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02 March 2006

How fit must a road cyclist be?

Cycling, like many sports, depends on two types of fitness.

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Cycling, like many sports, depends on two types of fitness. The primary emphasis in road cycling is on aerobic fitness, and an elite athlete like Lance Armstrong is in peak aerobic condition. However, strength, particularly of the leg muscles, is also important.

Typical build A typical road cyclist’s build is slim and lean. It is advantageous for these athletes to keep their weight down (without sacrificing too much muscle mass), and to have as little body fat as possible.

Technique The key element of good cycling technique is to maximise the efficiency of each pedal stroke.

When training, cyclists aim to maintain a high cadence (the rate at which the pedals revolve), to reinforce good pedalling technique. Higher pedalling rates are more economical, burn more fat, and allow muscles to reserve energy for the final ‘kick’ needed in the sprint to the finish line. At higher cadences, it is also generally easier to accelerate.

Some coaches recommend also doing some high-power, low-cadence training to improve mechanical efficiency, by applying force through as much of the pedal stroke as possible, especially at the top and bottom. Climbing hills, seated, in a high gear means the cyclist has to apply force to the pedals over the top and through the bottom of the stroke.

Cyclists need to have a thorough grasp of such technical elements as optimal gear ratios for a specific speed and road incline, and how to use their own and other cyclists’ bodies to reduce wind resistance. It is important that training includes time spent cycling in a pack of other cyclists, to replicate race conditions.

Training programme Road cycling requires consistent, structured training, with about four or five hours several days a week riding, as well as gym sessions. A typical training week may include two to three gym sessions, up to 1 000 kilometres of road work, and may incorporate minor races – although this will differ depending on the stage of training.

A top cyclist’s training programme is usually designed on an annual plan, building up over months to a peak, followed by a recovery period before starting over again. The first four months or so are spent building “foundation” fitness with aerobic and strength training. The next two to three months are focused on increasing speed, with shorter recovery periods. The following three-month period is when the athlete is competing, and should be at his or her physical peak. The body goes through considerable stress at this time. Finally, the athlete enters a three-month active recovery period, in which the volume and intensity of training are greatly reduced.

Cycling is not a high impact sport and can sustain quite a heavy training regime without the risk of joint or muscle damage. As mentioned above, cyclists use high cadence pedalling for most of their training rides. Fast pedalling on lower gears doesn't put excessive load on the muscles, so they’re less likely to become sore. This reduces the time needed for recovery between rides, allowing for longer and more frequent workouts.

Cardiovascular fitness Road cycling requires very high levels of cardiovascular fitness.

Speed drills The primary emphasis is on endurance, but cyclists also need to be prepared to put on a sudden spurt of speed, often in a dash to the finish at the end of a gruelling race or when breaking away from an opponent, so sprinting drills are generally incorporated into the training programme.

Resistance training and muscles Strength training is an important supplement to road cyclists’ aerobic conditioning programme. Regardless of a cyclist’s chosen distance, weight training, especially in the lower body, improves performance during both sprinting and hill climbing. Also, endurance athletes lose muscle mass during the racing season, and weight training helps rebuild it, as well as the connective tissues (tendons and ligaments) that can get broken down. Further, it improves neural muscle control and enhances stability. Cyclists do more weight training in the gym at times of the year when their cycling intensity is relatively low i.e. in off-peak periods. A weight training circuit, designed to work all the major muscle groups of the lower body, may be performed two to three times a week in the off season, and one to two times a week during peak season. Endurance cyclists aim for a higher number of repetitions with a lighter weight than do sprint cyclists.

Cycling is a non-weight-bearing sport, and specialised: the legs primarily move in one plane i.e. vertically. Weight training helps ensure that the accessory muscles in the hips, torso and upper body are developed enough to prevent imbalances and injuries. Some cyclists use cross training (participating in other sport types outside of their specialisation) for some portion of the year to keep their bodies from becoming too fragile.

Reaction time Fast reaction speed is an important safety aspect in road cycling, particularly when riding in a pack. A cyclist may need lightning-fast responses to avoid a crash, which often brings down several riders at once. Reaction speed is also important during a race when a competitor makes a sudden tactical move.

Endurance training Road cycling is a long-distance endurance sport, and the primary training emphasis is to build stamina – the ability to ‘stay the distance’.

Nutrition Nutrition complements the training level. During the four-month foundation phase, a cyclist’s calorie intake typically comprises about 65% carbohydrate, 13% protein and 22% fat. These proportions remain the same for the next two to three months, except that 15% more calories are added to the total. During the three-month peak competition period, proportions are 70% carbohydrate, 14% protein and 16% fat, with an additional 400-800 more calories, depending on the individual’s weight. Cyclists riding a long road race or time trial may eat even greater quantities of food, mainly carbohydrate, to ‘pre-fuel’ in the days immediately before the event. During the recovery period, calories are taken in as 60% carbohydrate, 18% protein and 22% fat. Total calories are reduced by 1000 to 1800, again depending on weight.

Mental Many road cyclists practise visualisation prior to the event. This involves imagining themselves in the race, and considering what they will do and how they will feel at each stage of the course, particularly at key points such as major hills or risky descents. They may also use positive ‘mind pictures’ or key phrases during a race to block negative images – of crashing, for example, which may cause them to hesitate and miss a key moment to break away from the pack. A quick mental image can spur a cyclist on to make a vital tactical move. It’s also important for a rider to concentrate on what’s happening in the moment, rather than worrying about what will happen later on in the race, a common problem with long events. As with all long-distance events, cyclists need to know how to pace themselves appropriately.

Drugs Professional cycling used to have a relatively clean record as regards illegal drug use, but this has changed over the past few years. The main substance detected in drug tests on cyclists is EPO (erythropoietin), an endurance-boosting hormone. Apart from EPO, there has been alleged misuse of drugs such as amphetamines, human growth hormone, steroids and methadone by cycling teams. Abuse of all these drugs carries serious risks. EPO increases the risk of heart disease and vascular damage, which can be fatal, especially in high stress situations like a cycle race.

 
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