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How to prepare for a cycling event: 20 questions

David Kenning
29 Mar 2016

Now that it's time to start preparing for the season, we ask coach Andy Cook 20 questions about how to prepare for a big event.

From top pros like Chris Froome through to Sunday cyclists who enter the occasional sportive, we all like to set ourselves targets – nothing beats the motivation of having a big ride to aim for, right? 

But if you want to achieve a good time – and have a good time while you’re at it – you really need to put in some training. No two ways about it, training is a necessary evil, whether you’re a newbie looking to tackle your first century, or a more experienced rider aiming for an epic endurance challenge like the Ride Across Britain. 

So how do you go about it? What’s the best way make sure you’re in tip-top shape come the big day? How do you draw up a training plan and then fit it into your busy life? Who better to answer all these questions and more than top cycling coach Andy Cook of andycookcycling.com.

1. My biggest ride so far is X miles, will I be able to ride Y miles?

Whatever your challenge, whether it’s your first 50-mile sportive or you’re attempting a multi-day epic, stepping up to a new distance can be pretty daunting, but it needn’t be, according to cycling coach Andy Cook. ‘Yes, 966 miles is a massive amount but physically, we’re all pretty capable of doing the distance,’ he says. What’s important is how you build up to the event and making sure you do at least some preparation. ‘The biggest limiting factors generally are just time spent in the saddle. A guy turned up to the Ride Across Britain two or three years ago and was obviously struggling even before we got to the first feed station at 35 miles, so we asked him what his longest previous ride was, and he answered, “This is it, this is my longest ride!” He didn’t finish.’

2. Do I need to do structured ‘training’ or can I just go out and ride my bike?

‘Italian cycling legend Fausto Coppi was asked what three bits of advice he would give a youngster getting into cycling. Number one was ride a bike, number two was ride a bike and number three was ride a bike!’ Cook devises training plans for riders of all levels but is keen to emphasise they’re a framework rather than a rigid set of rules. ‘A structured plan gives you something to follow but don’t get hung up on it. You’re not a pro cyclist so if you miss the odd day or two, the biggest mistake is to try to play catch-up, and double the amount of work. What you end up doing then is putting yourself into a really run-down state and the training effect is negated very quickly.’ 

3. My ride is over six months away. Is it too soon to start training?

‘The earlier you’re able to start, the better chance you’ve got of enjoying the ride rather than enduring it. The first year we ran the Ride Across Britain in June and we found we had far more people underprepared. Most cyclists, unless they’re very dedicated, don’t want to go out in the wind, rain and cold so they don’t actually start training until April so by June they’ve only had six weeks to prepare. By moving the ride to September, riders have had the whole summer to get themselves ready, they’ve gone out in the light nights, they’ve done far more riding and they’ve actually had a few more events to take part in as practice.’

4. My life is so busy… How much training do I actually need to do?

‘Consistency is absolutely the key to success. It’s better to train for more smaller amounts of time than it is to go out do a massive, long ride, and then have three or four days off.’ Always remember the principle of allowing your body to adapt to the effects of training. The training plans Cook devises follow a daily micro cycle, building up over three days then taking it easier on the fourth day. ‘It’s all about allowing your body to adapt – on the fourth easier day, you’re adapting to the training load you put on those first three days. And then as a macro cycle, you do the same thing on a weekly basis – every fourth week is an easier recovery week.’

5. What intensity level should I be aiming for on training rides?

‘Midweek rides should be ridden at what I call tempo pace – other coaches refer to it as sweet spot, or functional threshold power training. So you’d warm up for 15-20 minutes then ride at a pace that’s “comfortably hard, not hardly comfortable” – I quite like that phrase, it’s sort of, “Oh yeah, right, that means something,” and makes it quantifiable without needing all the gadgets. You might only do half an hour to start with, but if you can build those up to an hour, doing two of those tempo sessions a week – where you’re riding at a pace where you think, “I’m just on the edge of this” – plus two longer rides at weekends, then that’s ample. 

6. I have a target time for the event – how can I make sure I achieve it?

‘Those tempo sessions are key because you’re raising your anaerobic threshold [the point where lactic acid builds up in the muscles faster than it can be cleared away]. If we were to test you, we’d find the training effect would be that you’re changing the way your body uses fat and carbs for fuel. I know because I’ve been tested when I was racing, that below a heart rate of 130bpm, I’m using fat as fuel. Above 165bpm, I’m using carbs as fuel. Between 130 and 165, it’s a mixture. That’s why I say “comfortably hard, not hardly comfortable,” because that will be a mixture.’ 

7. How important are rest days as part of a training plan? 

‘Rest days are the most important part of any programme because that’s when the adaptation takes place. When you’re training, you’re putting your muscles into a catabolic state, breaking them down. The body is an incredible machine, it thinks you’re going to do that again, so when you’re resting, it prepares itself for that and strengthens it. This is why including easier days and recovery weeks in the micro- and macro-cycle of the training plan are important – they’re for the body to adapt before you hurt it again. Each time it’s rising, getting stronger and stronger.’

8. What other rides should I do in the build up to my target event?

‘When I’m advising people for the Ride Across Britain, I don’t say you should ride a sportive every weekend – it might not be convenient and it gets a bit pricey – but try to ride a couple of back-to-back events which are both days around 100 miles. It’s a good opportunity to try out your kit and make sure your bike’s in good shape. Periodise some target events a month apart, so you’re using your training and then you’ve got an event at the end of every fourth week – the recovery week – to use as a bit of practice, to look at your eating strategy, look at your clothing, too.’

9. How can I train for the hills?

‘A lot of people get dead hung up on climbing, but put in the training and your general fitness and general ability will see you through. There are some standard hill training techniques you can practise if you want – in the saddle, out of the saddle, gear selection, all that type of stuff. It does build strength, but what it actually builds more importantly is confidence. And the reality is that hours spent in the saddle getting yourself fit will mean that ultimately you’ll get better at climbing hills anyway.’ 

10. Do I need to get a turbo trainer?

‘I don’t use turbo trainers myself – I’d much rather be outside whatever the weather – but they can be very effective and give more bang for your buck. The tempo sessions I’ve talked about can be completed on a turbo and it might be that you complete three-quarters of an hour three times a week rather than two lots of an hour and a half, as time allows. You get a great workout on a turbo trainer – if you’re OK with riding indoors. I personally hate it but there’s no doubt a turbo trainer is a useful piece of equipment!’

11. What about other gadgets such as power meters?

‘Many cyclists buy expensive training equipment like power meters but don’t actually know what the numbers mean, and unless you really do understand what you’re doing with the numbers and how the numbers work, there’s no point. Of course, if I set you up with all this equipment and tested you, I wouldn’t need to explain it to you on feel, I would be able to say I want you to ride at this many watts, or this heart rate. So you don’t need those tools, but if you’ve got them and you understand them, they can be useful.’

12. Is it worth including gym sessions as part of my training?

‘A lot people ask that question because they’re able to nip down the gym on their lunch break. Spin cycling classes are good – it doesn’t replicate real cycling but it’s giving you the aerobic workout that you require. Stretching exercises are also key. It’s important if you’re going to be on your bike for eight or nine hours – that’s a long time to be sat in that position, particularly if you’re doing it day after day after day, so anything that improves flexibility – pilates, yoga, any form of stretching, are really good for you.’ 

13. How important is it to work on core strength?

‘Very important, because a lot of the muscles you’re using are connected to the lower back and lower back problems are very common in cyclists, but when the core is rigid and properly developed, you can overcome quite a lot of those problems. Older cyclists in particular suffer from prolapsed disc, sciatica, and general problems like tightness in tendons, muscles and IT bands. People can help themselves immensely ahead of a big ride if they get in good shape by having done lots of stretching, pilates classes, yoga and stuff like that before the event.’    

14. Can I use other activities in my training – eg running, swimming or playing five-a-side football?

‘They’re all good for developing cardiovascular fitness, but if you get a choice between playing five-a-side football for an hour or going out on your bike, you’re better off on your bike because it’s more specific. I mean, if you’re going to play football for nine days on the trot then go and play football! But running, rowing, any of those kind of things are good, especially at this time of year when the weather’s grim and you’re less likely to get the bike out.’

15. Can I use other activities in my training – eg running, swimming or playing five-a-side football?

‘They’re all good for developing cardiovascular fitness, but if you get a choice between playing five-a-side football for an hour or going out on your bike, you’re better off on your bike because it’s more specific. I mean, if you’re going to play football for nine days on the trot then go and play football! But running, rowing, any of those kind of things are good, especially at this time of year when the weather’s grim and you’re less likely to get the bike out.’

16. What can I do to make sure my bike won’t let me down?

‘Many sportives offer support, but make sure your bike is in good nick and you won’t spoil your ride by spending time at the side of the road. We get people rocking up on bikes with old tyres that are prone to cuts and punctures, the gears haven’t been adjusted properly… There are mechanics on the event but it’s far better to make sure that your bike has gone in for a proper check-up at least three weeks before so you’ve given the bike time to bed down – gear cables, new tyres, new brake blocks, those sort of things.’ 

17. How can I prepare for bad weather conditions?

‘Entering other warm-up events can help. I run training camps in Lanzarote and people will be out there riding in the sun every day and they get used to that. But on the day of the event, it could be absolutely atrocious weather, and immediately your head can go. Use your warm-up events to practise your strategy – whether to carry a cape or arm warmers in your back pocket etc. And if you don’t have mudguards, you can get used to what it’s like to ride with a wet arse for six to seven hours!’

18. How important is nutrition as part of my training plan?

If you’re riding at tempo pace, you’re using up your body’s glycogen stores, so you need to keep energy topped up. ‘Your body can only absorb around 60-70g of carbs an hour when exercising, so eating little and often is the way to go. That means a 750ml bottle an hour with some sort of carbohydrate drink in it, and maybe an energy bar or even real food.’ Practising keeping your energy topped up like this on training rides is vital. ‘Also think about what brand of nutrition you prefer – if it’s not what they use on the event, you might need to take your own, especially if their brand doesn’t agree with you!’

19. I’m not used to riding in big groups. Will I be safe?

Being from a traditional club cycling background, Andy Cook is a keen advocate of group riding. ‘It’s much more sociable and generally safer because you’re with other people – cars are going to move around a bigger group. But there are inevitably people on an event like the Ride Across Britain who have never ridden in a group situation before and find it quite hard to adapt, so my team of chaperones are there to help less experienced riders to understand the value of sitting on a wheel, how to point out the potholes and when to single out and how to communicate within the bunch. We try to run training events on closed circuits to start with just to get people used to riding in close quarters without any traffic around and then take them out onto a road circuit and follow the same principles. And entering other rides in the build-up will also provide valuable practice because you’re putting yourself in that situation where you’ll learn pretty damn quickly!’ 

20. I don’t exactly have Chris Froome’s physique. Do I need to lose weight?

‘Without a doubt it would help, but you’re not a professional cyclist, you’ve got to live your life. If it’s doable and you want to do it, by all means do it, but don’t get hung up on it. You need to go out there and enjoy
the ride, and you’ll eat for England after a big ride because you could be burning up to 8,000 calories just by riding the thing. But if it means cutting out things you don’t want to cut out… that’s up to you, but it’s as much about your willpower and your mental attitude as it is about your physical aptitude.’ 

Andy Cook is a former Team GB racer and British Cycling coach with 25 years experience organising cycling events and training camps. He now runs his own coaching business with his wife Jacqui, also a British Cycling-qualified coach, working with everyone from Sport Relief to the Ride Across Britain. 

Find out more at andycookcycling.com

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