Whatever performance means to you, if you put the time in to your training, you want to see results. One of the first steps when planning your training, is to decide on your goals. Understanding the demands of the event will help with formulating realistic goals and designing a structured training programme. Once you know what the event requires, you can design a programme which aims to improve the specific characteristics which have been identified to be crucial for success. This could mean targeting specific weaknesses that need to be improved, while simultaneously maintaining or improving on stronger areas.
Road races and Cross-Country Marathons (XCM) are mass start events with a total distance of at least 60 kilometres and are approximately 3 hours or more in duration. These events have fewer large fluctuations in power output, but are still completed at a relatively high intensity (~80 % of maximum heart rate), which means that these races require a well-developed aerobic and anaerobic energy system. However, the aerobic energy system has a bigger role to play when compared to shorter events like XCO races. This often leads to the common misconception that performance in longer events will not benefit from the inclusion of high-intensity interval training (HIT). However, the ability to perform high-intensity efforts could mean the difference between breaking away on the final climb to take the win or making it home to avoid the cut-off in a stage of the Epic.
The gravity assisted disciplines of downhill (DH) and Enduro racing require riders to have high levels of technical ability, explosive power to accelerate out of corners and on flat sections, and probably one or two loose screws. Similar to XCO racing, heart rate during timed DH runs remains high and stable, despite the variation in power output and the fact that the pedals are only turning for about 50 % of the run. DH includes periods of high cadence (>130 RPM), with the highest values usually recorded at the start as the riders leave the start gate. Similarly, peak power outputs during a DH run are observed in the first 5 – 10 seconds of the run as the riders attempt to reach maximum speed as quickly as possible. DH and Enduro are unique in that the riders are required to generate power outputs suddenly and the events are characterised by a combination of acceleration and deceleration efforts. The timing of these efforts will be governed by the course design and profile with some courses having long pedalling sections (Pietermaritzburg), and others being very steep and technical (Champery, Switzerland).
As a result, successful DH riders will require a high anaerobic capacity which will allow them to accelerate from a standing start and slow speeds. However, those who are unable to generate the explosive power required to have a fast start could minimise their time losses by avoiding unnecessary braking and poor line selection. Riding dynamics, such as line selection and ‘flow’, have in fact been suggested as important determinants of DH performance. DH also requires isometric and dynamic muscular efforts in order to cope with technical sections and absorb the vibrations experienced while riding over uneven terrain. These muscular contractions will lead to elevated heart rate even when the pedals aren’t turning.
The different disciplines within cycling all have very specific physiological demands. Failure to understand the demands of the event could result in gaps in your training and failure to achieve your goals so your training should be specific to the discipline or event you are planning to take part in. Sadly, there is no one-size fits all programme for these different disciplines or a single programme which will guarantee success for all individuals. However, there are certain steps you can take to ensure that your training is beneficial and will bring you closer to achieving your goals. No matter your current performance level, or the time you have available to train, intelligent training can result in noticeable gains. Beginners should look at focussing on the areas which will result in the biggest gains while more advanced or experienced riders should focus on refining their training.
Monitoring training is a great way to keep track of what you have been doing, and identify what has worked for you and what hasn’t. Previously, weekly distance (kilometres covered in training), and hours spent training have been used to quantify training. However, failing to monitor intensity could result in under performance through training too hard or too easy. There are numerous methods to quantify intensity, with the Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) being the most simple and affordable. Intensity is rated on a scale of 0 (Rest) to 10 (Maximal effort). RPE has been used with some success, but it is important to be aware of the factors that could influence your perceived exertion. Caffeine, environmental conditions (high-temperature and humidity), and intermittent vs. continuous exercise have been shown to influence RPE.
The most direct measure of cycling intensity, however, is power output. It is not influenced by external factors and cycling is one of only a handful of sports where power output can be measured during both training and racing. Power meters have become increasingly more affordable and, as a result, so their popularity has increased among cyclists of all levels. Using a power meter during training and racing is a great way to monitor not only intensity, but also progression. However, as with any other measure, it is the interpretation of the data which is more important.
In summary, different disciplines within cycling all have unique requirements for success and training programmes should target improvements in these unique areas. Training programmes should progress from general conditioning to more specific, high-intensity sessions. Monitoring intensity during training is important for adaptation and heart rate and power are the best measures for monitoring training intensity.
About the author:
Benoit Capostagno completed his BSc degree (cum laude) specialising in the Sport Sciences at the University of Stellenbosch in 2006. He continued his studies at the University of Cape Town’s Research Unit for Exercise Science and Sports Medicine completing his honours with a first class pass in 2007. He is continuing his postgraduate work with his PhD at this same unit and is investigating training adaptation and fatigue in cyclists. He has been a consultant with the Sports Science Institute of South Africa’s High Performance Centre’s Cycling Division since 2009. In addition, Ben has been an active cycling coach with Science to Sport since 2010.