A recent comment from a rider got me thinking. I was reviewing the data from one of her sweetspot sessions and I wrote ‘all in parameters, good shaped HR curve’ in the Post Activity Review box helpfully provided by Training Peaks . ‘Great!’ she said, ‘What does that mean…?’
Fair comment, I’d slipped in to using unhelpful jargon and worse still. I’d slipped in to writing notes in training records as 'feedback' that were more use to me than her. Bad coach, bbbbaaadddd coach. Lesson learned, but it did remind me to check my use of language and force me to explain what the jargon meant to my bemused rider. It also prompted me to reflect on just how much effective use of data has become vital in my coaching practice.
If you’re in the cycling matrix – by which I mean using GPS enabled data recording including power and heart rate measurement - and you regularly upload it to an App (Strava, Garmin Connect, Training Peaks) you’ll be familiar with the colourful blocks, graphs, maps and pictures produced. Whether you bother looking at them or not is another matter, but the the App will collate your data and try to turn it in to digestible performance information. Some of it is useful, some of it less so.
For me as a coach, the most powerful performance metrics are power, heart rate (HR) and time. For our purposes HR can be defined as an input measure (an indicator of how hard you’re trying), power as an output (the product of your efforts) and time is that thing Einstein talked about although we can define it here as three 8 minute efforts with 4 minutes rest in between. Phew.
In the diagram above, the boxes describe the session, the blue line is power and the red line is HR. Every rider is different but here you can see power remains fairly constant for the efforts and HR arcs upwards gently, but progressively more so, for each block. This indicates increasing effort is required to maintain consistent power. A good session completed within the prescribed parameters.
Sweetspot efforts tend to be in multiples of 8, 10, 12 or 20 mins at 88 – 93% of FTP with varying rest in between dependent upon what effect you’re trying to create. They mimic volume riding without all that pesky getting dressed up and going outside for hours on end. Very generally, longer sweetspots tend to work best at the end of a block of training maybe just before an FTP test, shorter less stressful ones are better soon after an FTP increase to see if the power/HR correlation makes sense.
Over a period, the delta between the HR and power curve alters as fitness changes. This is true of all sessions but sweetspots are useful because of the relatively long length or the effort giving time for HR to respond and stabilise. Increases in fitness are often indicated by the HR curve flattening with power remaining constant, or power increases over zone (or both if you’ve left it too long to boost the FTP settings). Steeper HR increases or drops below the power zone indicate the session is maybe too hard if that’s not what was intended. This can indicate an adjustment to the sequence or intensity/duration of training sessions is needed to ensure fitness matches the planned goals.
Over a period of a few weeks, a data trend for a rider develops meaning better targeting and sequencing of sessions during any week to reflect the stress of a previous week and allow for appropriate recovery or aim to peak for a forthcoming event. The evaluation of data at this level allows fine adjustments to sessions to ensure progress is being made without constant FTP testing which is psychologically and physiologically stressful and can be a rather blunt and overused tool.
So what does this mean for you as a rider? Your data is powerful stuff, it is ammunition to make you progressively stronger and faster so...
Used effectively, training data will help protect you from injury and over training and give you empirical evidence your fitness is improving or, if it isn’t, what needs to be changed to bring it on track. Fundamentally, accurate interpretation of your data means productive use of your time to achieve maximum training benefit and bigger improvements in fitness than you could hope to get without it.
With the rise of Big Data and Artificial Intelligence, could you let the matrix do this for you – avoiding inconvenience of finding, and paying, a coach?. Algorithms are learning fast but they don't cut it, yet, although as AI becomes more sophisticated and we upload more human biometric data, it is likely it will become better at interpreting human behaviour and responses over time. I guess how scary this is depends on whether you think of Brave New World as a good idea or not. However, the machines aren't there yet and, as much as it irked me at the time, I was gratified to see my Garmin 520 once telling me I needed 42 hours rest in the middle of a 10 mile TT. Even if the advice was good, I’d seriously question the machines message management technique.
Rich Smith likes machines and is a fan of the first two Terminator films. He thinks the others were, frankly, rubbish. He has coached the GB Transplant Cycling team for 10 years, is a British Cycling qualified Level 3 coach and a mature psychology student. He spent 30 years responding badly to people in authority in senior roles for Barclays, HSBC, British Waterways and National Grid Property and will probably help the robots out when the time comes.
Good news, subject to stringent Covid-19 safe risk assessments it looks like local time trials and some socially distanced club activities can recommence from mid-July in England. It feels like positive progress, right? If your club has both the organisational minerals to comply with the rules and regulations and a bucket of hot and soapy to wash numbers in, it’s time to consider re-engaging.
If you had a good winter’s training but you’ve been poling around on your road bike for the last few months, don’t put too much pressure on yourself to return to race fitness, smash out PBs or bust Strava segments immediately. However, there are a few things you can do both psychologically and physiologically that might help you along the way
Get specific – spend some time, at power, in aero position on the TT bike if you’re going to race time trials. It takes a little time to get comfortable and put power down in aero position and it you’ve been doing 'hello trees, hello flowers' rides for a while, there’s likely to be a period of transition. There are some specific drills you can do in relatively little time that will help – see me after class.
Manage your expectations, but race - don’t stress about hitting last years times or that you’ve put some weight on, just pin a sanitised number on and get stuck in. Very few riders can train as hard as they race and missing a whole season’s worth of racing is going to make next winter interminable and next season harder. Don't worry about the results or times, just focus on the process.
Zwift is different – turbos are a great training aid but don’t expect all your efforts to directly translate to racing or training on the road. Bikes don’t move on turbo trainers whereas resistance tends to be constant (it’s what makes them so great). You might find your power up (maybe all that fresh air?) but your watts/per kg down (because fibbing about your weight has no effect outside of the matrix?).
Gather data – track and record your race or training data even if you wince a bit when looking at your power curve, times or grindy cadence. It will benchmark your current fitness (whatever that might be) and you can use it to guide your training zones. Your first race back will give you a good indication at where your intervals should be set. If you do get stuck in, it would be reasonable to expect some fairly rapid progress from Plateau Covid back towards Mt Fitness. Sitting at home worrying about not being fit enough to race is not going to help.
Comply - have some fun but please comply rigorously with the guidance on how to engage safely with an event. Bear in mind drivers won’t be used to seeing groups of riders or people racing for a while. They are scared and anxious which means they are liable to do more dumb shit than normal. Ride defensively with your head up. Thank the organisers and give them a virtual hug because they will have gone above and beyond to get some racing and/or club activities on this year.
PS. Remember your flashing light and a pen!
Rich Smith has had some weird diseases and doesn't want any more so he washes his hands regularly. He has coached the GB Transplant Cycling team for 10 years, is a British Cycling qualified Level 3 coach and a mature psychology student. He spent 30 years responding badly to people in authority in senior roles for Barclays, HSBC, British Waterways and National Grid Property.
During lockdown, whilst many of us are finding we have spare time, we are also coping with the duel psychological challenges of lockdown and the absence of goals or target events. It’s a perfect, if very unusual, storm and looking at the data coming back from my riders, I’m finding myself telling them to rest more.
Tricky stuff. Advising an endurance athlete to rest when they have spare time is like nailing jelly to the ceiling.
...Recovery is not something you do after training, it is training...
To explain why rest is important, it’s worth briefly referencing the Principles of Conditioning – those fundamental tenets of how training works, the main elements being.
You overload your system by training with a combination of volume and intensity and, with the right amount of recovery, your body adapts to cope with increased demands.
Recovery sits in the middle of these three pillars. It's not something you do after training, it is training.
Recovery can be framed as anything from a few seconds between sprint intervals to 6 weeks off after the Tour or pretty much anything in between, but it’s important to understand that recovery is an integral part of the training process, not an adjunct to it.
But we are in the strangest of strange times right now, as athletes and coaches we have the unprecedented challenge of balancing uniquely peculiar circumstances against the physiological and psychological risks of under-recovery. It’s natural to want ride if we have the time, we’re cyclists, we enjoy riding. Plus, it gets us out of the house in the fresh air and exercise gives us a mental boost – simply, it makes us feel better. So, the sun is shining, we extend our 1 hour session to 2 hours, do a 60 min ‘recovery’ ride a couple of times a week, throw in some ‘hello trees, hello flowers’ rides to control weight. Not unnatural things to do in the circumstances.
All of these are probably necessary, perhaps even essential, in these bizarre times and frankly, none of them are likely to do any harm at all. Staying motivated to ride and maintaining a level of fitness is important, but don’t forget to build in some recovery time as an integral part of your training – it is essential for your physical and psychological well-being.
A few things to think about if you’ve found yourself doing a lot more steady miles recently.
Rich Smith knows loads about resting having recently slept through a three and a half hour showing Robert de Niro's 'The Irishman'. Apparently, a lucky escape on his part. He has coached the GB Transplant Cycling team for 10 years, is a British Cycling qualified Level 3 coach and a very mature psychology student. Before upsetting film buffs, he spent 30 years upsetting people in senior roles for Barclays, HSBC, British Waterways and National Grid Property.
We rely hugely on the power of science to make judgements. We like facts, proven answers, evidence from randomised controlled studies, experiments, peer reviewed research and the like. Further, as cyclists we love data. We have our power meters and heart rate monitors: we measure metrics on cadence, speed, drag coefficients and rolling resistance and share it, ad nauseum, on social media. You’d think by now physiologists, sports doctors and sports scientists would have combined all the data with all the science and come up with a simple answer to the ultimate question: how do I ride faster?
Despite there being no evident shortage of sports scientists, so far, nothing, nada, stony silence. Well, I suppose that’s not entirely true, a few sports doctors have come up with an answer. Some of those guys are now in prison and some more should be because the simple answer is taking performance enhancing drugs. However, the fact remains no single, ubiquitous, optimal and legal training plan, regime or session has been identified whose implementation will make you the best you can be.
The reason for this is the ultimate answer can only be unlocked if the ultimate question is asked. To formulate the question with any hope of getting a cogent answer, you're gonna have to be specific. How fast do you want to ride? How fast are you now? When do you want to ride faster, over what distance and in what environment? How much time have you got to train? How old are you? What do you weigh? How much money have you got? Only when you’ve answered these questions can the truth be revelled!
Assuming you answered these and many other why, how, where, when questions, the ultimate answer is..…wait for it…... It depends! I know you want to punch me in face now but bear with me.
'...punch me right in the face...'
'It depends’ because there are limits to how much faster or fitter you can get. And, in truth, it doesn't matter a jot how much money you've got. So, I figure if sports science can't give us a simple answer, the least it can do is explain why not.
A 1977 study by Bill Hickson took 8 college athletes and trained them over 10 weeks for 6 days per week using a series of 2 minute on, 2 minute off bike intervals at Z5 (VO2 max) and a 40 min flat out run on alternate days. All the subjects showed a huge 44% average linear increase in fitness over the test period.
By way of contrast, a later 1999 study (Bouchard et al) looked at 500 college students and over a period of 20 weeks and prescribed them a moderately intense exercise regime of 3 training sessions per week of 30-50 mins duration of aerobic exercise at 55 -75% of VO2 max. After collating the results, it showed the average increase in fitness was in the order 10-15% measured by a VO2 max test.
So, the first part of the ultimate answer is, by following a structured training plan you could get something between a 10% – 44% increase in fitness depending on how long you’re doing it for and how brutal it is. If you're following a plan, you’re likely to be looking at a 10% improvement. Arguably if you armed yourself with a little knowledge, you could implement this yourself without the help of a coach. If your coach is prescribing you the plan i.e. one tailored to you, then over time, you should be looking to do a good bit better than 10% otherwise you’re probably wasting your money. But there are limits. And the reasons behind the unsatisfyingly vague ‘it depends’ answer about how much you will gain will be affected by...
Your starting point: If you’re already super fit, the right coach might find you that extra fraction and that may be the difference between winning a championship or finishing 4th. With limited ‘headroom’ to improve, you’re not going to find anything like a 44% physiological gain but the difference between winning a medal or just missing the podium may well be down to psychological, technical and tactical improvements. Conversely, if you’re starting from scratch or a low base, you might find more than 50% over time. To put that into context, for a normal sized bloke on an aero bike, a 10% increase in FTP from 240w to 264w could make you a sub 23 mins 10 mile time trialist after previously being in the 25 minute range. A 44% increase to an FTP of 346w would put you in the top 2% of male cyclists, maybe close to the professional ranks.
Your resilience: The Hickson study comes with a massive caveat. The results are much quoted as an example of the effect training can have but, after showing such startling increases in fitness, at the end of program the 8 candidates were asked if they would like to continue. They all said no. The training was physiologically and psychologically unsustainable. So, yeah, maybe we could boost your FTP significantly in 8 weeks but the risk is you’d never get on a bike again. A good training plan has to be sustainable and fit around your life.
'...a good training plan has to be sustainable. Now stop punching me in the face...'
Your biology: Your age, resources in terms of time and equipment, nutrition, sleep, your sporting and injury history etc are all going to have an impact on your response to training. Physiological studies tend to be carried out on young men, often college athletes from a higher socioeconomic group so health and nutrition tend to good. The data for other demographic groups is poor with large scale studies on women being a notable omission. Whilst there is no evidence to suggest training responses are different in percentage increase terms, there isn't any to suggest they are the same either. Every individual is, well, individual and a training plan needs to be tailored to your needs, not those of a well fed 22 year old American student athlete. Unless of course...
Your genetics: The genetic component and heritability of physiology is often overstated but it exists. The Bouchard study was primarily aimed at establishing heritability as it used family groups to see if there was a genetic component to fitness. There is, something in the order of 30-40%. Interestingly, 1% (5 out of the 500) of the group turned out to be what are known as ‘high responders’. These guys showed huge increases in fitness, well over the 44% seen in the Hickson study.
Turning momentarily to this tiny group of the genetically blessed, Louis Passfield, a highly respected physiologist who worked with British Cycling from the 1990s and up to the Beijing Olympics studied the history of the hour record from Merckx up to Boardman. He calculated riders capable of holding the record were 250% fitter than your normal geezer. In short, in order to hold 460w for 60 minutes you must be within the 1% band of genetic outliers Bouchard identified. Without it, even with the best training plan in the world, you’re never going to get anywhere near it. Try it if you like…
Your goals: Riders rarely have a goal of just increasing fitness from x to y. It’s all about getting faster over a certain distance, completing an endurance event, winning a race or just being more comfortable on the bike. This is why a good coach can help you get what you want out of your cycling. This relies on the thoughtful, well judged implementation of physiological knowledge appropriate to you. Physiological knowledge on its own is not enough. Your coach should be the difference between a plan for anybody and the plan for you. The studies referred to use a plan – everybody followed the same exercise prescription. A coach should be helping you to define one that is tailored to you and adjusts dependant on your response to it. And remember, there are at least three other dimensions to your cycling – technical, tactical and psychological. Physiology is not everything, you need to address all these equally critical elements to ride faster.
As a coach, my interest is in helping you get the most out of your cycling irrespective of your age, sex, sporting history or genetics. I hope providing some context around why answering the ultimate question is more difficult than it seems might help when you think about the best way to take your training forwards.
Rich Smith is expecting a lot of shit for writing this from current and aspiring sport scientists. But his shoulders are provenly un-aero. He has coached the GB Transplant Cycling team for 10 years, is a British Cycling qualified Level 3 coach and a very mature psychology student. Before upsetting sports scientists, he spent 30 years upsetting people in senior roles for Barclays, HSBC, British Waterways and National Grid Property.
Lots of us have found ourselves confined to quarters and, unsurprisingly, the sale of turbo trainers (not sure about rollers) has gone through the roof, last I heard, up by 977%. If you’ve found yourself locked down, restricted or in need of digging out your turbo after recently confining it to the back of the garage, here’s some tips to help you through.
Decrease intensity: Unless you’re a double-hard masochist, most turbo work is high intensity short duration stuff. Now might not be the time for doing this exclusively. Plus, if you’ve been increasing the intensity of your training whilst reducing volume in anticipation of racing, an event or just the better weather, don’t just press on. There’s limit to the amount of time you can spend at Z5 before it becomes physiologically and psychologically unsustainable and possibly damaging. IF we get to race this season it’s going to be a few months away, I’d suggest you need to consider re-basing your training. This applies whether you can still get outside a bit or not.
Pace yourself: We might be doing this for quite a while so remember in Training Peaks terms, a single 100 TSS turbo session is the physiological equivalent of a 25 mile time trial. Under normal circumstances you wouldn’t want to be doing three of these a week so be careful about intensity and things like Zwift racing. Do it but be careful how often. Months of this is going to get unsustainable quickly and consistency of training is vital to maintaining your fitness for when the zombie apocalypse is over. When we can see light at the end of the tunnel, then you can turn it back up to 11.
Variety: Use rollers (see instructional videos here), change bikes (you can bend a bike using it on the turbo, especially if you do out of the saddle efforts), get the track bike on the rollers, change hand positions, wear your Fez collection, anything. Bear in mind you’ll bollox your rear tyre on the turbo so maybe put an old one on for the duration. There’s lots of ways of mixing it up so, if you get stuck, get in touch.
Use the time wisely: Practice riding in TT position, use leg speed sessions - great for rollers but no reason why you can’t do them on the turbo. Do some Independent Leg Training (ILT) for strength workouts – much underrated and great for pedalling efficiency as well as power and a decent substitute for squats if you’re missing the gym.
Stretch and core: Many cyclists could do with increasing flexibility, particularly hamstrings. Time is often used an excuse for not doing as much stretching as we could – that’s gone right out of the window. Get your core sessions sorted (see above for lack of excuses). There’s loads of stuff you can do without gym equipment to improve core strength.
Active recovery: The day after a hard session, 20 mins Z1 on the turbo, core, stretch, tea – the job’s a good ‘un. Many of us miss these vital sessions because getting some kit on for 20 mins seems like a waste of time. It isn’t, it really isn’t. And anyway, you've haven't got anything else to do innit.
Track and use your data: More than sharing data on social media or just recording it, use it to reflect on what you’ve done in the last week and what you plan to do next week. Make some notes about how a session felt, what you found super hard, what was easy, what was deathly boring. This way you can find what really works for you and adapt the sessions. FTP tests are like routine dental visits - unpleasant but essential, if you're not using power measurement there are other 'old skool' benchmark tests you can use. Track your fitness but, for once. don't fret if the figures don't look like a graph presented at a sales conference, a 'holding pattern' might be what you need for the duration.
Endurance rides: Don’t try to replace a 3 hour Sunday ride with 3 hours on the turbo, your soul will leave your body (probably via your arse), never to return. You can do the physiological equivalent of longer endurance rides by the judicious use of sweetspot training in about a third of the time, you just need to know how much, how often and how to make subtle changes to your power parameters to get the best out of them.
Frustrated at how unfair this all is? If you’re pissed off, frustrated or angry about the time you’ve put in to your training over winter and the inability to put it to good use now the racing season should be on us, first, remember time spent training is NEVER wasted. It's an investment in you and, if you have to spend some time off the bike, your fitness won't have disappeared, it'll just be hiding and you'll find it soon enough. Secondly, if you are going nuts, read this.
The great outdoors: If you can still get outside, ride alone, sort your pick up options if you have a complete mechanical fail, maybe ride multiple circuits closer to home rather than a super long ride. Keep your distance from others out there taking exercise and wash your kit (all of it, gloves, everything) with biological shizzle when you get home. Above all, follow NHS advice. The Chief Medical Officer knows more than some random melt on Twitter.
If you want any informal advice, a chat about your training or just to discuss some ideas about what to do, drop me a line here or give me a call. These are strange and challenging times and we need to look out for each other.
Rich Smith has a rocky relationship with his turbo but it trying to learn to love it once more. He has coached the GB Transplant Cycling team for 10 years, is a British Cycling qualified Level 3 coach, a mature psychology student and has 30 years’ experience working in senior roles for Barclays, HSBC, British Waterways and National Grid Property.
Frustrating, disappointing, upsetting, the list goes on. After a long wet winter, the racing season had just started, events were being scheduled, the diaries filling up and BOOM!... everything cancelled. As Meatloaf once said ‘All Revved up with no place to Go’.
Here's a few headspace things that may help.
Time spent training is NEVER wasted: Your training is an investment in your physical health and mental well-being. Your goal maybe to race or compete but part of the reason for a goal is to keep you motivated, committed and your training on track – sometimes the journey is as important as the destination.
Perspective: Remember we ride for fun. It’s not life and death, but events unfolding out there now really are. It's made me get some perspective about how fortunate I am to be healthy enough to train and race at my modest level. I'm an intensive care veteran so standing upright and breathing without a machine is a bonus for me and I suspect you'll all have your own shit-nasty experiences to relate to. There’s nothing like having something you love taken away to make you appreciate it. Let’s look forward to getting back to riding and, when we do, value it a little more.
Re-frame your emotions: It would be inhuman not to feel irritation, frustration and anger at what’s unfolding around us but it’s unhealthy to stay in that hole for very long. What’s happening is unfair, but then so is life. The rider you regularly put 10 minutes in to probably thinks it’s unfair you’re faster, fitter and better looking than they are. Suck it up buttercup. Unfairness is ultimately a building block of evolution so it’s fine not to like it but you might as well recognise its existence. If it helps, set yourself a time limit for allowing yourself to be pissed off, then move on. A little bit of self-talk may help as a reminder of what you’ve achieved, who you really are and how important it is to focus emotional energy on constructive progress. We can't control the situation unfolding around us be we can control our reaction to it - it's our choice.
Set some new goals: If your goals revolved around timings, dates and events have been torpedoed, don’t leave them hanging around. Adjust, move or re-set them quickly and ensure they are in your control to achieve, not reliant upon the action of others. Identify the next opportunity.
'...Every Saturday night I felt the fever grow... All revved up with no place to go...' From 'Bat out of Hell'. Written by Jim Steinman, sung (loudly) by Meatloaf
Use your training time effectively: At the time of writing in the UK you can still ride outside on your own – not a privilege extended to some of our European friends. Be careful, but there’s nothing to stop you getting out there for a ride. In fact, the case for 'state mandated exercise' is an easy one to make - it helps prevent us from putting pressure on the NHS by staying physically healthy and psychologically it helps stop us from going nuts. I guess we should just ensure we don’t take the piss by riding in groups and observe the social distancing rules because there's a lot of families and people on shed bikes out there right now.
Physiologically you might want to think about going in to a holding pattern by build a higher base and being ready to ‘peak’ later. Right now, a lot of my riders were/are making the switch from the preparation to the pre-competition phase with lower volume but higher intensity sessions aimed at racing. If you’re in the same boat, it might be worth thinking about putting another ‘build’ phase in to increase your aerobic endurance by balancing volume and intensity around sweetspot and FTP. It should mean when you do get to deploy your Z4 and Z5 you’re going to be putting out even more watts for longer you total machine.
If the thought of training at all in these strangest of times is too much, or 'delivering the plan' seems utterly pointless (and it might, particularly if you're trying to push yourself hard), knock it back, just go and have a pedal for an hour when you feel like it. It's likely your fitness will have built up over a long time, you might lose a bit of top end but you'll get it back soon enough when you need it.
Stay strong. Stay safe.
Rich Smith was a big Meatloaf fan when he was 11. He has coached the GB Transplant Cycling team for 10 years, is a British Cycling qualified Level 3 coach, a mature psychology student and has 30 years’ experience working in senior roles for Barclays, HSBC, British Waterways and National Grid Property.
I spent quite a lot on my childhood playing bikes. I have memories of jumping off planks propped up with bricks in my very young years and then, still under 10, riding a 3 speed Raleigh ‘racer’ all over the place practicing skids and wheelies. I could never do much of a wheelie, still can’t, but that didn’t stop me practicing.
Before I get too misty eyed about the whole thing, I do remember seeing my next door neighbour catastrophically failing to jump an up-ended oil barrel on his Raleigh Chopper and I suspect it was only his youth that prevented an impromptu gear shifter enabled castration. Who the hell thought putting a gear lever between your legs on a bicycle was a good idea?
I’m prompted to write something down about 'playing bikes' because I’m running a skills session for novice bike racers next month. One of my greatest coaching pleasures is getting the cones, chalk, whistle and clip board out and doing some cycling skill coaching – particularly group riding skills. I’ve never come across anybody, no matter how experienced, who hasn’t learned something from having a crack at this. As an adult, you’re not allowed to just ‘play’ on your bike are you? You can’t just get it out of the garage and do some skids in the drive - the neighbours will think you’re a right knob. And that (finally, I hear you say…) is my point. If you’ve come to cycling later you might have missed the ‘play’ part and that’s the bit where you learn a lot of fundamental bike handling skills - how to stay on it and how far you can push it before you’re not on it. Getting a feel for that grey area between being the pilot of your machine or simply the passenger in an environment when you’re not going to be rolled into the tarmac by a passing truck is a useful confidence builder.
If you've got a bit of skills gap or you're not confident in riding close to others, you can put a lot of this right by getting on to a traffic free circuit and doing some skill work with a group of similarly motivated riders. Group riding is arguably the most essential skill set for a cyclist to master, it makes you more confident, safer, faster, more efficient, more relaxed and fundamentally ‘less shouted at’ by others you ride with.
So, call round for your mate and see if he or she fancies going out playing bikes or come and join me at a skills coaching session.
Rich Smith has lost many lumps of skin out playing bikes, favouring his left elbow to land on. He has coached the GB Transplant Cycling team for 10 years, is a British Cycling qualified Level 3 coach, a mature psychology student and has 30 years’ experience working in senior roles for Barclays, HSBC, British Waterways and National Grid Property. He still can't do a decent wheelie.
This is important. No really it is. It might even be worth reading
It is well recognised we have growing worldwide crises in mental and physical health. Modern life sees the world getting increasingly sedentary and fatter whilst at the same time being less fulfilled, satisfied or happy. The dubious silver lining to this malaise is that modern medicine now means we get to enjoy ill health and depression for a lot longer. Thanks a lot Doc.
If only there was something out there, available to everyone, without prescription or unwanted side-effects that could alleviate our growing mental and physical health. It wouldn’t be popular with the drug companies; they invent new diseases and conditions for their new drugs to treat, but what an amazing discovery that would be.
So, good news…
The benefits of exercise on physical health are well established. Improvements in cardiovascular capacity, increased bone density, decreased blood pressure and blood sugar levels mean by taking regular exercise we reduce the risk of dying from our most popular killers – heart attack, stroke and cancer. What is less well known is that physical activity has a similarly positive impact on our mental health.
In the short term, exercise increases levels of the brain's neurotransmitters (dopamine, serotonin and noradrenalin) which elevated mood. Simply put, exercise makes you immediately happier. In the medium term, exercise promotes a measurable shift in brain function that leads to enhanced attention and improvement in reaction times. Longer term, it provides a significant measure of protection against developing degenerative brain diseases in older age, notable Alzheimer’s, by altering brain physiology. New brain cells grow in the hippocampus, strengthening the brain and protecting (potentially even reversing) cognitive decline and memory loss.
A seminal 1999 study (Blummenthal et al) showed that regular planned physical activity is at least as effective as our most potent anti-depressant drugs in alleviating clinical depression over 16 weeks. Equally importantly, the results were longer lasting – perhaps unsurprisingly as only about 30% of patients prescribed anti-depressants take them. Blummenthal’s work has subsequently been supported by numerous later studies. It’s proper science.
How much exercise, how long and how hard? Research suggest about 150 minutes of aerobic exercise at 75-85% of maximum heart rate per week will do the job. So, 30 mins five times a week. Whilst I would strongly recommend cycling as your drug of choice, pretty much anything will do, including brisk walking, swimming, team sports etc. The gym works too apparently – the current thinking is that a combination of aerobic and weight bearing exercise is, in fact, ideal.
Why isn’t everybody doing it?
Well, increasing numbers of people do use cycling as an enjoyable adjunct to their health, fitness and well-being regime but there are barriers to starting any kind of exercise regime. There are also excuses – lack of time, facilities, motivation, self-consciousness, body image, laziness, the list goes on. However, the growth in the number of cyclists who don’t want to race but do want to ride in social groups has been significant, often helped by HSBC Breeze and growing local cycling clubs and triathlon scene. There’s a growing Strava community and more people engaging in static bike work using turbo trainers, Zwift, Peloton, Wattbikes and the like. However, the barriers to cycling are perhaps even harder to hurdle than for somebody brave enough to take on a park run. Newcomers to the sport are often nervous about riding on public roads and, before you even get to be told to ‘get off and milk it’ or answer questions about ‘road tax’ to drivers who have lost their shit, you have to sort out equipment, deal with bike shops and ingrained outdated attitudes of some.
Should you choose cycling as your therapy, I can help you jump the barriers. More importantly, I can help you leap gracefully over two of the biggest fences – motivation and adherence. Having a program designed for you, that you’ve invested time and money in and knowing that every session you do will be reviewed and feedback given will keep you going. It might even make you happier!
If you don’t fancy taking to two wheels (or the indoor equivalent), maybe choose something, anything, that gets your blood pumping a bit. The long term physical and mental benefits of regular aerobic exercise are proven.
Rich Smith credits cycling with keeping him comparatively sane. He has coached the GB Transplant Cycling team for 10 years, is a British Cycling qualified Level 3 coach, a mature psychology student and has 30 years’ experience working in senior roles for Barclays, HSBC, British Waterways and National Grid Property. Those 30 years didn't make him that happy.
About half my UK based riders (and me), have picked up a cold bug that seems to the doing the rounds at the moment. Now, I’m a bloke so when I’ve got a cold I don’t like to go on, and on, and on and on about it. Typically, I’m stoic and don’t like people to make a fuss… ahem.
However, in the interests of ‘Bro-Science’ and at the risk of severe criticism for the total lack of either medical knowledge or peer review I thought I would, indeed, batter on about it for the dubious benefit of fellow sufferers. There is, at least in part, some good reason to my droning on in addition to just reaching for non-existent sympathy. I always tell my riders to rest when they’ve got a cold. I’ve never seen anybody improve their fitness training with a bug but I have seen it demolish hard earned fitness when people have trained whilst still showing symptoms. It risks increasing the chances of post viral fatigue and all sort of nasties. In addition, I coach the GB Transplant Team who are purposefully immunosuppressed to mitigate organ rejection so I’m naturally cautious.
I’m as sure as I can be that the ‘it’s fine to train if the cold is above your neck’ trope is bollocks – a virus doesn’t know or care if it’s affecting just your head or not, you feel shit because of your immune response to the virus, not the virus itself, it’s almost certainly resident in the whole of your body. The same virus can effect two people in different ways.
Colin has given me a right battering. I did an FTP test just before it got hold of me so I know where my aerobic endurance level was before being infested with this vile pathogen. I’ve tracked the time its taken me to get back to what I laughingly refer to as ‘fitness’ using power (output measure) and HR (input measure) data for the middle 8 minutes of a sweetspot session (88-93% FTP) interval (table below). The good news for me, and you if you’ve picked up the same bug (and it’s affecting you in a similar way), is there does appear to be some light at the end of the dark snotty tunnel.
So, it’s taken me the best part of 4 weeks (25 days) to go from picking up the virus to being back to where my FTP test indicated I should be pre-cold. Fundamentally, whilst I felt okay but was seemingly recovering from the bug on 19th January, I needed more input (164 bpm) to produce less output (215w). I was trying hard but getting nowhere. By 30th January, less input (153 bpm) was resulting in more power output (245w). I was, at least by my standards, getting there. Interestingly, after I'd caught the bug but before I was symptomatic, I needed a fair bit more input (166 pm) for the same output (245w). I say it's 'interesting' but you'll be the judge of that.
Not remotely representative I know (52 year old, reasonably well trained if immunosuppressed male) and you can’t generalise anything from this anecdotal ‘evidence’ so I will do just that, generalise…
Thanks for listening, sniff… Rich
The ramblings of a cycling coach...