By Matt Larson
I’ll start by saying I know I’m a very lucky guy……I’ve figured out how to make a living riding my bike. One of the things I do to take advantage of my flexible schedule is ride at different times of the day, in different locations, and with different people. Living in the San Francisco Bay Area there are multiple group rides available literally 365 days a year. The race season starts on Jan 1st and continues through Oct 23rd! While I recognize the abundance of good fortune here (lots of cyclists, great weather, incredible terrain), this article isn’t an ad to become a bike coach or move to the Bay Area. This is an article to encourage you to keep your riding fresh by mixing it up – whatever your location or circumstance may be.
At its core, cycling is a repetitive motion sport. Many of the workouts that we must do to improve are, at minimum, moderately repetitive in nature. Although there are LOTS of different interval workouts, they are, after all, still intervals. And then, it is human nature to slip into routines.
I see many local riders focus their whole week of “training” around the same three very popular group rides. Their riding is identical every week: the same group rides on Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. They fit in a rest day or two, an easy day, and one day of “intervals.” The only reason this workout schedule varies is if they’re racing a particular weekend. This ends up harming their overall performance, decreases their rate of improvement, and is detrimental to their ongoing enjoyment of cycling. Because there is repetition at the very heart of the sport, it is important to vary your approach to it as much as possible. Smart variations will help your riding, your fitness, and your outlook.
The athletes I coach are at different levels of the sport, ranging from serious recreational riders up through Cat 1’s. And, like everyone else, my athletes have numerous constraints affecting their availability to ride. Most have full time jobs, many are married, and many have kids. And they still make the commitment to improve their cycling. I applaud every one of them for their dedication to training and racing.
Whenever I see one of my athletes tending to move into a cycling routine, we talk about mixing things up, either in their workouts, their ride location, or the time of day they ride. Why are each of these are training parameters so important? Let’s take a look, one by one.
Doing different workouts: As a coach, I seek to vary the workouts I give my athletes for three primary reasons: 1) it keeps them mentally fresh and present, 2) it keeps the activity physically fresh and challenging, and 3) I can prepare them for specific races with different key workouts leading up to that race. The mental freshness factor is by far the most important, followed by doing particular workouts in preparation for specific races. In my coaching philosophy, it is critical to work different physiological systems every week of the year; I will, of course, vary the percentage of hard vs. easy work (as one parameter) depending on time of year and specific goals. Even so, for example, in the off-season, when my athletes are doing relatively longer and relatively easier rides, I still include some sprints in with the “easy” work they’re doing. It is extremely rare for me to provide even two weeks in a row of the same workouts; I find it much more motivating for my athletes to do something different every week.
Riding in different places: We all have our favorite routes. We know local roads far better than roads in less familiar locales. Riding well-known routes can seem more practical, and better time-management. However, if you’ve got the focus and flexibility to make it work, another important parameter to vary is where you ride. New roads are VERY motivating. Not knowing every corner or every crack in the pavement keeps you alert and on your toes, and riding new roads helps you work on different aspects of your training. For example, if you live in a relatively flat area, training in a hilly area can greatly improve your overall fitness. And there’s more than simply the obvious physiological benefit: riding on new roads combats the monotony of training in your “stomping grounds.” I’ve had some of my best rides on new or rarely ridden roads. The more enjoyable the ride, the more likely it is that you’ll get both physical and mental benefits from it.
Riding at different times of the day: Most of the cyclists I know, and I’ll fess up to being one of them, like riding in the morning. In the morning, you have higher energy levels, you only have to take one shower rather than two, and, for most riders, it helps us start the day on a positive note. And yet, there are some advantages to riding at different times of the day once in a while. First, there are many races that do not take place first thing in the morning. Since there are physiological differences in how we feel at differing times of the day, it is a good idea to practice riding the same time of the day that you will be racing. That way, you’ll have a better idea of both the physiological demands and the likely weather patterns that exist at race time. Second, if you ever want to beat the mid-afternoon doldrums, get out on your bike. For most people, after a short initial struggle to get going, an afternoon ride will provide you a boost of energy that will last through the evening. Third, afternoon rides will increase your metabolism later in the day, and will help you to lose weight (if that is one of your goals). Fourth is the benefit of doing different things in your training to help keep yourself fresh and motivated.
Putting it together: In this article, we’ve covered the benefits of doing different workouts, riding in new places, and riding at unusual (for you) times of the day. Optimally, you will be able to do all of these things together, at least once in a while. The most helpful thing for me has been to do different group rides all over the Bay Area. I’m exposed to new terrain and different riders (some of whom I end up seeing in my races), and many times, other clubs have at least part of their group ride on local races courses. This allows me to preview courses that I (or some of my athletes) will be racing, which is another huge benefit.
Most important of all, riding in new places is really fun. And when you’re having fun on your bike, your training level is generally improved. If I hit a new hill, I’m motivated to ride up it as hard and as fast as I can; this is a very different experience than slogging up the same climb that I’ve done a hundred times before.
I urge you to vary your workout routines, where you do them, and the time you ride. My athletes who follow this approach improve faster, and have a joy for the sport that is inspiring to them and others. Go on: mix it up!
Ride safe and ride strong,
Matt Larson is a USA Cycling Level 2 Coach who works with AthletiCamps. Feel free to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .