Winter Pace: Slowing Down…On Purpose!
Every time this year, there tends to be a noticeable shift in cycling. For one, many cyclists fall into the category known as ‘fair weather riders’. These cyclists tend to hang up their bikes as soon as the temperature starts to drop; their tolerance for cold is just not as much as others. Next, you have the group that still wants to ride through the winter; they tough it out and keep the legs moving and try not to take a break from cycling…as long as the weather cooperates. Finally, you have the group that never shuts down, never slows down and hammers all the way to next year’s cycling season. Not sure what group you fall into, but there are pros and cons to each. My goal in this post, is to hopefully challenge your mind to a strategic approach that will certainly benefit you come next year.
DON’T STOP PEDALING
If you have been riding for any period of time and are able to ride 50+ miles without a problem, then you know how quickly you can begin to lose endurance, and especially cardio ability, if you stop riding…for whatever reason. My first encounter with this after I started to ride was due to a crash. I was riding incredibly strong and completed several century rides in less than four hours. All of a sudden, I could not ride for a couple of months. Prior to this, I was averaging at least 10,000 miles of riding a year for the previous nine years; this is key to remember in a moment. Yes, that is a heck of a lot of miles but I was hooked from the very start. Now, that high level of miles suddenly stopped and I was limited to a couch and bed. When I finally got the thumbs up from my Dr., I was back on the bike the very next day. To tell the truth, I had already jumped back on, but I limited it to my cul de sac and the 1/4 mile to my next side street.
I was clearly aware that I would not be able to ride as fast as possible, nor as long, right from the start. What shocked me was how much ability and cardio I had lost. Talk about a wake-up call. Now, remember how many miles I had ridden before? I just assumed that I would bounce back really quick, after having built up so much strength and endurance. NOT!!! Oh, I came back for sure and yes, at least I was not working from having done nothing, but the point is that as soon as you stop pedaling, you begin to lose cardio ability and endurance. There have been several other times where I have not ridden in a few weeks at a time and I can certainly tell the difference. I may not have lost much, or any noticeable power, but endurance and cardio takes a hit.
WHICH GROUP ARE YOU?
With all that said, my point, especially for those fair weather riders is, that once you hang up your bike for a few months, you just about have to start all over for the next year’s riding season to build back up your endurance and cardio capacity. In other words, it will take a few months of consistent work just to get to where you were towards the end of the year. Many a cyclist does this roller coaster each and every year with a high majority continuing to wonder why they just never seem to improve their performance. Hopefully, if this describes you, I can convince you to change your approach just a bit. Keep reading…
For the second group, (if this describes you) my hats off to you for not hanging up your bike. I use to have NO tolerance for cold weather; not any more. I forced myself, over a period of time, to become more bearable to colder temps. Our bodies can adapt for the most part. Most of the time when you do get out and ride, the general tendency is to ride with about the same intensity (or close) as you did all year long. I have been on many a winter group ride where the overall average speed is not too different than what you would expect in July and August. Yes, you are still riding but I would offer that you may not be riding in the smartest fashion. Keep reading…
Finally, for the hardcore hammerheads who ride at race speeds all through the winter, it sure is fun to blow down a road at 30+ mph, and hey, I am the biggest speed junkie out there, but I also know that the body needs a break. Many in this group generally have the same mentality every time they clip in: ride as hard and as fast as possible. Keep reading…
I use to race motorcycles at speeds of 180 mph, so it is safe to say I LOVE speed…and still do. However, it took a great deal of discipline to incorporate a winter approach to cycling. Slow down on a super fast flat that just begs to be ridden hard, are you kidding? Yep. Hey, if I can make the change, then anyone can!!!
A winter pace has tremendous physiological benefits. The hard part is that we don’t ‘feel’ the benefits, so the typical perception is that if we can’t feel it, then there is nothing going on…for the better. You could not be more wrong. You have to realize that, as cyclists, we have two types of energy resources in our bodies; our aerobic and anaerobic systems. The problem is that you cannot build strength in both systems at the same time; you have to separate them. For winter pace training, the focus is solely on the aerobic system. Why? Because the benefits are HUGE!!! Many cyclists don’t focus on this because it tends to become boring, slow and just unbearable at times. My suggestion is to not focus on what you have to do, but rather on what benefits you will gain. This way, you turn a potential negative into a huge positive.
Our aerobic system can only be strengthened in an environment where you are exerting very little effort over a prolonged period of time. Remember, I love speed but I also know that this type of training will only increase my ability of speed later on. Because you are training at very low effort, this allows you to breathe easily and get lots of oxygen in without any restriction. If you are blasting up a steep hill, then you are breathing like crazy and trying to get as much oxygen in as possible…all with a huge amount of effort; this is NOT aerobic training. Aerobic training, because of the high amount of oxygen in your body, also allows your body to operate more efficiently. That, in turn, helps your body to deliver more oxygen to your muscles…which helps to decrease lactic acid production and speeds up the recovery process. Again, you can only train your aerobic system in an isolated fashion…and in a low heart rate scenario.
You do your homework over the winter months (which may involve using a floor trainer) and the payoff for next year can be great. Instead of taking the first few months of next year’s cycling season to build back your strength and cardio ability, which you generally don’t do at a winter pace, how would you like to start off the season with better ability to process lactic acid, having trained your body to better process fat as a big energy source, just to name a few? I don’t know about you, but sign me up for that.
Want a realistic scenario of how this can affect your performance next year? Glad you asked. Let’s say you are on a very tough ride with lots of short, in-your-face climbs that many refer to as ’momentum killers’. Because you have done your homework (at a winter pace), your body is able to process the lactic acid more efficiently and therefore your recovery times are shorter. This means that once you get to the top of these climbs, you don’t have to take near as long of a time to recover. It also means your average speed goes up. Bottom line, you get better from the inside out.
I remotely coached a triathlete in Michigan for her upcoming triathlon. Because of the weather, she did 100% of her cycling in doors for several months. Yes, that means she did countless rides several times a week, some including 6-7 hour sessions…all on her floor trainer. Her first ride outside was literally the day before her race. Yes, they can get boring but, remember, whatever you choose to place your focus will be the direct factor in your outcome. Boring? Then you get nothing. Benefits? Then you get motivated…and actually do something.
I hope this edition will inspire you to re-think your approach to cycling in the winter months.
What cycling questions would you like to have answered? As always, just send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Your question could be the subject of my next post.
See ya on the road…