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A closer look at optimum cycling regimens, Sunshine State style

Published Feb. 18, 2016

Folks in Florida come from other places. No news there. But they often arrive with ideas that don't fit in the Sunshine State, including how to train on a bicycle.

As with many cyclists, I like data. What's my heart rate? How many miles did I do this week? What was my average speed? And we like regimen. Did the sun rise today? That means we've got to ride.

Years ago, I read books about how cyclists should train. The usual advice was that as much as 85 percent of your miles should be at an "endurance" pace, once known as LSD miles, or long, slow distances. Mix in two or three hard days where your heart rate is elevated and maybe take one day off a week.

Some coaches recommended at least three higher heart rate zones — one often called tempo, the next at anaerobic or lactic acid threshold (which are different but close to one another) and finally, anaerobic, which can be sustained for only a couple of minutes. And today many coaches say the only way to train is with a power meter. But in the winter, the old saw was to never get out of the small chain ring because all you want are the "base miles." Your body isn't ready for the hard stuff in the winter.

But that may not be the way to do it here, even if you occasionally race and especially as you age.

Pablo Santa Cruz has been racing for 10 years. He said that unlike in colder climates where bicycles may stay in the garage in the winter, we can ride all year long here. And that impacts how we should train, he said. If you don't take more than a couple of weeks off, you should never lose your fitness, making those LSD miles somewhat superfluous. Besides, Santa Cruz, 52, said, "As you get older, the races get shorter, so you don't need long workouts."

If you want to get stronger, either to compete in a race, stay with the fast guys or build muscular strength, then you need to ride fast, not long, said Simon Kessler, a Tampa-based cycling coach. Kessler is a former pro racer from South Africa, where he won 15 national championships and then went on to train Daryl Impey, a current pro rider who held the Tour de France yellow jersey for two stages in 2013.

Impey no doubt logs miles most of us can't imagine doing, but, Kessler said, "More miles won't make you faster." And in fact, "Older riders would be better off increasing intensity and lowering their miles."

Santa Cruz said he sometimes trains as few as eight hours a week, in part because he's keeping busy with other cycling activities. He's currently organizing the Sunshine Grand Prix, a series of local races and cycling events set for March. In fact, Santa Cruz said the self-control many riders need is the discipline to take days off to let their body recover. "That's sometimes difficult here," he said, "because we have such great weather."

(Readers of this column may remember my New Year's resolution to ride fewer miles this year. And to date, I can say I'm noticeably stronger when I do ride. You can find the column at tbtim.es/wf1.)

Kessler said we need to "manage our fatigue," meaning better our recovery for optimal improvement. He recommends two days a week at your anaerobic threshold and as many as two or three days off. It also means every third or fourth week should be even lower miles and more easy rides, Kessler said.

And you may want more solo rides. "Just doing group rides is not going to get you stronger," Kessler said. "Either they're too fast or too slow."

Which brings us to this question: Why do you ride a bike?

Because we can ride all year long here, we have training options that will make us heart healthy or the fastest guy in the group. Long, easy rides will achieve the former, and a structured training program helps you become the latter.

But if you just love being on the bike and the camaraderie over coffee at the end of a ride, then maybe the more miles, the merrier.

Bob Griendling is president of the St. Petersburg Bicycle Club and a member of the Mayor's Bicycling and Pedestrian Advisory Committee. Contact him at bob@griendling.com.

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