The goal of this article is to point out some of those common mistakes and review methods to correct them.
1. Hammering the Hills – Coasting the Descents
This is probably the most common mistake I run across, and also a huge pet peeve during group rides or breakaway attempts that require teamwork, so let’s address it first.
Example 1: You hit a climb at 600 watts and it takes 30-seconds to reach the top, then you coast the descent taking 15-seconds to hit the bottom.
Example 2: You hit a climb at 450 watts and it takes 32-seconds to reach the top, then you pedal at an easy 150-200 watts on the descent and hit the bottom in 13-seconds.
My numbers may not be exact, but try playing this exact situation out on your next group ride. You’ll reach the top just a couple seconds behind your buddy that smashed the climb and then fly by them on the descent hitting the base of the next section with more momentum. Smashing that climb at 600 watts was faster to the top, but a huge effort like that needs to balancing with recovery, hence the coasting on the descent.
The energy cost of smashing the climb in Example 1 is higher because you’re tapping into limited anaerobic energy stores to a higher degree and failing to use momentum as best possible. Being conservative on the climb and using momentum to your advantage on the downhills will save a small amount of energy over every hill, eventually adding up to big savings that will serve you well later in a ride/race.
Another benefit of a steady pacing strategy over climbs is in helping groups of riders work together. Surging or attacking in a pace-line not only burns matches for the rider on the front setting the high pace, but it also burns more matches for the riders attempting to follow. There is a minimal draft during a climb and every rider has to put in a similar effort, meaning every rider needs recovery time at the top and nobody will want to put themselves on the front to battle the wind. This kills the flow, and no flow equals slow in pace-lines.
The key to this even pacing strategy boils down to maintaining steady pressure on the pedals, regardless of whether you’re descending or climbing. This means you’ll go a touch slower on the climb, and a touch faster on the descent. If you’re used to smashing every hill, then it’ll take a while to get comfortable with the slight speed reduction going up, but the big picture benefits will without a doubt be worth the small hit to your climbing ego.
2. Not Eating Enough During Rides
The first thing I do when juniors join the Olathe Subaru squad for 80 to 100-mile training rides is check their pockets. My reaction is nearly always the same, “you don’t have enough food”. I then nag them to eat every 20-30 minutes throughout the ride and then continue hounding them at each gas station stop. They usually bonk towards the end, anyway.
This isn’t a problem unique to juniors either. I’ve worked with tons of strong adult riders who struggle with energy late into long rides and can’t quite figure it out. They usually blame a lack of miles, but with a little probing, I often find they’re eating maybe 50% of what they need to be.
First, it’s important to eat early in the training ride. You may not be hungry in that first hour, or sometimes even the second hour, but waiting until you’re hungry later into a long ride will dig a hole you won’t easily come out of.
Next, count grams of carbohydrate and aim for 60-90g/hour during long/hard training rides. If you’ve only been hitting the 20-30g/hour, then make this jump slowly over a few rides. Don’t do this math on the road either and hope you can keep it all together. Before a big ride set out all your food and calculate how many grams are in each item.
Finally, determine what frequency you’ll want to eat. I suggest eating something small every 20-30 minutes, but you can probably get away with bigger doses every 30-45 minute if you train your mind/gut to handle that just fine.
3. Starting Strong–Finishing Weak
Suns out, the legs are good, and you’re ready to rage! The first 20 miles of your ride feel amazing and average speeds are close to 20 mph. During the next 40 miles, you’re still feeling good but feeling the effort a bit and need to settle down. During the final 20 miles your world falls apart; the bonk hits, your legs feel like lead, and you’re crawling up every climb.
This my friends is a horrible habit to fall into. A seasoned cyclist understands the importance of energy management and finishing their training rides/races strong. Finishing strong doesn’t mean you don’t finish wrecked, but it means you waited until the end to unload the last bit of your strength in a way that still had you rolling fast for the majority of the ride.
Try this on your next endurance ride: Keep your HR or PWR strictly around 60-65% of your threshold for the first 30 minutes, then gradually build to 70% and hold steady through the middle of the ride. For the final 30-45 minutes, start gradually increasing the intensity to 70-75% of threshold or higher. Holding back during the first part of your ride can make a world of difference towards the end of the ride.
A little extra tidbit of advice; avoid sprinting/surging out of every intersection or stoplight. This is a subtle energy/flow killer and will wear on you over the course of a long ride.
Want to understand more about fatigue resistance? Check out this article!
4. Riding Too Hard During Recovery Rides
If you’re averaging 18 mph on a recovery ride you’re doing it wrong.
I want you to imagine what it’s like to ride bikes with a 10-year-old. You’d be lucky to average 12 mpg and probably stop to eat snacks twice within an hour ride. If you feel like you’re going WAYYY too slow and stopping for snacks/Instagram action then you’re likely performing a proper recovery ride.
The main point of a recovery ride is to promote blood flow, switch your mind into relax mode, and just enjoy an easy bike ride. If you’re the type who can’t slow down anytime you throw a leg over the bike, then I’d prefer you take the day off or go for a walk instead.
Trouble slowing down but still want to ride? Try taking a friend out who’s new to cycling or give yourself a strict wattage/HR maximum and ride to a nearby café.
Since we’re talking recovery, check out this post to read more about our favorite recovery meals.
5. Forgetting to Have Fun!
This one is for the seasoned cyclist who might have the training thing figured out or the cyclist new to structured training–both of which can get caught up chasing perfection when following their plan. I’m here to tell you it’s okay to go off-plan occasionally and ride for the pure joy of getting outside.
There are a time and place for strict training guidelines, and hopefully, your coach will make you aware of those times. That said, the majority of the training year has room for playtime and I encourage every rider to take advantage of that time.
When to play things loose: 1 or 2 rides per week unless you’re 8 weeks out from your main event. As your event draws near, it’s best to tighten the reigns and following the program closely. Have no fear though as it’s not all stuffy intervals and mindless endurance rides during that “strict period” either. A good program will incorporate plenty of “play time” in a structured / race specific sort of way.
P.S. Playing things loose doesn’t mean avoiding your training plan entirely for the day. Examples of playing it loose would be to hit every city limit sprint on a long endurance ride, or maybe join a hard group ride instead of doing your threshold intervals for the day. Both examples add plenty of play into the ride while still maintaining a general adherence to the big picture goals.
Summing Things Up
Becoming a good cyclist is all about the long game and not getting too twisted up about all the minor details. Making mistakes and learning how to improve is part of the fun. Approach each day with a beginners mindset, eager to learn, have fun, and keep chasing adventure and self-betterment.
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