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Why Riding Slower Makes You Faster


Lucho dillitosMedia & Blog

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cyclist training on a rural road

Cycling training is a notoriously difficult beast to master. Part of this is simply the various different factors involved. From nutrition to cycling gear, there is a lot you need to consider before you even get on the bike. Then when you do, cycling is often high-intensity, especially if you want to compete in cycling races, challenges and events. This means that you are putting your body through intense training and pressure and this can feel impossible if you are starting from the bottom. Your cardio and general fitness levels may not be at the level you need to endure long or quick rides. 

This is a trap many amateur cyclists fall into. The idea is sound on paper. You want to go fast so you need to be training fast. You need to be pushing yourself and your body beyond its normal limits constantly and riding up to the edge in order to achieve the best results, getting into that sweet spot of high intensity that defines so-called ‘sweetspot training’. This isn’t always the best option. While it is certainly a quick and convenient way to train, it can make the process much harder for beginners and while it certainly is a quick way for time-strapped athletes to eke out extra gains, it is a gruelling process for the uneducated and can lead to burnout very quickly.

This is why slower training methods are often recommended to newcomers and are becoming far more commonplace for athletes and professionals. One of the more popular and defined is the polarised cycling training method. It is a style that has helped many achieve far more than they originally thought. Essentially, polarised cycling training means that you minimise your high intensity workouts and prioritise easier riding (a common ratio is 80/20). This helps you build a solid base of endurance and overall fitness so you are more easily able to last when it is time for those high intensity surges.

Zone 2 Training

3 cyclists training down a road

Another form of training that is becoming increasingly popular is Zone 2 training. Popularised by Dr. Iñigo San Millán (coach for Tour de France winner Tadej Pogačar), Zone 2 training is a cornerstone of any well-structured cycling training plan. The technique refers to training in ‘Zone 2’ as much as possible and once again, it is designed to build an effective base for athletes and general enthusiasts. While there is no real definition of Zone 2 and it mostly differs between person to person, a more practical way to think of it by heart rate or power output range is that it lies within 60-70% of your maximum effort. This zone represents a sustainable, aerobic effort where you can ride comfortably and maintain a conversation without gasping for air but still putting in a sufficient enough effort.

By working within your means, you can more effectively train and it can help to stimulate mitochondrial function. Mitochondrial function is the basis of Dr. San Millán’s work and mitochondria are essential for high performance in cycling or general fitness. Developing and strengthening the mitochondria helps massively with endurance as these are the main production part of our cells, meaning that more mitochondria and more effective mitochondria helps to increase energy production and makes staying at higher intensity easier and more efficient for your body. It also helps with overall recovery and it means that the inevitable wall you face during long distances should be easier to overcome.

One of the chief benefits of these styles of training is that it allows you to train your body to better manage fat oxidation or the process of fat burning. The science behind all of this is very detailed and complicated and we’ll link to some valuable resources on this if you want to learn more. To put it simply, your body gets energy from fats and carbohydrates (sugars). Your body stores more fat than it does sugars so in order to get the most value out of our energy stores, we need to make effective use of fats. 

Fat burning occurs at its highest rate at medium intensity and diminishes at higher intensities so in order to maximise fat oxidation, we need to be riding at lower intensities. This will help train our bodies to better utilise fuel during a race and mean that we have more energy available when we really need it instead of burning through our sugar supply quickly and burning out.

cyclist group training in woods

In conclusion, cycling training is indeed a challenging endeavour, with a multitude of factors at play. It’s a sport that often demands high-intensity efforts, making it seem daunting for beginners or those looking to improve their overall performance. The notion of pushing one’s body to the limit continuously, frequently venturing into that so-called ‘sweet spot’ of high intensity, can lead to burnout and frustration, especially for the uninitiated.

This is where slower training methods come to the rescue, providing a more sustainable and effective path to cycling excellence. Two such methods, polarised cycling training and Zone 2 training, have gained significant popularity for their ability to empower athletes and enthusiasts to achieve more than they initially believed. In essence, slower training methods not only make the process more accessible for newcomers but also offer a holistic approach to building endurance, improving performance, and enhancing overall cycling fitness. It’s a paradigm shift that benefits both aspiring athletes and seasoned riders, emphasising the importance of a balanced and sustainable approach to training that paves the way for lasting success in the world of cycling. To learn more about cycling training and prepare for longer rides, check out our other guides on the necessary cycling gear, the best cycling nutrition plan and some key cycling events to be aware of.