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Pedal your way to success

Joe Dunbar explains the demands of cycling and how to plan your cycle training program.

The Tour de France, with its harsh regime of hundreds of miles of race cycling on consecutive days, must represent one of the peak challenges in sport. If you are a keen cyclist, however, it is unlikely that you are training for such a feat of endurance. More commonly, you will be doing road races at the weekend and occasional time trials, cycling during triathlons, or you may even venture onto the track.

Demands of the sport

Racing cyclists usually possess high levels of aerobic endurance, since most road races last well over an hour. This means that if you are going to succeed in endurance cycling, you need a well-developed oxygen transport system, which often gives rise to high VO2 max values. Elite cyclists have been measured to be able to pick up, transport, and utilise 7 litres of oxygen per minute. A high VO2 max is not enough, however, to guarantee success in cycling events. Due to their long duration, aerobic efficiency is also a vital requirement. As with marathon runners, you must be able to work at a high percentage of your VO2 max without accumulating lactate. Once it does start to accumulate, indicating a greater contribution of anaerobic metabolism to the energy supply, you must reduce the workload to avoid premature fatigue.

The high levels of aerobic conditioning needed to give you this aerobic efficiency also hold another advantage, the ability to use a more significant proportion of fat rather than carbohydrate for muscle fuel. Aerobic conditioning enhances the ability to use fats while exercising, thus sparing your limited precious carbohydrate, stored in the liver and muscles as glycogen.

Nevertheless, the ability to use anaerobic metabolism is another training aspect that must not be neglected. If your opponent, or rival, puts in a burst of speed that you need to cover, you may well have to dig deep and rely on a greater contribution of anaerobic metabolism to the energy supply. This may also be the case if you encounter a tough hill. In other words, low-intensity aerobic work alone is not enough if you want to succeed as a cyclist.

Sheer muscle strength is another essential requirement. Cycling, after all, is a power endurance activity, so if you have a high level of muscular strength, you will need to use a smaller percentage of your maximum strength to maintain the same workload.

Phases of training

As with many sports, the main competition period occurs in the summer. The season can stretch for as long as 30 weeks, so it is important to plan your training to suit your racing requirements. Since it is not realistic to maintain a peak over several months, you may have to choose the part of the season that is most important for you and peak then, or you can plan two separate peaks. This will depend on your racing goals. Whether you aim to win the national championships or to perform well in a couple of league races, you must try to be single-minded and not expect to race well for successive weeks before and after the peak. It is more realistic to use additional races as hard training, which may come in the middle of hard weeks so that when you ease up on the training load, your performance will be boosted for the competitions that matter.

The pattern of your year will be greater mileage and endurance work during the winter, which for safety reasons may be carried out indoors on rollers. During the spring, you may want to change the emphasis to more quality work, with less training volume, bringing you towards your competition period, where the focus is on sharpening with a tapered volume. It is not sensible to be training hard during the weeks when you want to race well.

The training week

Throughout the year, you should always train the whole spectrum of fitness; it is the proportions that change as the months go by. You need to perform long steady-state rides at a low-intensity to encourage and improve your ability to metabolise fats. These rides will last several hours. You will do more of them during the winter, but they should be kept up throughout the year.

Threshold training will help to increase the speed at which the anaerobic threshold occurs and should thus elevate your racing speed. These rides will typically last around 30 minutes, outside of warm-up and warm down. High-intensity training may well help to raise your VO2 max and increase your ability to tolerate the acidic conditions that prevail in fast bursts or up a hill. You would generally perform these sessions in intervals, e.g. 10 x 1 minute hard, split by a minute's recovery.

Hill training is another way to help your body cope with the demands of sudden bursts. You can cycle hard up a hill and freewheel down before you repeat. Alternatively, you can find a hilly circuit and perform reps around this, putting in greater efforts uphill and recovering going down. This training will help to improve your power and strength and so too will regular workouts in the weights room. Here work on the hamstrings, calves and quadriceps is essential.

How you put all this together is a matter of individual preference.

Article Reference

This article first appeared in:

  • DUNBAR, J. (2004) Pedal your way to success. Brian Mackenzie's Successful Coaching, (ISSN 1745-7513/ 9 / February), p. 2

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • DUNBAR, J. (2004) Pedal your way to success [WWW] Available from: [Accessed