It feels like only weeks ago we were riding in shorts and sunglasses, setting PBs and doing our best to beat the competition. Now suddenly there’s frost on car windscreens and we’re commenting ‘well, at least the grass is getting watered’ way too often.
Typically, most road cyclists cut down on hard, intense rides over the winter, taking part in fewer events such as sportives, challenge rides, road races or time trials.
Doing so gives you a chance to focus on any weaknesses that are holding you back, and gives your body a rest from the hard efforts of summer riding. That doesn’t mean it’s time to switch off completely, though. Once you’ve taken a little time off – here are five areas that you can focus on over the next few months to set you in good stead for next summer:
1) Endurance (IF you’re riding long distance events)
The most popular approach to training for cyclists is to build on endurance over winter, gradually increasing mileage, before working on speed as spring starts to show signs of springing.
Winter base miles are long rides completed at a low to medium intensity. They will improve your endurance, perfect if you plan to tackle longer events come summer.
Low to medium intensity activity – riding at sixty to seventy per cent of your maximum heart rate, or at a pace where you can still talk in sentences - is called aerobic exercise. In the aerobic zone, your body uses oxygen and burns through fat reserves.
At high intensity – anaerobic exercise – your body needs to burn fuel without oxygen, and as a result it finds energy from stored sugar, for example the carbohydrates you eat before or during training.
It’s important to do both types of exercise if you want to get faster – anaerobic training will increase your muscle strength and ability to go fast. However, you get plenty of this in summer, so it makes sense to work on your aerobic base over winter, gradually getting your body more used to burning fat for fuel.
Base miles are most necessary for riders who intend to attack longer events come summer - such as sportives, audaxes, or multi-day challenges. If you plan short crit races or time trials, and or you’re short on time, then completing shorter rides at a high intensity may be more time efficient for you – this video from the wizards at GCN explores the debate very well.
2) Core Strength
Hands up who is bored of hearing about core strength?! If your hand is in the air, we’re afraid we’re going to disappoint you. The reason we all talk about core strength so much is because it’s just really, really important.
Your core – abs, back, quads and glutes – do a lot of work when cycling, just holding you upright. If there are weaknesses, you’ll find you get aches and pains, fatigue much quicker, and actually your pedaling muscles will be less efficient because they’ll have less support.
It’s important, when adopting a new strength training routine, not to overdo it – strutting up to the squat rack if you’ve never touched it in your life and trying to squat your body weight will probably result in injury.
Instead, begin with body weight exercises – such as planks, body weight squats, press ups and the glute improving clam. We’ve got a selection of six great exercises for you here.
3) Pedaling Technique
Summer is over, and suddenly you don’t need to worry about making sure you’ve entered that next event and that you’ve got everything you need. You don't even need to be in tip top condition.
So – you’ve got time to turn your attention elsewhere? Good. Say you pedal at 90 rpm, for just one hour – well that’s 5,400 pedal strokes. Therefore, anything you can do to get more out of each individual stroke is quite important.
Though many of us have been pedaling since childhood, it’s only when we become more experienced as cyclists that we realise the perfect stroke is an art. We’ve got a break down of the perfect pedal stroke here, but the key messages are that you should aim to create full circles with your toes, and that you should try to ensure you get just as much out of the up-stroke as you do the down-stroke.
A great way to work on pedal stroke is to take part in Watt bike sessions, where you’ll actually see a diagram of your circles as you ride, as well as receiving information on your left/right balance. Training on the rollers is good, too - as you've got to keep pedalling smooth to stay upright (!) and the turbo can be good as you can put all your attention into the action.
If you currently have a tendency to pedal at under 90rpm on an average ride, you might also benefit from some fast cadence exercises, to get you used to pedaling more quickly. A faster cadence puts less stress on your major muscle groups, meaning you will take longer to reach fatigue.
Getting off-road is another way to improve your pedalling technique - as you have to pedal quickly and smoothly through mud to stop yourself from losing traction!
4) Handling and Group Riding
It’s always good to keep working on these, but if you are going to be riding lots of winter base miles, you might as well add in some more skills to keep your brain entertained.
Drafting in a group allows you to save a huge amount of energy, and thus will make you faster provided there are other riders around (time trialists - sorry - no help for you). This skill will pay huge dividends during a sportive, and you can't really ride road or crit races unless you're happy drafting. Riding on someone's wheel is perfectly safe when you know what you're doing, but you can both get hurt if mistakes are made. So it's best to learn in a controlled environment, with experienced but patient ride buddies. These skills are best practiced at lower intensities, with friends or club members who have lots of experience.
The best way to get better at riding in a group is to do it, ideally through a cycling club where there are more experienced members to lead you. Not only that, but riding behind these people will teach you a lot about how to handle your bike – pick the best line down a descent or tackle a gravely corner.
If handling is your major weakness, it might not be a bad idea to try some mountain biking or cyclocross - as this will really push you to improve!
Another one that is important all year round, but much easier to focus on when you’re not worrying about getting yourself ready for the next weekend event, or recovering from the last one.
A lot of cyclists joke about putting on winter pounds to keep them warm. The truth is it’s much easier to just wear a few extra layers on your winter rides, so you don’t have to shed weight come spring.
With races and events packed away, you can really invest time in perfecting your diet. How you do that will depend upon you as an individual. If you found you had problems keeping energy levels up over summer, experiment and find foods that work for you. If you think losing a couple of pounds will improve your performance enough to be worth the calorie deficit, try it over winter.
The most important message on nutrition is to eat a healthy, balanced diet, with lots of protein, carbohydrates and plenty of fresh fruit and veg – and it is easier to do that when you’re not spending your weekends driving back from some event five hours away! Use the off season to get into good habits, such as batch cooking, or using a slow cooker to pack your meals with healthy nutritious vegetables that will keep you full of energy.
The winter season is a fantastic time to work on your technique, fitness and develop areas that you know need a little improvement. And, of course - it's a beautiful time to ride!
If you're finding winter motivation tough, then we're here to help with #Motivember articles and competitions on social media - read more here.