There aren’t many things more disheartening for a cyclist than the realisation that you’ve hit a plateau. You’re eating porridge like it’s going out of fashion, sleeping more than the kids and you have a top 10 isotonic drink list. You train at least 4 times a week, seemingly pushing harder each time and have invested in those new cleats and a platinum bike service. But your Strava still never pops up with ‘PR!’ and your desire to get out there is slowly fading.
But don’t give up! We here at OTR feel your pain. But plateaus can - and need to - be beaten. Here’s how:
Take a damn break
We don’t mean two weeks all-inclusive in St Kitts (although that would work). We mean a genuine break from the soul-sapping rides that have got you to this point. Unless you’re paid to cycle you’ll be fitting it all in around family, work and a social life. Juggling four very demanding balls means one of them is going to fall; this time, for a bit anyway, it’s going to have to be you. Don’t fret about macronutrients and fat levels, don’t inspect the sprocket and don’t even check Wiggo’s Twitter feed. Have a week off to let your muscles properly refuel, sleep and re-set the training clock.
Take a serious look at your nutrition
Rested? Good. Now you need to take a serious look at what’s fuelling you. Chances are you’ve been following a plan that is predominantly the same slow release carbs, protein and good fats in varying proportions depending on whether it’s a training day or not. Which is a sound basis for great nutrition, but not a very exciting one. On non-training days switch the porridge breakfast for something a bit more exciting such as an omelette with chilli, spinach and feta or a wholemeal bagel with egg and cheese. Don’t make nutrition a chore, look forward to what you’re eating. And if you have the time then batch make your own isotonic drinks, granola, energy bars etc. They’ll taste much better.
In fact, here’s our latest recipe that you could try - A Mediterranean Puy Lentil Salad and an Energising Smoothie to wash it down with.
Take a look at your training schedule
Unless you’ve got a personal coach, you need to look at your training schedule and what it is you’re doing on each ride. As Einstein (allegedly) said
‘the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results’.
Just as a powerlifter never sees gains doing the same workout you will never shave those vital seconds off doing the same route and attacking the same hill. Over time your muscles adapt to certain inclines and speeds, your body ensures that it isn’t going to quit during it and makes allowances. So when you hit Shooters Hill at top speed your lungs know what they need to spare, your glutes know what’s coming and you come out at roughly the same speed and time. Every time.
So change it. Pick a new route, see a different view, push your muscles to new extremes.
But the best way to keep track of anything is to write it down and keep a record of it.
Without keeping track of your training, it’s all too easy to forget where you are and how you are developing. By keeping a record you’ll be able to see the activity you undertook which led to a high performance ride, and conversely you’ll have a clearer understanding of the activity that you undertook prior to poor performance and longer term, to a plateau.
Keep a note of such things as when you train, how long for, intensity levels, your body condition (weight, sleep etc.) and route. As with all data, patterns will emerge, which when spotted will help you to improve your training schedule.
Use training zones
Every time you go out to train, you should have a goal for the session you are performing – a goal that will require you to work at a certain level of intensity in order to achieve it. Therefore you really need to know how hard you are working, so that you can adjust your intensity levels to the goal(s) of the session.
In short, training zones are an easy and effective way to ensure you are working at the right level for a specific training session – enabling your training to be far more effective.
We’ve actually put together a blog post here on how to establish heart rate and power zones. So something else for you to read up on after you’re done with this post.
Know your limits
A salient point to remember in all of this is that you also need to accept your limitations. Not just your speed and time on a particular stretch of road but what nature gave you.
Your ultimate cycling ability is, unfortunately, a matter of genetics and your VO2 max is just that, a max. Wiggins, Cavendish, Froome… these people are, put simply, freaks of nature. Their lungs shouldn’t be able to carry that much oxygen, their legs shouldn’t be able to go that fast and they shouldn’t have that much stamina. It’s weird. But they have and they can and that’s why they’re on The Tour and we aren’t.
However you can improve other parts of your body. Leg strength can be improved with a sensible leg workout routine (such as this workout here), and you can improve core strength too (core workout here), both of which will greatly help to improve you as a cyclist.
And whilst you can’t improve your VO2 max you can work to release your potential by slowly increasing speed for the same period of time. For example a pro cyclist could go at 90% of their VO2 max for an hour or so whereas you might struggle after say 3 minutes. So next time you go at an average of 17mph on a ride, aim for 18mph for 30 minutes of it next time. And keep pushing that up.
You need professional help
And finally, and the most sure-fire way to break through a plateau, is to get the professionals in. Having someone who can undertake a detailed analysis of your cycling technique, ability and physical attributes; to then identify areas for improvement, along with the correct guidance on how to; is something all cyclists looking to break through a plateau need in their cycling life.
Of course we would say that, given cycling training is one of our core offerings. But the cyclists we help, after an initial assessment with Jim (qualified British Cycling Coach), are left feeling reinvigorated, finding a new level of love for cycling that they never knew existed.
So, if you are looking to get off your cycling plateau, following all of the above will certainly help. But, and we're not just saying this, professional help is the key element that you should focus on. And of course, you know where you can find that…
On the Rivet