Put the mettle to the pedal
This week, people are likely realizing that making resolutions is much easier than keeping them. Many are already faltering on their fitness goals, finding it difficult to brave the morning or evening chill. But don’t reach for the doughnuts -- on this second week of a four-part series on starting a fitness program, we’ve got help from David Brinton, is a former Olympian, and currently an elite USA Cycling coach and president and founder of Technik Sports Inc., who takes us through four weeks of bike training. He explains how to work out like a pro and avoid beginner burnout, and he suggests some tools that make the process easier.
Before you even hop on that bike, set your training schedule -- and make it a realistic one. Brinton suggests starting with three to four days a week of cycling, gradually working toward a goal of five to six days a week by the end of eight weeks. “Often, new riders are so excited and jump into riding six days a week,” he says, “then realize it’s not manageable.” (More on this later.)
Then set some goals, such as completing a race, or even one as grand as completing a “century,” a 100-mile ride done in one day (there are races with shorter distances as well). That, Brinton says, has bragging rights, and it isn’t as overwhelming as it sounds. “When you start recognizing your progress from week to week, then you realize, ‘Maybe I could actually keep going.’ ”
Keep a training diary. “It gives you a reference of where you started and where you are today,” Brinton says. “If you time yourself going up a hill at a particular heart rate, how do you know if you’ve improved if you haven’t been logging it?” Seeing speeds and distances increase can be motivating. Brinton suggests going into a fair amount of detail in the log, and include distance, time spent on the bike, heart rate and how you felt.
Get your bike fitted properly. Rank beginners might need the help of an experienced bike store employee or cycling coach for this -- there are even people who just fit bikes. Don’t skip this part, Briton says; a saddle that’s too low or too far forward, for example, can strain key tendons.
Take a bike maintenance class, or have someone show you how to do basic repairs such as flat tires. It’s also a good idea to practice those repairs.
Consider two gadgets in particular: One is a heart rate monitor, which can help determine various training zone levels. For the first few weeks, you should pay attention to your heart rate at various levels of intensity. Make mental notes of those numbers, and log them in if you can remember. Also be aware of how you feel at those heart rates; for example, at 165 beats, you might feel like you’re putting out a great effort, while at 150, you’re able to sustain that pace for a great distance.
The other useful device is a bike computer, which calculates pedaling cadence. “Many times, riders cycle at too low of an RPM,” he says, which can hinder acceleration, since it demands more power from the rider.
Now for the riding . . .
Weeks 1 and 2
Do a one- to two-hour ride at a sustainable pace on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday, with a longer ride on Saturday. Whenever possible, try to pick safe roads with few lights and stop signs. If none are close, you may have to drive to a better location.
For the weekday rides, “the idea is to start off easier. . . . You don’t want to have a week where you go so hard and so long that you’re incapable of increasing mileage the next week.” Doing too much too soon is also a formula for injury and burnout.
The major goals of these two weeks are learning how to ride at a consistent pace, getting the body used to constant pedaling, and maintaining a steady heart rate. You should be breathing hard, but able to sustain a conversation, talking in brief sentences.
That longer Saturday ride should be mostly flat terrain for 15 to 30 miles, with a 10-mile increase each week. On Sundays, do a shorter ride with some hill work, which will boost the cardiovascular system by making it work harder. But don’t kill yourself. “You’re not climbing to set a new record,” Brinton says. He recommends cycling on a 4% to 6% grade.
Weeks 3 and 4
Maintain the same riding schedule, adding the usual mileage on Saturday. Also add a one-hour ride on Wednesday that’s the same intensity as (or slightly lower than) your regular pace on Tuesday and Thursday.
Now that you’ve gotten more used to checking the heart rate monitor, it’s time to put those numbers to use.
Determining your lactate threshold will help set up various training zone levels, useful in building cardiovascular endurance, and in establishing when recovery time is needed. Lactate or anaerobic threshold is the point at which the body moves from working in an aerobic zone to an anaerobic zone, where blood lactate levels rise (causing muscle ache and fatigue) and the body burns more carbs than fat.
One way to establish this threshold is to ride at a sustained effort as hard and fast as you can for 20 minutes, trying to keep your heart rate steady. Your average heart rate is your lactate threshold, which is also 90% to 93% of your maximum heart rate. Do this test a few times to establish an average threshold level. As you become more fit, your lactate threshold level will likely rise, making it easier to both ride for longer periods and cycle at more intense levels. According to Brinton, cycling at 10 to 15 beats below your lactate threshold is the most efficient way to develop cardiovascular endurance and effectively filter lactic acid from the body. If maintaining this level becomes difficult, it could be an indication of overtraining.
During these weeks, Brinton suggests concentrating on pedaling mechanics. Instead of mashing down on the pedals and generating power just on the down stroke, think about the muscles you’re using throughout the 360-degree range of motion. Thinking of the circle as a clock, from about 4 to 8 focus on the hamstrings; from about 7 to 12 the hip flexors, and from about 10 to 2 the quadriceps. Becoming a more proficient peddler will eventually increase speed.
Pedaling cadence, he says, should be about 85 to 95 RPMs on the flats, and 65 to 75 on climbs.
After four weeks, aim for continuing to increase your Saturday mileage by 10 miles, and add a few miles of climbing to the Tuesday and Thursday rides.
At this point, if a race or becoming a more adept rider is still the goal, it may be time to hire a coach or join a cycling group to get more training tips and experience riding with others. USA Cycling (www.usa cycling.org) lists coaches on its website. For more information on Brinton, go to www.ridingto win.com.
Next week: Get information on how to fast track a strength training program and begin to see results.
How to hit your stride
Prefer running over cycling? Check out our detailed improvement plan.