One thing I get asked a lot by various people in my cycling community is “how do you get better at cycling?” So I thought I’d provide a few tips that will not only improve your riding, but will hopefully help improve your body and mind at the same time.
These three elements all work in tandem and in various orders. Improving your body will improve your cycling. Improving your cycling will improve your mind… and so on. Or, for anyone more into the theory of CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) then getting your mind into a good place will make you more open to riding, which will then benefit you physically. So this next section will touch on some of the various things you can do to get your body and mind in the best possible shape to improve your cycling – we’ll cover exercises, training and mindset.
As with most things, the more you do something the right way, the better you’ll be at it – practice makes permanent. If you do something correctly, repeatedly, then you’ll become better at doing it perfectly. Continuously doing something the wrong way won’t make it perfect - quite the opposite in fact - you’ll get better… At doing it badly!
Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to get out on your bike – poor weather, your bike is in for a service, or it’s the time of the year where it’s pitch black outside as soon as you leave work – but it’s good to keep those legs moving when you’re at home and keep fit. And you can do this by using an in door turbo trainer.
There are two options when it comes to transforming your road bike into an indoor trainer, and they are wheel-on and wheel-off. Both options range in price from a couple of hundred pounds right up to thousands – a bit like your bike.
The wheel-on option allows you to hook your bike up – as is – to a machine that measures your distance as you exercise. This option can be a bit of a faff… the friction between the machine’s roller and your tyres tends to cause your tyres to wear down more quickly, so it can be costly and annoying making regular tyre changes. You can buy special tyres that are made specifically to be more durable for this type of wear but personally I can’t be bothered with:
Changing my tyres around every time I switch between indoor and outside riding, and;
I don’t what to spend money on a spare wheel, that I can swap out depending on whether I’m riding in- or outside.
And while no indoor trainers are silent, the friction of a wheel-on machine can often be quite noisy.
If you're interested in an excellent quality, wheel-on trainer then I've had friends speak very highly of the Wahoo Kickr Snap. It's a smart trainer
trainer that can connect to 3rd Party training apps and can be folded down to a decent size for storage when not in use.
You can check it out or buy one at Wiggle, here - https://bit.ly/3lz9eV9 (full disclosure - I'm not paid by Wahoo or Wiggle to recommend this product but I will get a tiny commission if you click the link - I'm talking mere pennies to keep the m2M cycling lights on vs. being able to retire!)
Finally, if you’re into your data and want it to be accurate then this might not be the best option for you. If using a ‘smart trainer’ - which is one that connects to your computer or mobile device and does things such as automatically adjusts the resistance depending on the training program you’re following - then you’re going to need to ensure the tyre is pumped to the correct pressure to ensure it’s making the right contact with the machine’s roller, and is providing you accurate readings.
Wheel-off direct drive trainers are ideal if you can stretch your budget to buy one. You simply remove your back wheel and attach the back of your bike to the machine - your rear derailleur simply fits over the cassette that’s on the turbo trainer. Direct dive machines offer a more realistic experience, transferring resistance from your trainer to your bike through your attached cassette. By doing this, you can automatically adjust your ride to virtual course climbs, descents and road conditions with more accuracy.
I was lucky enough to save up for a Wahoo Kickr using money from my 40th birthday
(now a distant memory [whimper]) and I absolutely love it. Not that you can really 'love' indoor cycling (unless you're a little unhinged) but it's amazing at keeping me going during cycling's off season.
No matter how much you enjoy cycling, there’s no getting away from it… indoor training can be boring. It can often take a lot of motivation to get through. There are no exciting landmarks to look at, no final destinations and no motorists angrily honking their horns at you for no apparent reason – and who wants to miss out on that? But there are ways to make indoor training more engaging, at least. And for me, that’s through an app called Zwift – although there are other providers out there who offer a similar experience and features.
Zwift contains pre-loaded training sessions that last from anywhere between 30 minutes and over two hours – which makes the whole experience that little bit more enjoyable (although not less painful!). You can even ride along with others in a virtual world and receive excellent coaching tips from ex and current professional riders. You can also join online races where you see the other riders around you. Honestly, without my Wahoo Kickr connected to Zwift, indoor training would be unbearable for me.
Give it a go but be sure to grab a towel or two! One for over the handlebars - to protect your bike and wipe sweat from your eyes. And one for the floor, under your bike - to catch the waterfall that is guaranteed to fall from you. Oh and be sure to have plenty of ventilation. Seriously, you're going to get hot... Really hot.
You can check it out or buy one at Wiggle, here - https://bit.ly/3ACzPEV (see disclosure above)
When it comes to making sure I’m always bicycle-ready and improving, I live by a very simple 4-pronged mantra I call LLHH. Or, legs, lungs, heart and head.
I find that when all these parts are in sync, we’re on to a winner when it comes to becoming a better rider. Working on each element even goes a little further than helping you take down a few PBs (personal bests), they can make you a stronger, healthier, happier person, too!
Let's focus on each element individually and talk through a few things you can do to train each part:
We’ll start with your legs and squats. Squats are a fantastic way of keeping your hamstrings balanced by working them in a different way to the pedalling action they’ll be so used to… and also a fantastic way to make yourself cry.
When squatting – particularly as a cyclist – aim to squat down fairly low so your thighs are parallel with the ground… this is an angle your legs will be used to through pedalling. Then, from that squat position, jump as high as you can, as hard as you can. Do this 1,000 times then rest. I’m joking, of course… 4 sets of 15 (or 10 if the thought of 15 makes you wince) should do the trick.
Lunges work your quads, hamstrings, glutes and calf muscles – making them a great allrounder when it comes to improving leg strength. Plus, if certain areas of your thigh have gained a little extra strength from all your riding, lunges will help iron out these imbalances and give you more overall strength. Just stand with one leg slightly in front of the other, then step forward with one leg so the bend at the knee is 90 degrees, keeping your weight towards your heels before bringing your body back to a standing position. I’d do about 15 of these.
One-legged pedalling (aka ‘Pirate Pedalling'). This exercise is simple and does wonders for your hip flexors! Start pedalling on your bike, as you normally would on any ride, then unclip one of your feet, holding it clear of your pedal’s rotation and pedal for 2 minutes with the foot that’s still clipped in. It will probably feel a bit weird and jerky to begin with, but you'll soon find yourself dragging your foot through the bottom part of your pedal rotation, pulling on the upstroke as well as your usual push on the downstroke. The aim is to pedal with no 'clunk' at any part of the pedal stroke. This will do wonders for helping you maximise effectiveness and efficiency of your pedal rotation. If you do invest in an indoor trainer then this is a great exercise to do on one. Zwift even has a training session dedicated to it. I highly recommend you check it out. It improved my pedalling efficiency greatly.
Calf raises. When you’re cycling, your calves are constantly being flexed, so a classic calf raise will mimic your movements on a bike – building its strength even further in the process. You’ll need to stand on a flat surface with your feet shoulder-width apart and raise yourself up on your toes in a slow motion, then slowly lower yourself back down.
Now we move on to the lungs. Again, I’m not a personal trainer or a medical professional… my actual knowledge of lungs actually spans as far as this. One: they help you breathe. Two: smoking fucks them up. But I can tell you what has helped me breathe easier on the saddle, and help me get my breath back quicker when I’m off it.
Now I know lungs are not a sexy muscle – I’ve certainly never overheard anyone say “oh, look at the massive lungs, on that guy!”, but lung capacity is so important to a cyclist. If you find yourself panting one mile into a ride, or on the verge of collapse at the slightest of climbs, then it’s probably time to start working on your lungs.
You can do this through interval training – this involves performing very hard exercise for short bursts - usually 30 - 60 seconds, followed by recovery periods for a similar /double the time. When it comes to making any improvements as a cyclist, my main advice is to just get on your bike and keep riding and keep pushing yourself. So we can apply this interval training with a simple workout on your bike. Start with a five-to-ten minute warm-up, pedalling nice and easy. Then prepare the body for your hard effort by doing five 30-second bursts, resting for a minute in between each one. Follow this with three bursts of 45-seconds. Again, resting for 1-minute between each effort. Then do one, 1-minute where you give it the full beans. Rest for 3 minutes.
Now we're ready for the good part… three whole minutes of pedalling constantly at your maximum pace! Suck it up, baby, and pedal!
After this, reward yourself with five minutes’ rest. When I say rest, I don’t mean you should dismount and take a nap on the pavement. I mean ride gently. I’d recommend doing this once on each ride. Within a few weeks you’ll be walking around your local area bragging to everyone you see about the size of your massive lungs. OK, probably not, but you will find cycling feels a little different. I’m consciously not saying it gets “easier”. Someone said something to me once that’s always stuck, and I’ve found it to be profoundly true - “road cycling doesn’t get easier. You just get faster, for longer."
Conveniently for us cyclists, one of the best things you can do to improve your heart’s performance is cycling! Great news. So all you need to do is saddle up, clip in and go! Cycling increases your heart rate, strengthens the heart muscle, helps manage your weight – so there’s less strain on your heart from a kebab or two too many – and lowers your blood pressure. In fact, actual scientists – as opposed to little old me – reported that those who cycle regularly had 15 percent less chance of heart attacks than those who don’t cycle. Of course, it doesn't mean that because you've gone on a bike ride you can come home, pump your body with doughnuts, down 10 pints – however tempting this may be – and light a cigarette or suck on a vape. It’s important to maintain a healthy lifestyle alongside your riding if you really want to look after your little ticker! Other forms of cardio-vascular training are great for the heart, too. I can’t run for toffee but I know people that do and they’re stamina on the bike is usually a level up from mine. It's usually their leg muscles that tire first until they're optimised for cycling as well as running.
This deserves an entire chapter itself, but rather than turn this cycling guide into a fully-blown self-help book, I’ll simply highlight a few of the cycling-related mental struggles we all face at some point – at least I have, anyway – and how to overcome them, as well as some advice on how to switch your mindset and improve your mental health with the help of your two-wheeled therapist!
Getting out there. Even when you're madly in love with cycling, you’ll still have days when you just can’t find the motivation to clip in and get out there. When you do talk yourself out of a planned ride, you not only miss out on that much-needed pump of endorphins, instead, you might find you’ll beat yourself up for not going out – and that can often make you even more miserable and moody. Without the right mindset, that day can become days, then weeks, without riding – so it’s so important to overcome these tricky moments.
I know the feeling all too well… your alarm goes off, you hit snooze and tell yourself you’ll be ready to go in another 10 minutes. Another three slams of the snooze button go by and you’re thinking of every excuse possible not to go out: “I went the other day”, “The weather’s a bit shite”, “The roads will be too busy”, “My muscles are a bit stiff”... but when you have these thoughts, remember, once you’re up, you’re up so getting out of bed means you’re halfway there. (well it works for me, okay!)
The hardest part is getting dressed and leaving the house. Leaving your gear out the night before so it's lying there ready to go is a good way of making the 'getting dressed' part easier.
As soon as you drag your arse out, you’ll be so happy you did. I find one of the greatest feelings as a cyclist is getting back home on those days - after an early morning 15 - 20 miler. Your ride seems to feel like more of an achievement. My inner monologue in the shower often goes a little like: “How amazing do you feel now? And you weren't going to go were you, you lazy bastid?!" and, "Why don't you treat yourself to a McDonalds breakfast, big man?!”
Okay, so I was kidding about that final bit (honestly!) but when those endorphins are whizzing around your body, you wonder why you ever considered staying in. It really sets you up for a great day.
There's obviously so much more we could add to this post. Loads of other exercises, techniques and tools but if you've got this far then I've probably taken up enough of your time already. (And thanks so much for getting to the end!) If you've any tips or advice to share then please do so in the comments below. I know I'd appreciate it greatly and I'm sure the wider m2M community will, also.
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Thanks and as always, until next time, ride safe 🤜🤛