Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Improve your cycling: Fitting; Fitness; Fuel

Photo: Chris WareThis conversation came up on a Saturday ride with some of the members of our race team. In addition to the usual conversation about new, cool bike gear that usually crops up on a ride; one of the members was commenting on the results of the fitting I'd performed for him a couple of weeks prior. We had eliminated his knee pain and increased his efficiency and balance on the bike. He was thrilled because he was able to get in more training miles (after resolving himself to a break from riding) and his bike was feeling faster, more nimble, and yet more predictable.

This prompted a response from me that some of my customers have been hearing from me for several years now: Most of us can get greater returns from getting our bike fit, fitness, and fuel (nutrition) dialed than from spending a bunch of money on the newest coolest gear.

["What? I thought this was a product-focused blog. I read this to get real-world reviews on some of the best equipment out there instead of the watered-down drab stuff that comes from the major publications because they're afraid of hurting the suppliers' feelings. Why is Matt telling me not to buy stuff...?]

Well, the above comment is true - I am a "gear geek" through-and-through and I get tempted by all the new cool chi-chi stuff out there just like the rest of you. But, I have seen in the lives and riding habits of my clients (and myself) the difference that the three principles above have and I'm a firm believer. Your riding experience is a multi-faceted product of a variety of factors including these three principles and your gear. When all of them include high-quality, well-selected, properly maintained elements - you can't help but succeed!

So, this is obviously a complex topic (especially when you factor in my propensity for loquacity); and rather than pontificating on each element - I'm just going to hit the bullet points to get you started. Use this as a jumping off point and then consult with your local bike shop for the best way to apply these to yourself.

  • Fitting: Of course, I am a trained bike fitter - so this is naturally where I would start. But, I feel that this is of the utmost importance anyhow. The parallels that I draw the most often drive this home quite effectively: Wrong size (or type) running shoes; an ill fitting business suit; and golf club fitting and swing analysis. Anyone who takes any of those activities seriously makes sure that they have the right equipment, that it is adjusted for them individually, and that they are using it properly. However; how many people get a new bike, throw a leg over it and go ride and think: "I'll iron it all out on the first few rides" and then complain about their knees, back, and neck hurting; their hands and feet going numb, and how they can't sit down for days after a ride because their seat hurts? (Worse yet, how many bike shops let their clients do this?)

    Get your bike fitted. Search the bike shops in your area to see who offers the service and go meet the fitter. Don't just find a website that looks cool and a price that seems reasonable and schedule a fitting. Visit the shop and talk to the person who will be performing the service. You need to have a good feeling about it and a sense that they know what they are doing and are going to listen to your needs. Find out about the fitting method that they use too. If their answer includes a lot of: "um, like, uhh, dude, bro" look elsewhere. The extra step here would be to research the fitting method they claim to follow and see how it matches with what you perceive your needs are.
  • Fitness: You have to be properly prepared for your events or goals: physically and mentally. Doing too little (or too much for that matter) to be prepared is merely a path to disaster. So; obviously, you have to ride. But be deliberate about it. Aimless miles are not as beneficial as purposeful, focused, intentional miles. Have a plan. Identify your goals for the season and mark them on a calendar. Then, organize your riding around your schedule and those goals.

    Don't focus too much on actual miles though. Think about duration: the time to complete the event - and train toward that. If you're training for a century by going out and trying to ride 100 miles you're going to get frustrated, tired, and probably injured before you ever get to your event. Additionally, if it is a flat century and you ride in a hilly area - you're already working too hard. Figure out how long you expect to take to finish your event and tailor your training around that amount of time. If you're going to be riding for 5 hours - train for a 5 hour ride.

    Here is a little gem for beginners and group ride novices: riding as a part of a group (pack or "peleton") is easier than on your own. Additionally, planned supported rides have great rest stops with great food and opportunities for a break. If you pace yourself by starting the ride slower than you would normally ride and take advantage of the rest stops to recover and refuel - you can nearly double the distance you're accustomed to riding. So, don't burn yourself out training for that first metric-century or century. Plan well and take breaks!

    And, be sure to include recovery in your plan. As I said above, doing too much is bad too. It's called over-training and it does not allow your body to re-build and get stronger. That is what rest and recovery are for. Also, get a heart rate monitor. It's a great tool for during your training and event; but an even better tool for gauging how your body is recovering by monitoring your heart after you have finished.
  • Fuel: I'll keep this simple - you can't complete that big ride or race on water alone if it is longer than about an hour. This is where it is helpful to consult with your local bike shop and their "nutrition expert" (the guy who actually uses the stuff they sell - and probably gets a little too excited about the effects of their products...) Try a combination of a few different products well in advance of your event so that you know how they effect your body and what you like to eat and drink while you're riding. The right combination of gels, drinks, solids (bars, "chews", "bites", whatever...) and other supplements can save what might have been a disastrous event if your plan is developed well.

    Again - plan for recovery. Protein and Carb "recovery" drinks or gels are a great tool to re-fuel your body after exercise to make sure it is able to re-build itself while you're resting. An added advantage is that the elements in the product usually have a side effect of appetite-suppression; so that you don't go home and clean out the refrigerator and undo all the work you just did. Most everyone makes a recovery product now - find one that you like so you'll want to use it after exercise.
Again, most importantly - find an expert you trust and consult with them on how you can make this work for you. It's some of the best time and money you can spend to improve your cycling experience.

Feel free to leave comments with questions if you'd like my feedback.

Thanks for reading!


  1. great post...

    i just got a new madone and had it fitted at the shop (not fancy video fitting though) and felt like it was good. I've been on a couple short rides but I'm not fully happy. I'm going to go back and see what they can do.

    Thanks for the tips on nutrition. I'm that guy that only takes water. and maybe a cliff bar.

  2. Wesley-

    Definitely get back in touch with the fitter and see what your options are. For myself; as a fitter, the most important thing is that my client is more comfortable, faster, and smiling. Any fitter worth their fee should feel likewise.

    If they don't solve your problem; look for new fitters. Feel free to ask me for recommendations.

    As for nutrition - don't over do it; your body can only process so many calories in a set period of time. But broaden your options for sure. Definitely look into recovery.

    You've inspired me: I wrote a piece for our newsletter on nutrition that I may have to post here...

    Enjoy the ride!



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