So, you’ve been out riding your bike and building up good experience, yes? Well, let’s start talking about putting some structure to your training. Hopefully, this post is going to be pretty short because it turns out that endurance training isn’t all that hard.
So, I’m riding. How do I do the kind of riding that gets me ready for AIDS/Lifecycle?
AIDS/Lifecycle is an event that rewards persistence more than anything else. You need to be able to prosecute 60-110 mile rides every day for a week. In order to do this, you’re going to focus most of your training on being able to make these long, persistent hauls. While this is going to also make you a faster rider, the bulk of your training is not going to focus on your speed. What’s far more important is that you focus on your ability to consistently execute your rides day after day. Fortunately for you, your body is likely going to be able to handle this, because it turns out that our bodies are built for persistence. Every metabolic aspect of our bodies, right down to the fact that we sweat, is designed around our ability to maintain specific paces for very, very long periods of time.
There’s an old adage from boxing — “Train as you intend to fight.” AIDS/Lifecycle is about the day-over-day challenge of putting out consistent efforts. Your training plan is going to be the same. You’re going to ride at fixed paces for long periods of time. This is often referred to as “base building” or “aerobic training” or, as I prefer to call it, “endurance training.”
I’m going out every day already and I’m pushing myself to ride as fast as I can and I make myself sore. Surely, I’m going to be ready.
Well, maybe, but you may actually be training the wrong thing and you may be making things harder on yourself. Let’s pull back a little bit and talk about what’s going on in cycling. Cycling, as a sport, is something very different from running or swimming or weight lifting. A bicycle is a vehicle without an engine. The pedals are basically points where you attach a two-piston engine– you. All of your training, therefore, is about turning your body into a highly effective engine suitable for the task ahead. In the case of AIDS/Lifecycle, you need to be something like a big rig’s diesel engine rather than a sports car’s. You want to be able to be reliable and consistent over many miles and changing conditions, even if it means you don’t have the greatest acceleration curve in the world. This isn’t to say you can’t train both of these aspects, but your time is going to be limited and AIDS/Lifecycle isn’t a race, so training for bursts of speed and quick acceleration is training skills that you won’t necessarily need to depend on.
So, what’s going on in that engine block of a body? Basically, your body has two different motors available, expressed in terms of the metabolic chemistry going on in them. You have the stable-running diesel motor of aerobic metabolism, which converts oxygen and fat into a pretty stable and constant supply of energy, and you have the sprint car motor of anaerobic metabolism, which converts sugars quickly into a large supply of energy…but which also produces waste products that make it unsuitable as an energy supply in the long run. This is a vast generalization, but it suffices for practical purposes. Also, while I’m talking about “energy,” I am not talking about your own sense of vigor. I’m talking about it the way it’s used in physics– pushing at a certain force through a certain distance in a certain amount of time. This is purely mechanical energy.
Anyway, if you’ve ever lifted a heavy weight or tried to sprint or to chase someone on your bike, you know that burning feeling in your muscles. That’s your anaerobic metabolism. It gives you bursts of speed, but it won’t last long. It’s very important to train this if you want to race. It’s of modest help when you want to tour, however. It may help get you up a hill sooner, or it may mean you don’t have to slow down in gusts of wind, but that’s about it.
So, stop training to go fast, if that’s what you’re doing. Focus on persistent riding and on extending your distance.
Okay, then, smart guy. How do I do endurance training?
Endurance training is actually very easy to do. The muscle fibers which do most of your aerobic work have a very strong blood supply to ensure they have enough oxygen to do their job. There will be some aspect of developing your muscles in this process (and, as I’ll discuss in a future article, your anaerobic metabolism is a necessary support of your aerobic metabolism), but most of what you will be doing is training your heart and lungs to improve your supply of oxygen to these muscles. As simple as the “train as you intend to fight” maxim is, that’s what we’ll be doing here.
I highly, highly recommend a stationary bike to get started. If you don’t have access to one, then at least try to get your bike out somewhere where you can ride long distances without stopping. Also, try to find flat terrain. Now, spin the pedals free and easy for the first five minutes. Ride how you want. Don’t push yourself at all…in fact, consider doing the opposite of pushing yourself. You’re just warming up. Aerobic metabolism actually takes time to kick in fully as your body responds to the increased demand and gets the blood flowing. Once you have warmed yourself up, what you do next is going to depend on the tools at your disposal.
If you have a tool for measuring your pedal rpm, as is common on most stationary bikes and on bicycle computers, then drop into a low gear or drop the resistance way down. Spin the pedals at 90-110 rpm. Find a cadence that’s comfortable for you. Once you have done this, gradually start bringing the resistance or gearing back up. Add a little bit of resistance and then give your body a few minutes to adjust. Add a little more in a few more minutes. If, at any point, you find yourself panting or feel like your legs are burning, back the resistance off a little. The goal here is to find a sweet spot where you’re holding solid at your comfortable fast cadence, where your legs are not progressively wearing down in a few minutes, and where your breathing is elevated but still so relaxed that you could easily sing or hold a conversation with someone. You are not trying to make yourself into a panting wreck. Think about that reliable diesel engine…you’re trying to be one of those. With a little work and tuning, you’ll find your sweet spot. Once you do, keep that level of output for the course of your workout. Get your music out, flip on the game, play your PSP…whatever you’ve got to do, but settle in for the long haul. In my estimation, “the long haul” is a minimum of 30 minutes. I generally do an hour at a time and I sometimes do much longer.
If you don’t have a tool for measuring rpm, then drop to your lowest gear and find a cadence that’s fast but not uncomfortably so. Gradually add in resistance as above. You should keep the pedal strokes quick and you should try to avoid a tension level where you really feel the pedals pushing back. Get to a pace where your breathing is slightly elevated but where you could hold a conversation without obviously panting.
If you’re not used to this sort of training, you’ll find upper caps on how long you can do this. The goal is to reach a point where you could practically do it indefinitely. Also, try to do this fairly often. Three times a week seems to work well for many people, particularly if they’re doing other activities on top of that. I generally make sure I have an hour in the saddle five days out of the week, either through my commute or through the gym. It may take a while for you to really get the persistence to go for long periods of time, but this is the single most important aspect of your training.
But I’m not going fast.
Yes, but for AIDS/Lifecycle, you need to go all day, regardless of how fast you go. You’re still early in the training, too. Don’t look at your speed. Look at your cadence.
What is this achieving?
A number of things. First off, there’s some pretty good science to show that 90-110 rpm is an optimal cadence for cyclists. This is teaching you to have muscle memory for that cadence, which will be VERY handy to you in the future. It’ll give your mind a sense for when something’s holding you back. You’ll know your cadence is dropping before you start panting or getting sore legs. The second thing is that this is giving you practice for the long days in the saddle ahead of you. With time, you’ll develop your riding mentality, which will help with boredom and anxiety. Third, this is training your body for the ride ahead of you. Remember…you’re riding all day for seven days. Starting now on riding as long as your schedule allows and as many days as possible is going to get your body into adapting to this as your way of life. Finally, this is a great way to burn off excess calories in your diet. In an hour of aerobic training, I burn 700 calories, which is 33% of the daily caloric intake for someone of my size. This really helps resolve out the fluctuations and indulgences in my diet.
Yeah. Be persistent and try to fit as much in your schedule as you and your body can, but don’t push it. You need your recovery days to allow your body to adapt and improve. Do not just do this every day forever. Also, remember to stay hydrated while you’re doing your training and don’t treat time on the stationary bike as a complete replacement for real rides. You still need to build experience.