Keep Your Cycling Training Simple

by Jeff Whitfield on | 1 Comments

Tips Journal

Cyclist doing a workout on a bike
Cyclist doing a workout on a bike

Creating and maintaining a training schedule for cycling can be tough. There’s tons of information out there to wade through. Figuring out what will work for you and what won’t can be quite frustrating. Over the course of the past year and a half, I’ve had lots of ups and downs with my cycling training. Avoiding total burnout and possible injury was simply a matter of trial and error. In the end, the real lesson I learned was this: keep it simple, stupid!

The Start of An Obsession

When I first started getting serious with cycling, I kept it relatively simple and set modest goals for myself. Because I have Crohn’s disease, I was just riding a few miles at a time. It was the best I could do but, hey, it was a start. Most of it was done using just my phone and Apple Watch, tracking how far I went along with heart rate information. All of this was recorded using simple apps like Cyclemeter and the Apple Activity and Health apps. Nothing could be any simpler. Goals could be set and tracked and all I had to do was just get out and ride.

But then I learned about bike computers, power meters, and cadence/speed sensors. My abilities on the bike were increasing as well as my goals. I wanted to push myself to get fitter and ride further. My goal was to get fit enough to ride 20 miles in a group bike ride event. So off I went to purchase a Wahoo Elemnt Bolt, Wahoo Tickr Fit, as well as the Wahoo cadence and speed sensors.

Then I started reading all kinds of books and articles about strength training, started building a home gym, and ramped up my exercise regimen with a full workout on top of cycling. Initial workouts were fairly simple but, like with cycling, I ramped it up to crazy proportions.

Basically, I decided to go gung ho! I didn’t just want to exercise...I wanted to train! Big difference in the mindset. Which is all well and good but...there was just one problem. While it was good that I was in the mindset of training myself, the workouts and schedule I put myself on were more or less that of someone training for a bicycle race. Thing is...I wasn’t planning on racing! I just wanted to ride further.

Let’s break it all down so you can see where I went wrong. Maybe you’re in the same boat. If you are then maybe my mistakes can be a lesson to you. Let’s start with cycling itself...

Bike Training

To track my bike workouts, I started using TrainingPeaks. I used it for nearly a year to track not just my rides but pretty much ever bit of exercise I was doing. If it was being tracked by my Apple Watch or bike computer it was going into TrainingPeaks too. The calendar feature of TrainingPeaks is pretty much where I spent most of my time. It allowed me to get a good idea of where I was and plan rides and workouts towards my goals. My initial goal was to be physically fit to ride a 20-mile cycling event which, by the end of the year, I had already accomplished even before the event itself.

Now, while it worked great for tracking my rides, weight training, and other activities, it honestly was just overkill for my needs. I would look at the ride data and my eyes would just glaze over. The metrics and information captured were certainly interesting but it didn’t really equate to anything really useful for me. I mean, exactly how did any of it really benefit me? Only thing of real benefit was the fitness and fatigue scores which did help in terms of making sure I wasn’t overdoing it. Plus, the design was lacking to some degree. There were things I could do on the website that I couldn’t do through their mobile apps and vice versa. After nearly a year with it, I knew that I needed to get something that was simpler and better designed for my needs....especially since my new goal was to do a 100-mile event.

To do this, I knew I needed a better bike. The one I was using was a solid fitness hybrid bike but to do a 100-mile ride I knew I would need more of a road endurance bike. I ended up buying the bike I ride now, a Marin Nicasio, a fortuitous purchase since it doubles as a gravel bike too.

Along with a new road bike, I also got a fluid trainer, specifically an Elite Qubo Fluid Trainer. Paired up with my other sensors, this gave me the ability to utilize one of many online platforms for indoor bike training. I evaluated a lot of different platforms including Zwift and TrainerRoad.

Zwift was certainly interesting and one of the most popular virtual cycling programs. However, I found the virtual environment kind of distracting. It felt like I was spending more time immersed in the virtual environment rather than concentrating on my training.

Instead, I opted for TrainerRoad which, at the time I started it, had just adding a calendar feature for scheduling and tracking both indoor workouts as well as outdoor rides and other activities. This effectively replaced TrainingPeaks which, no doubt, that’s where TrainerRoad is headed...a full training platform for cyclist of different levels.

With TrainerRoad, I had the option of utilizing one of several training programs, including one devoted to century rides. The structured workouts make it pretty simple and straight-forward to get started with a solid training schedule towards your goals. So, I started with one of the base training plans, which consisted of 12 weeks of Sweet Spot type workout. I started off pretty well but, unfortunately, had some setbacks due to a few back injuries (more on this later when we talk about strength training!).

In fact, the last time I attempted to resume my training, I had been off it for about a week or so. The first workout I did felt really weird to the point where I felt like I could have fainted. Something wasn’t right for sure. My body simply wasn't ready to resume training at that level. Suffice to say I was never able to get past the first 6 weeks of the Sweet Spot program let alone any of the others.

I started to question what my training should really be. What I learned in the end is that I really didn’t need any of it. I didn’t need a high-end training program like TrainingPeaks to track my progress. Nor did I need to do a crap ton of indoor bike training with TrainerRoad. While some of it definitely helped me move closer to my goals, the one thing that helped me more than anything was just getting out and riding my damn bike!

Seriously, it’s that simple: just get out and ride your bike on a regular basis! All I needed to do was create sensible, simple goals that that would help me move the goal post closer and closer to where I wanted to be over time. And I don’t really need TrainingPeaks or TrainerRoad to do that. In fact, the software that comes with my bike computer does that already. So, why did I have to pay more for something that was giving me way more than what I really needed, right?

Now, that’s not to say that interval training isn’t of any value. It is. In fact, in a future post, I’ll share with you a more hybrid approach that incorporates training both indoors and outdoors with a power meter. The basic nuts and bolts though is that you don’t have to incorporate three days a week of interval training. You just have to know what your goals are and what skills you need to work on. Throwing just a day a week for some interval training can do wonders towards your goals. And it doesn’t have to be complicated either. Again, keep the interval training simple.

Strength Training

Along with a simple cycling schedule, I knew that strength training would be an important part of my routine. But with that comes a lot of homework. When I initially started going to the gym, I would basically just hit every machine there. That to me was a workout. Little did I know that what I was doing wasn’t functional and didn’t actually equate to any real gains in my abilities on the bike. Plus, I didn’t really feel all that comfortable at the gyms so…I decided to try and build my own home gym. On top of that, what I needed was a routine that I knew would benefit me as a cyclist. Off I went to read up on as much as I could about cycling specific strength training.

One of the first books I picked up was Weight Training for Cyclists. This is an excellent book and it gave me lots of ideas on how to properly structure strength workouts that are focused on a cyclist. The workouts are broken down into periodized phases focusing on stabilization, strength, power, and maintenance. Each phase lasts at least 4 weeks with the entire program lasting a total of 40 weeks. For someone just starting out or needing something that is somewhat seasonal, it’s a great program.

Later on, I saw another book that piqued my interest called Maximum Overload for Cyclists which advocates certain heavy weight exercises as a method of building power in your legs with cycling in mind. A typical workout starts off with a small circuit workout that acts as a warmup for the heavier lifting exercises. From there, it’s a combination of upper and lower body exercises with lots of dead lifts and squats. The finale is the walking lunge, which is done in a timed manner rather than reps. The goal of this workout is to build endurance with functional power exercises. After a good month of this workout, I definitely could tell a difference on the bike for sure! The walking lunge exercises are where it’s at with this routine.

Both of these books along with various websites gave me some pretty solid ideas on how to create various workouts that are tailored to my abilities. I find that a healthy mix of the two creates a good balance for me. And, again, in a future post, I’ll be breaking down my strength training plan and how I incorporated all the ideas from my research.

Reality Check

Here’s the thing though...while all of this is good the thing what I’ve come to realize is that I’m not a racer! All of these books I’ve read and apps I’ve used are really geared for the serious cyclists, especially those who intend to compete. I have no desire to compete in any races. Nor do I really have any desire to get faster per se. I just want to be physically fit and fast enough to be able to participate in various bike ride events. I do have goals but most of them revolve around completing a ride of a certain distance. My top goal is to complete a 100-mile bike ride. That’s it! Whatever exercise program I can do that is simple and easy enough to accomplish these goals is a winner to me.

So, I backed up, took a reality check, and did a big picture look at where I was at. Ultimately, it came down to the following questions: Do I really need to follow any of these books and services to the letter? Or can I simplify the crap out of what I’m doing and distill it down to something that is far more repeatable? Much of what I was doing was likely overkill and I quite possibly was pushing myself way too far. As such, I had to look at what I was doing and find ways to reduce the load and come up with an approach that was far more realistic. For instance...

The very last time I did a TrainerRoad workout I nearly passed out. The reason was that I just got back into training after recovering from a back injury. My body just wasn’t ready for it and, as a result, I got super light headed and faint. For the third time, I effectively needed to start over the TrainerRoad training plan. At that point I had to wonder: Do I even need TrainerRoad? I mean, I can still do a structured workout on the bike but really I don’t need TrainerRoad to create a simple interval-based bike workout. My Wahoo ELEMNT Roam can do that and, while it’s not as fancy, it can get the job done.

With strength training, I think the Maximum Overload workouts are great...but maybe not so much for someone like me who, in my late 40’s, might be pushing it, especially with the dead lifts. I was doing two different types of deadlifts in a single workout. That’s nuts! One set of deadlifts is enough. I still think walking lunges and other exercises are incredibly beneficial...just not at the crazy levels that are recommended in that particular book.

So, I’m basically scaling my workouts down and simplifying my training down to a far more manageable level.

For strength training, I’ll be working out just two days a week and, while I will be incorporating aspects of Maximum Overload, I’ll be doing it in a more periodized manner using some ideas from the Weight Training for Cyclists book. My routines will concentrate on a circuit of solid core exercises followed by functional strength exercises. During the Power phase, strength exercises will still include some Maximum Overload power-based exercises but I’ll be keeping them to a minimum and will switch them up about every 4 weeks or so.

For cycling, I’ll be riding three days a week. I’ll have one longer ride per week, either a group ride or weekend solo ride. The other two days will be shorter but more intense rides. I’ll likely be incorporating some interval-based rides but, for now, I just need to get out and ride. Rides will be a mix between standard road rides and gravel rides. Just depends on the weather as well as time. If needed, I’ll create some simple interval-based indoor rides for those rainy days.

Be Smart and Keep It Simple!

“What do you think of a person who only does the bare minimum?”

— Chotchkie's manager Stan

Take it from me and my own experience, getting hurt from over training sucks. Hurting your back sucks. Hurting your knee sucks. Just getting hurt from doing something stupid just sucks. So, at that point, doing the bare minimum of what is needed to reach your goals is perfectly ok. Seriously…you don’t need more flair. You just need to know what is a realistic goal and what will ultimately get you there.

To start, write down your goal. Make it a simply statement. Then, write down the skills you need to improve to get there. Find out where you are now and where you need to be.

For me it’s a 100-mile century ride. But to get there I need to improve my speed from a 12-14 mph average to something closer to a 14-16 mph average. Being out on the road for 8-9 hours is no picnic, especially on a hot Texas day. I would feel better if I could complete the ride sooner and save myself from further suffering. Plus, for many of the local group rides, 14-16 mph is the average.

Along with that, I have future goals for other kinds of rides. Once I complete the 100-mile century road ride, I have my sights set on long gravel rides. Well…provided my Crohn’s disease doesn’t get in the way. :P

In the end, knowing your goals and what your plan of attack is to achieving them is the first big step. Achieving those goals will feel better too. Not will you feel better about it but you won’t kill yourself in the process either. Overall, it’ll make you a better cyclist and will improve your fitness for the better. So, go forth and start a simple path towards your goals! :)

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My favorite part of this article is the importance of knowing the detail of your health when training. My nephew mentioned to me last night that he wants to pursue his career in cycling and asked if I have any idea what are other options can help him. Thanks to this informative article, I'll be sure to tell him that we can consult a well-known power-based cycling coaching program as they can help him be stronger.