Cyclists are constantly searching for that magic training bullet to take our performance to the next level. But we often spend so much time pondering what we should be doing, that we neglect to consider the things that we shouldn’t— and as it turns out, most of us are holding ourselves back with a few easily solvable mistakes. Which of these five common errors are you making in your training?
1. You Don’t Practice Sprinting
If you had to name the most under-appreciated skill in cycling, sprinting would top the list. Too many of us associate sprinting with race-ending bunch finishes, and preemptively declare ourselves to be “not a sprinter”. In reality, if you ride a bike and want to get faster and fitter, sprinting is a skill you should practice.
Sprinting uses distinct pathways in your body, activating the neuromuscular energy system to generate fleeting bursts of maximal intensity. After about 10 seconds the burden shifts to the anaerobic system, which in turn requires the aerobic system to process its byproducts. Repeated sprints thus push your body’s ability to use oxygen and muscular fuel to their limits, driving useful adaptations that can make you faster across the board.
Sprinting is also unique in how much it relies on efficiency and good form. A major limiter in sprint power is coordination between all of the muscles involved, and with practice, you can train your muscles to better act in unison to turn the pedals. This is an improvement that can pay dividends any time you need to up the pace.
So whether or not you plan to race, sprinting is a crucial skill for every cyclist, and occasionally incorporating sprints into your training can make you faster. If sprinting isn’t something you currently address, there’s no time like the present to start.
2. You Do Too Many Group Rides
First things first—group rides are awesome. They’re incredibly fun, great for building confidence in a pack, and can even offer some friendly competition. But like it or not, most group rides aren’t great training. Simply put, group rides just aren’t as productive for getting faster as spending the same amount of time doing structured workouts, and too much group riding can actually cause you to lose fitness.
Why this is true boils down to two main reasons. First, even when they feel very hard, group rides often don’t result in much time spent at productive training intensities. Second, the few hard efforts you do on each group ride tend to be very fatiguing, with the potential to leave you tired and hold back your training overall.
Unlike group rides, structured workouts are strategically designed so you spend as much time at productive intensities as possible, without excess fatigue. Well-designed training intentionally targets specific skills and energy systems in a way that unstructured riding alone can’t achieve, and it doesn’t gratuitously wear you out. So while group rides absolutely can and should be a part of your cycling routine, don’t let them replace or interfere with what really makes you faster: structured training.
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3. You’re Over-Focused on Weight
Cycling can be a powerful tool for weight loss. But it’s all too common for cyclists to become unproductively fixated on weight, at the expense of performance and health. If your primary goal is getting faster, cutting calories should take a back seat to the simple goal of fueling your workouts.
The fixation on weight in cycling stems out of the concept of power-to-weight ratio, the idea that being lighter can make riders proportionately stronger and faster. There’s some truth to this, but in most situations, raw power is much more important than weight. Furthermore, many athletes find themselves faster overall when they aren’t at their absolute skinniest, as weight loss can lead to significant declines in muscle mass. And most importantly, fixations on weight often mean athletes deprive their bodies of the fuel required to complete workouts and make productive adaptations.
Whatever your body type, focus first on fueling your workouts and nourishing yourself. High performance is so much more than just power-to-weight!
For our comprehensive guide to cycling nutrition, click here.
4. You Do Too Much Intensity (With Not Enough Recovery)
We cyclists love to ride hard. Hard rides feel productive and push you against your limits. Hard efforts win races, get you KOMs, and leave your friends behind on the climb. But it’s actually during recovery that you get faster, and many of us overlook this fact and ride too hard, too often, to our detriment.
You may even be doing this without even realizing it. Adding extra group rides or unstructured rides onto a training plan is one common cause, chasing KOMs on recovery rides or during easy weeks is another. These efforts can be more impactful than you’d think, leaving you with significant fatigue and hindering your actual training.
So what’s the solution? Well, we hate to keep repeating ourselves, but it’s structured training and recovery. Training plans include days off and easy weeks for a reason, so treat these days with the same respect as your hard workouts—easy days should be easy! Polarized Training takes this philosophy to an extreme, and for some athletes, it’s a great option. Other athletes like to follow low-volume plans if they know they’re going to be adding group rides to the mix to avoid overdoing it. Whatever method you choose, remember that intensity is only productive if you can recover from it, and recovery is the key to getting faster.
5. You Only Set Outcome Goals
Goals keep you motivated, and for many of us, those goals are big—win a race, get a KOM, or hang on to the fast group ride. The problem is these are outcome goals, highly dependent on factors outside of our control. While these big goals are powerful motivation, measuring success off of them exclusively sets you up for serious disappointment when things don’t go your way.
Instead of only chasing outcome goals, set smaller process goals along the way. Training is a journey, and it’s the day-to-day victories that add up to big success. Celebrate these wins—examples include properly fueling a workout, getting a good night’s sleep, completing an intimidating interval, or gaining a few watts on your next Ramp Test. Progress is more apparent when it’s measured in small increments, and you’ll be more likely to reach your outcome goals if you’re guided by positive reinforcement. And even if circumstances ultimately prevent you from achieving that big, podium-topping success, the measurable wins you achieve along the way should be a real source of pride and motivation.