Cycling Endurance Training for Beginners

Ask Frederic Guesdon how important raw power is to a cyclist and he’ll tell you all about his 1997 Paris-Roubaix win.

The little-known rider for team Les Francaises des Jeux surprised his star breakaway mates with a ferocious sprint he uncorked at the finish on turn three of the Roubaix velodrome, using a mere 100 meters to shoot from the back of an eight-man group and win by a comfortable four bike lengths.

How did the young second-year pro Guesdon go from zero to hero at the expense of some of the world’s best riders? With power to spare. Here’s how to win your own town-line sprint or just drop a persistent wheel-sucker.

“What we’re trying to accomplish is power gains on the bike,” former pro triathlete Ray Browning said. With a master’s degree in exercise physiology and biomechanics, Browning is the Biomechanics Laboratory Coordinator for the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine, a nationally renowned exercise physiology center.

“Ideally, we want the ability to convert strength into raw power for short bursts of energy,” he said. “When you think about it, the power phase of a pedal stroke¬the leg extension on the downstroke¬only lasts two-tenths of a second or so. That’s where your power comes from.”

Strength training is a year-long process that should actually start at the end of a season. “The first step is to identify your strengths and weaknesses,” he said. “Are you a weak climber or sprinter? Have you had any injuries last season that held you back? A really helpful idea is to schedule an evaluation with a physical therapist, then create a winter strength program.”

That means mostly gym work during the off-season, Browning said. The first phase is general strength building, with an emphasis on muscle balance, and should coincide with your base-miles training on the bike, during a two-month block from late January through March. “I’m a big proponent of strengthening your lower back and abdominals¬your core,” he said. “I like general exercises like the bench press, shoulder raises and seated rowing for upper body work. Seated rowing is especially good for cyclists.

Combine three or four upper-body exercises with leg work¬like squats, leg presses and curls and calf raises¬and add in floor work, crunches and leg lifts and you’ve got a good circuit of eight or nine exercises.” See the strength schedule in the training charts for specifics. Enter your text here…

See: How to Train for a Century Bike Ride

Do two to three sets with 10 to 15 repetitions each. The 10th to 15th reps should “be difficult, but not impossible,” Browning said. For those who don’t enjoy their time in the gym, take heart.

“You can do this circuit in about 45 minutes, and for cyclists (who aren’t interested in building much bulk) you only need to do it two or three times a week times, maximum,” Browning continued. If you can’t make it to a gym, there are alternatives. “Be creative. I did a strength program in my own house one winter with a couple of sandbags, a chair and a pull-up bar,” he said.

As you introduce variety and intensity into your training, it’s time for what Browning calls his maximum strength-development phase. “It’s about a one-month period where you’ll convert all that strength into power on the bike,” he said.

These circuits will include only our four lower-body exercises and just one for the upper body¬seated rowing. “Increase your sets to between four and six, while decreasing reps to six or under,” he said. “The weight should be about 90 to 95 percent of your maximum lift.”

One way to help increase power is to lift more explosively during this phase. Continue to use good form, though, and don’t snap your joint at the apex of the lift. “You can also incorporate plyometrics at this point,” he said. ”

A really good resource for this is Jumping Into Plyometrics by Donald Chu (Human Kinetics Publishing, 800/747-4457; You can also start strength work on the bike. Solo exercises include hill repeats¬climbing a hill in a larger gear¬or sprint intervals (which can also be done with a group).

“What you want to do is gradually shift your emphasis to on-the-bike work as the season approaches,” Browning said. “During the summer it’s advantageous to continue strength work, but it’s more for maintenance then; you’re not actually trying to increase strength.

There’s been research to suggest that power dropped off in athletes who discontinued strength work during the season, so now’s a good time to go back to your original strength sessions. The focus during the season is recovery, so your strength workouts shouldn’t leave you sore.”

A good strength and power program will make you both a stronger cyclist and one less prone to injury. The best time to start a strength program is at the end of a season by using Browning’s advice about evaluating yourself. But even in June, starting a light circuit workout will show dividends in only a month. Use that to springboard you into next season.

Mental Toughness: Building a Fitness Base From the Neck Up

One of the beauties of cycling is the merging of mechanical technology with physical prowess. By designing a gear-driven two-wheeled machine, humankind was introduced to a device so efficient that even a person who lacked fitness could travel short distances without exhaustion.

In fact, the bicycle remains the most efficient human-propelled vehicle ever invented.

While cycling enthusiasts frequently converse about sculpted athletic bodies and finely wrought frames, it’s much rarer to hear talk of a certain cyclist’s mind; in truth, it should probably be the other way around.

After all, many riders have shared the experience of meeting a visitor on a club ride who appeared out of shape and rode a cobweb covered bike he had just discovered in the attic of his grandparents house but who, nonetheless, handily dropped everybody on $1500 bikes up the first climb.

In such cases, mental toughness proves to be the common denominator. Most who have been with the sport a while recall certain instances of determination that sent chills along their spine, such as LeMond clawing his way back to the top of the sport after nearly dying in a hunting accident.

Those fortunate enough to have observed LeMond take 58 seconds out of Laurent Fignon in the final time trial of the ’89 Tour de France well know that, regardless of fitness and aerodynamic considerations, LeMond’s legendary ride-which continues to stand as the Tour’s fastest time trial-was the result of sheer determination.

Discovering such mental toughness in ourselves, however, can often be a difficult matter. Fortunately, unlike VO2 uptake, there appears to be no limit on developing the mind to adjust to hard efforts.

According to Toby Stanton, a coach for Hot Tubes Racing (formerly G.S. Mengoni) with 19 national championships to his coaching credit, mental toughness can be developed in much the same manner that a person improves his or her fitness.

“Encouragement is one of the best ways to develop toughness,” Stanton said. “Also, being surrounded by other good riders tends to help a person develop toughness.

Many times I’ve seen a new rider arrive on my team, who seemed a little shy at first, but after racing alongside team members who were doing well, soon became aggressive and tough in his own right.”

While such a stance dispels any myths about mental toughness being a genetic quality, Stanton did note that some sports, such as hockey, seem to draw a more toughened group of competitors than cycling or cross-country skiing.

Stanton doesn’t deny that cycling and cross-country skiing can be brutal sports. “Both require a great level of endurance,” he continued. “Endurance, though, is the easiest component of training to build. Short bursts at maximum effort are the most difficult and, as a result, require a much tougher mind. It’s during these efforts that races are won.”

To judge personal mental toughness, Stanton suggests putting on a heart-rate monitor and attempting to reach 180 beats per minute and holding it while cranking down a gently sloping descent: “After all, anyone can push their heart rate up on a climb, but how many can push themselves on the flats or even a downhill? That’s mental toughness.”

If you can’t afford such luxuries as a heart-rate monitor and live in a region where there are few others to ride with, setting small goals is one way to harden your mind for maximum efforts.

One method is to locate a series of telephone poles or other landmarks, such as mile markers, that are spaced anywhere from a few hundred meters to a full mile apart. Once you’ve located suitable markers, go all out between the two markers, starting at full effort and attempting to hold it until you reach the following marker.

If you do have others to ride with, set a goal such as staying with a stronger rider up the first section of a local climb. As you continue developing, set a slightly more difficult goal. In the process, you’ll find yourself adjusting to tougher situations.

Setting too difficult a goal, however, nearly always results in failure. As Stanton pointed out, “A junior rider would be much wiser to attempt placing high in a junior race, instead of entering a senior race with the goal of simply finishing.”

Developing the mind-set of a winner is a delicate process. Many people are able to finish high, often within yards of the winner, yet victory always eludes them. Attending a small local race and winning develops the psychology of a winner, instead of going to a national- caliber race and getting dropped three laps into the event.

Recreational riding, in turn, can be equally difficult. Going out and riding four days a week for 45 minutes at a time is wiser than immediately planning out a schedule that calls for riding an hour every day of the week.

For those rare individuals who are born with a tough mind, almost any task appears easy to accomplish. But for the rest of us who must work hard to accomplish similar goals, the key is to first find enjoyment in riding and then, later, push yourself.

Once you’ve developed a healthy schedule of enjoyable days balanced with more difficult days on the bike, you will find your fitness blossoming along with your confidence.

Recommended Resource

#1 Marc Evans’ Endurance Athlete’s Edge

One of the most thorough books on mental preparation is Marc Evans’ Endurance Athlete’s Edge.

Evans focuses on many diversified aspects of mental preparation, such as goal setting, imagery training, mental fatigue versus physical fatigue, negative thoughts and positive self-talk. While his primary training is as a coach for triathletes, his methods transcend sports categories.

Renowned cycling physiologist Ed Burke also addresses mental issues in the recently reissued Cycling Health and Physiology

Finally, those interested in getting information straight from the horse’s mouth should consult Greg LeMond’s Complete Book of Bicycling, available at your local bookstore. While LeMond’s book doesn’t focus solely on mental development, it makes for fascinating reading.


Training for Endurance: How Long Can You Last?

Typically, the best way to train your muscles to fire for long periods of time is to put in what coaches tend to refer to as “base mileage.” These miles should be steady and easy and applied as liberally as ketchup to a french fry.

The low intensity of solid base miles prepares your muscles for the repetitive nature of the longer endurance ride. Ride duration is increased slowly and for most riders shouldn’t be increased by more than 10 percent at a time once you’re riding 50 miles a week.

Team Hot Tubes’ Toby Stanton will tell you that you needn’t be able to ride 50 miles in order to be able to race 50 miles. Huh?

“If you go out to ride 100 miles, it’s going to take you seven or eight hours,” Stanton says. “But if you race that distance, it will take you five hours or less.

Your body doesn’t understand miles, but it understands time.” So Stanton coaches his riders to concentrate on training the length of time it will take them to race a given distance.

What that means for you is that if you are preparing for some sort of longer group ride, you only need to train toward the amount of time it will take you to complete the ride, not the distance.

If your weekend group is going to do a metric century one Sunday and the group typically averages 20 mph, then all you need to be able to ride is three hours. If you work toward that duration gradually, then your last training ride prior to the metric century need only be about 2 hours and 45 minutes long.

Mike Niederpruem, manager of coaching programs for USA Cycling, concurs. “You don’t have to be able to do a metric century in order to be able to do a metric century,” Niederpruem states. “The conventional wisdom is to get base mileage.”

But he says there is now substantial research showing that endurance adaptation takes place even when training for short, intense events.

Niederpruem advises that time-crunched athletes need not give up the goal of completing a century. While he grants that the best route to endurance will always come from logging the miles, he says endurance can be gained from doing longer interval work. “Intensity can help make up for the lack of time,” Niederpruem explains.

Just because you’ve done the training necessary to endure the event doesn’t mean you can suddenly ride above your ability. Says Stanton, “They gotta be sitting in, not driving it. They gotta be smart.” Being smart means keeping your nose out of the wind as much as possible.

“You gotta understand you get a huge advantage by riding in a group when you do an event,” he says.

According to Stanton, one of the toughest lessons you must learn in order to establish endurance is eating on the bike. “You gotta eat when you’re not hungry,” Stanton says.

“If you bonk, you’re never gonna restart; you might finish but you won’t ever get going again.” Because most of us are accustomed to riding shorter distances we haven’t had to train ourselves to eat much on the bike, but when preparing for a longer event it is important to begin eating earlier in the ride and continue to eat frequently.

Most coaches advocate eating something every half hour and drinking a bottle of water an hour, unless conditions are really hot, in which case you should drink even more.

The final ingredient to making sure your legs last the day is to make sure the rest of your body is happy.

  • You may need to pick up a pair of cycling gloves if you don’t ordinarily ride with them so that your hands won’t get sore.
  • Consider purchasing a really nice pair of padded cycling shorts if you are prone to soreness in your butt; saddle sores, a more extreme phenomenon, can prematurely end your fun.

You’ll know when you’ve found that holy grail of endurance. The feeling that you could ride all day is unmistakable. For many of us, it is that very feeling of freedom that attracted us to road riding in the first place.

Indoor Options

If you want to prepare for a longer event but lack either time or daylight, there’s no need to think you’re completely hosed.

With the aid of an indoor trainer or indoor cycling class you can perform intensity training to help you sustain the longer effort necessary for the big day.

If you prefer group activity, then you might want to try an indoor cycling class.

Typically held in health clubs, these classes mix high-intensity training with high rpm by varying the resistance on the flywheel.

There are other health clubs offering similar classes that use ordinary stationary bikes in an interval-format class. The idea is to train hard enough to reach your lactate threshold, stay there for a period of time, then recover so you can do it again.

The physiological adaptation that will allow you to ride longer distances will come from your super-hard efforts.

If you just climb on an indoor trainer and ride hard for an hour, you won’t make any progress. However, if you pedal through a set of six three-minute intervals and recover, your body will become stronger. It won’t be the most fun you’ve had, but no one said intervals were a party.

The great advantage of going to an indoor cycling class is the group camaraderie fostered by the instructor. You’ll find yourself working harder than you thought possible.

The workout, shoehorned into less than an hour, will leave you a breathless, sweaty mess¬exactly what you need if time isn’t on your side.

Flexibility: Balancing Your Cycling Fitness Program

When increasing your mileage base, you can physically watch your muscles take shape, slowly toning themselves into smooth curves until finally becoming distinctly cut: sharp lines along the lower edge of your calves, the double ridge of the quadriceps folding neatly into the knee joint.

Stretching, on the other hand, presents no immediately visible results; your muscles look much the same. Improving range of motion is, more often than not, slow going. Furthermore, unlike dedicated riding, stretching burns few calories. So why, you might ask, should I spend my time increasing my flexibility?

Concentrating your efforts into a stretching program improves your life twofold.

  1. Physically, it reduces injury, back pain and muscle soreness while improving posture, recovery and muscle coordination.
  2. Mentally, stretching is one of the oldest meditative practices known to humankind.

While stretching, you are able to not only relieve the tension of each muscle, you can also reduce anxiety, by contemplating and resolving situations from racing strategies to relationship problems.

Many cyclists use their bike as a tool to help relieve tension accumulated at the office or home. Going on a long ride provides solitude, even when riding with others.

During an hour-long ride, our mind often travels farther than our bike.

The only downside of riding is that rather than reducing tension, we actually increase it through tight, sore muscles and, occasionally, when we push it too hard, a tired, sluggish mind.

While the benefits of stretching aren’t as apparent to others as purchasing a new sweater or losing 10 pounds, you’ll quickly notice how much more relaxed you are at home, in the office and, of course, on the bike.

Stretching should only be attempted after warming up, whether 10 minutes into a ride or upon returning home afterward. Increasing body temperature allows for greater elasticity of the muscles and connective tissues.

If you prefer stretching in your living room, jumping jacks and running in place for a few minutes are adequate warm-up.

Stretching cold, unfortunately, has no benefit and can actually increase the chances of injury by stretching too far and pulling a muscle.

Cyclists will naturally want to concentrate on their legs (calves, hamstrings and quadriceps), lower back and neck muscles to increase riding comfort.

Lengthening your hamstrings through daily stretching will eventually allow you to increase your saddle height by a centimeter (and in rare cases two centimeters) which gives you the distinct benefit of greater power as a result of increased leverage.

During extreme efforts, blood swells the quadriceps, leaving traces of lactic acid when the effort is finished. The more supple the muscle, the greater the blood flow, allowing for faster recovery while riding.

By increasing blood flow, lactic acid that would otherwise remain in the muscle (creating soreness the following day) is quickly washed away. Not only does stretching increase recovery both on and off the bike, it also reduces the chance of overuse and trauma injuries.

Through stretching you can increase the flow of synovial fluid, which lubricates joints and transports nutrients to articular cartilage, greatly reducing overuse injuries, especially in the knee.

By the same token, trauma injuries caused by high-speed crashes are also reduced. Muscles that might otherwise tear in a crash are able to stretch beyond their original range of motion when limber.

While high-speed crashes may be an unlikely event for many riders, sore neck and back muscles are commonplace with both professional racers and weekend warriors-even desk jockeys fight with cramped necks and backs.

Tight neck muscles can be relaxed by tilting the head and holding it for 15 seconds. Working the kinks out of your back requires a little more space, but as with all stretches you’ll want to stretch the muscle just shy of the point where you feel pain and hold it for approximately 15 seconds.

While working through a routine, you can begin to explore the mental possibilities of stretching.

Cynics who find the physical benefits of stretching uncertain will find the possibility of mental gains even more nebulous. This is one area of fitness where the pragmatic mind must submit to the intuitive.

Incorporating stretching with mental calisthenics requires no special training. The method is quite simple: While stretching, concentrate on breathing, first steadying your breath, then focusing on exhaling.

As you stretch, release the tension of each muscle with each exhalation. Your breathing pattern should be slow and even, drawing air deep into your diaphragm.

Don’t consciously force air out of your lungs¬simply focus on the spent oxygen leaving your body. As the exhausted fuel exits your lungs, allow muscle tension to travel with it.

As you work through the different muscle groups, you will find your body falling into a deeper state of relaxation. Over two or three months you’ll notice your posture improve as each muscle group becomes balanced alongside the others.

Once you have developed a comfortable stretching routine, and learned how to steady your breathing patterns in conjunction with stretching, you can begin to explore other possibilities, slowly transforming stretching into a meditation session.

By now, releasing tension with each exhalation will have become second nature, allowing you to move into other areas such as visualizing a victory or coming to terms with problems in your personal life.

Attaining true fitness requires a multidimensional commitment. Cycling is only a single component to a healthier lifestyle. Stretching, in turn, can help round out your fitness plan, but only as a means to an end. Learning how to synthesize stretching and meditation may be the missing part of the whole.

Nutrition: Fuel for Perfect Cycling Fitness

As a cyclist, your dietetic needs don’t vary much from the rest of the population.

The guidelines established in the USRDA will work well unless you are training more than 10 hours in a week, in which case all you really need to do is raise the number of calories you are taking in on a daily basis.

The food pyramid is as applicable to cyclists now as ever before. Fad diets have virtually no clinical support, while all clinical studies involving athletes continue to show the benefits of a well-rounded diet in their development regardless of the discipline.

Muscle adaptation is quicker, as is recovery from a hard effort. Cravings for evils such as bear claws also seem to wane (well, at least sometimes the pull is not so great).

Breads, Cereals, Rice and Pastas:

Since this group forms the base of the pyramid and provides a rider with most of the carbohydrate he needs to perform, it’s important to try to get in the daily recommendation of six to eleven servings per day.

Whole grains are recommended as are foods that are low in fat and sugar.

The more diverse the sources of your grains, the healthier your diet will be. Spreading your intake of these carbohydrates throughout the day will also prevent huge swings in your blood sugar which can help stabilize moods.


Since different vegetables provide different nutrients, a diet rich in a variety of vegetables will prevent the need for vitamin supplements.

The recommendation is for three to five servings daily¬far more than most of us get, especially if you have a hostile relationship with one or more of those veggies that your mom made you eat.

Dark green, leafy vegetables and legumes are particularly good sources for many vitamins and minerals that cyclists need.

Many legumes, when combined with rice, will provide a complete protein (one that has all the necessary amino acid chains); it’s possible to be a vegetarian and still build muscle.


Satisfying the recommendation for two to four servings of fruits is pretty easy to do, especially if you like to rehydrate on 100 percent juices. Punches and ‘ades don’t count (at least not fully).

If you are looking for additional ways to work more fiber into your diet, then eat fruits instead of drinking them. While you can satisfy your intake with fruits that are dried or canned in syrup, nothing beats fresh fruit.

Meats, Poultry and Fish

Most American diets include twice the recommended daily allowance for protein, which comes primarily from the intake of meats, poultry and fish. This means that the two to three servings daily recommendation is actually more like four to six for most of us.

The good news is that most active cyclists do need more protein than the daily recommendation, so you probably won’t need to alter your intake in order to ride happily.

When shopping for meat, poultry or fish be sure to choose lean cuts and trim any excess fat before cooking. With poultry, remove the skin as well. When preparing a dish remember that broiling, roasting or steaming these foods will contribute much less fat to your diet than frying them.

Many nuts and seeds can also provide protein (as can legumes), but most nuts and seeds are high in fat and should be consumed in moderation. However, the polyunsaturated fat in nuts and lighter oils (like olive) is much better for you than that slab of bacon.

Milk, Yogurt and Cheeses

Don’t get too excited, a pint of Ben and Jerry’s Chubby Hubby is not recommended. While two to three servings of milk products are recommended daily, this is a territory that can easily get you into trouble.

Most cheeses and yogurts are available in low-fat versions just like milk. By sticking with skim or part skim milk products you can cut your intake of dairy fat in two. As with meat, most Americans exceed the recommended number of servings.

Fats, Oils and Sweets

The watchword with this group is “sparing.” Not like “Spare the rod and spoil the child,” rather “Use these things sparingly.”

When eating breads avoid putting butter or margarine on them. When adding a dressing to a salad do so lightly and try to use a low-fat dressing¬a vinaigrette as opposed to a creamy ranch (or a creamy anything for that matter).

Avoid cooking with sugar (maybe you can add a bit to those oatmeal cookies); instead try using fruit juices or applesauce.

That takes care of what to do while you are off the bike, but you do need to give some thought to the foods you consume on the bike that aren’t sold in a mylar wrapper. This is especially important if you are planning to ride a longer event like a century.

If you have a fussy stomach, you’ll want to do your experimenting with foods before the big day. If your plans include an organized ride with rest stops stocked with food, try calling the promoter to find out what they’ll serve.

If they only plan to have vanilla creme sandwich cookies, you might want to try packing a jersey full of them to see if you can survive on cookies for two hours. If not, bring your own food along. Drink mixes can have widely varying effects depending on how strongly they are mixed.

If you find out the Gatorade is being mixed a little thinner than you usually drink yours, you’ll need to drink or eat more in order to make sure you are taking in enough calories¬after all, eating intelligently means not only eating the right foods, but eating them in the right amount

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