When i first got into cycling, thanks to Stephen Roche and Pedro Delgado and the 1987 Tour de France, I’d never heard of the internet, nor Facebook. There was no Peloton, no TrainerRoad nor Zwift, and cycling in those days in England was a very non-sexy affair. It was many years off from Wiggins winning the Tour and UK Sports Personality of the Year, and becoming a Fred Perry model.
Public opinion viewed cyclists as curiousities at best, freaks at worst. I remember my 16 year old self back in 1988 having an empty beer can thrown at me from a speeding Ford Capri, accompanied by a homophobic slur.
That was pretty much par for the course back then.
So there I was, 15 years old, in the summer of ’87, I emptied the piggy bank and bought myself the cheapest road bike I could find, a Barry Hoban special that weighed a good 14kg. Buoyed by the antics of Roche and the rest of the riders I’d seen on the 30 minutes of Tour highlights shown in Channel 4, I set out everyday that summer just to smash myself into the ground.
Ride hard, ride fast was my motto. I found a 30 mile loop around the moors of my Lancashire town and went as full gas as I could for 25 miles, timing myself on my Casio watch, forcing myself to beat the previous time by as much as possible.
I didn’t know what else to do. I don’t even think I ever wondered if there was anything else to do. With no Google to hand, I couldn’t search for beginner training plans, advice for beginners, nothing. I rode with abandon, unfettered by any doubt as to what I was doing might be wrong, and I loved it…
Fast forward to 2022 and there’s a gazillion websites out there to advise us on cycling training. Some contain very sound advice, others not so great. Yet the problem is that with so much information, it’s difficult to work out what is good, what is middling, and what is poor.
Maybe you turn to your to your friends who are already cycling, yet even their advice can be confusing.
You’ve got to get a power meter.
Start doing HIIT!
You’ve got to get a smart trainer.
Get on Zwift!
Nah, Trainer Road.
Hit the gym, 200kg squats, 150kg deadlifts.
Get a coach.
Some of it might be good advice, some not. Some might be good later, but not at the beginning of your cycling adventure. Some of it can prove to be very expensive and actually damaging to your early progression.
So, here are my top tips for anyone just starting out on their cycling career and wondering how to train.
- JUST RIDE IT
If you’re just starting out, there are far worse things that you can do than just get out and push the pedals. Don’t overcomplicate the process. Allow yourself to feel the pure unbridled rush of being on the bike.
For the first month or two ride when you like, and ride as you like. When that’s done and you feel comfortable, try this:
Find a nice and relatively car-free route near you and do as I did when I was a kid, twice a week get out there and push it. You don’t need to worry about a training plan just yet, nor HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training), or anything else. What you need to do is to become familiar with the machine and with your own body, and how the two work together.
It might be 6km that you can go hard for, or 20, anything and everything is ok. Do that twice a week and have a nice enjoyable longer, lighter ride on the weekend and you’ll be doing fine. The shorter harder work will get you better at gauging your efforts, increase muscularity, increase your VO2 and be a lot of (sometimes painful!) fun. Time yourself and note the improvements.
This might just remind you too of that awesome feeling of freedom you had as a kid on your BMX, flying up the street.
2. DON’T GET A POWER METER… NOT YET!
As I mentioned above, don’t overcomplicate the process.
I had a guy who came to me for coaching (we’ll call him Alan) who had only been into cycling for a month, yet he was basing all his riding around his power meter and watts, because his cycling friends advised him he had to get a power meter.
Power meters can be great tools but as a beginner, the focus should be on establishing a connection between the body and the messages it conveys to the brain. If you’re new to cycling and endurance sports, there will be a lot of messages coming in. The best system you have for letting you know where you’re at in terms of the stresses being applied to the legs when riding is under your skin. As humans we often override the signals from the body, we do this at work all the time.
Tired? Get a coffee and work through it.
This leads to fatigue and potential burn out. The same thing can happen to a new rider who tries to ride to a prescribed number each workout. Without having fully established an understanding of what his or her body is capable on a given day, striving too hard to hit the numbers will lead to fatigue.
The power meter should be a guide, not a dictator. Knowing instinctively when you can push on and when you should ease off is critical.
With Alan, I had him turn off the wattage numbers on his computer for three weeks and ride to a Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) scale, with 1 being the easiest and 10 the hardest. Try next time you are out on the bike, as you ‘just ride’, to gauge your effort along this scale. Later, if you start training to a plan, you can apply this scale to the workout. Later still, if you decide to get a power meter, you’ll have this tool to apply alongside the watts, s that on a day when you’re looking to hit 250w for 20 mins, if things are feeling good, you can exceed the 250. Conversely, if you’re not going so well, you can clip 20 or 30 watts off the 250 and still get in a valuable workout.
Don’t be a slave to the numbers, utilise the tech properly and you may just exceed your perceived limitations.
3. WORK OUT YOUR STRENGTHS & WEAKNESSES
Once you’ve got your general fitness up a little from the ‘just riding’ phase, start to work out what kind of rider you are, which is not always the same as what kind of riding you like.
Are you a sprinter? A strong flat rider? A climber? An all rounder? Do you have a diesel engine (ride all day type) or a turbo (short bursts of speed type)?
Wy does this matter? Well, as your cycling career progresses and you get into training, it’s useful to know your strengths and weaknesses. We humans generally enjoy doing the things we are good at, and the things we are not so good at, not so much. As cyclists though, we have to work on the weaknesses so that they eventually become not so weak, and, if you train right, they can even become strengths.
How do you learn what type of rider you are? Try it all! One day work on some 30 second sprints. On another climbing. On another, go flat out for 10km on the flat. You’re body will tell you what it can do well, and what not well, quickly.
Work on those strengths, sure, but be sure not to neglect the weak points in your riding.
Dull, yes, but vital! As a beginner you’ll be full of motivation and the urge to ride often will be strong, and you should! However, even too much of a good thing can be harmful, as they say. Rest is a critical aspect of cycling and often neglected. Even pro riders will take two days off a week and generally work to a three week on / one week off system, meaning three weeks of training have 2-3 harder days, and then the fourth week is an easy week, with possible 3 days off and light riding on the other days.
This allows the body to recharge and get ready for the next 3 week block.
5. DON’T GET TOO OBSESSED WITH STRAVA!
This is good advice for all riders, not just beginners. Strava is great, don’t get me wrong, but one of the big issues I see when people come to me for coaching is that they ‘ride to Strava’. Meaning, almost every ride has a hard effort to try to beat their PB or beat a friend’s time, or they try say to hit 30km for their average speed. You could call it ‘riding to ego’ if you like, as you know when you upload it that everyone who follows you will be seeing it, offering kudos or comments.
If this happens too often, the rider will be getting into the issues noted in the section above. Their easy recuperation rides (active recovery) will not be so easy, and they’ll start to fatigue. This leads to their form plateauing.
Enjoy Strava, but make sure to fight the urge to blast it when you’re on a light day.
6. JOIN A CYCLING CLUB
The social aspect of cycling can be great, if you find the right group for you. Joining a club will open up your horizons if you get out on group rides. Also, it’s a great place to glean advice from people who are more experienced. When I was a kid and new to the sport, I would ask just about anyone and everyone what they did in training, then I’d try it. If it worked, great, if not, no problem.
There is a lot of information online regarding training, but in my opinion you can’t beat advice from someone who’s got some first-hand knowledge.
7. GET A COACH
Actually no, don’t get a coach! Not from the get go, follow the advice above and just ride your bike, push it a little, rest well, and smile! A good coach can bring on any rider by leaps and bounds but you should get a sense of where you’re at as a rider first and then set out some goals you want to achieve, then contact a coach.
And here’s the plug, if anyone out there is looking for a coach, get in touch!
See here for more training tips.