A lot of cycling literature emphasizes the importance of base training and long easy miles over the winter months; however, I believe that winter is the time to focus on improving weaknesses, technique, and thresholds. If we continue to do the same thing all the time then our bodies get used to doing the same thing, at the same speed, same cadence, so we begin the summer season where we left it in September with little improvements.
I'm not saying I don't believe in base miles, in fact, I'm a big believer in the benefits of riding long easy miles; however, I do believe that it should be combined with intensity; and when people are short on time due to jobs, family, and social lives, then intensity becomes more important.
The benefit to base miles, or long slow easy rides, is that we can ride at that pace forever, it builds endurance and stamina, and trains the body to use fat stores as fuel. It is a good place to be for people trying to lose weight, but if you want to improve on the speed that you climb at, or challenge a group sprint, or to improve your heart rate and power thresholds, or any other number of improvements, then you have to increase the intensity. The caveat is that in doing hard efforts, whether it's winter or summer, you risk over training and injury; this is where the Cycling Centre program is a benefit.
We started the season in November, so theoretically, everyone had finished their summer season and had taken the month of October off, or at least done other activities and easier rides, base miles if you will. So when we started in November, people where ready to get back on their bikes, excited to meet new people, and to go back to basics. The focus was on technique, smooth pedal strokes, equal pressure on the pedals the whole way around, angle of the feet, relaxed shoulders and arms, and riding at higher cadences. Lesson to apply to outside: pedal in circles with equal pressure on the pedals for the whole pedal stroke.
In December, we worked on increasing strength to build a base for what we would work on after Christmas. Big gears, low cadence, low heart rates, but building big muscles was the focus of this phase. I find that this is how most people like to ride when they start the Cycling Centre program. By pushing big gears they feel like they are working harder and believe that means they are going faster; so although they are happy to be done with the high cadence we worked on in November, they do start to realize that their legs don't get as tired in the higher cadence and their speed is the same. During the month of December we also work on a power position, so the lesson to apply outside is: when looking for more power push your butt back in the saddle, arch your back a bit and lower your body for a strong and stable position, elbows in, and lower your heels to push forward with all of your foot. Should feel like you're doing a leg press and showing your front quick release the sole of your shoes.
After a good break at Christmas time we come back and work on increasing the aerobic base and finding each rider's optimal cadence. Heart rates go up and legs feel smooth and strong. Then we add in even harder efforts with less recovery. This is when I start to see the actual heart rates that can be sustained by each rider as they don't hold back as much, they gain confidence in their abilities. They also learn what their 30 min sustainable heart rates are and the cyclists are surprised that they can hold high numbers longer then they thought they could. Lesson to be applied to outdoor riding: hold a higher cadence, keep a smooth rhythm, and know what heart rate you can sustain.
Moving in to March we worked on anaerobic capacity and lactate tolerance, this was the toughest phase. The workouts were hard, the rest was sometimes minimal, legs and lungs burned and just when riders thought they were done and the tanks were empty, I'd ask for more; and despite the looks of death, sneers, grunts, and 4 letter words, every athlete dug deep and surprised themselves with what they were capable of. Lesson to be learned: "I know how to suffer!"
Which brings us in to the last month of the program, the month of April. As mentioned at the beginning of this post, I believe in working hard in the winter to see maximal improvements come spring, but I would also like to emphasize that the last 6 months have consisted of building blocks to minimize injuries and maximize ability, as well as having recovery weeks to give the body time to heal and build itself up stronger. Riders should be feeling confident and strong as they start to head outside to ride with their clubs and friends, which is why April has been a transition month, not too hard, a few weeks of "base miles", and reminders, tips, and Q&A about riding outside whether it's a group ride, race, or simply riding faster on your own. Lesson learned: apply what you learned inside when you are outside!
So what's next? Over the next 4-5 months, most riders will meet their groups for rides where they will ride hard and fast, at their limits, pushing themselves to be the fastest. I would like to remind everyone that rest and recovery are still very important and to remember to take an easy week every 3 or 4 weeks. Active recovery rides are also important, which will be touched on in a later blog post. It is common for riders to feel burnt out come the end of July or beginning of August because they do the same rides every week with the same groups and forget to take some time off to recovery, regenerate, rejuvenate, and help the body build itself up stronger.
Have a great Spring, ride smart, ride efficiently, conserve energy as much as you can, remember the importance of recovery, and kick some butt!