hills to practice on, different hills for different things.  The low grade hills along the coast are good for practicing your nice even spins up the grade.  Keep your speed up and pay attention to how your legs are responding and drop the gear appropriately.  Short steep hills are great for practicing your standing climbs.  This is one of the ways I have used Strava in my training – create an interval ride with selected segments spaced out by enough miles that you have rest in between, and you get a perfect record of your performance.   Tracking your improvement over time is the best way to see if you are building your skill set.

Ok, so I went a little long on that one… what’s next.

What a surprise, #4 – Take to the Hills

tyrolI used to avoid hills at all costs.  For the most part, the roads around Idaho Falls are super flat.  I would moan and groan about having to “climb” an interstate overpass.  I did eventually kick myself in the pants and force myself to visit the local climb once a week (or so) – Sunnyside Hill, 6 miles of fun, but it took a lot of self-convincing and promises of Coke to follow the plan.

I can’t say I 100% love hills, maybe just 95%.  I’m not ever going to be the best hill climber (I am not elfin or waif-like in stature), but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy them and enjoy the process of improving on them.  I went on and on about hills in the last point, so in this one I will say – pick a hill that’s way harder than you think you can do, drop your shoulders down (if you’re like me you hunch up around your neck), find a nice even gear and spin up that thing.  You can climb way more than you think you can.  If you have to stop and take a break, you stop and take a break.  The first time I tried to “go hard” up San Elijo to Double Peak, I stopped mid-way on the steep part of Double Peak.  I literally thought I was going to die.  I still feel that way sometimes, but once you’ve done enough of them, you know you can “just keep spinnng, just keep spinning”.

#5 – Go Flat – this is advice for mountain bikers about using flat pedals.  I am not a mountain biker, so… no comment.  I don’t want to ride without my speedplays, thank you.

#6 – Seek out an Expert – This is about using a coach or attending a clinic – perhaps good advice – but there are so many great cyclists out there.  Ask people, talk about it.  Go to group rides (heck, come to a Team Fun ride).  Remember to always take advice with a grain of salt – there’s no silver bullet (and also, sometimes people are just flat out wrong).

#7 and #8 – Some things about metabolism and diet.  Blah, blah, blah – boring!  My metabolism absolutely stinks, and eating some greek yogurt and doing a few pushups isn’t going to change that, but it’s not bad advice.

#9 – Pick a battle – In other words, practice what you are NOT good at – at least, sometimes.  For me, that’s the steepies – so I will on occasion force myself to suffer through those and pay attention to what seems to be working and not working.  Am I leaning too far forward?  Am I spinning to high while standing?  Am I not rocking enough (probably)? Do I need to listen to the advice in #7 and 8 and shed some pounds (probably)?  Maybe it’s feeling comfortable descending, or riding longer distances.  Think about what you hate the most, and try to do it a little more often.  And don’t be afraid to ask advice.  I usually feel pretty comfortable descending, but when I was in Italy this past summer, I realized I am not comfortable at all.  I was almost in tears, with sore hands, many miles down a descent filled with hairpin turns (tornanti) when the support van picked me up and caught me up with the capable people.  I asked people what they did, and I kept asking people.  I got a little better.  There’s a bit of bravery to that too, and I probably still don’t have it.

#10 – One Less Beer – really Active.com?  Really?  You and your healthy eating are such a bummer.

#11 – Come Full Circle – we talked about this already.  You should never feel like you are “pushing down”.  Even and smooth with a wind behind you – it’s surely cycling heaven.

#12 – Train Your Mind

“Rides, like life, are sometimes uncomfortable. You can train yourself to endure hardship better by making a point of going out for a ride when the weather is lousy. Nervous about wet roads? Pedal in the rain to learn how to handle them. Hate the wind? Ride on blustery days to explore ways to work with it. By facing the enemies you know, you’ll build the mental agility to face the ones you don’t expect—such as mechanicals, getting lost and bonking.”

I don’t know about riding when the weather is lousy (I particularly hate riding in the rain), but this is probably the best advice in the article in general.  I always say that my husband “doesn’t feel pain like the rest of us mortals”.  I never really thought that same thing about myself, but lo and behold, some of my riding buddies expressed a very similar concept about me today (“your legs don’t hurt like ours do”).  So, what am I trying to say – let’s see… riding hurts.  Sometimes, it hurts a lot.  Sometimes, I’ve felt like I couldn’t possibly go on.  Eventually it hurts less doing the very same thing that used to kill you (like say, that hill on the coast going north toward Palomar Airport Road), or, it may not even hurt at all.  I will never reach my husband’s level of “not hurting” but I have learned to deal with a whole bunch more than I ever thought imaginable.  (Sidenote:  when I talk about pain, I’m not talking about the “that’s not quite right” kind of pain where there is a serious defect with your body.  I’m talking about “discomfort” – muscles groaning, heart pounding, etc.)

I think this is about the best thing there is about sports in general, and why so many athletes are successful in other areas of their lives.

#13 – Eat Real Food

Now this is one I can get behind.  There aren’t many “sports specific” “foods” I will ingest willingly and/or without complaint.  I can’t say I totally hate them all (Honey Stingers cherry blossom chews come to mind as particularly yummy), but I mostly hate them all.  I was terribly interested in the link that Active.com provided for “Real Foods that Make You Faster”, but it appears to be broken.  I would say that the best thing to do is to know what’s right for you.  My husband thinks salads are generally abhorrent and should be avoided at all costs, especially close to a big ride.  I can’t stomach bananas on a ride without stomach cramps (and yet, that’s a very common food handed out at centuries).  Generally think healthy, but consider how the foods you are eating are affecting your riding (if at all).

#14 – Make Fast Friends

Sometimes this is easier said than done.  I rode for a long time mostly alone.  I always had the choice to ride with my husband, but I hated to feel like I was constantly holding him back.  That’s no fun – so you have to find people who are fast, but not too fast.  If you are always dropped by a group ride early on, it’s probably no fun and not helping you anyway.  It is absolutely true, though, that riding with people on a consistent basis can make all the difference.  Here’s my shout out to my riding buddies from the years gone by – thank you for getting me where I am today:  David (obviously!), Wendy (who taught me to be adventurous), Bobby (who taught me to stand), Jill (who taught me to be friendlier), Heather Krauss (who’s always pushing me so hard – ha!), Heather Broach (who allows me to be intense without making any excuses), and Jackie Cipriani (for making me faster on hills, even though we hardly ever actually ride together).  And the list could go on… who’s on your list?  Who’s making you stronger?

#15 – Strike a Pose

Yoga?  That seemed so out of the blue.  I used to be pretty into yoga, but just don’t seem to ever find the time to actually make it to a class.  Should I stretch more? (You mean, more than none?)  Sure, that’s probably the #1 thing I need to do (except maybe add in more easy days).  Hips probably suffer the most on me.

So, any thoughts on this list?  I am always interested to hear what things people think make them faster.  One thing I didn’t see on this list is to ride more.  You have to put your time in to get faster, no doubt – but can you also perhaps but too much time in and wear yourself down.  It might be said better as riding more regularly, with a variety of ride types (longer, faster, slower, hillier).

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