There’s a life lesson in here somewhere.

August 26, 2007

A most-confirmedly ex-competitive athlete,  I. The formative years, athletically, were the overall formative years and I had the benefit of some formal coaching here and there. One might debate the quality but it was certainly coaching.

I run across the later-life convert to running or cycling, now and again, and there is a common theme. The person who “gets serious” about what-have-you. Marathons, USCF type bike racin’, etc. Being smart and dedicated people they go out and train a whole bunch and usually get pretty decent. Then, there is the plateau. “I want to qualify for Boston, my times are consistent but I can’t get faster”. “I want to do group rides but I’m not fast enough”.  “I got dropped from the Cat 5s”.


Everyone has trouble with this idea, the first obvious thing for distance sports is just to go out as hard as you can for most workouts. This is wrong.  Once a certain level of competency/fitness has been reached (you completed a marathon? okay, you are there) little benefit is obtained by “doing more long runs” or “training more consistently” or the like. You need to run faster to improve. Speedwork, intervals, etc are the only way.

The cycling plateau is usually the group-ride threshold because being able to stay with the group of riders is a pretty necessary calling card. I can’t tell you how many people focus on average speed. “Well I can hold 18mph for my rides but I hear the local group ride is 24mph so I have to ride more so that I can hang”. Wrongo. Once you get up to the approx 18mph average on mixed terrain you are ready for the next step. Group rides and yes, you will get dropped at times  ( So know your roads). The first reason is , of course, the benefit of drafting. Otherwise known as not having to bash through the wind all by yourself. People know this intellectually, of course, but nothing like a 50 miler in a group ride to really generate understanding. The other reason is subtler. You just can’t ride that hard by yourself. Call it motivation, nod to intermittent effort, whatever. There is some weird physiology at work. You’d think all effort would be the same, right? Put out X watts because of a hill, increased wind resistance, or drag brake and it should all be the same training, no? Dunno why but it doesn’t seem to work this way. There is no substitute for sustained big gear riding that you can only maintain because of the pack.  So you have to suck it up and go on those local group rides. You’ll get dropped at first, perhaps frequently. Eventually, you’ll develop the skills and power and notice you are a much better rider. You won’t get there by yourself no matter how many hours you put in.

This has something to do with science careers.

3 Responses to “There’s a life lesson in here somewhere.”

  1. kemibe Says:

    The daunting thing to me about road cycling (other than the dearth of safe places to train) is that in order to be good at it, you really have to make yourself hurt. Thanks to the lack of pounding, cyclists, like Nordic skiers, have to put in several hours a day in order to be really good, and have to ride at a higher fraction of VO2 Max, more often, than marathoners. Runners get a paradoxical break of sorts because their event-specific training entails sufficient pounding to keep max training loads at about 2 hours a day, tops, for even world-class runners.


  2. PhysioProf Says:

    “You’ll get dropped at first, perhaps frequently.”

    In fact, it is the riding-as-hard-as-you-can-until-you-feel-like-your-heart-is-going to-explode-and-your-legs-fall-off-and-then-get-dropped-anyway that provides the high-intensity work necessary to get better. Every time you get dropped, you are putting in the effort to get you that much closer to not getting dropped.


  3. bikemonkey Says:

    The “world class” thing, sure. Although probably not for all specific cycling disciplines, take track for example.

    But for the rest of us, the ratio for training enough to get fit(ter), faster, reach personal record goals, jump up to the next start wave or Category is pretty similar.

    You can get a LOT of bike improvement in with a consistent schedule of 60-90 min workouts. One of the considerations of this above intensity business is that workouts can be shorter. The average “serious” Cat 4/5 cyclist spends a lot of bike time wasted on “going medium” as an old teammate used to harangue us…

    The one cycling goal of relevance to us old fat guys is calorie burning, since many will have weight loss as a goal. The bike mags used to discuss optimal target heart rate for weight loss on a recurring basis leaving people with a “go medium for weight loss” theory. Also wrongo. Because the assumptions were unexamined. The caveat of “because you can keep this up for hours” was overlooked. In fact, the best fat-burner workout is the most intense workout in terms of overall workload. Intensity also helps to build muscle mass and endurance which lets you work harder next time. see? no issue that isn’t solved by a train-to-race approach 🙂


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