The Knowledge: Hill training, nutrition, bike fit and more...
British Cycling coach Holly Seear answers this issue’s five big training questions
1) How can I get faster at hill climbing?
Whether you’re taking on Box Hill or that last horrible climb on the way up to your house, hills are a cyclist’s mental nemesis. But there are ways to wrestle that hilly demon. It may sound obvious, but practice makes perfect, so the more hilly roads you do, the faster and stronger you’ll become.
We’ve all been guilty of this after a long ride (or long day at work), but don’t deliberately pick flat routes. Instead, go for routes with a variety of gradients and seek out hilly roads as a first step. If you want to get really good at hills, it makes sense to do specific hill training sessions. Here’s how…
Begin with a warm up to make sure your muscles are ready. Find a fairly short hill, stay seated, settle into a steady rhythm and just practise basic seated hill climbing. Still seated, pick a tougher, longer hill and get used to powering yourself up that.
Once you’re confident with this, move on to alternate climbing reps, where you practise going from seated to standing on your pedals, ideally moving nice and smoothly. Start with 30 seconds seated, 30 seconds standing, as this will help to build leg strength. Usually, sitting is the most efficient way to ride, but standing can give you a boost and help when you’re taking on a really steep one.
To progress further and increase your speed, move on to hill sprints. Pick a steep or short section of a hill and attack it. Try accelerating as fast as you can, standing
out of your saddle for 15 seconds; then sit and ride as hard as you possibly can to the top. To progress, build up gradually. The first time you do it, try one or two stand-up sprints, the second time try three or four. You won't notice the benefits straight away, but it really will make a difference over time.
2) How long should I be able to ride without having a snack?
If you’re well fuelled before your ride, most people can ride up to 60-90 minutes without needing to take on any more food. The limiting factor is how much glycogen you can store in your muscles, so it depends on the individual and the intensity of the activity. If you know you’re going to be out for longer, don’t wait until then to start eating.
Start fuelling maybe 30 minutes into your ride and make sure you’re drinking around every 15 minutes. The British Cycling guidelines say around 60g carbohydrate per hour and around 500ml of liquid per hour.
3) How important is weight training for cycling?
For women, it’s really important as we tend to struggle when maintaining and building muscle mass. When you’re more active in the summer, try doing weights once a week to maintain muscle mass, and in the winter do them twice a week. If you’re not a gym bunny, try a class like BodyPump, where an instructor can guide you through. Or get a personal trainer or a cycling coach to set you a training programme, which works leg strength but also upper body and core (this is also helpful for climbing). Cycling is non-weight bearing, so introducing weight training into your workout can also help to prevent things like osteoporosis, which becomes more common as we get older.
4) Can you get a six-pack through cycling?
Just going on bike rides isn’t going to create abs. Riding does decrease body fat because you’re burning a significant number of calories, but that’s no good if you then go to the coffee shop and have a big slice of cake as soon as you’re finished.
If you’ve got a layer of fat covering your stomach muscles, you’re not going to see them, so it’s a combination of riding, core-targeted workouts and nutrition that’s going to make a big difference. I’d recommend eating a good healthy diet with reduced sugar, alcohol and processed foods – all the things that encourage fat storage.
If you’re burning loads of calories riding your bike and adding core workouts in the gym or at home (I'd recommend 20 minutes, three times a week of planks, crunches and exercises that specifically target those muscles), you’ll be much more likely to achieve that six-pack.
5) Do I need to get a professional bike fit?
A bike fit is when a professional helps you achieve the most comfortable, safe and efficient riding position possible on your chosen bike. It basically helps to synchronise you with your bike. It sounds simple, but it’s a pretty big deal. A proper fit will take two to three hours and could cost from £150-£300. A good one will usually involve putting you on a turbo trainer (a stationary bike) to monitor your positioning and power when you ride.
It’s important to discuss what kind of riding you want to do with whoever is doing your fit. There’s no point them setting you up in a super-aggressive racing position when your main purpose is steady long-distance rides.
A bike fit is worth it for lots of reasons: if you’ve got any discomfort, particularly in your neck, back or wrists, it can be a sign that your bike’s not fitted correctly. If you’re changing your goal or wanting to become competitive, a bike fit can also help you be more efficient and aerodynamic, giving you marginal gains and better pace. As for where to go, I’m lucky as my husband is a qualified bike fitter, so he can fit me at home. Otherwise, I’d recommend CycleFit (cyclefit.co.uk), which has a fantastic reputation.