I was a long way into my psychology degree before I got to the sports bit. I was interested to understand why participating or watching sport is so ubiquitous and what parts of the human psyche make us think sport is such a great idea. I’ll confess to be slightly disappointed to find that sports psychology is heavy on how to make competitors more effective or how to make reluctant exercisers stick to their plans, but light on why we bother in the first place.
Thinking about it, cycling is really hard. Training and competing seems like an enormous investment of energy and time in playing risky, expensive games. So what motivates humans to invest so much effort in to sport and why do we seemingly get so much enjoyment out of it? And could understanding this help us to be better sportsmen and women?
Ask a regular competitor why they do it and ‘I enjoy it’ is often the first response. Yeah, but why? Most things humans really enjoy, like food and sex, have a pretty clear link to thriving, surviving and an unwitting but inescapable adherence to ensuring our genes are passed on, but can the same be said of a 10 mile time trial?
What possible psychological explanations are there for our addiction to these bizarre but seemingly essential sporting rituals?
Evolutionary psychology - If you’re a Darwinian, these are behavioural products of natural selection that support reproduction and the continuation of our genetical material. Our brains were wired up some 200,000 years ago and the circuitry hasn’t been updated since, so the theory is the ability to compete, show strength, mastery and self-control makes you more attractive to the opposite sex and therefore you are more likely to pass on genetic material. Doesn't sound very romantic does it? Also, if you’ve seen a bunch of middle aged club cyclists in skinsuits, seemingly unlikely, but looking at all the other peculiar ways humans seek to demonstrate status, perhaps not so farfetched.
A demonstration of strength also makes you more useful to a tribe for both your own survival and mutual protection. The drive to be part of a troop is very strong – it’s why we like to be liked. In evolutionary terms, we’re still on the lookout for nuts, berries and the occasional mammoth steak so finding fit and brave compatriots to help us do this is important. Relating this to finishing 36th in a local road race may seem like a stretch, but think about what the ability to participate in an event like this means when judged against your peers sitting on the sofa. There is a strong evolutionary pressure to demonstrate value and usefulness to both for our own self esteem to others who we may rely on for help, support and protection. Sporting prowess in a modern demonstration of genetic fitness in its broadest sense, cycling is just our chosen medium.
Biological psychology – The brain communicates feelings and emotions via chemicals and electrical impulses. It doesn’t need us to understand them, just respond to them to ensure survival. Our brains aren’t interested in making us happy without a good evolutionary reason which is often why we sometimes find it hard to rationalize our behaviour or express our feelings. However, studies have shown exercise stimulates the production of ‘feel good’ brain chemicals like noradrenaline, dopamine and serotonin to the extent that regular moderate exercise is at least as effective in treating depression and is longer lasting than anti-depressant drugs (Blumenthal et al, 1999). We cyclists recognize this as a feeling of exhilaration while cycling or racing and as contentment and fulfilment on completion of a ride or race. It makes us feel good for a reason, our (chemically unaltered) brains rarely make things feel good without good, solid survivalist reasons, it just doesn’t feel to need to tell us about it. For example, when hungry, we can smash down a 12 inch pizza and a couple of cream buns and it feels great, satisfying and necessary - irresistible in fact. This is because our 200,000 year old brain circuitry considers high calorific foods like fats and sugars, to be scarce so we eat it, not some of it, but all of it. What’s more, even though we know food is instantly available and plentiful, we’ll eat it when we’re not hungry because our ancient brains think it might be a while before we come across it again and we have an on-board storage system for calories we don’t immediately need – body fat. The rational part of the modern human brain can distinguish between chancing on a bees nest full of honey and the sweets & treats counter at Sainsburys, but our evolutionary brain can’t. Anybody struggling to cut down on calories will attest to which part of the brain most often wins.
Psychologically we’re still chasing mammoths on bikes* and feeling great about it. They might even taste good, but we’ll never know because we’ve eaten them all.
*It's us riding the bikes, not the mammoths.
Cognitive psychology – One of the things that has made us humans so successful as a species is the ability to believe in fictions. As part of our social evolution, we have become adept at making things up and then believing in them so hard they become ‘true’ or real (money, nations states, religions, law, limited companies and the like). The power of belief is extraordinarily strong and I'm not suggesting we are kidding ourselves but, if we believe we’re doing the right thing by riding, training or racing then we are doing the right thing. This is important. Believing you have value and purpose is fundamental to humans being content, satisfied and, dare I say it, even happy? By choosing to train and race you’re giving yourself a valuable expression of worth, self-belief and esteem.
Within your ‘cognitive self’ you’re dealing with the rational, conscious brain that knows riding keeps you fit, keeps you interesting and recognizes the value of reaching goals and the worth of committing effort to achieve them. The ability to use the conscious mind to moderate fast reacting, strong evolutionary impulses requires focus, courage, resilience and determination. These most admirable of human qualities need to be brought to bear to achieve best performance because your evolutionary brain is aware it’s not being chased by a sabre toothed tiger and what you’re asking your body to do is essentially unnecessary for survival. It would very much like you to slow down, better still, stop and conserve precious energy. This ability to exercise control under stress is often referred to as ‘T-Cup’ in team sports – Total Concentration Under Pressure. It’s a learned skill and the meat and drink of sports psychology. The better you are at it, the faster you will be.
Social psychology – Self-identity is an important psychological component for humans, and we commonly identify by reference to membership of groups, and the traits groups show. Cycling means different things to different people, but it might be fitness, freedom and healthy competition to some. Equally it might relate to appearance via dress codes, body shape, equipment and the like. Amateur racing cyclists, time trialists, downhill mountain bikers, gravel riders all have subtlety different identities. For some it’s about beards, tattoos and an obsession with coffee. Whatever it is, we’ll identify as part of a tribe and, often, a tribe within a tribe. We know the power of tribe membership and we feel the need to conform with the unwritten rules of the group of which we are a member to show what we are, and what we definitely are not. This goes some way to explaining why people become as passionately involved in watching sport as they do participating in it. Look at how quickly football supporters switch from ‘we’ to ‘they’ when a team stops winning – group identity is a powerful but malleable concept. I’d suggest the traits and behaviours that comes from being a cyclist of any type requires a significant investment of resources and will therefore likely be a strong part of one’s identity.
So, what does all this mean for you as a rider? Some riders don’t feel the need to get under the skin of why they ride or race, they just do it, and that works for them. For others, understanding the motivation and the mechanics behind their riding, racing and training are vital to goal setting and remaining committed to a training plan. It’s a cliché, but whilst everybody is different there are some helpful psychological commonalities worth considering. Simply, if you’re looking for an example of the power of mind and how important understanding your own psychological drives can be, think of the difference between performances achieved in training as opposed to those in racing. The highest power figures, max heart rates and quickest times are almost always achieving in a competitive environment - same equipment, same physiology but vastly different mindset. You don’t have to be an elite athlete to benefit from using this knowledge, in fact, if you are elite, you’ve almost certainly gone some way to capitalizing on it already – it’s one of things that makes you elite. Who doesn’t want a boost in performance simply by unlocking the power of the mind?
I'd love to hear what you think. Get in touch here if you feel the evolutionary urge.
Rich Smith is a final year psychology student and it aware he might of overcooked this one - but then people laughed at aero gains too. He has coached the Great Britain Transplant Cycling team for over 10 years, is a British Cycling qualified Level 3 coach. He spent 30 years responding badly to people in authority in senior roles for Barclays, HSBC, British Waterways and National Grid Property before launching RideFast Coaching.
Who wasn’t looking forward to seeing the back of winter 2021? That’s right… nobody. For 18 months all we saw was hope running towards the horizon with its arse on fire. We’ve all been looking forward to a spring where Covid restrictions are being lifted and something approaching normal life can return. What did we get? Variants of Concern, a freezing cold bone dry April and a May that’s been wetter than a haddock’s bathing costume.
Despite the challenging meteorology and uncertain virology across Europe, the unlocking has meant an opportunity to train with friends, enter events and, for those so inclined, to race. We’re getting there aren’t we? Event calendars are filling up, groups rides are happening, the club time trial season is in full swing and the pros having been doing their stuff. Even the Giro d’Italia started on time and has been a welcome addition to our TV screens. We’re still missing anything approaching a normal domestic road racing scene in the UK now but signs of its revival are showing. Some say, with a smidgen of justification, the road racing scene in the UK was dying on its arse irrespective of the emergence of vile pathogens, but hope springs eternal.
In my little patch of England, there was much excitement about the first mid-week club time trial on the 31st March. The lack of light in the evening meant a 6.30 start and just 5 miles but the maximum field of 50 riders filled up immediately on release of the event. Never underestimate the drawing power of Telford I say. Obviously, being Britain, that evening was a balmy 22 degrees and sunny, fooling us in to thinking that was spring and summer set fine. The following Saturday it was 4 degrees, and the ice warning light came on in the car on the drive home. Bloody weather.
The theme of rapidly filling start lists has continued despite the frankly shocking weather, there’s been a palpable sense of relief and excitement amongst the guys and girls I race with and am privileged to coach. The chance to pin a number on and hurt a little gives meaning to an extended winter of training – it makes it all worthwhile. Sports psychology 101 is all about goal setting. It is genuinely important to have a targeted outlet for all that hard work. More broadly, the return of events indicates the end of the zombie apocalypse and something looking a little more like normal life providing hope for the psychology of those not in to sport too. Bloody virus.
Sadly, my club has had an all too literal ‘bloody cyclist’ moment when one of my club mates was hit by a car during a time trial – he was hospitalized but thankfully has now returned home. There’s a heady mix of pent up adrenaline within riders keen to press on and drivers keen to get where they’re going right now. The lockdown has had a significant psychological effect on many – there’s a good deal of frustration out there. You only have to ride the roads to witness the inattention, impatience and aggression of some of those we share the roads with. There’s a limit to what we can do to reduce our personal risk as cyclists because we're are so reliant on those in fast metal boxes paying attention - something many seem unable or unwilling to do right now. Fundamentally we have to trust in sturdy underwear and a polystyrene hat for safety. One thing we must do is make sure we keep our heads up and our senses in tune with the environment we’re riding in.
In other news, I’ve had 3 new riders join me in the past few weeks – always an exciting time. There are challenges to programming training when the racing season has already started. From a purely selfish perspective, it’s much easier if I’ve been able to prescribe a program over the winter months immediately preceding the season because ultimately that informs the likely ceiling of success for the year. With race targets approaching, there needs to be a careful balance – it’s tempting and easy to over prescribe to show you’re ‘doing something’ rather than follow the principles you know work. Sometimes ‘rest’ is the hardest session an endurance athlete can do.
Stay frosty out there - literally and figuratively, and if I can help you ride faster, get in touch via the contact form here.
Rich Smith has had enough of being bloody wet and/or bloody cold. He has coached the Great Britain Transplant Cycling team for over 10 years, is a British Cycling qualified Level 3 coach and a psychology student. He spent 30 years responding badly to people in authority in senior roles for Barclays, HSBC, British Waterways and National Grid Property before launching RideFast Coaching.
You would be forgiven for thinking there are few useful parallels to be drawn between the Giro d’Italia and racing your bike along the A442 between Shawbirch and Hodnet but bear with me for a few minutes because there are actually some helpful take-away lessons for us mortals. Stage 1 of the Giro took place 8th May and it was particularly useful to have the input of Dan Bigham and Bradley Wiggins during the TV analysis as they offered useful insights.
The 2021 Giro started in Turin with an 8.6km prologue time trial (that’s about 5 miles in old money). Filippo Ganna of Team Ineos won it in a time of 8.47 beating his closest rival by a massive 10 seconds. My own – much less glamourous – experience of international time trialling has been riding and coaching others to compete in the World Transplant Games since 2003. Initially this was a 5k event (3 miles) where the faster riders there were around 7 mins. More latterly this was extended to 10km, which at least gave riders a chance to breathe, taking 15 mins or so. The shortest standard distance TT in the UK is 10 miles (16.2km) and forms the meat and drink of the mid-week club TT scene. Times vary from 45 mins to sub 20 mins but a mid-marking competitive male club rider on aero equipment is going to be around, say, 25mins. Terms & conditions apply of course.
So, can we learn anything from the pros and apply it to make us ride faster?
Optimize your equipment Ganna was riding the latest version of the Pinarello Bolide which is a super fast machine, but bearing in mind the drag offered up by the human sitting on top of the bike is 80% of the aerodynamic conundrum, the shape of bike frame and what it is made from, is relatively unimportant. However, the wheel and tyre combination is important from a drag, control and rolling resistance perspective. Current thinking is that clincher tyres with latex inner tubes are faster than tubulars or tubeless set ups for time trialling and it looks like Ganna was running these on a rear disc and a deep sectioned front wheels and had departed from Ineos sponsor standard Shimano offerings. Reportedly he used a Princeton Carbonworks disc on the rear with an Aerox Titan up front on Continental Grand Prix TT clincher tyres. This stuff is available to the market but, of course, at a price and bear in mind Ganna’s team will have optimized this equipment for him. Leaving helmets, skinsuit, shoes cover, chain rings and other consequential but peripheral aero aids aside, Ganna’s handlebar extensions were Pinarello’s in house ‘Most’ branded – your guess is as good as mine as to who made them – but they are non-adjustable and formed specifically for him to keep him in aero position. Some of this translates to the amateur scene, and you can get a very aero front end with a number of after market systems without going to the trouble and expense of getting your own extensions built. It is about developing a sensible compromise between cost and marginal performance gains. If, for example, you are racing week in week out, how many times can you put a pair of paper-thin clinchers around gritty roundabouts before one blows? What’s more important to you and your racing? A 90% solution that’s consistently reliable or a 95% solution that could get your that extra few seconds but might not get you there at all? Very much a personal decision dependent upon your individual attitude to your racing and riding.
Optimize your position Most of the effort you put in to pedaling goes to overcoming resistance as you push through the air, so the size and frontal shape you present is relevant to how fast you can go (see CdA or coefficient of aerodynamic drag). The gold standard approach to optimising an aero position is wind tunnel testing with a variety of positions, helmets and skinsuits until the best one crops up. Most professionals and those at the pointy end of time trialling have been through this but at 500 quid an hour, it’s not realistic for many, nor is it guaranteed to provide the best solution. I have seen a couple of riders put in to very slippy positions where they are struggling to push the pedals hard enough and have lost so much power they are slower overall. Bear in mind that young Filippo and his contemporaries could probably bend into most aero positions and adapt to pushing the pedals hard and fast whereas I can say from experience there’s only so many places a 54 year old, 78 kilo body will go before it blows a gasket - see below. It’s about finding the right compromise between an aero position and one that you can make best use of the power in your legs. The benefits of an experienced eye and some trial and error may well get you an effective usable position without a visit to Silverstone or a chiropractor.
Optimize your preparation and recovery I was interested by something that Wiggins said about the differing approaches the time trial specialists and the riders aiming for GC might take to this very short prologue. He suggested that Ganna and the other specialists in with a shout of winning would be using a 20 - 30 min structured warm up before hitting the race as hard as they can. They will have tapered their training and prepared for this level of effort. While the rest of the race is more than an afterthought, both rider and team will understand the consequences of this kind of effort and have legislated for it in their planning. Wiggins suggested the GC riders would be fitting their race effort around 2 hours of road work before, then a warm up and probably another easy hour after the prologue. It might seem counter intuitive to reduce the maximum capacity of the effort, but it makes sense within the context of a 3 week stage race. Those who have done short distance TTs know, you can really hurt yourself in a short space of time. A flat out effort of a few minutes duration will cause damage and the light riding the GC guys do before will prevent them from going as deep as they could. It’s important they don’t lose time over their rivals, but going all in at the beginning of a 3 week race could adversely affect them later. By way of example, if you’re a data driven rider, you’ll be familiar with the concept of a Training Stress Score (TSS). Training Peaks data analysis works on the basis that an hour at FTP equals 100 TSS points. So, a 10 mile time trial will register say 45 TSS points and a 3.5 hour Z2 ride at something like 200TSS. Try doing four 10 mile time trials in a week and see how you feel against a single 3.5 hour ride – actually don’t – but you see the point. Short intense efforts inflict damage and the consequences of this need to be explicitly built into your preparation, rest and recovery whether you’re in the Giro or racing down the A442 if you want to perform at your best.
Optimize your ‘threshold’ - You’ll hear commentators say, ‘he’s going in to the red’ and ‘he’s over threshold here’ coupled with helpful red/green graphics on the screen. However, there are so many different casual definitions of ‘threshold’ it can become misleading. Probably the most usable and widely understood definition of threshold is Functional Threshold Power (FTP), an estimate of the maximum power you can hold for 60 mins. So, would Ganna be ‘in the red’ and ‘over threshold’ for the prologue using this definition? Yes, if he’d ridden at his FTP, he’d have finished 2 minutes behind his mates. Would he be ‘in the red’ if he’d been riding at his threshold for an 8.47 min burn time? No, by definition he’d have been bang on it because his ‘threshold’ for 9 mins is about 550w, that’s why he won. If he'd set out to hold 650w then he'd have been in the red and would have blown his chances. For us mortals, whilst everybody’s physiology is different, your threshold for a 10 mile time trial is going to be around the top of Z4 (using Coggan’s 6 zones), if it isn’t, either you’re not trying hard enough or, more likely, your FTP settings are wrong, either way it’s unfortunately not likely to be a Ganna sized wattage.
Optimize your mental preparation - Ganna was targeting the prologue. He’s an Italian, riding in his hometown, wearing the rainbow stripes of the world champion, I think it’s fair to say he was motivated to go all out to win. He also had something to prove after some less than stella performances (is his terms) because his previous results show he wasn’t quite at 100%. Us amateurs may not have the sunlit streets of Turin, rainbow stripes and cheering crowds to push us on but it’s important to look for what does give us that extra psychological push when approaching target events. How do you frame that feeling before an event, it is nerves or excitement? Chemically it’s the same thing in your brain, it’s down to you whether you chose to interpret that as a positive push or an anxious block.
Balance your approach to risk - Ganna bent that bike into every corner – he was going all out to win and everything, including his approach to risk, was turned up to 11 because nobody really cares who finishes second in something like this. Just like adopting a compromise that suits you with equipment, position and training it’s important to reach a spot on your personal risk register that comfortably accommodates your approach to riding and racing. Amateur time trialling takes place on open roads and the consequences of a head down position that inhibits vision or a rush to get on to a roundabout trying to gain an extra few seconds can be serious. Adopt a balance that suits you.
Enough optimizing and balancing already, there’s another TT in the Giro to come! Get in touch if I can help.
So here we are then, spring. It's been a long and difficult winter like no other I've ever seen. Hopefully you've made it through in one piece and have either avoided or recovered from this awful bug.
If you're a regular visitor here you'll know I've been doing a month by month 'guide' to training over the winter. This is the last of the monthly based updates for the time being because, praise be, winter is finally over. I hope you’ve found these things useful or at least pleasantly distracting whilst the world has been in such an unfamiliar and unsettling place.
With both cycling and pandemics it appears data is critical. All other things being equal, if the UK COVID-19 figures continue to trend downward, we have the reward of a return to outdoor sport to look forward to (in England at least) from the end of March. Quite what this means for mass start events like road racing, sportives and the like we don’t know yet but British Cycling are on the case so we'll know as soon as they do. Fingers crossed. However, the Cycling Times Trials calendar is already well populated for those of an aero disposition, clubs seem to on the ball and the diaries are becoming populated with events from 29th March onwards. I guess we’ll have to wait to see what the devolved administrations come up with, but I know the riders I coach in Scotland are growing weary of sitting on the runway, engines running, all ready for take-off.
'...Oh shit, it's March...'
Over the last 6 months, I’ve based these brief articles around training through winter for a season that starts in April. If this timeline is relevant to you, you’ll probably fall in to one of two camps. Either you've had a winter’s worth of riding ready for the application of the finishing touches or you’re currently spraying chocolate digestive crumbs out of your mouth whilst muttering ‘oh shit it’s March’ and easing yourself off the sofa. So, this month let’s focus on approaches for these eventualities.
The chocolate digestive scenario
We’ve all been here to a greater or lesser extent and, if you’re just getting in to this cycling malarkey, you’ve got to start somewhere. Now is as good a time as any. It’s easy to be tempted to do too much too soon if you’ve left things a bit late. But ‘a bit late’ is a relative term. With a fair wind, there should be races and events all the way through to October in 2021 and, because of the pandemic, a lot of these are late in the season so there’s still plenty of time to get in to shape. You just may have to accept you’re going to be at 60% at the start of the season and you’ll need to use the first couple of months to judiciously build form, using racing as part of your training. Not exactly the end of the world, and don’t apply pressure to yourself to ‘perform’ try to focus on ‘build’.
The same principle applies if you’ve been out of the game injured or ill. One of the very few positives of the last 12 months is there have been far fewer cold and flu viruses in circulation (because we haven’t been circulating) but whatever the reason for time off the bike, the way to return to fitness involves pragmatic, progressive and appropriate training to get you back in to shape. Don’t rush it and don’t be tempted to take short cuts. Crash diets and 5 hour bike rides don’t make great bed fellows
The finishing touches scenario
Well done you…!
Broadly speaking, you should be dropping the volume and increasing the intensity. However, this should be in a way that is relevant to your level of fitness, season’s targets, current training load and, critically, your data. You probably want to be spending more time in Zone 4 and Zone 5 if that’s where the important bits of your racing happen, but bear in mind we are talking about building up minutes, not hours, in these zones. Time spent up here is physiologically and psychologically extremely demanding and repeats in these zones have to be carefully measured and combined with the right amount of rest. Undoubtedly, you’ll need to monitor recovery to understand when you can go hard again without blowing a gasket. Be cautious if you’re using a TSS score to balance your training load, it’s a reasonable way of judging training load if there’s lots of Z2 but when you hit the intensity button, it’s not always fully reflective of physical input.
'...your body is like day-old rice. If it ain't warmed up properly, something real bad could happen...' Ted Lasso
Training doesn’t stop when the racing starts but it does need to be adjusted to make the most of the increased demands placed on your body. With careful measured application of overload and recovery, this is where your largest physiological gains can be made. It’s where the work you’ve put in to lay the foundations for spring and summer will pay off and where you can see the benefits of proper rest, active recovery, structured warm ups and tapering on your cycling.
I hope to see you on the lists in 2021 and do get in touch if I can help you with riding faster.
Rich Smith has had enough of winter. He has coached the Great Britain Transplant Cycling team for over 10 years, is a British Cycling qualified Level 3 coach and a psychology student. He spent 30 years responding badly to people in authority in senior roles for Barclays, HSBC, British Waterways and National Grid Property before launching RideFast Coaching.
There's a rhyming mnemonic to help remember how many days are in each month, '30 days have September, April, June and November, all the rest have 31 apart from January which has 438. But, hey, we've battled through another bleak January, so what should February be all about?
Transition – a gradual increase in intensity and a reduction in volume if you’re going to be competing over the spring and summer is probably in order during February. If you’re only just clearing the Christmas decorations away, it’s probably your last chance to start training with any realistic hope of seeing performance improvements in time for spring. If you have left it a little later than normal - cut yourself some slack – the world’s in a funny place, just don’t be tempted to increase the intensity and volume of your training at the same time as you risk overtraining and fatigue. You may have to accept that early season racing is going to be part of your training program and target events may have to move to a little later in the year - during the pandemic, this doesn't seem to be much of a problem sadly. If you’re aiming for summer or autumn fitness, there’s plenty of time, but there’s no time like the present to start.
Be specific – whatever your choice of cycling poison, time trial/triathlon, road, MTB, track, etc the more time in position, towards race intensity and with ecologically validity in February the better – this means training in your race environment whenever you feasibly can. Fundamentally cycling is an immersive experience in the real world, not one endured through a screen. Turbo trainers are glorified exercise bikes, we use them because we have to, because it’s too dangerous, dark, cold or unpleasant to ride outside. Too much of it and you become conditioned to be effective at riding an exercise machine, not effective at riding a bicycle. Humans are mentally happier and physically healthier when they’re outside and exercising – fact. If you want to interact with your natural environment via a machine, I’d suggest a bicycle rather than a computer screen. Push something hard with your feet rather than tap something gently with your fingers. After all, fast or slow, riding a bike is what we enjoy doing, right?
Fitness testing - If you tested around Christmas or early in the new year, you might want to repeat that testing around the end of February. First, it will give you a good indication whether your efforts during January and February have paid off - 8 weeks is a realistic time over which it’s reasonable to expect detectable fitness improvements. If you’re not seeing the signs of improvement, you’ve got time (and the data) to implement some changes. Secondly, testing will give you updated figures on which to base your race or event prep during March.
The little things – they used to be called marginal gains but that was before marginal gains became a euphemism for testosterone patches. As intensity increases so does the need to look after yourself – when you train hard, as a minimum make sure you’re hydrated, you’re fuelling appropriately during and after exercise, and you're keep an eye on resting heart rate as this might indicate you're over doing it or you've got the start of a bug. When marginal gains was a thing, hand washing was there in the mix (really). Hand to eyes, nose and mouth is a principal route for viral infections and, for obvious reasons, never has avoiding this been more important. The less time you're ill, the more time you have to train.
Have faith – I’m not invoking the power of God here, I wouldn’t dare, particularly as my garage has been BlasphemyCentral during turbo sessions this winter – but mindset is critically important. Belief is a powerful thing, powerful enough to make people think it’s a brilliant idea to strap on explosives and blow themselves, and anybody unfortunate enough to be near them, up. If one is prepared to believe in immaculate conceptions, fiery talking bushes and vaccines containing a 5G tracking chip, a passing belief that we may get to use our hard crafted training during something that looks like a racing season shouldn’t be much of a stretch. Confidence and belief that training tailored to you represents a worthwhile investment in your future means engaging with your sessions and rides with purpose and intent. Simply, this means your training will be more effective. It ensures you will be as fit and fast as you can be. Importantly, it should also give you a personal sense of identity, value and direction. Having said that, my firm view is that it may be appropriate to blow up at the end of one of my time trial turbo sessions, but not whilst shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’ and rattling off a Kalashnikov. Everything in moderation, including belief.
Until next time peace, love and cycling.
Rich Smith has been in trouble before for reasons that are probably becoming obvious. He has coached the Great Britain Transplant Cycling team for over 10 years, is a British Cycling qualified Level 3 coach and a mature psychology student. He spent 30 years responding irreverently to people in authority in senior roles for Barclays, HSBC, British Waterways and National Grid Property before launching RideFast Coaching.
Here we are then, the start of 2021 – I don’t think anybody will be regretting saying goodbye to a shocking 2020. If you want to be ready to rock come the spring there is no time like the present to start training with purpose and intent. Candidly, now is the time to make it hurt just a little.
However 2021 turns out, by training you’re making a positive statement about the future - you’re investing in your physical and mental health. Arguably, this is the most important down payment you can make because it’s the most precious thing you own.
So, without further philosophising, what should your January look like?
Train, don’t ride – I’m overstating this for affect. There is of course no need to stop riding your bike but there is good reason to stop going on bike rides. It’s more than semantics because if it’s your aim to be as good as you can be come the lighter nights, you need to flick the switch from 'ride’ to ‘train’ mode. This means having structure to both your individual sessions and to your weeks and months. Try asking yourself ‘what purpose does this session serve, how does it relate to my goals?’ If you can’t come up with a plausible answer then stop doing it and start doing something else – something measurable and relevant.
Physiologically, you are going to have to introduce periods of intensity appropriate to your current fitness to overload your system. Coupled with periods of rest and active recovery, this will create the effect you’re after. Frankly, it’s going to hurt a bit. If training doesn’t overload you from time to time, you’re not doing it right. You’ll need to find some accountability to make sure you train hard when you should and rest well when you’re not – without this, your fitness will be an insipid beige.
Psychologically, all endurance athletes embrace hard training, that’s the ‘easy’ bit. Paradoxically, the other vital part of the equation – rest - is where most struggle. Rest is not something you do after training, or something that happens by accident when you’re not training but is part of your training. Rest is the bit where you get fitter and faster, your body adapts to the hurt and repairs itself to cope with the next instalment. Without it you’ll grind yourself down. You’ll risk fatigue and a whole host of injuries – some more sinister than others.
Make your training relevant. If you’re training for time trials, you’ll need to start spending time training in an aero position. Whereas If you’re targeting a 100 mile sportive in August, 45 min balls out sessions on the turbo in January won’t get you far. Take a leaf from the elite athletes note pad and think about polarising your training by making your easy sessions easier and your hard session harder. Being on the smart turbo sweating at threshold will work for a bit but you’ll be visiting Plateau Beige pretty soon.
Weight – Don’t panic! And don’t crash diet. if, if (and it’s a big if) you want to shed a bit of timber because you’ve rinsed the Quality Street over Christmas you can comfortably shed a stone (6kgs or so) sustainably in 12 weeks by carefully counting calories (approx. 500 kcal deficit per day) without compromising your training or rest.
January is an important starting point – if you want some help with your training, please get in touch here.
Happy New Year!
Rich Smith coaches riders in the UK and internationally. He has coached the Great Britain Transplant Cycling team for over 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 before launching RideFast Coaching which is much more fun
The 5 min interval, more accurately the 5 min effort - the interval refers to the rest period – has currency in the cycling world with good reason. They are a mental and physical journey as those familiar with the experience will attest to. Painful, grim, soul sucking, the list of descriptors is endless and yes, all true, but oh so very useful.
To put them in context, we’re talking about bloody hard multiple over FTP kick ass high Zone 4/low Zone 5 efforts. Individually they represent the kick you find at the end of a race or when trying to establish or get across to a break. In time trial parlance, they can be used in multiples for training – 4 of them if you’re superhuman and can break 20 mins for 10 mile TT, 6 if you’re a beginner trying to hold 20 mph for 30 mins or 5 if you’re a mid-marking improver looking to get under 25 mins. More broadly, they are used to induce an element of overload and, applied judiciously, are effective in increasing FTP.
So, shall we see if we can sneak up behind one, tap it on the back of the head and get in on the bench for a figurative dissection?
The first minute
What’s happening inside – if you’re reasonably fit, you carry enough ATP (Adenosine triphosphate) in your muscles to produce something like a 45 second to 1 min hard effort meaning you’re get the first part of this for ‘free’. Flat out, your ATP will go in less than 10 seconds but at a (high Z4, low Z5 power) or 10 mile TT pace, you’re going to be able to eek it out a bit longer. The ATP systems is handy from an evolutionary perspective when you’re escaping a sabre tooth tiger attack. You won’t be able to outrun the tiger but you might be quicker than your hunter gatherer mate who’s overdone it on the nuts and berries.
How it feels – cadence up, power up, relaxed but pumping legs. Heart rate low but starting to react to the effort. Breathing easy, no real noticeable strain in the legs.
What you’re thinking – this is a piece of piss, I’ve probably undercut the power target I was aiming for by 30w or more. There are a few pro teams out there who are going to be mighty sorry they missed out on signing me I can tell you. Sub 20 minutes for a club 10 this season and no mistake. I’m a Legend me.
1 minute – 2 mins 30 seconds
What’s happening inside – you’ve burned through most of your immediately available ATP and you’re having to synthesise it for which you need oxygen and as much of it as you can get. Your body doesn’t know what you’re doing because it can’t see a tiger but it will put up with it because your mind is telling you it’s important and it probably knows best.
How it feels – BIIIIGGGG intake of breath after 45 secs to 1 minute, rapidly rising heart rate, legs slowing a little under the resistance, noticeable strain in the legs.
What you’re thinking – Right, let’s just try to hold the original power target. I can do this; I know it’s going to be tough but I CAN and WILL push through this. I’ll he halfway through in a minute. Oh Christ, I’m only halfway through but I'll hang on.
2 mins 30 secs to 4 mins
What’s happening inside – heart rate well over what is sustainable for anything more than an emergency, your synthesising ATP as fast as you possible can and your body is pulling in oxygen and using water like it’s going out of fashion. Your blood lactate levels are rising rapidly and you’re unable to clear it as fast as you’re making it so you’re over your lactate threshold. Somebody will have told you that lactate makes your legs burn, slows you down and gives you that dead feeling. It doesn’t, but that what’s people say sometimes.
How it feels – Hard to know as your teeth are now biting down hard on the handlebars. Your breathing is noisy and laboured and you’re looking for new holes to breathe through. Heart rate revving like an F1 car but starting to drift and you sound like a Astramax diesel van with 250,000 miles on the clock.
What you’re thinking – This is unpleasantly difficult and you’d very much like to stop. However, you’ve invested in getting this far and even though your cadence and power is dropping, you're not going to blow it by giving in now. You're thinking you might have to knock this down a gear and pick the cadence up – this might Sting a bit.
4 mins – 5 mins
What’s happening inside – your systems are becoming overloaded and staring to get fatigued. You’ll be running on fumes and your engine management chip (your mind) is going to be balancing the need to achieve your objective of finishing this effort against the significant physical cost. It will probably be breaking down fibres in your muscles and stretching your aerobic capacity to the maximum. Arguably, this is the most important part of the effort if you’re striving for performance improvements.
What you’re thinking - More hallucination than thinking. Superman zooms past. His warp speed passage has instigated time going backwards. You are now sitting in HG Wells time machine as the world ages around you, the sun sets a few thousand times and you’re surrounded by a heard of triceratops. A diplodocus moos plaintively in the background whilst munching on giant fauna. You see God.
How it feels – Like the Ninth Circle on Dante’s Hell. Your body is screaming at you to stop and but you’re telling it you don’t want to yet. Muscle pain, gasping for breath, sweating profusely on to your headset. A sense of elation at the completion of the effort is marred by an instantaneous sense of dread at the approach of the next one. Time accelerates forward as you sling shot around the moon…
Rich Smith loves prescribing sessions that include 5 min efforts - his riders have invented new words for their coach. He has coached the Great Britain Transplant Cycling team for over 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 before launching RideFast Coaching which is much more fun
Ride – Yep, there’s a pattern developing here isn’t there? Assuming we’re heading for a normal season (racing from when the clocks go forwards in late March), December is a good time to continue building endurance with a focus on volume rather than intensity but introducing some polarised sessions could be an idea. January is likely to see the start of gradual reduction of volume and an increase in intensity so reminding the body of what this feels like pre-Christmas may make January a little more palatable.
'...Christmas time, mistletoe and wine, pissed up drivers psychopathically inclined…’ as Cliff once sang.
A straw poll of some club mates indicates many have taken increasingly to Zwift or similar indoor tortures. Of course, much of this is enforced by work patterns meaning mid-week day light road rides are out but also weekends can become problematical because of weather that, in meteorological terms, is mostly shit. Just a word of caution, 2 hours on the turbo is physiologically (and psychologically) different from 2 hours on the road. I try not to prescribe anything over an hour on the turbo but this does mean dialling up the intensity sometimes. Make sure you build some balance in, nothing but virtual riding is a bit like eating a pot of strawberry jam: the first spoonful is nice but it gets sickly pretty quickly when you see how much more you’ve got to eat. Spring is still a long way off.
Weight – Tricky. Personally I only have to look at a mince pie (with cream, obvs) to put weight on. At this time of year and at a time of Covid-19 induced isolation, stress and boredom, those of us with a propensity to seek refuge in the biscuit barrel are at risk of putting on a bit of timber. Weight is such a personal thing and it’s essential you find a balance that suits you as a person and as an athlete. My own experience is that in the past I’ve often relied on shedding excess weight post-Christmas meaning sometimes my training is compromised by having one eye on calorie deficit and the other on performance. They are not always compatible.
Weight is a minefield. There are lots unhealthy eating behaviours and eating disorders out there and all of us have our own relationship (good or bad) with food. The assumption that to be great on a bike means being rake-thin is wrong but it’s an unavoidable truth that too much excess chub is unhealthy and will slow you down – we need to find a healthy balance.
Head – Remember those goals you set a few weeks back? The targets that will map out what you’d like to achieve next season? Give them a shake and see if they’re still appropriate and will motivate you to press on purposefully with your training during the winter months. If they don’t fulfil this critical role, adjust them so they do. Training is most effective when it’s performed with meaningful intent and a clear-eyed view of relevant goals is a vital part of this.
'...all I want for Christmas is some new front forks, new front forks, new front forks...' as Spike Jones & his City Slickers once sang.
Variety - If you have been training during autumn, give yourself a pat on the back because you’re going to be much better prepared for 2021 that those that haven’t. If you’ve careful built up a sustainable, durable base at the right level you’re going to be able to push on harder and faster in the new year. If things are starting to feel a bit ‘samey’ go for a spin on the mountain bike, walk, rest, mix things up a little bit. You can afford to do this because you’ve built up resilience in your fitness and a week off the bike is likely to consolidate, not damage, those hard earned gains.
Reflect – Cycling is a rich, complex and involved sport, it’s one of the reasons why it's so enriching to be involved in but it risks becoming obsessive. It’s easy to get bogged down in numbers, FTPs, CdAs, TSS etc, sometimes it’s important for our broader relationships and our own mental health to ensure our beloved sport has it’s proper place in our life and is not overstepping the boundaries.
It’s important but it’s not that important - we ride for fun, nobody is forcing us to do this.
'Ooooooo baby baby, ooo baby BABY...' Hang on, that's Salt and Pepper...
Rich Smith's favourite Christmas song is Greg Lake's 'I believe in Father Christmas'. He has coached the Great Britain Transplant Cycling team for over 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 before launching RideFast Coaching which is much more fun.
So, there I was, flying through the air thinking ‘here we go again’ closely followed by ‘if I survive hitting the deck, I hope nothing runs me over’. Time stands still whilst a crash is happening but soon enough, I was lying face down on the A458. I was 200 metres away from my house having had my recently started Sunday ride brought to an abrupt halt by a little old lady in a Volkswagen. Again...
I’ve got a thing about being hit by little old ladies in little old cars whilst riding although to be fair, this is my first VW. I’m beginning to think it might be my fault, or maybe I did something terrible to old ladies in a past life. My brother had to fish me out of a hedge after being broadsided by a driver emerging from a T junction a few years back. Renault Clio. She said she was so unsettled by the crash she’d just caused; it was her sincere hope she wasn’t going to hit anything else on her onward journey. I shared her concern.
More recently a little old Spanish lady decided to turn right to get petrol at the same time I was riding past the filling station. Peugeot 206. She said it was ‘mucho calor’ and, yeah, perfectly understandable, paying attention to other road users when it’s warm is pretty challenging. Either way, Mallorcan tarmac tastes the same British tarmac – it’s just served warm.
I walked away from the first two with some missing skin, a collection of bruises and some bike scrapes. The latest instalment did involve a (short) lift home in a Shropshire ambulance and a bike that will only turn left. Well, it would only turn left if the wheels went round. Which they don’t.
I was fortunate to be helped off the road by a young lady who took charge of a situation very calmly (an ex fire fighter now in the armed services), a young man who witnessed the crash and stopped to help and give me his details, the cops and the ambulance staff. I’m extremely grateful for their care and attention.
If you ride long enough, this shit happens, a moment’s inattention from a driver and bang, down you go. I was lucky again – it you want to frame it like that – but it got me thinking about the value of healthy life and why I choose to spend a good chunk of it astride a bicycle.
Although it comes with obvious risks, stuff like this will not stop me, or you I suspect, from riding. It’s too important for my physical and mental health. I don’t ride a bike out of a determination to exercise my right as a road user. Self-righteous indignation is no protection against inattentive drivers and riding angry is no fun. it’s just cycling stops me from going bat shit and keeps the ravages of Mr Kipling's finest at bay.
Recent experiences have made me reflect on the place riding a bike has in my life. Instances of chewing tarmac aside, cycling gives me an enhanced quality of being, and training and racing gives me a sense of purpose and fulfilment. To some non-cyclists what we do may be no more than playing on a child’s toy dressed in a Lycra onesie, but for me it’s a fundamental part of my identity and psychologically important. Have you ever been prompted to think about what cycling means to you? Or is it just something you 'do'? I'd be interested to know.
Riding a bike outside makes me feel fully alive - in the elements you sense the environment and feel the work. It’s a real, not virtual, world and to me it’s all the more valuable for that. You can’t ride a bike without hurting a little although hopefully this is self-infected rather than in the gift of a little old lady in a little old car.
The moral of the story? I guess don't take your ability to ride a bike for granted. Value it, own it, nurture it and above all, enjoy it. And get insurance. And... bear in mind if you need a new bike, there's a long, long wait because there's nothing in stock!
If you've had your own experiences of bouncing down road unattached to your bike I'd like to hear about it, particularly if it's changed your attitude to riding or made you reflect on how riding effects your life.
Rich Smith bounces real good. He has coached the Great Britain Transplant Cycling team for over 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 before launching RideFast Coaching which is much more fun.
If you’ve lost your fast paced group ride for a few weeks because of Covid-19 restrictions, here’s something to try if you're still allowed out to play on your own.
Z3 Power (Tempo) is often ignored in training prescription for solo riding, perhaps because it tends to be the kind of effort level used in faster paced group 'through & off' type training rides or quicker Sunday club runs but, in the absence of these during lockdown, it might be worth trying a bit of Z3 on for size.
'Resist turning all your longer training rides in to Zone 3, you’ll be bolloxed...'
Z3 power is 76-90% of FTP or 84 -94% of your heart rate threshold (the HR you can hold for an hour) if you’re not using power measurement ...yet. So, whilst still fitting in to the ‘aerobic endurance’ definition, it’s pretty tough stuff, particularly to maintain on your own. I tend to prescribe sessions of 90 mins to 2.5 hours in duration with my riders. I tried to do 3 hours of it myself once and started to hallucinate about lemon curd on toast. Anyway, whilst it's noticeably tougher than Z2, trying to maintain this level can have a number of benefits, so...
If you try it, let me know how you get on.
Rich Smith tried to fit a rock & roll reference in to this hastily constructed piece but thought 'Stone Tempo Pilots' was pushing it. He has coached the Great Britain Transplant Cycling team for over 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 before launching RideFast Coaching which is much more fun.
The ramblings of a cycling coach...