Anti-Aging: Ride Like the Pros – Train in the Sweet Spot – Road Bike Rider

By Coach John Hughes

Riding like the pros means climbing better you did than last year. Or increasing your cruising speed. It doesn’t mean averaging over 40 km/h (25 mph) for a multi-hour ride. Or having a killer sprint. Although most of us don’t race and don’t use power meters, we can learn from the pros.

My wife and I enjoy watching the recap of the Tour de France each evening. We admire the fitness of the riders and are fascinated by the team tactics. And the inimitable Phil Liggett’s sayings like, “He’s digging deep into the hurt locker of pain.”

Sunday’s stage was the riders’ first day in the Alps, which included two Category 1 climbs: Col de la Croix (8.1 km / 5 miles averaging 7.6%) and the Pas de Morgins (15.4 km / 9.2 miles averaging 6.1%).  With 62 km to go Bob Jungels (AG2R Citroën) broke away solo descending the Col de la Croix. For the next hour and 20 minutes he held off three relentless pursuers over the Pas de Morgins and on to the finish. That’s power

Last week my buddy John and I climbed Lookout Mountain, a classic climb near Denver, CO. We climbed 1,286 ft. in 4.57 miles, mere 5.3% average, but for a couple of guys in our 70s it very hard in the 90F heat. About half-way up, imitating Liggett, I said, “I’m in a spot of bother.” We stopped at a wide spot to drink, cool down and let our pulses fall into the double digits. Then as we rounded the final corner after over an hour of climbing, I told John, “Out of professional courtesy I’m not going to challenge you for the King of the Mountain points.” We both laughed! We needed power even if we weren’t racing like the peloton in the Tour.

Ray Bolton started riding Lookout in 1988 at 46 years old and climbed Lookout 7,915 times. He climbed 860 rides in one calendar year (329 riding days) earning him the nickname “Three-a-day Ray.” Bolton climbed Lookout in 25:04 when he was over 70 years old! Bolton had more power than we did!  Cycling Lookout Mountain.

How did Bolton climb Lookout in 25:05? How did John and I climb it in 1:12? Sustained power.

Sustained power results first from strong leg muscle fibers. Cycling specific workouts — training in the sweet spot — converts the fibers general strength to cycling-specific power. Sprint training then optimizes the firing of the individual muscle fibers to produce more power.  Let’s look at each of these:

Muscle Strength

As you age your muscles atrophy. You have two types of fibers: slow-twitch (ST), which fire slowly and have great endurance, and fast-twitch (FT), which fire explosively when you need power. You differentially lose muscle mass in the FT fibers because as you age you tend not to do activities that require a lot of power. Even though you have a greater proportion of ST muscles due to differential atrophy, your endurance is not enhanced. (ST and FT refer to how rapidly the fibers contract, not your cadence.)  Strength training can slow and even reverse the atrophy.

RBR reader Dave writes, “I’ve noticed in the last three years my leg strength is decreasing, I’m forced into lower gears on the hills, and nothing comes as easy as it used to, unless it’s a fast flat section where the loss doesn’t seem as much. I don’t get tired, I just don’t have the same strength. I know we have to accept what aging does to us but I want to do all I can to stop/delay it. I’m aware of age-related muscle mass loss and know climbing hills is one of the answers in combating it. I already do that. I’ve probably been a bit naive in thinking climbing hills was all I ever needed to do. Since noticing the decline in strength I’m getting the sense there’s a limit to what pure riding can do.”

I answer Dave in this column: Anti-Aging: Resistance Training Will Help Your Cycling.

Related columns:

Sweet Spot

Resistance training increases the strength of your leg muscles, but not the effective power.

Training in the Sweet Spot (SS) is the optimal way to increase your sustained power. Riding in the SS you aren’t riding at your limit. You can still talk in phrases although not full sentences. Your legs are starting to complain but they aren’t screaming for mercy. You don’t need a heart rate monitor or power meter. You can train by how you feel as I explain in this column Training by Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE).

(If you use a heart rate monitor the SS is 93 to 97% of your anaerobic (lactate) threshold and with a power meter it’s 88 to 94% of your Functional Threshold Power.)

SS workouts are easier psychologically because they’re challenging but not excruciating. It’s easier to get on your bike for a SS workout than for a harder workout. A SS workout can be structured intervals or random — even playful — efforts. For my SS workouts I ride my mountain bike on trails with hard but not almost impossible climbs.

I’ve been coaching Rick since November. Rick trains with a power meter — most of my clients don’t and I don’t — RPE works!  By doing Sweet Spot (SS) workouts from November to March he increased his power by 12.7%. Last year he mostly did flattish rides by himself. This year he’s doing hilly club rides. He’s pleased he can climb better and stay with the group.

His initial Sweet Spot workout in November was to do 3 – 6 repetitions of [6 minutes in the SS and 3 minutes EZ]. He did all six reps totaling 36 minutes in the SS.  His hardest March workout was 3 – 6 reps of [12 min. SS and 6 min. EZ] for a total of 72 min SS.

Last week he wrote, “I found myself riding the SS workout a bit harder than my SS range. It seems that going harder would only be better, but I know that that is not always the case.”

I responded, “The harder you ride the more overload on your body and the greater adaptations of your cardiopulmonary system and your muscles. However, the harder you ride the more recovery you need — recovery between hard efforts in a ride and between hard rides. Riding in the Sweet Spot (SS) you don’t overload your body as much and you need much less recovery. You can do significantly more riding in the SS in a ride than you can riding harder. The result is great cumulative overload and adaptations.

To calibrate Rick’s capacity to ride in the SS I started him with 3 – 6 reps of [6” in SS and 3” EZ]. If he’d struggled to do three reps the next workout would have been easier: 3 – 6 reps of [4” in SS and 2” EZ]. If he’d done 3 or 4 reps, his next workout would be the same with the challenge of trying to do 5 or 6 reps. Rick did all 6 reps. His next workout was just a little harder: 3 – 6 reps of [7” in SS and 4” EZ] totaling 42 minutes in the SS.

You should start your SS workouts the same way with relatively short efforts to see what you can handle.

Repeating 7 minutes in the SS 6 times is psychologically hard. I also gave Rick this workout:

  • 1 min SS and 3 min EZ
  • 3 min SS and 3 min EZ
  • 5 min SS and 3 min EZ
  • 7 min SS and 3 min EZ
  • 9 min Ss and 3 min EZ
  • 8 min Ss and 3 min EZ
  • 6 min SS and 3 min EZ
  • 4 min SS and 3 min EZ
  • 2 min SS and 3 min EZ

This totaled 45 min SS and 27 min EZ

I’ve written two columns to guide you:

Sprinting

You may be thinking, “Me? No way!” You should include a few sprints a week to improve your power, not to improve your sprinting. Your muscles fibers don’t naturally all fire at the same time so a little power is wasted with each contraction. When you sprint you’re demanding maximum power, which trains your muscle fibers to fire simultaneously. This is like dialing in the timing on your car. Several 30 second sprints with full recovery are sufficient.

Incorporating these workouts into your week

As you age you need more recovery between challenging workouts. Riding a longer course than you usually do or a hillier course or with a faster group or a sweet spot session are all challenging workouts. How many days of recovery you need between challenging rides depends on how challenging the rides are as well as your age and fitness.

Don’t reduce recovery days to add strength, sweet spot and sprint days!

Because you are adding these challenging types of exercise, cut back some on your other riding. In the summer one strength session, one sweet spot workout and a few sprints are enough. After a moderate ride (not a challenging one) add a strength session. Don’t do a strength session on a recovery day — then it wouldn’t be a recovery day. Change one of your longer harder rides to a shorter sweet spot workout. Do two or three sprints in your endurance ride. For more information read my column 12 Tips to Avoid Overtraining.

Related columns

My eBook Cycling Past 50, 60 and Beyond: Training with Intensity explains what happens to your body as you age, and the physiological benefits of riding with intensity. I give you five progressively harder levels of training and give three to five examples each of structured and unstructured workouts for each level of training, a total of almost 40 workouts. The 27-page Cycling Past 50, 60 and Beyond: Training with Intensity is $4.99.

My Cycling past 50, 60 and Beyond bundle includes:

  1. Training with Intensity (27 pages). I explain the physiological benefits of riding with intensity and how doing some hard riding slows the aging process and delivers an array of benefits at any age.
  2. Fit for Life (34 pages). I show you that by exercising in different ways you can stay fitter than if you just ride your road bike.
  3. Peak Fitness (39 pages). I provide specific week-by-week workouts designed to make any rider a better, fitter cyclist.

The 100-page Cycling past 50, 60 and Beyond bundle is $13.50.

My eBook Intensity Training: Using Perceived Exertion, Heart Rate and Power to Maximize Training Effectiveness is written for health and fitness riders, recreational and club riders, endurance riders and racers. I explain in detail how training at different intensities brings about different physiological adaptations. I guide you through the process of establishing your own training zones so you can train at the proper intensities for your specific training objectives. I include sample year-round plans so you ride at the correct intensities at different times of the year. I provide over 50 structured and unstructured workouts at different intensities for different training objectives. The 40-page Intensity Training for Cyclists is $4.99.


Coach John Hughes earned coaching certifications from USA Cycling and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. John’s cycling career includes course records in the Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200-km randonnée and the Furnace Creek 508, a Race Across AMerica (RAAM) qualifier. He has ridden solo RAAM twice and is a 5-time finisher of the 1200-km Paris-Brest-Paris. He has written over 40 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John’s full bio.

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