Rev up your cycling game with three simple techniques
By Gail O’Reilly
To improve cycling performance, you do not have to train harder, ride longer, or buy the latest and greatest equipment. Instead, consider a new training method that does not require more effort, time or money, but does deliver results.
This training method involves a shift of focus from external measures to internal awareness. The objective is to hone your skills rather than adding more to your training. More does not always mean it will be better in the end. Refine the subtle aspects of your cycling techniques, including your pedal stroke, posture, breathing, core strength and mental conditioning. You may be surprised how much this can increase your efficiency and lead to better results.
Scott Calver, five-time Ironman competitor, improved his breathing and posture, which resulted in his personal best cycling split in an Ironman. He shaved off 30 minutes in his bike portion. “It is substantial what I was able to accomplish without any changes to my fitness level — same body weight, same training and no more time on the bike. It’s amazing when you concentrate on a few things,” he says.
It is important to remember when you incorporate this training, improvements may take time. Some of the exercises are subtle and feedback from your body may initially seem quiet. Stick with it and be mindful of changes you are feeling. The small sensations will grow louder and become very noticeable. Feel what is present, let go of training expectations and do not judge your ability. Progression in your training will happen and the experience will be very rewarding.
Here are the areas to improve:
The quality of your breathing greatly affects the quality of your cycling. Shallow breathing creates tension in your muscles, which takes away from a smooth, efficient pedal stroke. Breathing is your energy and cycling force. If you improve this one thing alone, you will notice a big difference in your output, recovery and mental focus. While breathing is an automatic function in your body, do not take it for granted. It is very common to have poor breathing habits and not be using your diaphragm to its fullest capacity.
Improvements in this area will bring gains in your cycling and also other sports. Long deep breathing is an exercise you can practice anytime. Keep your stomach muscles relaxed so when you inhale you feel your abdominal area expand and then contract on the exhale. There are many powerful breathing exercises to try.
The quality of your posture directly affects your breathing and comfort on the bike. With a tall spine you can breathe more expansively, recruit your deep core muscles to support your upper body and bring more stability into your hips for a smooth pedal stroke. This takes stress off your lower back and allows the muscles to relax in your shoulders and mid- to upper-back. From the base of your spine, practice sitting taller. It may feel challenging at first, but you will grow stronger. When you are on the bike, bend through your hips, instead of your lower back, to reach the handlebars. Keep your elbows pointing down to the ground in a soft bend. This will prevent your shoulders from shrugging and creating muscular tension. Do core training exercises to help build stronger posture and greater willpower.
To bring more power into your pedal stroke, you do not have to push harder into your pedals. Breathe fully, sit tall in your spine and then feel it resonate into your turnovers. Your upper body directly affects the efficiency of your pedal stroke. Muscular tension, short breathing and rounding in your lower back all take away from the force you can generate in your pedal stroke. Be fully aware of where you are pushing into your pedal stroke. The difference between a full circle and a piston, up-and-down stroke is subtle, but has profound results. Lift your knees high, lead them forward then sweep through the bottom. Feel the strength come from your legs, instead of your feet. Keep your toes relaxed and glide through your stroke on the balls of your feet. Ensure your hips, legs, knees, ankles and feet are positioned in a fluid line. It is through these adjustments that you will notice changes and improvements.
Remember patience and refinements bring rewards. Stay connected to your internal awareness. This will also help with mental training and keep your mind focused while cycling. Appreciate the subtle refinements and notice how your training becomes more fulfilling when you tune into your technique.
An avid mountain bike and road cyclist Gail O’Reilly teaches cycling, running and Hatha and Kundalini yoga in Calgary, Alta.