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Peloton of cyclists riding hard around a turn in a race in London

Why All That Cycling Isn’t Making You Stronger

If you’re trying to become a stronger cyclist, you might think you just need to ride more.

After all, it's a logical idea: I’m riding four days a week and I’m not getting any stronger, so I’ll just ride a few more days. Surely if I ride seven days a week, I’ll be stronger, right?

However, logical as it may seem, it isn’t the right approach. Instead, learning how to become a stronger cyclist is more about developing a solid weekly cycling training plan. If you want to get better at cycling, you’ll need to do more than just ride in excess. As longtime cycling coach Darryl MacKenzie explains, all that cycling isn’t making you stronger because it lacks two things: variety and recovery time.

Your Workouts Lack Variety

If you’ve been riding regularly and feel you’re still struggling with certain types of rides, a lack of diversity might be your problem. There are three types of rides you can do, and you need all three if you want to be a well-rounded cyclist:

“From a cycling point of view, you are what you pedal,” says Darryl. “If your objective is to only do short, fast rides, then your muscles are going to adapt to allow you to do short, fast rides. But they are not going to adapt for long, slow rides.”

A friend of Darryl’s discovered this recently when he tried to change his ride. After only riding the same type of 30-mile ride on the flats week in and week out, he decided to switch it up and do a longer, 41-mile ride. After he did it, he was exhausted for days because his body wasn’t trained for it.

The fundamental idea here, as Coach Darryl puts it, is that “stress causes adaptation.” Your muscles will adapt to the stress you put on them. So, which muscles you’re working — and how you’re working them — matters for how you’re developing your strength. A long ride on the flats works different muscle groups differently than a hard ride that’s full of climbs, and your workout plan should include them both.

That’s why a weekly cycling training plan for Darryl might look something like this:

  • A hilly, 20-mile ride on Wednesday
  • A flat, 32-mile ride at a moderate pace on Saturday
  • A slow, 44-mile ride on the flats on Sunday

If he doesn’t get that variety in a single week, he’s at least aiming for it over the course of the month. The specifics of your plan might vary based on your age and the types of rides you’re used to, but it’s important to aim for a similar variety.

Your Muscles Don’t Have Enough Recovery Time

This second concept can feel particularly counterintuitive. It’s easy to think that more frequent workouts will make you stronger. But stress isn’t the only thing that allows your muscles to adapt. They need time for rest and recovery, too.

“Researchers have discovered that muscles get stronger in the day or so after the workout more so than on the day of the workout,” Darryl explains.

What does that mean for a cyclist? You haven’t really maximized the effect of all those hard climbs on your Tuesday ride until you take Wednesday (and maybe Thursday) off to let your muscles recover and rebuild. That rest time is an essential part of your workout, and if you skip it, you’re short-circuiting your body’s natural strength-building process.

If you’re like a lot of cyclists, though, you’re ready to protest. But Saturday and Sunday are my best days for riding! Do I have to skip one? No, but you do need to apply our other lesson here and vary your Saturday and Sunday rides.

In other words, don’t do the same ride on both of your weekend outings. If Saturday is a hard, hilly ride, then make Sunday a long, slow ride on the flats. That way, you’re allowing the muscles you worked so hard on Saturday to recover even while you do your Sunday ride.

The Bottom Line

Learning how to become a stronger cyclist is all about equipping yourself with the right techniques to grow. No more burning yourself out on days filled with riding in excess — change up your cycling training schedule and give your muscles time to recover. You’ll be surprised how quickly you can improve.

Check out our blog every week for new cycling tips from Coach Darryl.

Look for more insights from Coach Darryl over at his website.

Photo by Simon Connellan on Unsplash