Here's the good news. You don't need to sacrifice yourself on the altar of elite performance. It's not necessary to devote divorce-worthy hours. It's absolutely possible to make major gains with relatively marginal changes to your weekly routine. You can change your diet without being on a diet. And you can still drink beer.
If you're in your first year of cycling we'll give you a Cast Iron Guarantee. Follow our twelve tips religiously and we'll have you riding 20 percent faster within 6 months. Even a seasoned Sunday rider who does the odd sportive should be able to make a 10 percent gain. If you already know your power to weight ratio, shave your legs, or eat chia seeds, this blog is probably not for you.
How will you be able to tell you've improved? Simple. Find a long rolling stretch of uphill nearby - more than two kilometres would be ideal. Time yourself going up it full gas. Write down your time. Read on.
1. Find your broleur
Riding solo has its merits. It provides an opportunity to concentrate or contemplate. A welcome break from a screaming toddler or a distraction from the demands of work. But if you're going to derive full satisfaction from your inevitable performance improvement, you're going to need a broleur (male/female/would rather not say). Someone to share your pain, listen to you drone on and on about tedious stuff like power zones and most importantly, someone to marvel at your gains. It helps if they're as hopelessly hooked on riding as you.
2. Stretch it out
This is one of the easiest ones to do. Most of us can stretch without breaking sweat. It takes less than three minutes. So why is it always the first one to lapse? Maybe because it takes so little effort. There's no adrenalin rush, no edifying burn and no immediate payback.
In the spirit of expending 20% of the effort for 80% of the gains, we'll make it easy for you. Don't bother before a ride - the limited range of movement involved in cycling means you're unlikely to strain anything if you set off at a gentle pace. But do make sure you stretch out the moment you get back, before you even get changed. Just stretch your hamstrings. One minute each leg. Try undoing your shoes without bending at the knee, sit down and lean forward to take your socks off, or repeatedly drop the soap in the shower.
3. Work the core
This one is transformative. Do some crunches at home. Do some crunches lying on a swiss ball. Plank. Row. Best of all, get yourself a weighty kettlebell and do some swings and goblet squats. These miraculous exercises give you the core strength of a 1980s Russian shotputter (either sex) and the explosive power of, well, an explosive. When you're out on the bike, just remember to consciously engage your newly strenthened core. Stay sat in the saddle on a climb, tighten your innards like you're doing a big poo, and just feel that power transfer.
4. Try pilates or get yogic
Stretching and core work all wrapped up in one, even better. With added spirituality an optional extra. The temptation is always to spend more time on the bike: #ridelots right? Wrong. Swapping an hour of junk miles for a session on the yoga mat or torture table is one of the best trades you can possibly make. Yes, it can be a bit uncomfortable demonstrating your complete inflexibility to a room full of strangers, but there was probably a day when you'd never have considered wearing lycra in public. It took about six pilates sessions to start feeling the difference on the bike - stronger on the climbs for sure and persistent back ache eliminated. The bonus is you can get up off the floor or out of bed without looking and feeling like an old man. That's got to be worth the entry price alone.
5. Go slow to go fast: heart rate training
When I first got a heart rate monitor, bundled with a Garmin 1000, I looked at the stats after a ride and thought: oh look, my heart rate gets higher when I go up the hills. Not hugely illuminating. Then I discovered heart rate training. The theory goes like this: ride for an hour or more at a low intensity and your heart and body become more efficient. The reality goes like this: boring boring boring.
But here's the thing. You don't even need a heart rate monitor to do heart rate training. Just do a ride or two every week where you take it easy and throttle back every time you start to feel out of breath. The epiphany came when I started treating my hour long commute as Heart Rate Training. Instead of putting my life at risk jumping lights and arriving at work a sweaty, stressed out mess, I cruised in as if pedalling on glass cranks and attained a blissful higher state of mind in the process. I kid you not. No idea if it makes a difference to overall performance - it's just too hard to isolate the benefits. But you can find untold joy through rediscovering the simple pleasure of just riding a bike without gazing at gadgets or cursing other road users. Besides, who's in that much of a rush to get to work?
Faster Fasted rides
This one definitely risks crossing that fine line between normal and totally fricking mental. Why would you ever forego food before exercise? Well, because it apparently trains your body to burn fat rather than carbs. Tempting if you have a pair of C cup moobs ruining the line of your race-fit jersey. It begins to make even more sense if you just think of it as delayed gratification. Drink a pint of water and a black coffee first thing in the morning and then go for an easy ride. A gentle morning commute is ideal (see above). On your return/arrival, trough like a hog, as usual, making sure you include some protein. Again, no idea if it works, but what have you got to lose - apart from a bit of lard?
7. Foods to eat and drinks to drink
Who are we to tell you how and when to eat? Here's a few tips that you can take or leave. Drink a pint of semi-skimmed milk when you get back from a ride as a recovery drink. Save the unrestrained gluttony for Sundays. Once the calorie deficit is restored, stop indulging. You don't have to eat a biscuit or three every time you have a cup of tea. Swap beer for red wine (through the week). Swap tonic water for soda water. Eat fruit, don't drink it. Choose an espresso or a black americano rather than gulping a quart of frothamochachocolatté. The following can be classed as super foods: porridge, soup, any kind of nuts, sweet'n'salty popcorn, tinned sardines on toast, smashed avocado on a Karg crispbread, poached eggs, dark chocolate with sea salt. Turbo days are pizza days.
8. Interval training a.k.a. segment chasing
Did we mention you should download Strava? It was kind of assumed. This one's easy. More a post rationalisation of something you probably do already. Plan a route of 80km or more and pick out three or four hills where you're going to bury yourself going for a PB. It's a win win. You get your big muscle groups pumping, your heart thumping and your metabolism jumping - and there's a chance you might just beat your broleurs on a prestige segment. If anyone asks, deny you were segment chasing and tell them you were doing an endurance ride at 65% of FTP with V02 intervals. And if you've not got enough friends, join our very welcoming club.
9. The appliance of science: power meter training
Right, now we're getting serious. This one requires serious expenditure. But if you're serious about improving your performance, forget deep carbon rims, electric shifters and that aero helmet (even if it does make you feel like an imperial pilot from Star Wars), and invest in a power meter. Pedals, crank or hub - it doesn't really matter as long as you can reliably compare power output from one session to the next.
There are bigger, better and infinitely longer blogs devoted to power meter training, so here's the skinny. You do an FTP test to calculate the power you can sustain for 20 minutes. This threshold forms the basis for any number of gruelling training sessions you can do on a turbo trainer: 2x20, 5x5s, under-overs, tabata intervals and the like. All of which seem designed to reduce you to a shaking, sweating, heaving wreck. No more idle turning of the pedals while catching up on Game of Thrones.
Perhaps more importantly, understanding your capacity - and limitations - makes you a much cannier competitor out where it counts: on the road. No blowing up two thirds of the way up a hill. No more dipping into the red heroically taking the front of the peloton.
10. Feed the machine
Eat and drink early and often. That's pretty much it. Broleur's favourite on-bike snacks include... Soreen fruity malt loaf - simply the best fuel ever. Ella's kitchen fruit and baby rice sachets - 100% natural and easy to carry. Savoury sandwiches for any ride over 120km - chicken, ham, cheese all good, on white bread, better. Torq rhubarb and custard gels. Apple and cinnamon fig rolls. Dried mango. Biltong. Brown bananas. Flat coke.
11. Myofascial massage / torture
Punch yourself in the face. Hard. No, harder. That's kind of like myofascial massage. If it doesn't hurt like hell, you're probably not doing it right. Still interested? Weirdo. We haven't even told you the benefits yet. So, if you want to wake up the day after a century feeling like a loose-limbed teenager, get rolling. Over a knobbly tube type thing or on top of a hockey ball for trigger point massage. It is excruciatingly unpleasant, but it works. Instructions here, courtesy of British cycling.
12. And sleep
Lie down. Close eyes. Get up around eight hours later. Piece of piss.
Well, you'd think so. Sleeping after a long ride isn't always as easy as you'd hope and expect. Cortisol and neorepinephrine (a cousin of adrenaline) are two of the culprits. Properly rehydrating and consciously cooling the body can help.
For the other nights of the week, we'd highly recommend downloading and using a sleep app like Sleep Cycle (available on all good app stores). It doesn't necessarily help you sleep, but it does make you more aware of the behaviours and habits that lead to a good night's kip. Sleep tight.
Got any more suggestions?
Getting a professional bike fit is high on our wish list if any sponsors want to step forward. We're willing to give anything a crack in the name of marginal gains. Post your tips and tricks below.