Staying Cycling-Fit Through the Winter Months – Part 1
by Coach Sarah
I’ve heard many times from athletes how winter running is something they look forward to, and is pivotal to their annual run training program. The cool temperatures seem to lure out the inner runner in us. However, cycling through the cold winter months doesn’t hold the same appeal for quite so many folks. And let’s face it, here in Chicago, it’s difficult to ride outdoors on many given winter days due to extreme weather hazards.
So the question becomes, how does one stay cycling fit, and motivated to stay cycling fit, during the inevitable winter months? The question may be easy, but the answer is woven into layers and various approaches, so bear with me while I touch on some of these for you to consider as these cold days settle in.
Let’s break this into a few topics to make it easier to digest: Homeostasis and Adaptation and Interval Training. Part 2 will involve Core balance training and Recovery. Give yourself some time to read through this, maybe grab a cup of coffee or tea, and find a spot where you can reflect on your own individual athletic situation, specifically when it comes to cycling. (Perhaps you are new to the sport, and all the components on the bike are intimidating, or maybe you are a seasoned cyclist. No matter your journey-stage, this will pertain to you.)
Homeostasis and Adaptation (hang in there; it sounds more complicated than it really is.) I’ll start here with a request for you to reflect: Think of a situation you’ve recently been in where you were out of your comfort zone, where you felt your breathing pattern becoming erratic, your heart rate increasing, and your fight-or-flight senses taking over. Perhaps you started sweating, or finding it difficult to take a deep breath. Physiologically, your body actually starts producing a number of stress hormones, and the blood flow in your body starts working differently to help you get through the challenging moment.
Now, picture yourself minutes after that situation passed. Can you remember how you felt physically, mentally? I’m going to speculate that you felt a sense of relief afterwards, and your heart rate and breathing settled into a calm rhythmic pattern again. Your blood flow would have then resumed its normal passageways, and your muscles will have reverted to their typical actions.
But here’s the cool thing, your ability to adapt to that situation increased in the aftermath. Be it subtle or obvious, your body experienced a shake-up that literally bumped up your adaptation level to that situation. Specifically, if you were faced with that same situation again, wouldn’t you feel a little more confident and capable going into it?
This is the concept behind homeostasis and adaptation within our bodies. Here’s how it pertains to what we do as athletes. Homeostasis is the body’s natural desire to avoid stressful situations and remain stable. “The human body likes to maintain homeostasis. It constantly works to resist change and remain at rest.” (1) Every time we expose ourselves to stressful situations, our body naturally reacts in a way to help it mitigate that stress and to maintain a sense of status quo. This is called adaptation. Each time we expose ourselves to a stressful situation (i.e. a tougher or longer workout), we increase our level of homeostasis, because our body works to adapt to the higher stress level.
Rest and recovery become just as vital of components to this concept, and those will be discussed in Part 2 of this article series. For the purpose of this, however, I want you to be comfortable with the idea of HOW stress on the body actually improves our performance.
Meanwhile, what we need to remember as athletes, is that every time we expose our bodies to a physical stress, we are nudging our individual state of homeostasis to adapt and improve, thus growing stronger.
Now, how does this fit into winter cycling exactly? Let’s explore that now. In the book Fitness Cycling , the authors talk about our cycling training program as being a pyramid, with 5 heart rate levels, or zones. (2)
- Zone 1 – Active Recovery (base of pyramid, low heart rates)
- Zone 2 – Endurance
- Zone 3—Lactate Threshold
- Zone 4 – Anaerobic
- Zone 5 – Maximal Effort (tip of pyramid, high heart rates)
Our intensity levels vary from <60% to 100% based on what zone we are in. We spend most of our time at the top portion of this pyramid during races, and we use the bottom of the pyramid to recover and build our base. Winter presents us with a fabulous opportunity to work on the middle – Zone 3 – of our pyramid. This is a pivotal zone, and the part of the pyramid that we can reap huge gains from, moving ourselves from one level of cycling fitness to the next.
In Zone 3, we have opportunities to build our cycling-specific muscle strength, and improve our Lactate Threshold. In a nutshell, lactate threshold “represents the highest steady-state exercising intensity you can maintain for more than 30 minutes.” (2) It is essentially the stage of our workout where our bodies can no longer remove lactic acid from its system as quickly as we produce it. Once lactic acid starts to accumulate in our system while cycling, it begins hindering our muscle performance, and we experience that burning sensation in our legs. We enter our anaerobic zone, and it becomes a different ballgame.
This isn’t a bad thing. Lactate threshold is simply a benchmark of our cycling fitness at any given point in time. And this is what we can spend a good deal of our winter effort working to improve. One of the best ways to do this? Interval workouts.
Interval Workouts: If you are currently enrolled in one of our CompuTrainer classes, you are no stranger to this concept. We’ve done them already, and will continue to weave them into our future sessions. If you have taken spin classes, you probably have also done a few (or many!) intervals during your classes. The concept is this: you push your warmed-up body into a zone of maintainable discomfort (or higher intensity) for a given period of time, several times during a workout. This is called an interval. After each interval, you spend a brief period of time allowing your muscles to recover by spinning in a very easy zone 1 to zone 2.
We are exposing our bodies to stress during these intervals, and shaking up our homeostasis when we do that. Our bodies work to adapt to each of these intervals, and after a short period of recovery (i.e. 1-5 minutes), we expose them to an interval of stress again. Throughout this process, our bodies start to improve their endurance capabilities, and in time, our ability to ride harder—for longer—grows. It’s a pretty cool concept, and one that athletes across the ability-spectrum can all benefit from.
Doing random intervals such as in spin class is certainly better than doing no interval work. To build maximum cycling fitness and be optimized, it’s critical to do the right intervals at the right time of the season. Joining our CompuTrainer program or hiring an ET coach are the best ways to have a high quality progression of workouts that are built to your specific needs.
What will happen over time, is that these workouts will feel more manageable, and you will go for longer before you fatigue. Your body adapts to these strenuous efforts, and your cycling fitness grows. Effectively, you are increasing your lactate threshold, which will allow you to race harder for longer when racing season comes around. Winter riding can become one of our biggest opportunities to grow as cyclists, even in our limited riding conditions!
In Part 2 of this article, I will address the topics of Core balance training and Recovery. If you have questions regarding anything here, please contact me. I am available for one-on-one cycling training consults, and will be teaching CompuTrainer sessions along with the other ET Coaches throughout the winter.
Meanwhile, pedal with purpose, and find your inner zen in all those circles your feet are tracing!
Sarah Farsalas is Director of Cycling Programs and Massage Therapy at Experience Triathlon. She is certified USA Cycling coach, USA Triathlon coach and Licensed Massage Therapist. Learn more about Coach Sarah, Experience Triathlon and Experience Massage at www.experiencetriathlon.com
1. Sovndal S. Cycling Anatomy. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics; 2009.
2. Barry DD, Barry M, Sovndal S. Cycling Fitness. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics; 2006.