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How to build the perfect cycling body

BikesEtc
28 Jul 2016

Don’t settle for what your genes gave you – turn yourself into a col-busting mountain goat or sprint-smashing powerhouse.

We all want to be good at what we do. Or at least better than we are now. It’s what keeps us getting back in the saddle time after time. Of course, a lot of different factors affect performance – weather conditions, equipment, energy levels, even your mood. Many of these are out of our control and we just have to power through, but to give yourself the best chance of success, you need to have the requisite tools in place. In cycling terms, this not only means having the right gear, but also the strength, versatility and ability to use it. Luckily, this isn’t difficult to achieve. All you need is a plan and the determination to see it through. 

Endurance

The ability to make your body work harder for longer while you laugh in the face of physical discomfort is a skill learned over time. There’s no shortcut, no magic formula. You have to put the graft in to reap the rewards. The good thing is, anyone is capable of making the leap from 10km to 100km or more, and that road is paved with many satisfying, life-affirming milestones.

The first step is to accept that it won’t happen overnight. If you try to do too much too soon, chances are you’ll end up demotivated, disillusioned – or even worse, injured. Nobody knows your limits like you do, so make a plan. Not just a road plan, a life plan. Fine tune your diet to make sure your body is getting the right mix of fats and carbs and be prepared to get physical, because fit riders use more fat and are much more adept at stretching out carb reserves. This doesn’t have to be a chore. The idea is to improve your overall fitness, so vary your routine to improve your performance in the saddle. Get a gym membership, do a little weight training, organise a regular kick-about with some mates, take up a martial art or go on a couple of runs a week. Alternatively, sign up for yoga or Pilates sessions, they’ll do wonders for your conditioning and core strength – all vital for superior cycling. If none of that appeals, make sure you at least exercise at home. Lunges and leg lifts are the most beneficial exercise for cyclists as these both strengthen the core and work the muscles you use most when riding. Dumbbells and kettle bells are also good to have around to enhance your core strength. To quote former pro and veteran cycling coach Dave Lloyd, ‘If you don’t develop your base fitness, it’s like a building a house without foundations.’

SEE RELATED: How yoga can benefit cyclists

To improve your performance in the saddle, you’ll need a reference point early on in your conditioning programme to mark your progress by. So go for a long ride and make a mental note of where things got uncomfortable for you. The next time you go out, try to increase the distance slightly or at least match it. Consistency is the key. The amount you should increase your miles by is relative and varies greatly from individual to individual, but it’s important to make each target achievable. If you maxed-out at 60km, don’t try to do 100km on your next ride. Move up in increments of 5-10km. When possible, ride with a partner who has similar or higher stamina, and stay close together so that you can encourage each other. As long as you better your longest ride every second or third week, you’ll be on the right track. So plan your routes and your targets. As Lloyd revealed to us, ‘A structured plan will make sure that every hour on the bike counts.’

It’s also worth taking into account the terrain you’re cycling on. When it comes to endurance training, sticking to flat terrain is often more beneficial, according to Marc Laithwaite, a level three coach with the Association of British Cycling Coaches (abcc.co.uk). ‘If your heart rate is spiking and dropping throughout the ride, your aerobic conditioning is poor. Average heart rate is a pointless figure. You can spend 50% of your ride going uphill with a heart rate of 160bpm and 50% of your ride going downhill with a heart rate of 90bpm and kid yourself that your “average” was 125bpm. The key figure is “time in zone” or “time at target heart rate”. How much time did you actually spend at 125bpm? Flatter courses are a much better measure of heart rate control.’

While the majority of your long rides should be undertaken at a steady pace, mixing up your training and devoting one or two sessions a week purely to speed work will improve cardio. High Intensity Interval Training (or HIIT – see below) and spin classes are good alternatives, as are the increasingly popular Sufferfest programmes (see thesufferfest.com). Also, it’s a good idea to incorporate one or two early morning rides per week (up to two hours long) to help your body become more fat-burning savvy – it’ll basically jumpstart your metabolism for the day. And don’t forget to get one full rest day a week. Allowing your body to recover is vitally important, as this is when it repairs itself and rebuilds muscle – so don’t neglect it. 

SEE RELATED: Cyclist tries Sufferfest (review)

Climbing

Nobody likes to hear this but the truth is that if you’re carrying any excess bodyweight, you’re already at a disadvantage before you even start to climb. This extra baggage will not only slow you down, but will mean expending extra precious energy. Another cold, hard, fact is that if you habitually avoid hills on your regular routes, you’ll find them that much more difficult to conquer when they do inevitably pop up. If you live in a flat part of the country, you may be forced into tackling the same hill repeatedly, or replicating the demands of climbing on an indoor trainer. Both methods are extremely effective.

For improved hill work, the areas you need to focus on are general fitness, cardio, and strength. General fitness and cardio tend to go hand-in-hand, and are readily achievable in any number of ways. Many riders take up running or practise HIIT, but pretty much anything that raises your heart rate will do the job. As for strength, the key exercises are lunges, squats and crunches, all of which work the core and lower body. In addition, you can utilise free weights to include dead lifts. Do three or four sets of five reps per session, making sure you use correct form to minimise the risk of injury. An exercise you can do while you actually ride is simply cycling on the flat in a higher gear than you need. Don’t start in a high gear, as you’ll risk pulling or tearing a muscle. Start as you normally would until you’re warmed up, then switch to a slightly higher gear. It should take you around 30-seconds to reach your normal pedalling speed (if it takes much longer choose an easier gear) then return to the correct gear. Try to do this 5-8 times per ride,
a couple of times a week. It’s like weightlifting for the legs, and you’ll feel the benefit when tackling those hills. 

SEE RELATED: How to become a better climber in one month

Power and stability are both key areas of your fitness that you need to target to improve your climbing. Plyometrics or ‘jump training’ (exercises which call for maximum muscle exertion in short intervals) are great for building power. Good examples you can do at home include squat jumps, tuck jumps, box-jumps (jumping on and off a raised platform) and lateral box-jumps (which are same thing, except you jump on and off from side to side).  As for stability, try side-lying leg lifts and medicine ball squats. 

But why is stability important? Martin Evans, a strength and conditioning coach with British Cycling, told us, ‘When you cycle, you need to be able to create force from your legs, and transfer that force through your trunk and through to your upper body. If you think of your trunk as a cylinder, you have a number of dial-ups coming off, which are the muscles. Think of how many muscles are attached in that area. All of them need to be up to a certain level to be able to stabilise the trunk optimally.’ So core stength is key.

Sprinting

It’s a common misconception that good sprinters are born rather than made, but as Dave Lloyd reveals, ‘You become better by working. I was never a good sprinter until I turned pro and needed to make money. I turned into a good sprinter, but I had to work at it. When you’re sprinting, you’re using your arms, your shoulders, your back. The stronger you are, the more you can control the bike.’

Most top road sprinters have a mesomorphic body shape, boasting outstanding cardio and good upper body strength to complement their leg power. In other words, they are muscular, powerfully built and generally have a high metabolism and responsive muscle cells. Think Sir Chris Hoy or Robert Förstemann. Track cycling requires near-heroic levels of leg strength and cardiovascular endurance to keep the bike moving at the desired speed. In order to achieve this, there is no better exercise than sprinting itself. 

Legend of the sport Peter Kennaugh Sr (dad of Team Sky pro Peter Kennaugh) recommends a range of sprint drills: sprinting up short hills, selecting a higher gear and going flat out for 20 seconds; accelerating hard in the saddle for  descents; practising lead-outs and sprints by swapping ‘man one’ and ‘man two’ positions, even dropping off the back of a group for 30 seconds and sprinting to catch up. 

He also insists power to weight ratio (to work out yours, divide your maximum power output in watts by your body mass in kilograms) is of greater importance to a sprinter than bulk, saying, ‘Andre Greipel is twice the size of Mark Cavendish and probably produces more watts, but because Cav is lighter, he has a better power-to-weight-ratio and he’s faster most of the time.’

Not that losing weight is necessarily the answer – unless you could do with losing a bit of timber! Some cyclists go on crash diets in the run-up to an event, but this can actually be self-defeating, as you could lose muscle mass during your weight loss. Severe dieting can also adversely affect your recovery time. Elliot Lipski, in-house sports scientist at Train Sharp Cycle Coaching says, ‘Power and weight come hand-in-hand. Having large power numbers is almost irrelevant if you’re too heavy to lug yourself up various climbs. Lean body mass is key and that means reducing your body fat percentage. 

‘While the common perception is that body fat is bad,’ Lipski continues, ‘a certain amount is essential for human survival. For women, the ideal percentage should fall between 14-20% while in men, the value should be 6-13%, with the best climbers falling between 4-5%. The question is, therefore, how to lose weight without suffering detrimental effects? There are a number of ways, with no one approach being significantly better than another. It should be done by carefully planned nutritional interventions and targeted, structured training.’

There’s nothing quite like sprinting to get you in the right physical shape, but there are other things you can do that help speed the process up. A useful strategy, especially for more accomplished riders, is to undertake some form of regular weight training. Studies have shown that performing heavy resistance training for the key cycling muscles (quads, hamstrings, glutes, calves) not only boosts muscle efficiency, but can help prevent the loss of muscle power during periods of high-volume training, or during periods of weight loss. Again, don’t neglect your upper body –  a powerful core will give you greater control and efficiency on the bike, resulting in a more stable platform for your legs to work from, which means less energy wasted.  

SEE RELATED: How a 4 sprinter training plan increased my wattage

High-intensity Interval Training (HIIT) or Tabata training as it sometimes called after the Japanese chap who dreamt it up, is awesome for building power. 

Dr Izumi Tabata, a Kyoto-based academic, conducted a study using an interval-based training programme to see if athletes would benefit from doing just four minutes of exercise a day using a 20/10 session repeated eight times – 20/10 being 20 seconds of all-out exertion, followed by 10 seconds of rest. His case study got athletes to exercise this way five times a week for six weeks and at the end of it discovered that they’d improved their aerobic (with oxygen) and anaerobic (without oxygen) fitness levels by 28%. Improving your anaerobic fitness is key to building strength and power. And HIIT is great for scorching fat cells, too.

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