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  Last updated: 11/14/2014


The Basics

THREE PARTS OF THE PUZZLE - duration, intensity, muscle groups

Personalizing an optimal training program for cycling (or any specific activity) requires that it be tailored to both 1)the duration as well as 2)the intensity (power, sprint, endurance)of the event while keeping a focus on 3)training the specific muscle groups being used. An endurance focused aerobic training program, as an example, will not maximize your performance for that time trial (anaerobic) coming up in a few weeks.

Power activities lasting for 30 to 60 seconds as well as short sprint events rely on energy stored in the muscles as ATP and creatine phosphate (CP). Thus weight lifters and sprinters gear their training to specifically improve these energy systems. As duration extends beyond one minute, there is a shift in energy production to anaerobic, glycogen dependent pathways (which produce lactic acid as a byproduct). And finally, after several minutes, aerobic pathways take on increasing importance with well over 90% of the energy for endurance events coming from these oxygen dependent metabolic systems. A successful training program focuses on developing the energy system specific for your particular event.

The muscle groups needed for the event need to be factored into training program development. When 60 college aged men, equal in their level of aerobic conditioning, were divided into three groups - one training on a treadmill, one on a bicycle trainer at equivalent exertion (%VO2max), and were compared to the third used as a non training control, the exercise specific benefits of training were clearly demonstrated. Both training groups improved their VO2max equally when tested on their specific training device. However, while the treadmill group improved 7% in VO2max when tested on either the treadmill or bicycle ergometer, the group training on the bicycle improved 8% when tested on the bicycle ergometer, but only 3% when tested on the treadmill - proof of the failure of cross training to maximize performance across all aerobic events. The investigators speculated that training specific changes in metabolic and circulatory factors were responsible for the differences. Thus a successful training program also needs to focus on the activity specific muscle groups to be used in the event.


All training programs adhere to similar common principles. These include:

I. EXERCISE OVERLOAD - the training event must increase in intensity and/or duration to promote physiologic improvement and achieve a training response.

II. SPECIFICITY OF TRAINING - adaptations in metabolic pathways and anatomic structures (muscle fibers) are specific to the types of metabolic (aerobic versus anaerobic) or physical stress being trained. Thus the training should reflect the needs of the goal event.

III. SPECIFICITY OF VO2MAX - To achieve the optimum improvement in VO2max for any activity, the cardiovascular system needs to be stressed by that specific activity. As demonstrated in the section above, there are 1)general benefits to the heart and vascular system from all aerobic exercise, but if one wants to 2)maximize VO2max for a specific type of exercise, one needs to incorporate that specific activity into the training program (a bicycle trainer will not maximize performance on a treadmill).

IV. SPECIFICITY OF LOCAL MUSCLE CHANGES - there are local improvements in the muscle trained for a specific activity that will not generalize to other muscle fibers in that limb, or to the same muscle used in other exercises. Changes in ATP levels and other metabolic parameters in the vastus lateralis (a thigh muscle) are greater in cyclists (who use this muscle to a greater degree) than in runners training at the same VO2max.

V. INDIVIDUAL DIFFERENCES - Not all individuals will respond to an equivalent training stimulus to the same degree or at the same rate. We are all different genetically and training programs need to be individualized for both intensity and duration.

VI. REVERSIBILITY OF TRAINING - Deconditioning occurs rapidly when training ceases. For example, at bed rest for 20 days, there is a decrease in VO2max of about 1% per day. Maintaining some level of training during the off season minimizes deconditioning, but a reconditioning program should be part of every athlete's schedule before the next season's competition begins.


With training the following changes will occur:


Delivering power effectively to the pedals will maximize your performance.


With all the gizmos and gadgets that are available, it is tempting to focus on theses technical aspects of training at the expense of the basics. Instead, I'd suggest that is more important to listen to your body and be patient as you watch for results, avoiding the temptation (and frustration) of constantly measuring yourself against other athletes. As an alternative, you should focus on comparing your current performance to previous efforts as the best measure of progress, leaving the data of others out of the mix. There are no short cuts. It is hard and repetitive work that will lead to your personal best.


Athletes usually modify their training program for one of two reasons - they want to ride further or they want to ride faster.

If you are training for distance with the goal of riding a long event, and your current speed is just fine, you will focus on your total weekly miles (ridden at any intensity). No intervals needed. It is about getting your body use to sitting on the bike for longer periods of time.

If you want to ride your event at a faster average speed, or increase your top speed (MPH), you will need to increase your VO2max. This means training your cardiovascular system (heart and lungs) using interval training (aiming for a VO2 > 90% VO@max) at least twice a week.

If you want to improve both speed and endurance you will need a combination of intervals and longer rides in your weekly program.

Questions on content or suggestions to improve this page are appreciated.

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