Training Principles to Improve Your Cycling Fitness

As Pat Bulger noted in the March/April issue of Out There, and as Inland NW locals have known for years, Spokane is an incredible bike town. Whether hitting singletrack on Beacon Hill or Mount Spokane; enjoying the rolling terrain of the Palouse; executing threshold TT intervals in prep for triathlon season; or adventuring off-road to explore quiet, gravel roads, there is something for everyone.

Beyond enjoying time in the saddle, cycling is also a phenomenal catalyst for health and wellness, demanding aerobic endurance, strength, mobility, and mental fortitude. While the terrain and bike may look different based on personal preference, the training paradigm used amongst the disciplines is very similar. As you plan for your upcoming racing or riding season, or as you look to improve your tolerance and capacity for extended time in the saddle, consider the following training principles.

First, pick the low-hanging fruit. Regardless of training-to-race vs. training-for-life, you should prioritize foundational workouts and then increase your level as appropriate. Specific to all disciplines and distances is the ability to improve overall endurance and aerobic capacity. Expanding time in the saddle at lower intensities is a great strategy for building cardiovascular, neuromusculoskeletal, and metabolic fitness. There’s no hack for base training. (Example ride: Forget about KOMs and PRs and instead turn your attention to a smooth cadence and even, but moderate, intensity. Depending on fitness level, target 1-2 hours, with heart rate <60-70% max).

Second, start with the end in mind. After you’ve established point “Z,” begin to work backward, identifying everything from “A” through “Y” that will contribute to your success. Planning a ride with significant elevation gain, like RAMROD? Early general miles on the trainer or flat-to-rolling terrain may suffice to build base-level fitness, but targeting high-intensity hill repeats as your ride date approaches is necessary to prepare the heart, lungs, legs, and mind. If ultra-endurance is your preference (e.g. Seattle to Portland; RAGBRAI), early-season intervals can help to build strength prior to transitioning to extended structural efforts necessary to hold power and effort for extended time. (Example ride: To improve threshold capacity, start with 20-30 minutes easy, followed by 3-4 sets of 5 to 15-minute efforts with equal recovery, finishing with 15-30 minutes easy).

Third, diversify your training by leaning into adverse conditions. I’ve yet to meet a cyclist who doesn’t love a ripping tail wind. And yet, a headwind is free resistance training, forcing you to optimize your position, fine-tune cadence, and callus the mind. Or perhaps you’re uneasy on variable terrain (like singletrack, washboard gravel, or steep descents) or when encountering hazards on the roadway. Structuring your ride to mirror cycling’s performance demands creates physical adaptation and mental confidence. (Example ride: Visit Riverside State Park and hit the trails. Exposure to off-road terrain improves stabilizing musculature and motor control required for gravel and singletrack while improving necessary reflexes for avoiding potential road hazards.)

Finally, comparisons are odious. High vs. low socks, lace-up vs. BOA, matching kit vs. Hawaiian shirt, mechanical vs. electronic, carbon vs. alloy, carbs vs. ketones, gravel vs. road . . . and on and on. Don’t lose the joy of cycling by only focusing outwardly. Knowing your personal “why” is a great buffer to distraction. The best bike and training ride is the one you’re on and the one you show up for. //

Joel Sattgast is an outdoor enthusiast, physical therapist, performance coach, and EWU assistant professor.

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