competition · cycling

How not to get faster

There’s a very well known cycling quote, posted to the Facebook walls, Pinterest boards and tumblrs of cyclists (my own included) that goes like this, “It doesn’t get any easier; you just go faster.”  It’s by Greg LeMond. (Born in 1961, LeMond is, according to Wikipedia, “an American former professional road racing cyclist, entrepreneur, and anti-doping advocate. He was World Champion in 1983 and 1989, and is a three-time winner of the Tour de France.” So he knows what he’s talking about when it comes to getting fast.

But today I want to talk about the other side of the easier-faster coin. It’s much less celebrated and and likely wouldn’t be a fave quote on Facebook walls. It goes like this, “If it is just getting easier, you’re not getting faster.” Let me explain.

I’m often asked by beginning cyclist friends what they need to do to get faster. My glib response is, ride faster. And though that might sound obvious, it’s also true.

The advice I’m about to dish out here goes beyond my tips for beginning riders who want to go faster. And it’s advice that I know to be true and sometimes need to follow myself!

The thing is I’ve known lots of cyclists, me included, who when left to their own devices go out and ride 20-40 km at a speed that feels good to them several times a week. They then wonder why after months of doing this they aren’t getting faster.  The answer is that what you’re training by doing that is your ability to go out and ride 20-40 km at a comfortable speed. You won’t get faster but it will get easier. And easier doesn’t translate into speed gains.

Because really it shouldn’t get easier. You should keep pushing yourself. You need to push yourself. You need subsequent rides to be as hard as the first.

That’s a bit of an overstatement but the basic idea is right. Don’t spend too much time enjoying your new found comfortable speed/distance. Push on.

This is something that puzzled me back when I was a beginning runner. I spent awhile at a plateau where running got easier (my heart rate slowed down, I was less wiped out afterwards) but I wasn’t getting any faster. The thing is I didn’t want to go “back” to that out of breath, exhausted feeling of my early days as a runner.

It was humbling to learn that that was exactly what I needed to do (some of the time at least) if I wanted to make speed gains.

How do you do that? Here’s two ideas:

1. By adding fast intervals. Step out of your “ride for coffee with friends” mode and engage in bike specific speed training. There isn’t anything wrong with riding at a comfortable speed. We all do it lots when we ride socially but it isn’t training.

2. Don’t spend all your time riding with friends who ride at your pace or who are nice to you! Spend some of the time riding with people faster than you. Guest blogger Catherine Womack wrote about conquering her fear of returning to group rides and I’ve written about riding with friends of different speeds as one way to mix it up.

I need to do both of these things and rejoining a bike club with group rides and doing some bike specific speed training are on my agenda for next year.

11 thoughts on “How not to get faster

  1. Great post. This is why I like the “Average Game” when I’m out for a ride. Riding with faster people is a great way to get faster, but most of my riding is solo. So I’ll set that brisk but comfortable pace you describe on the outward half of the ride (computer set to hide my average speed), then at the halfway point I’ll check my average, and decide what higher speed I want it to be by the end. The whole way home (average now showing on the computer) I drive it up towards my target average, which gets harder and harder as the speed and the distance already ridden increase, and as I get more tired. You have to be fast on the flats and descents to make up time, and you can’t then let climbing knock your speed down; so it removes those little rests you sometimes take without noticing that you’re doing it. It’s a sort-of-fun way of just pushing yourself hard for long stretches, sometimes really really hard, without having to time intervals or repeat hills.

    1. That said if you ever want to race or even ride with fast group you need to work on going really fast in short bursts and then recovering. Triathletes need steady state fast but road cyclists generally want and to be able to sprint recover and repeat. But those are different flavours of fast. Both count.

      1. For sure. This maybe comes down a bit more on the sustained pace side of things. A nice thing about the average game is that over a longer distance (say, 30-40 km on the return leg) it tends to resolve into a brisk tempo ride with intervals thrown in opportunistically — especially on hills, if you resent any time spent below your target final average. So it’s not a bad approximation of riding with a speedy group that rarely does easy spinning for recovery, but sometimes climbs hard or dials up the pace to catch another group.

  2. It has been my experience that when I train with people more accomplished than I am, I train harder and perhaps even more efficiently. The gains I make from doing so have been almost startling, at times. No matter how hard I might think I am training when alone, the truth is that I train much harder when in the company of others who are stronger and faster than me.

  3. I want to echo Sam’s comment about the importance of intervals for getting faster (and getting fitter). There is an increasing body of evidence that short periods hIgh-intensity interval training (HIT) not only works as well or better in terms of fitness increases than lower-intensity training over longer periods, but it also may provide more protection for those at risk of type-II diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. The jury is still out on this, but the science is leaning in this direction.

    What I do these days is incorporate at least one hard-effort workout a week. It might be doing hill repeats (going up a 4–5 minute hill 4 times, with 5 mins rest in between), doing two 20-minute hard efforts with rest in between at 90% of my max heart rate (I wear a HR monitor, but it can be done just by going so that you are breathing hard the whole time and can’t really talk and breathe and ride at the same time). Riding/running/playing with faster people also does the trick, and feels like a real accomplishment. Because it is.

  4. My triathlon training program has me moving into a speedwork phase now where I do speed intervals once a week on the bike. I know it will help, just as doing speed intervals on foot helped me become a faster runner, but I’m not gonna lie, my quads are cringing at the thought.

    I also think that there are things I can do with my bike to help me get faster, like getting shoes/pedals that allow me to clip in. I suspect that will make a huge difference as well. But for now, speedwork it is.

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