CYCLING PERFORMANCE TIPS
Your upper limits of your potential are to a great degree hard wired by your inherited traits (your genetic potential) although it will be your training and attitude that ultimately determine if you reach that limit. How do the two work together to determine if you can be in the top tier of competitors, a world class cyclist?
We know that riders in the Tour de France come in all sizes. The average Tour competitor (all males by the way) is 5-foot-9 inches tall and weights 150 pounds. However, as a bike equalizes physical differences to a great degree, elite cyclists vary much more in size than, let's say, elite runners. For example, the tallest rider in a recent Tour was 6-foot-5 and weighted 190 pounds while the shortest rider was 5-foot-4, and the lightest weighed 116 pounds.
I put the following question to an online coaching forum for their thoughts.
Question: I am a 20 year old competitive middle distance track runner, but I am considering the possibility of becoming a cyclist. I have biomechanical problems with my feet that I feel will make it impossible for me to compete at the very highest level as a runner. I would like your opinion on what sort of physiological/anatomical characteristics it takes to be a world class cyclist, and how can I tell if I have those features? I have a good aerobic system with a H.R that does not rise easily in training, plus a good short distance sprinting speed. Can these be transferred effectively into cycling?
There was a consensus that almost anyone, of normal stature and physiology, could become a world class cyclist if they were willing to make the physical and mental commitment necessary AND they choose their event (sprint versus endurance) wisely based upon their personal physiological characteristics. That fact that there are multiple event options in cycling is a major reason that cycling is a sport in which people of all sizes and builds can participate and be competitive.
Although genetic factors come into play and may play a role at the highest levels of competition, most cyclists are so far from their physiologic limits that it's more an excuse than anything else. The biggest single factor limiting performance is ATTITUDE with TRAINING a close second. Benefits of good genetics are more relevant to sprinters and much less so to events requiring endurance. The bottom line is that it is the athlete's training as well as diet/nutrition, that will dictate their success.
The one measure most often quoted as a valid measure of a world class ability for an endurance cyclist (ie the Tour De France) is the VO2max. A minimal VO2max of 80ml O2/kg/min is required to enter this elite group of endurance riders. Sprinters, interestingly, tend to have a lower VO2max, just under the 80 mark.
If VO2max testing has any utility in assessing your potential for success, it is in identifying those athletes that have more innate potential. Low VO2 max testing does not make it impossible to develop a high level of performance, it just puts a bigger burden on you to train effectively.
How much can VO2max be improved with training? At least 10% but some coaches with long personal experience feel that over years maximal oxygen uptake can increase significantly more than that.
Training will not only increase VO2max but also improve the rider's technique. And the effective translation of a high VO2 into useful work through good technique can best someone who tests even higher in the laboratory.
The following question from a reader highlights the importance of persistence.
Q: I'm 41 and have been seriously riding for two years. I did three centuries last year along with several 40- to 60-mile rides and my usual daily 25-miler. The problem is that I can't boost my average speed past 16-17 mph. I huff and puff to keep up with riders in my club. I know that someone has to be at the back of the pack, but I'm tired of it always being me. Do you have any suggestions? -- ES.
A: The short answer one usually gets is: Get in better shape! But as you've learned, it's more complicated than that. The rate at which one can improve their cycling performance is dictated by heredity. Studies have shown that some riders can improve endurance performance by 40% on a 12- week program of interval training while others, on exactly the same program showed minimal change. They just get more fatigued the more they tried.
So your ability to improve your riding is partially dictated by how well you chose your parents. That being said, training will help everyone improve. Very few individuals are in that minority that show minimal improvement on a 12 week training program. Most of the participants in the study improved 15-20%. This means that chances are good you can get the speed increase you crave if you are persistent and can train more effectively.
Two years is usually not enough to reach your personal potential - it generally takes racers five years of training and competition to maximize their performance. Continue riding. I'm sure improvement will come if you make some basic changes to your weekly training program. Good luck.
Do you have to worry that your personal genetic make will be holding you back? Have you set your goals too high? My guess is no. For almost all of us it is our attitude and training that will make the difference if we keep our eye on our personal goal. Remember that persistence counts and it will take years to achieve your personal best, 12 weeks of training is not going to define what you can achieve.
Your success will be based on incorporating many of the tips that follow on this site into your personal training program. Base training is a key first step, important if you want to avoid the types of injuries that keep one from riding that season. So take it slow at first, develop a logical program that is based on sound principles of physiology, and be persistent. There will be periods of frustration, but overcoming that frustration is what separates the world class riders from those that are just "very good".