Principles of conditioning for cycling
What do we mean by the principles of conditioning? Eight principles underpin all forms of sports training. Dr Auriel Forrester explains how to get the maximum benefit from your riding and avoid a potential downward spiral of performance.

Principles of conditioning for cycling

The principles of conditioning underpin the training philosophies of most sports. To understand the concept better I will take you through each element and provide examples related specifically to cycling.

Put in a nutshell, 'conditioning' is the way the body adapts to a training overload. For maximum benefit the overload needs to have a specificity related to the training aims, be progressive and include time for recovery and adaptation. Individual differences will dictate the level of overload than can be tolerated and the recovery needed - but if you stop training the process will be reversed!

if you stop training the process will be reversed!
1/ Specificity  

Understandably training needs to relate to the type of sport and performance you are trying to improve. A sprinter will need to train the sprint related elements of his or her muscle physiology, as well as training to ensure that there is a good aerobic training base. Thus a sprinter's training will include some endurance work plus lots of sprint specific sessions.

On the other hand someone training for the London to Brighton charity ride will need to train the endurance elements of their muscles, heart and lungs and so will need plenty of longer, steadier rides as the larger part of their training. However, they will also need to include a smaller element of strength and speed work in their training, as there are some pretty big hills along the way!
The London to Brighton ride requires endurance training
Cycle trainingSpecificity also relates to the way in which the muscles work. For example, you use your legs in both running and cycling, but in very different ways. Running will aid the cardiovascular element of your cycling fitness but will do little for your cycling leg power, and vice versa!

2/ and 3/ Overload and Adaptation

You know the scenario - your office is moved to a higher floor and like a dedicated athlete you refrain from using the lift. At first those extra floors seem like a nightmare as your heart pounds and your chest heaves - but after a few weeks you hardly notice the difference. The extra floors were an overload - something extra to what your body was used to. Gradually your body adapted itself and increased the blood flow to the muscles and the strength within those muscles so that the overload was no longer an overload. All well and good, but how does that relate to getting fitter for cycling? Quite simply you must aim to ride faster, or further for your overload. You must be careful though, as too much overload can result in over-fatigue and injury instead of adaptation and improved fitness.

4/ Progression

If your fitness is going to improve, rather than just plateau or stagnate at a certain level, your training must be progressive. You need to apply the acronym FITT:

Running will aid the cardiovascular element of your cycling fitness but will do little for your cycling leg power, and vice versa!
  • Frequency - how often you train
  • Intensity - how hard / fast you try
  • Time - how long you ride (duration)
  • Type - the type of training (gym work, hill work etc).
Only ever apply overload in ONE of these elements at a time, and then hold fire until your body has adapted to that. This is known as progression.
  1. As a beginner you might start off by riding for 30-40 minutes twice per week.
  2. After a couple of weeks you could aim for an extra ride of 20-30 minutes (an increase in the Frequency).
  3. Gradually increase the length of that session up 30-40 minutes. Don't try to ride any of the sessions faster or to go further. After a couple of weeks of three sessions of 30-40 minutes you will now be ready to apply further overload.
  4. You can either increase the speed of ONE of the sessions so you do 20 minutes of harder, faster riding (note we have reduced the Time as we increased the Intensity) or you can make ONE of the sessions longer but at a slower pace.
  5. Over the next three to four weeks your body will adapt to this latest overload and you can progressively increase the speed or distance. ONE THING AT A TIME!
5/ Variation

One of the biggest problems with training programmes written in books and magazines is that they tend to be boring and take no account of weather, family etc. A good coach will set you a programme with variety and flexibility. Not only will this make it easier to fit around the rest of your life but also it will prevent boredom and thus help you stick with the training and so you'll get fitter! After all, 'Variety is the spice of life' so vary your routes, buy a new map or a route book, sign up with the local club and join their rides or even buy an indoor trainer for when you get fed up with the weather!

6/ Recovery

Hopefully you have kept up with the pace so far and built up the picture that training needs to be carefully planned in order to ensure maximal benefit. The same is true of rest and recovery. When you go out for a training session you come back feeling tired and hopefully exhilarated but you certainly won't feel any fitter. That is because the adaptations take place OFF the bike and NOT when you are riding. The first thing that needs to happen after your session is recovery from the exertion. This is a mental activity just as much as it is a physical one. You can help the process through ensuring adequate nutrition (plenty of good quality carbohydrate and protein) and by keeping well hydrated (your urine should always be a pale straw colour). You can also help yourself by getting sufficient rest and sleep.

If you do not allow enough time for rest and recovery you will soon become overtrained. Sadly the symptoms of overtraining are often interpreted as undertraining - poor performance, lack of results, low heart rate when riding etc. What this means is the poor affected rider goes out and does more training when really what they needed was less training! Keep a diary of your activities (FITT sic) and if you see your performances or your personal 'feel good factor' decline, then question what you are doing and think about increasing the recovery element. You need to take into account the other stresses - mental and physical in your life as well.

Two riders may do exactly the same training but they are likely to respond to it in different ways.

7/ Reversibility

If you do not maintain your training, your fitness will be reversed and you will lose your muscle strength and endurance capabilities. The maxim 'Use it or lose' is so appropriate!'

8/ Individual differences

Two riders may do exactly the same training but they are likely to respond to it in different ways. One might get stronger, the other might find himself totally exhausted by it. This is another very good reason for using a qualified coach to help you with your training rather than following the programmes from a book or magazine - it's unlikely that the writer was actually thinking of you (and your abilities, ambitions and circumstances) when he or she wrote the piece.

A good coach will be able to tailor a programme to your precise circumstances and deal with any issues such as illness or work commitments, or be able to adjust the programme if you're making faster progress than expected. The moral is 'Don't blindly follow the programme of another rider' as it probably won't suit your needs and abilities.


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