How To Pedal Farther and Faster Than Your Fellow Cyclists
When Darryl MacKenzie began cycling, he wasn’t immediately convinced it was the sport for him.
Those first rides were brutal. While his more experienced cycling friends seemed to pedal along with ease, talking and enjoying the ride, he was huffing and puffing through every stroke, just trying to keep up. If he fell behind and couldn’t take advantage of drafting behind them to cut the wind, then the ride would get even harder. He nearly gave up in those early days.
Now, more than 30 years later, he’s the experienced cyclist coaching others through those first painful rides. Invariably, new riders (and many experienced ones) have the same question he did in those early days: How do I pedal farther and faster?
“This is the age-old question for the cyclist,” he says. ”How do you do more with the same amount of effort?”
He’s been there, and he’s helped many others get through it. Here are Coach Darryl’s tips for building strength and stamina on the bike.
Why Your Rides Aren’t Getting Longer or Faster
In many cases, the reason cyclists aren’t getting faster or extending their rides is that they’re making the wrong assumptions about what it takes to get there.
For instance, say you’re comparing two riders, One rides 10 hours a week, while the other rides 20 hours a week. Without knowing anything else, you’d probably assume the second rider is stronger and faster. But that may not be true. How fast are they pedaling? How hard are they working out when they ride? Without this information, you can’t really say who is the stronger rider.
Similarly, you might assume that the best way to get stronger or faster is to simply climb more hills or ride with a faster group. There’s a grain of truth in that, but it’s not a complete picture of how to improve your cycling speed and endurance. It may get you there in the long run. But Coach Darryl has a better way.
The Power of Periodization
The real secret to becoming a better cyclist lies in a theory called periodization. This method was developed in the 1960s by Tudor Bompa, a former athlete and expert in performance training. Countries in the Eastern Bloc used it to rise to athletic dominance in the latter half of the 20th century, and it has since become the standard training technique for many performance athletes.
The basic idea of the periodization method is that to improve athletic performance, you need to focus your training on one of three areas at a time:
- Anaerobic capacity
When you’re building toward any challenging physical goal, these are your building blocks. But you have to stack them in that order, as each piece supports the next. As a cyclist, you need strength in your legs before you can extend your rides. And you need to be able to ride farther before you can do it faster.
“The whole concept here is that if you focus on strength first, you can have strong legs before you complicate the issue by switching to building endurance,” says Coach Darryl.
How To Improve Your Speed and Endurance on the Bike
So, what does this look like for the cyclist who wants to ride farther and faster? If that’s you, it’s important to schedule your training in that order.
“This doesn’t mean that all you work on is strength building or all you work on is endurance,” Darryl clarifies. “It means that’s where your concentration is, and you put more of your training minutes onto that specific area you’re concentrating on.”
Here’s a basic overview of what it should look like.
1. Strengthen Your Legs
Your legs are your most important tool for success as a cyclist, so it’s important not to breeze past this first training focus. The good news is that Darryl’s recommended method — one-legged pedaling — really pays off.
“There is nothing you can do on the bike that will give you quicker results in return for the time and effort you put into it,” he says. “Nothing is as productive to becoming stronger and faster than one-legged pedaling.”
Your goal here is just what it sounds like: Pedal with one leg at set intervals to strengthen each leg incrementally. It’s best to aim for the right resistance, too. Darryl recommends that you set yourself up on a stationary trainer or, if you're outside, on a hill or against the wind so you can pedal at about 55 rotations per minute with one leg at a time. To do this, remove one leg from the pedal so you’re putting the full strength of one leg into the entire pedal stroke. If you go above 65 rpm, it’s too easy, and you need to shift into a harder gear. And if you go below 50 rpm, it’s too hard on your knees.
This will be incredibly difficult at first, and your legs will be quite sore. But if you stick with it for at least two weeks, you’ll start to see a significant difference in your pedaling strength.
2. Stretch Your Endurance
Now that you’ve built some leg strength, you can start to put that to work to help you grow your endurance. This is actually the portion of your training where you’ll need to spend the most time, as it’s a slow process to gradually extend your rides.
What’s important here is to take an interval training approach and gradually glue the intense parts of your ride into a new, longer one. So, if you initially want to be able to maintain a 17-mph pace for 90 minutes, start by doing a 60-minute ride at a much slower pace, but incorporate short bursts of 17 mph in there. Then, gradually extend those bursts over a period of weeks until you can glue them all into one continuous ride.
Remember, it takes your body a while to adjust. Give yourself time to glue these rides together slowly.
3. Expand Your Capacity
Finally, once your endurance is up to par, you can work to expand your anaerobic capacity so you can do more with less effort. From there, you may be able to extend your ride farther or bump your speed up to 18 or 20 mph.
This part of your training is all about pushing yourself as hard as you can.
“Get your heart rate high enough that you’re out of breath and unable to carry on a conversation,” says Coach Darryl. Whether it’s climbing a hill or sprinting hard toward the next road sign, go all out until you’re sucking air.
Once you get there, pedal slowly until you’ve recovered. Then repeat the process several times until you start to feel like you’re losing your strength — probably three to six times will be enough so you don’t push it too far.
It’s very important not to overdo this. Limit these intense rides to once or twice a week at no more than an hour at a time.
Give Yourself Enough Time
If you commit yourself to that order of training, you’ll be on the right track toward improving your cycling speed and endurance. Remember, though, it’s a process. And the bigger the event you’re training for or goal you have, the more time you need to give yourself to gradually build up to it.
Tour de France riders start training in November for a race that happens in July. You probably aren’t preparing for something quite that big, but you may need at least a couple of months to work up to it. Whatever it is, you can get there with the right training approach.
For more details on what this training can look like, read our post on the “4 Beneficial Stamina-Building Workouts for Cyclists.” And subscribe to our email to receive training tips from Coach Darryl every week.
Look for more insights from Coach Darryl over at his website.
Photo by RUN 4 FFWPU on Pexels