Cycling, like most things in life, represents different things to different people. Depending on which side of the camp you sit, the first thing that most likely comes to mind when you think of cycling is probably either transportation, or fitness. Obviously there are many other reasons why people ride, but I’d argue that these are at or near the top of the list for many, if not most people. For those that fall on the fitness side of things, the word training comes to mind.
I went out for a sneaky little ride on Christmas morning. We had afternoon plans, so I guess it wasn’t all that sneaky, but all the same, it was pretty quiet out there. The weather was typically nice, the sun was out, and I had mapped out a route that I was excited to try.
The route included a few new hills for me, all of them a challenge, and some of them a little more so. Some paved, some not. I haven’t been riding as much as I would like to be (or feel that I should be), which is the part of the problem relevant to today’s discussion.
Like many people, I have a brain with memories in them. Though we tend to remember the bad more than the good when it comes to our own prowess, we tend to favour, and even embellish, the good (at least, if you’re white…). In my case at the moment, I distinctly remember how fit I used to be two years ago when I was putting in many, many more km’s while training for the 3Peaks than I am currently.
The problem with this is that, on some level, I still hold my less-fit self to that same standard. When going up a hill, my memory says that I should be travelling at a certain speed, with a certain cadence, and suffering a certain amount – no more. When that is not the case – and clearly I am referring to the fact that the suffering is far, far greater – I get frustrated. “This should not be hurting so much!”, I grumble to myself.
So on Christmas morning, the awesome route that I had mapped out for myself was cut short, and I struggled home to tend to my wounded ego.
So, I am thinking – to train, or not to train?
There are people out there who live by the numbers. Who ride to a specific speed, at a specific cadence, with a specific heart-rate, for a specific amount of time. These are called triathletes. I can’t actually tell if they enjoy it, but they spend much of their time looking at their computers while hunched over their aero-bars, so I’ll just go with yes. We also have to exclude those who receive a pay cheque or other sponsorship from cycling. They are somewhat obliged to put in some proper training.
For the rest of us, there are also times when training is paramount. If you have signed up for a challenging event, for example, you would be well advised to make sure that you are fit enough to handle whatever that challenge is. That will require getting on the bike some mornings when you’d rather stay in bed. Riding in less than sunny conditions. Putting some extra km’s in the bank in order to make a withdrawal when needed.
I know that for myself, I don’t have the discipline to maintain what I think is a suitable amount of mileage with out some sort of specific goal to prepare for. The problem for me is that, in the meantime, when I don’t have anything to train for, I still believe I have a standard that I maintain as acceptable for me.
My ride on Christmas morning was one of a million reminders that I am well behind my own standard for how fit I need to be. How fit do I need to be? Now we come to the real question. The one that matters.
How fit do you need to be? How much training should you be doing, versus riding for the sheer enjoyment of riding? Furthermore, why can’t “training” be enjoyable?
Firstly, you should ride as much as you want to, and no more. Want can be motivated by many factors, of course. You may be motivated to loose weight. You may be motivated to become stronger. You may be motivated by the competition that platforms like Strava offer. You may be motivated simply by the enjoyment that getting out into your own headspace, or in the company of good mates, offers. Or you may be motivated by the feeling that pushing yourself to your limits and beyond offers. Whatever your reason, that is your reason to ride.
It can be tricky trying to balance fitness goals with the limited time that we all seem to have. Like Dave suggests, there is always time, it’s just a matter of prioritizing it for what’s important for you. What matters is not letting the bike become a burden. Redefine what training means to you. Figure out what it is about cycling that gets you excited, and use that to inform your training. The majority of people who cycle recreationally would place fitness at or near the top of their list of why they ride, but often that is eclipsed by the simple pleasure of being out on a bike. If you ride because you enjoy it, the fitness will come, and if you ride heaps, the fitness will come in larger doses.
My current situation is not simply that I want to get fitter and stronger on the bike, but that I am at times frustrated that I am not where I want to be, and more specifically, not where I used to be. Whatever your reason for wanting more fitness, it’s important to figure out how you can enjoy getting there rather than just focusing on the numbers. Here are a few suggestions as to how you might put the fun into, or back into, your training:
- Stop training, and start riding. It’s difficult not to focus on the numbers when you are trying to prepare for a specific event or series of events, but even then, try to just ride as much as you are able, and spice it up with one or more of the following:
- Loose the computer. I’ve not had one on my bike for quite some time now, and I love it. Sure, it’s not as scientific and you may not be maximizing your output at all times, but I really enjoy riding without the numbers hanging dangling in front of my eyes. I have only just started to use Strava, so I still have the data, but it’s in my back pocket when I’m on the bike.
- Ride with people who are faster than you, but be careful not to become frustrated with being last all the time… You can’t always simply choose to ride with just anyone, but if you have the option, go with the group or individuals that are a bit faster or stronger than you at least some of the time.
- Be realistic and accept that where you are is where you are. You cannot go from A to C without going through B, so even if you used to be able to ride a certain hill in under 15 minutes, know that you cannot all of a sudden find the two extra minutes you are out by riding really hard for two weeks. Like me, that will more than likely push you over the edge and you will be worse off than before. Over-training is worse than training, and far more frustrating. Shift your focus if you are here.
- Explore new routes. Depending on where you live this might be easier or more difficult, but if you have the option, map out a route that you’ve not been on before and explore the countryside. Throw some challenges into the mix, and get better acquainted with the place where you live.
- Give gravel a go. There is a whole new level, or at least a different kind, of freedom that gravel or dirt offers. Fewer cars, a different view of the world, a little more remote, and often a whole lot more peaceful. No need for special equipment, depending on how adventurous you get.
- These days when I think about cycling, my default though it a road bike, but let’s not forget that although mountain biking and cyclocross are still bikes, they are a completely different kind of fun. If you are getting a bit bored with your current style of riding, give another one a go. You’ll not regret it.
- Go everywhere by bike. It won’t necessarily turn you into a monster on the bike, but you can’t underestimate how all of those daily commutes and trips to the shops add to your overall level of fitness, not to mention your mental health, financial health, the health of your community, the environment, etc, etc…
- Give yourself a break now and then. It’s good for you.
- Don’t forget that fitness will come if you simply ride heaps because you love it. Instead of merely training, train yourself to enjoy getting out on the bike however it is that you most enjoy it.
If you have any other suggestions, let us know in the comments!
Header image: The Sticky Bidon