I know right, disappointing.
Here we are doing all this riding and training, bashing out the endurance miles but our weight remains stubbornly the same. Shocking isn’t it? Feels like a betrayal for those of us who ride whilst watching what we eat but remain bewildered and frustrated that we carry more fat than we want despite mammoth efforts.
Why might this be?
Being charitable, it appears we’ve been misled about the contribution exercise has for weight loss. A cynic may say we’ve been lied too about how exercise and weight loss works by clever people in the food industry who are after our money. Some myths are busted below.
We don’t burn as many calories as we think
A power meter will give a very accurate measurement of how many kcals a rider burns during training. A heart rate monitor will provide a decent estimate too. Logically we should be able knock this off daily calorie count, have a couple of biscuits and still be well under. Not so fast. A thing called the Energy Compensation Effect means because, knowingly or not, we take more rest after exercise so that consumption figure is reduced to 72% on average (Careau et al, 2021).
We’ve adapted to our energy expenditure
A seminal study on a hunter gather tribe, the Hadza in Tanzania, showed despite their very active lifestyle, they range over huge areas to collect food fundamentally taking a huge amount of exercise, their actual energy expenditure was no greater than people in developed Western societies. They adapted to the activity and have become efficient at a metabolic level. What makes them slim and have low body fat is the amount of food they eat, not how much they expend (Pontzer, H et al, 2012). As cyclists, we have also adapted to our way of life and have rebalanced our energy expenditure.
We take energy from other biological systems
Train frequently and, yes, the energy will come from readily available stores – glycogen from the muscles and liver and an element of fat. However, it will also take energy away from the immune system, the brain (the biggest burner of energy at about 20% of all the energy we ingest), the reproductive system, the menstrual system in women and the digestive system. If you’ve ever tried riding hard after eating something significant, or tried to eat too quickly after a hard training session, you’ll probably be familiar with the uncomfortable consequences. The blood that should be in the gut digesting food has been diverted to the muscles. The rise of Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S) can affect both sexes but is particularly pernicious in women athletes who risk the effects of amenorrhea and a reduction in bone strength. A good reason for making sure we're properly fuelled when training.
We probably eat more than we admit
Consciously or sub-consciously, we eat more than we should because we’re being healthy and righteous and therefore deserve a treat. Alternatively, we’ve done a lot of riding and we crave more calories because our biology tells us to return to homeostasis – to refill our valuable energy stores for future emergencies.
It's easy to drink a lot of calories without really noticing too.
We eat the wrong things at the wrong time
Fast sugars like gels, bars, even bananas rapidly increase blood sugar levels and trigger an insulin response. Insulin removes unused glucose from the blood and stores it as fat. It does a cracking job at this which is why we have an obesity epidemic, a huge rise in type 2 diabetes and far more cases of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.
To make matters worse, we put the body under stress when we exercise which triggers the release of cortisol. This is useful because we interpret that positively as excitement when exercising but the body doesn’t get the mental model and it will use cortisol to store fat if it can.
Eating sugar rich food in the evenings or first thing in the morning – the worse culprits seem to be breakfast cereals and fruit juices - and there a good chance it will be stored. Bottom line is aerobic exercise like cycling requires carefully planned fuelling to ensure we get enough of the right stuff at the right time to help the system work optimally but no more than that.
...the effective variable is food, not exercise...
But, calories in equals calories out, right?
Yes and no. This is the partial truth the food, fitness and health industries rely on. ‘CICO’ still holds broadly true insomuch as if you take in more energy than you expend it will be stored as fat, eat less and weight will be reduced. However, the effective variable is food, not exercise.
Research suggests how we take the calories in is increasingly important. Nutrient dense whole foods – foods that don’t have ingredients labels like chicken, fish, fruit, vegetables, salad and nuts are more filling so we tend to eat less of them. They are the original healthy alternative to Ultra Processed Food as nutrients enter the body more slowly in the transport system matched to our digestive system, not stripped to their raw components and effectively injected in the form of sugar rich liquids.
By way of example, measured by a boffin with a calorie bomb, 100kcals worth of pure white sugar has an actual absorption rate of about 95%, meaning the ingestion of 95kcals. Measured in the same way, 100kcals of almonds has a bioavailability of about 80kcals because some of the fats go undigested. Each food has it’s own bioavailability level when it makes contact with the human digestive system.
So, we’re screwed then?
If we’re aiming to lose weight by training it off, yes, we’re wasting our time although it does help maintain any weight loss already achieved. However, there are so many other benefits to cycling, and exercise generally, that it’s a no brainer to either continue or to start.
Activity is a vital part of human health – mental and physical. You almost certainly live a longer, happier life by taking regular exercise, just don’t rely on it as a weight loss mechanism.
Rich Smith is a psychology graduate and a British Cycling qualified Level 3 Road and TT coach supporting riders nationally and internationally. He is coach to the Great Britain Transplant Cycling team. He launched RideFast Coaching in 2015 to lecture people on how they should live their lives. This has so far proved unsuccessful.
I’ve be accused of being a nutritional Luddite on a few occasions. I guess this stems back to being told firmly during my coaching qualifications that I was not a nutritionist and that, when asked for a sports nutrition recommendations, I should refer to a ‘healthy balanced diet’ and make a swift exit.
I haven’t moved from this position and the more I find out about the food industry generally and the sports nutrition industry specifically, the less likely I am ever to do so. Academically I’m an evolutionary psychologist, interested in how & why humans have come to be what they are over the last couple of millions years so Luddite is an underestimate. Neolith more like. All this might seem a stretch for a piece about performance nutrition for cyclists but bear with me, at least I’m not starting with ‘first, the earth cooled’.
We’ve been cooking food and combining ingredients to make tasty things for a long time. Research shows fire was first used to process food about 1.4 million years ago and has been in daily use for 300,000 years. Cooking allowed us to expand the things we could safely eat, helping us reproduce and spread across the globe. We evolved mainly eating the nuts, berries, meat and eggs that were naturally available to either hunt or gather. About 12,000 years ago humans began to domesticate wild crops to produce wheat and oats and animals (pigs and cattle) so we didn’t have to hunt or gather it just look after it, cook it and eat it. Evolutionarily it worked. There are now 8 billion of us.
’If you’re firmly of the opinion ‘God did all this’ 3000 years ago, you should probably stop reading now...
All babies are born with the ability to digest their mother’s milk but this fades as they grow out of childhood. Adults developed the ability to process lactose (lactase persistence) about 5000 years ago because it was evolutionarily advantageous and genetically selected for. This means we are now able to drink milk and digest dairy foods without shitting ourselves to death or being sick. Milk is a readily available food source rich in protein, fat and minerals meaning a human with the ability to tolerate it had a better chance of surviving and reproducing than one that didn't. It is also sustainable provided we don’t eat the cow and turn its skin into shoes.
The reason for troubling you with this prehistoric lesson is to emphasise the human digestive system has evolved over millennia. If the fundamentals change, they change slowly. We need to reframe ‘performance nutrition’ because if we want to thrive as athletes we first need to be healthy humans and sadly, many of us are not. This means eating more whole, unprocessed foods without additives, particularly sugar and calorie free sweeteners. Whilst we desperately need to pay more heed to a digestive system attuned to dragging big stones around and have a knees up in mid summer, Ultra processed food (UPF) now makes up the majority of our diet. On average 73% of the food sold in supermarkets is UPF. In the UK 1 in 4 adults are obese and a further 1 in 3 are overweight because of this.
So, what’s to be done to ensure our diet supports rather than hinders performance?
Reduce consumption of Ultra Processed Foods - The food industry, of which sport nutrition is a microcosm, morphed from the mid-1970s from supplying food to producing consumables that look like food. We are now faced with clever, well financed corporate entities trying to persuade us to stuff our finely tuned system with chemicals that shouldn’t be there in quantities we don’t need. A study by an agency of the The World Health Organisation says Ultra Processed Food (UPF) is responsible for increases in cancer, heart disease and diabetes as well as encouraging over eating. Bread has historically been made from wheat, flour water and yeast. However, the ingredients list for a Sainsbury’s wholemeal loaf is wholemeal wheat flour, water, wheat gluten, yeast, rapeseed oil, salt, spirit vinegar, soya flour, calcium propionate, caramelised sugar, mono and diacetyl tartaric acid esters of mono and diglycerides of fatty acids, palm oil and ascorbic acid.
Many of the staples of our diet have changed, but nobody has told us. UPFs now make up about 60% of the adult diet. 70% for adolescents. It is the foundation of the current obesity epidemic as it is easily absorbed, calorie dense, nutrient deficient and addictive
Eat whole foods - As sad as it seems, it is necessary to critically look at those things claiming to be food to see what emulsifiers, flavour enhancers, preservatives and sweeteners have been added to them to understand the effects they have. For example, sugar substitutes like aspartame prime the gut and hormonal response on taste to expect sugar or a nutrient that contains it. When the 2 million year old reward centre of the brain doesn’t get the calorific and nutritional content it has been conditioned to expect, cravings develop and temptation is to hit the biscuit barrel. Perhaps even worse, deprive the amygdala of the sweet treat is has been promised and it will become stressed and release cortisol with the doubly whammy of anxiety AND a greater propensity to store fat. We’re better off just eating the sugar. A link to Dr Robert Lustig’s excellent summary of the effect of sugar and UPFs is here if you would like more detail.
We are physiologically and psychologically ancient. To optimise performance, maximise the consumption of whole foods, minimise those that contain lots of ingredients and additives and look critically at 'health' claims.
Don’t fall for sports nutrition marketing - Humans can’t absorb more than 90 grams of carbohydrate per hour no matter how soft the cushion one sits on or how persuasive the marketing campaign. Evolution has given us a very effective mechanism for storing excess carbohydrate for later consumption - fat. Many of us have discovered building a fat store up is effortless, reducing it very difficult. On average we carry 1600 kcals worth of carbohydrate in the liver and muscles, enough for about 4 hours of Zone 2. Short training sessions do not need to be additionally fuelled.
Unnecessary carbohydrate makes for a fatter cyclist, not a faster one. Rather than gels, bars and protein shakes it’s likely most of us would benefit from a shift to a couple of bananas and a glass of milk to fuel and recover from longer or more intense rides.
Beware of the zeal of the recent convert – Leave a packet of Mr Kipling’s Cherry Bakewells or some sherbet lemons within my catchment and there would be a good chance they’d go mysteriously, but rapidly, missing. Much of the information about Ultra Processed Food and sugar is new to me and I’m experimenting with changing my own diet. I’m acutely conscious of the zeal of the convert and I don’t want to join the ranks of the nutrition Nazis. However, maybe highlighting the struggle our prehistoric digestive system and brain has to extract anything nutritionally helpful and psychologically fulfilling from the stuff provided by modern food industry will provide some (whole) food for thought.
There is an excellent Royal Institution lecture by Dr Chris van Tulleken on YouTube here if you’d like to know more about UPFs.
It’s less about having a performance diet and more about avoiding one that actively harms us
A biscuit snaffling nutritional hypocrite, Rich Smith is a psychology graduate and a British Cycling qualified Level 3 Road and TT coach supporting riders nationally and internationally. He is coach to the Great Britain Transplant Cycling team. He launched RideFast Coaching in 2015 to lecture people on what they should eat despite being unqualified to do so.
Consistency is not the most glamorous or motivational word is it? It's not the kind of word the health and fitness industry use to conjure up the image they’re selling. There’s lot of fitness, weight loss and beauty programs at this time of year that promise spectacular results within a matter of days. They show toned, happy and glamorous models eating probiotic naturally sourced Icelandic whale yoghurt and working out in a beautifully lit quiet gym. The association they’d like us to make is ‘buy our stuff, look like this’. In technical terms this is, of course, complete bollocks.
Truth is, a healthy dose of reality is a necessary precursor to making progress. Part of this is recognising the value of consistency in training. I know, boring isn’t it? But 4 out of 5 people who start exercise programs at this time of year quit within 5 months. Actually most stop after a 6 week period characterised by an initial flush of enthusiasm followed by rapidly declining attendance and abandonment, it just takes 5 months to cancel the subscription. For new runners, Strava data shows most won't make it past 19th January
In the fitness industry, the 2nd Friday in February is know as ‘Quitters Day’. The vast majority of people who have started something in January have packed it in by then. Pity really, because 6 weeks regular exercise is about the minimum period to see some meaningful improvement.
It doesn’t matter how tailored the training program, or how nutritious the yoghurt. If you don’t turn up and do it (or sit down and eat it I guess) consistently, it’s not going to work. Certainly, the most successful riders I coach all have consistency of training to thank in some part for making resilient long term gains.
So, a few pointers and a hard truth.
The hard truth is, be honest, if there’s a history of quitting health kicks or packing things in after a few weeks, don’t start. The gym subscription will go to waste, the Christmas gym kit will languish in the cupboard and the yoghurt will go out of date in the fridge.
Happy New Year!
Rich Smith is a psychology graduate and a British Cycling qualified Level 3 Road and TT coach supporting riders nationally and internationally. He is coach to the Great Britain Transplant Cycling team. Not quite as miserable as he sounds, he launched RideFast Coaching in 2015 to deliver one to one, rider centred training that is physiologically effective and psychologically sustainable.
I came across an anecdote by the actor Michael Caine recently. Usually I’m reluctant to take any notice of pronouncements by actors because it’s their job to be convincing whilst saying things written by other people. However, Caine was talking about an incident whilst he was working as an actor and, far more importantly, he was Charlie Croker in the Italian Job.
He recounted a time during an improvisation where he had to enter a room whilst a couple were arguing. He was about to do his bit when a chair became stuck in the door and stopped him in his tracks. He froze. Something unexpected had occurred and it threw him. The director called a halt and explained that he should ‘use the difficulty’. He expanded, if the scene playing out is a comedy, fall over the chair or if a tragedy, pick it up and hit something with it. Fundamentally use what has happened, however challenging, as an opportunity to learn and progress.
For our purposes in a training environment, the difficulty could be as important missing a season’s goal, simply not hitting a power target in a single training session or something as prosaic as missing a planned ride. In fact anything perceived as missing or falling below set parameters.
Michael Caine's anecdote illustrates a process known as reframing. It’s used in sports psychology to alter performance affecting stress to useful excitement and in clinical settings by psychologists in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to reframe unhelpful thoughts into ones that can be processed more positively.
It's a process of using events and the information gathered from them dispassionately whilst disentangling the negative emotional element of unhelpful self-criticism. In essence to reframe an effort that has fallen short as a necessary and therefore successful failure. Provided we are prepared to persist, we learn far more from the things we get wrong than the ones we get right, we just have to frame the experience as essential part of progression and and not treat it as a personal disaster or a reflection of self-worth. Matthew Syed in his excellent book about the power of purposeful practice 'Bounce' wrote 'success is built upon the altar of necessary failure'. Simply we must try to do things just beyond our reach, fail, and keep trying. That way, we will ultimately succeed.
The best athletes, with best minds, understand this and apply it to their purposeful practice. See a mistake as a failure, the temptation is to stop trying. Reframe it as an essential part of the learning process and ‘use the difficulty’, and there'll be a better chance of blowing the bloody doors off.
Rich Smith is a psychology graduate and a British Cycling qualified Level 3 Road and TT coach supporting riders nationally and internationally and is coach to the Great Britain Transplant Cycling team. He is sure the original Italian Job (1969) is the best film ever made and the later remake, one of the worst. He launched RideFast Coaching in 2015 to deliver one to one, rider centred training that is physiologically effective but also psychologically sustainable.
When I say lying, it’s really error by omission or perhaps not telling the full story. Power meters are a brutal but vital tool to measure intensity and, provided the data is interpreted and implemented correctly, are very effective when used with structured training. One of the pieces of data it produces incidentally to power is an accurate calorie burn. For any length or intensity of ride, it will calculate how much energy has been expended measured in Kcals.
However, for those of us who use the exercise and diet approach to either maintaining or losing weight, there is a catch. It’s called the Energy Compensation Effect (Careau et al, 2021). Fundamentally it means if the power meter says 1200 Kcals have been burned on the Sunday ride, the consumption of 1200Kcals worth of apple pie and custard after lunch would result in a calorie surplus of 350 Kcals.
I know right, it sucks.
The evidence shows as a result of the activity involved whilst training aerobically, there’ll be less background activity after it. Less fiddling around, walking, more sitting and more sitting stiller. This reduces the effective calorie consumption to about 72%, reducing the 1200 Kcal expenditure during the ride to about 850 Kcals in apple pie and custard terms.
Hands up, this was new to me. I was alighted to it by Steve Keane a strength coach (Steve Kraft Coaching on Instagram) who, if you want some science backed (and funny) insights into strength training is really worth a follow. However, it means my simple ‘if I burn off 3500kcals cycling every week, that’s a pound of fat gone’ is, sadly, wrong. I’d need to burn more like 4800Kcals and maintain my calorie consumption at my basal rate. Bugger.
Explains a lot.
So, if (and only if) you want to lose weight whilst training on the bike this is a metric worth knowing. Perhaps more importantly, it reinforces the point that whilst diet and exercise are important, in fat loss terms, it’s the consumption part of the equation that’s likely to carry greater… er, weight.
I’ll write about something happier next time, promise.
Rich Smith is a psychology graduate and a British Cycling qualified Level 3 Road and TT coach supporting riders nationally and internationally and is coach to the Great Britain Transplant Cycling team. He loves apple pie and custard. He launched RideFast Coaching in 2015 to deliver one to one, rider centred training that is physiologically effective but also psychologically sustainable.
Endurance athletes are notoriously bad at resting or taking a break without guilt tripping about losing hard earned fitness and, for some, putting on weight. There is an inevitable tendency to attach personal worth and identity to the training we do and, without it, there can be a nagging feeling something is missing.
However, rest is an essential part of training, we all know it, but it can be a struggle to implement it even when boredom is creeping in. Why is rest so important?
First, it allows physical recovery. This can apply to periods stretching into days and weeks rather than just the couple of minutes between efforts, particularly at the end of a season of hard training, racing and events.
Secondly, and often over looked, is psychological recovery. In order to hit the next period with purpose and intent, the mind needs to be looking forward to engaging with the next training phase. Going into autumn and winter bored and stale means this absolutely critical period may be less effective than it could be.
Third, a period away from the bike allows reengagement with the world outside of training. Cycling is an absorbing sport and it is easy to cross the line from it being a fulfilling interest to a distributive obsession. There is a risk of becoming unidimensional and a carrier of all eggs in a single receptacle. Maybe some time to take stock?
Having readily accessible answers to three questions, when why and how, will make a period of rest at this time of year a more palatable thought.
When? Set a firm date to commence the next period of training. Knowing when training will re-commence allows the System 1* or ‘Chimp’** part of the brain to relax whilst resting because it knows when the hard work will start again. Write the date on the notice board, in the training diary, as a reminder on the phone, anywhere and everywhere to give it substance. The ancient evolutionary part of the brain does not deal well with uncertainty and will nag, prompt and induce anxiety without a date as a soothing balm. If it knows when, there’s a chance it will give you some peace.
Why? Set some goals for 2024. This is connected to the point above. Activating the System 2 or ‘Human’ part of the brain to rationally analyse what the goals could be for the next period of training and the forthcoming season will give clarity, reassurance and critically, purpose. Consequently, when the child-like System 1 goes, ‘yeah, but why?’ You’ll have an answer. Again, write them down, make them SMART if you can, make them meaningful and relevant to you: give them life.
How? Set the training structure. Having established the when and the why, planning and understanding the how is easier. Planning a structured training program from now (or from the end of a well earned break) to the beginning of season to hit the goals, gives reassurance to hard wired System 1 brain.
If you can answer the three questions, there’s a fighting chance of an enjoyable, profitable break.
If you’re struggling with the when, why and hows that relate to your training, get in touch here.
*Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow
** Prof Steve Peters in The Chimp Paradox
Rich Smith is a psychology graduate and a British Cycling qualified Level 3 Road and TT coach supporting riders nationally and internationally and is coach to the Great Britain Transplant Cycling team. He has a strong Chimp and an occasionally feeble System 2. He launched RideFast Coaching in 2015 to deliver one to one, rider centred training that is physiologically effective but also psychologically sustainable.
I saw a Tweet extoling the virtues of core exercises for cyclists suggesting planks, bridges and twists to ‘support the spine’ recently. This sounds good although it’s questionable whether the spine needs support in any meaningful context during cycling and further whether the exercises suggested would help if it did. It's hard not to think the writers of interminable articles in the cycling media haven't simply run out of ideas and reach for 'core training' when challenged to say something different from 'ride your bike more'. However, it prompts a question about how important a strong core is for cycling and, if it is important, how is it best trained?
It’s easy to slip into defining ‘the core’ as the abdominal muscles or that portion of the body where the ‘6 pack’ should be. However, the core is fully defined as what links the upper and lower body so the entire torso, back and front, between the neck and hips.
For cycling, received wisdom is the core keeps the body stable, improves efficiency by preventing side-to-side movement and gives a strong base for the legs to push against so the effort goes down on the pedals rather than up into the body. However consider: -
So, is time spent doing planks, roll outs, sit ups and twists wasted? Probably not, physical exercise is rarely a bad thing, but it is unlikely to improve efficiency and power delivery on the bike. I’m not saying don’t do it, just don’t expect it to make a detectable difference.
However, the development of a strong core remains relevant to cycling but perhaps not for the reasons of received wisdom. Truth is, much of benefit of having a trained core is a reduction in discomfort, particularly lower back pain on and off the bike through improved strength and range of movement.
To illustrate why, think of the bike as a resistance weight training machine. It isolates the leg muscles whilst the rider performs, say, 40 single leg presses per minute. A 2 hour ride would mean 2400 on each leg, or something like 15,000 in a 6 hour training week. This develops leg strength unmatched by the rest of the body resulting in a significant imbalance. Pain, discomfort and reduced mobility is caused by these disproportionately strong muscles pulling down on the upper body putting weaker core muscles are under strain. This can be made worse by the muscle imbalances inherent with being left or right handed/footed so the dominate side of the body is differentially stronger than the weaker side meaning pain is focused on one side of the lower back and hips. Stretching and rolling may help temporarily but the resilient resolution is to build the core to a level of strength that matches the legs.
To my knowledge, nobody has been mad enough to try 6 hours planking per week, if they had it wouldn’t be enough because planks, sit ups and the like use body weight and the legs muscles are built using a very efficient machine – the bike. As a cyclist you NEVER skipping leg day.
The solution, as you might expect, involves putting down the balance balls and rubber bands and picking up some heavy stuff. Weight training using the few exercises that are cycling specific is the way to build a strong core AND stronger legs. Whilst it may seem counter intuitive to do leg focused exercises to build a strong core, using squats and deadlifts, a rider has to control a weighted movement in contraction and extension with the torso. The effort taken to stabilise a heavy weight lifted infrequently, say, 10-25 times twice a week, contrasts with the strength built by pedalling characterised by very high repetition at low resistance.
Heavy weighted squats and deadlifts build leg strength at a neuromuscular level but because the weight needs to be controlled by the torso it strengthens the core to match the legs. This also helps the proprioceptive cells in the muscles, tendons and joints meaning the body is more ‘aware’ of it’s parameters with regards to position, movement and load meaning better control over the bike.
In order for it to be effective, the exercises need to be done with a barbell – a Smith machine won’t work on the core because it controls the travel of the bar. Training needs to be done with correct form and at the right weight considering age, base strength and injury history so it’s worth getting the advice of qualified strength & conditioning coach.
Getting the right range of leg movement during exercise dialled first is important because full range is never achieved when pedalling, the leg is never fully straight unless something is very wrong. A properly performed back or parallel squat (they are the same thing) will counteract this, increasing hip mobility facilitating more power to the pedals, particularly in more extreme in aero positions.
In terms of programming, late summer and autumn is a good time to start the journey if the plan is to be competitive during the cycling season. A few weeks of learning technique and getting used to lifting in time for winter will mean the core will be strong for the spring.
It’s NEVER too late to start strength training. The older athlete is likely to benefit proportionately more than the younger because it improves bone density. Also, resistance training is the only thing proven to be more effective than endurance training to improve mood so you’ll be stronger, with increased mobility, greater injury resilience AND happier. You'll also never have to do another sit up or plank in the rest of your life! What’s not to like?
Rich Smith is a psychology graduate and a British Cycling qualified Level 3 Road and TT coach supporting riders nationally and internationally and is coach to the Great Britain Transplant Cycling team. He grows increasingly impatient with the training guff spouted by the cycling press. He launched RideFast Coaching in 2015 to deliver one to one, rider centred training that is physiologically effective but also psychologically sustainable.
It’s comforting and frustrating in equal measure to discover one of the earliest psychological experiments ever carried out involved a researcher noticing that cyclists tend to have faster times when riding in the presence of a counterpart as opposed to riding alone (Triplett, 1898).
This early observation has been repeated in lots of different sports related studies including grip strength in golfers, speed of runners and, again, times of cyclists. Nevertheless, the real world impact of what is known as the social facilitation effect in sport, perhaps surprisingly, remains under researched. To some extent it’s a given. PBs and world records are almost always achieved under competitive pressure and athletes almost always perform to their best when involved in direct competition with others.
Why can’t the times, powers, weights lifted and speeds achieved in competition be replicated in training? The important thing to grasp here is the physiology of the individual hasn’t changed, it’s the psychology, the power of the mind within the competitive environment that’s making the difference.
When it comes to elite performers, particularly the genetic outliers that make up the ranks of professional cyclists, there is little physiological difference between them but the phrase ‘he just wanted it more’ is often used about a narrow margin of victory. Wanting something more is a mental state, not a physical one. This is the mind winning the race in spite of the body. Harnessing some of this effect for use out of competition has the potential to improve the intent, purpose and quality of training enhancing its efficacy.
Perhaps here it’s worth drawing an analogy with that most common and available of drugs considered to have an ergogenic effect, caffeine. In the right dose caffeine acts on the central nervous system to inhibit the negative effects that adenosine has on neurotransmission, fundamentally reducing pain perception (Mielgo-Ayuso. J et al, 2019). It doesn’t make an athlete physiologically more able; the blood, muscles and cardiovascular system remain unaltered, caffeine overrides the switch in the brain that yells ‘stop, I’m cooking!’ Amphetamine is another psychoactive that does the same thing more effectively and in some well documented cases it dulls the pain receptors to such an extent that cyclists have literally died trying. Just for the sake of clarity, I wouldn’t suggest ingesting caffeine or any other dubious ergogenic in an attempt to go faster, the risks far outweigh the highly questionable benefits*. However, it does illustrate that the mind controls the performance of the body, not the other way around.
So, the power of the mind to improve performance is there to be tapped. However, despite its potentially beneficial use, the means to that untapping, sports psychology, remains impenetrable to many and inaccessible to most. Nobody wants to have an existential crisis when they throw a leg over a bike, most just want to ride better, faster or simply enjoy it more.
My view is that existing sports psychology theory starts in the wrong place. It attempts to work on exercise adherence or performance improvement without asking the fundamental questions about why we do what we do. For one, this leaves the gap between the competition effect and training unplugged. My aim is to find simple, digestible and usable ways of accessing what extra performance may be available by pointing the mind in the right direction when athlete chooses to use it.
In the meantime I hope this provides some mental food for thought.
*A placebo has been shown to work just as well – the power of the mind eh?
Rich Smith is a British Cycling qualified Level 3 Road and TT coach supporting riders nationally and internationally and is coach to the Great Britain Transplant Cycling team. He has a 1st class honours degree in psychology which he bangs on about quite a bit. He launched RideFast Coaching in 2015 to deliver one to one, rider centred training that is physiologically effective but also psychologically sustainable.
Redolent of the old rivalry between mountain bikers and road cyclists and further back, the division amongst ‘road men’ and ‘testers’, eBikes and their riders seem to be causing some consternation amongst those who pedal unassisted. I was prompted to take a look at why this might be after a pretty hostile reaction from a friend of mine who said whilst he routinely acknowledges other cyclists he won’t, under any circumstances, acknowledge somebody on an eBike. To paraphrase and remove the fruitier language from his comments, he said ‘they say hello like we’re doing the same thing. We’re not doing the same thing, they’re different’. A recent poll showed that a significant proportion of cyclists were prepared to confess (albeit anonymously) to hating eBikes and the people who piloted them. Hate is a strong word and it means different things at different times but even so, it’s a telling comment.
The figures show an increase in sales of eBikes of 63% during the 2019 to 2020 Covid years, reaching annual sales of 155,000 in the UK. 90% of these are hybrid/City bikes or eMTBs, the remainder being road or cargo bikes so there’s little doubt there is a proliferation of them. Indeed during my last trip to Mallorca in June, I reckon I saw more people on eBikes than on the normally aspirated ones.
'Moped - a pedal bicycle with a helper motor or a non-pedal bicycle with a motor...' OED
The strength of emotional reaction does not apply to those who use eBikes as transport as they are seen as a legitimate way of getting to work without arriving in a sweaty tired mess. Part of this, I think, is that commuters and their bikes are not pretending to be something they’re not. They tend to carry racks and bags and the people riding them are wearing utilitarian clothing rather than striped down Lycra or full face helmets. They are not pretending to be something they are not. Increasingly, high end eBikes are designed to look like normal bikes so there is element of artifice and pretence. I guess that’s why the loaded term ‘cheating’ is used. People riding them aren’t cheating to win a race, but it looks like they’re cheating because they’ve bought their power, not worked for it.
Being a cyclist is a strong identity and the greater the time served the stronger that identity will be. To ride a bike meaningfully takes hard won fitness, commitment and an element of suffering. This costs time, effort and sacrifice and consequently has a value that cannot and should not be bought and turned on at the push of a button.
Social identity theory (Tajfel 1979) proposes the groups people belong to, social class, family, teams and the like, are a source of pride and self-esteem. People identify strongly with the characterises of their ‘in groups’ and have a very clear idea what an ‘out group’ looks like. The group will have strong common themes, a shared understanding of the ‘rules’ and membership will have to be earned and maintained. Herein lies the problem, it looks like not only are eBikers trying to buy membership of a group without paying their dues, but they are also disguising their intentions by making their mopeds look like bicycles. They’re frauds and cuckoos and therefore should be cast out of the group. Conversely, eBikers are most likely not trying to be part of any group and are just doing their thing. However, this has never stopped a hefty dose of resentment and suspicion amongst ‘in groupers’ in any walk of life who see those unlike them as a threat. Isn’t human psychology a wonderful thing?
'Bicycle - a road vehicle with two wheels that you ride by pushing the pedals with your feet...' OED
I am cognisant of the ‘cycling is for everybody’ theme and I’m aware breeching it risks a social media pile on of biblical proportions but the truth is, cycling isn’t open to everyone. The barriers to entry are high and varied and include (but are not limited to) the intersection of sex, ability, age, class, race and culture. Arguably these are all irrelevant when it comes to identifying as a cyclist because, for me at least, the principle defining characteristic is a willingness and desire to apply physical effort – to try hard. Do this on a bike and, irrespective of all other characteristics, you’re in. You're a cyclist.
Rich Smith rode an eBike once and has never forgiven himself. 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 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...