The human body is a fiendishly complicated thing. Test this out by asking a doctor why humans get tired during exercise, or why they age and die. Actually don’t, they’ll blow a gasket.
So, with this medical irreverence in mind, here’s a different take on the Components of Fitness, those things we need to focus on to get faster and fitter, using the analogy of a crappy Ford Fiesta I had as a kid.
I found out to my cost that putting wide alloy wheels on a 1 litre Fiesta does not make it faster. The same applies to muscles on a cyclist. Independently building bigger muscles is unlikely to make endurance riders faster without improving the other supporting systems.
If a lack of muscle strength in the legs is a limiting factor because of illness or injury, gym work may help but it has to be the right kind of exercise at the right weight because biceps curls don’t cut it – unless big biceps are needed to go with the alloy wheels. There are some limited circumstances where strength work might correlate with increased performance. Track sprinters use nothing but muscle power so they spend a lot of time in the gym and there is some weak evidence to suggest squatting can improve power in elite endurance athletes (link here) but, by and large, strength training does not translate directly to increased cycling performance.
There are numerous reasons why cyclists, particularly older riders should go to the gym, bone density, resilience against injury, flexibility and mental health among them but on its own, it’s not a magic bullet for riding faster. However, there are reasons to suggest it may translate to riding for longer and feeling happier.
Taking the back seats out of a Ford Fiesta will make it faster – or at least it’ll make it accelerate faster and burn less fuel maintaining speed. Similarly, power to weight is an unavoidably important component for endurance cyclists.
Being dispassionate about weight and avoiding linking it with self-worth or body image is a tough ask for humans, particularly those involved in sports with an aesthetic element and, like it or not, cycling does have that.
To be clear, if a rider is at a happy, healthy weight losing it is not indicated. But excess weight, particularly in the form of excess fat, is likely to affect performance in terms of speed and endurance. However, there is a balance. A 100kg rider on a skeleton evolved to carry 75kgs is going to slow things down but at 76kgs the extra kilo isn’t really going to make much difference unless it’s in elite competition.
How much it matters is a value judgement depending on the goals of the individual. Whilst weight should be controllable and arguably the simplest component to adjust if necessary, it is fiendishly difficult in practice.
Blood is a component of fitness that doesn’t get much profile in training articles but blood volume and the concentration of red blood cells are vital components for endurance athletes. Volume will increase with training but haemoglobin and haematocrit are, for all intents and purposes, a genetic predisposition and unalterable without dabbling in the dark arts. However efficient the cardio vascular system is, it still relies on getting a high volume of oxygen rich blood to the muscles.
As long as the diet is fairly healthy to start with, altering it won’t make any difference to blood chemistry or consistency. I would go as far to say that blood is the limiting performance factor for most which is why elite endurance athletes have to be careful who they select as parents – it’s in the genes.
The reason the first couple of training sessions or rides after a break feel grim is usually down to a reduction in blood volume rather than a permanent loss of fitness. It comes back quickly.
As any would-be boy racer knows, putting high octane fuel or nitrous oxide in a Fiesta will make it faster but only temporarily, then if detection by the authorities is avoided, it will blow up and die. The same happens to athletes who tamper with their blood.
Car - Diovascular system
Broadly, the heart, lungs, blood vessels, capillaries and anything connected with the machinery that moves blood to the muscles. Extending the Fiesta metaphor to breaking point, the aim is a well maintained engine capable of processing the air and fuel and moving out the waste products efficiently. This is meat and drink of endurance exercise and the main focus of a training prescription specifying how long, how hard and how often training should occur.
The cardiovascular system is one of the more trainable components on the list and, rightly, the one that gets the most attention. Critically, training needs to be at the right intensity, duration and frequency to optimise the effect because, treated carefully and with attention, it’s where performance gains are made.
The by-product of training the cardiovascular system on the bike is that is comes with cycling specific muscular development, blood volume recruitment and weight regulation. A rider with a high performance engine would do well to take great care of it to ensure it carries on performing well for a long time and should not trust it to AI or algorithms.
There was no engine management chip in the Fiesta, just the driver operating the pedals and steering wheel to take control and tell it what to do. Now, there are Fiesta shaped holes in hedges around here that will attest to this not always being a perfect process but the machine is not to blame for that.
Cars don’t need purpose but humans do. From purpose comes the ability to direct energy into the things that gives us satisfaction, fulfilment and enjoyment. It allows us to set goals to motivate us to train with intent and, when necessary, fall back on resilience and commitment to get us through tough patches.
I would argue the two components that separate the elite from the average are blood and brain. There’s nothing to be done about blood but getting the mind in the right place is something that’s available to all of us. Even if is machinery is Fiesta-like you can still optimise its performance and quickly drag it out of the metaphorical hedge when it gets miss directed.
Rich Smith still drives a Fiesta with wide wheels. He is a British Cycling qualified Level 3 coach and has coached the Great Britain Transplant Cycling team for over 10 years. 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 in 2015 which is much more fun.
The ramblings of a cycling coach...