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Cycling Fitness Q&A - Dave Smith answers your training, nutrition and fitness questions

This week: Hill training without hills, what to do about sore legs, shoulder pain, coming back from injury…and more hills

Was it really a month since our last Cycling Health & Fitness Q&A… er, no, but Dave got so many questions he decided to start answering them sooner rather than later. 

If you would like to ask Dave a question about your cycling fitness, training or health you can drop him a line at fitness [at]

Nick: My cycling weak spot is probably hills.  I say probably as there aren’t a great number to practise on where I live on the Cambridgeshire/Hertfordshire border!  Typically gradients up to about 8% and short or 3-4% but still only 1-2km long. My overall fitness I think is okay and I have a BMI of 20-21 but when it points upwards I still seem to blow up faster than I would like.
So, how to train for hills when there aren’t any (proper) hills to train on?

Dave Smith: For the answer, or one of them anyway, we can look across the North Sea to the Netherlands. And you may not like it, but the headwinds of the low countries will have played a role in helping them produce some great alpine climbers in pro cycling.

I’m a big fan of riding into a block headwind as it’s the closest we get to an alpine climb in the UK. If you can stop being grumpy about a headwind, it’s a great chance to work on your climbing fitness. Settle into a rhythm, spin a moderate gear, focus on a relaxed position and see your performance grow when you hit the real hills.

The other options are to use the hills you do have for hill repeats. Ride at them hard on the flat, then attack, recover and repeat. If the conditions allow, you may also be able to use a multi-storey car park for hill repeats.

Finally, off bike conditioning can give you added power - remember that enhancing power to weight doesn’t just mean reducing body weight. I’d suggest squat jumps, weighted squats, kettlebell swings and lunges.

C MacIver:  I’ve been off the bike just over 12 months due to a cycle v car accident. I really want to get back in the saddle but need to go easy on my knee that was injured. How should I start getting back on with home indoor rollers?

Dave Smith: Without knowing the nature of the injury it’s hard to say for sure, but assuming a medical professional has given you the go-ahead to start riding, the initial goal is to have a full range of motion and also rebuilding strength around the joint. Much of that should have been covered during rehab, so your riding should simply follow on from that by adding resistance in a progressive way to get you back in condition. I’d suggest a good start is to see how long you can ride for without discomfort. If it’s 45 mins, then make each session 35 mins long. Higher RPM in a light gear will put less force through the joint. Then add some seated accelerations in a larger gear while mixing in some outdoor rides.

E Thomas: I'm a 52 year-old male and I have a physically active job - lots of walking and carrying and lifting heavy objects. I work weekday shifts till midnight but have all day free. I'm careful about what and how much I eat, and have a protein recovery drink before bed, yet my legs ache and are always tired next day. This tends to rule out any riding; the only riding I get done is on Sundays. What advice can you give me to enable me to get some riding done during the week?

Dave Smith: The answer may go against instinct, but to eliminate the leg ache that you’re experiencing you need to ride through the initial few weeks of discomfort. Cycling will act as a powerful recover mechanism for the physical stress of work and also lead to positive adaptations that will mean an overall improvement. So, start off with some easy 45 minute rides every other day then build up and soon you’ll be able to train well during the week and have fewer negative effects from your work.

A Albert: I've been cycling for two years but still wheeze going up hills although I've gotten slightly faster l always enter zone 1.
 How can I improve my technique for not maxing out each time (there are no easy hills in where I live).

Dave Smith: If you can rule out any health issues that affect your breathing, the answer lies in firstly riding up more hills and secondly correct breathing technique. 

You may have seen a photo of a pro cyclists form the side and wondered why they look fat – with more belly than seems right? IN effect they’re ‘belly breathing’ which is the opposite to how most of us breath. When they inhale they’re forcing the belly out, which allows the diaphram room to move and draw more air into the lungs. To Exhale they draw the belly button towards the spine, to more effectively force the air out.

This will feel odd at first but with practice you’ll pick it up as a normal way to breath during hard exertions. When you’re on the limit focus on a long powerful exhale, it makes a big difference to the intensity you can deal with in (relative) comfort.

To tackle the fitness aspect, ride up hills. Lots of them and in many different ways. Sometimes attack hard from the bottom and try to hang on. Sometimes pace yourself on the lower slopes then ramp up the effort over the top. Also add some off bike work like squat jumps and lunges.

Fred: I suffer from severe pain in the left (and only the left) shoulder when on the bike for more than 1,5 hours.  I am very aware of keeping the shoulder down and try to avoid tension otherwise.  Also, I get the same painful tension in the shoulder when writing on the computer. I’ve had a body geometry bike fit, and do core training a couple of times per week. What to do /not to do?

Dave Smith: It’s likely that you have some underlying anatomic issue, perhaps from an old injury? I can’t diagnose injuries, therefore I’d suggest a visit to a sports injury specialist who you know other people trust. It could be that one visit will pinpoint the issue and you can work on appropriate exercises to eliminate the problem. One thing is sure, it won’t go away without some kind of intervention.

Dave Smith has been involved in coaching cyclists in all disciplines for more than 25 years. A former GB national and Olympic road coach, Dave has trained Tour stage winners and Olympic medallists, world champions and numerous national champions. In addition he has applied his quirky and counter intuitive thinking to help dozens of regular cyclists, polo players and F1 drivers. He rides 250 miles a week on and off-road in all weathers.

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Dave Smith | 9 years ago

Flatericfan - high intensity work is just one aspect of pushing FTP. For example you can use longer rides to enhance blood chemistry, vascular structure and neural efficiency, diet to drop some weight etc. Though two FTP sessions a week isn't 'that' much time to tolerate some discomfort  1

FlatericFan | 9 years ago

Ive entered the Winter Period with the sole aim of increasing my ftp using power sessions, however as the winter has drawn in i have found myself unable or unwilling to really hurt myself .... is it just a winter thing, i am still motivated but just dont seem to get the intensity up?

Indoor Trainer for Power sessions

Cheekyjohn | 9 years ago

Re the question about shoulder pain, obviously Dave's advice is spot on, I too suffered for quite some time with a similar issue. After visiting a physiotherapist they worked on the prognosis of bad posture, shoulders sloping forward. Thus they gave a range of exercises to strengthen these areas, which I'm glad to report are doing the trick so you have to visit your GP and get a referral to a good physio!

stealth | 9 years ago

Damn you Dave! Giving away 'our' Fenland climbing secrets...
Headwinds rule!!

giff77 replied to stealth | 9 years ago
stealth wrote:

Damn you Dave! Giving away 'our' Fenland climbing secrets...
Headwinds rule!!

got caught one year by the Fen Blow. Wasn't pleasent at all. It also seemed that whatever way we turned it was always into the wind. It wasn't natural I tell you. Hasn't put me off That part of the world. Love cycling down in that part of the world.

stealth replied to giff77 | 9 years ago

You get used to it...

The funny thing is people come & ride here thinking that it will be easy, because it is flat. Then you get a bit of Sea breeze, if it's nice...

RobD | 9 years ago

Really enjoyed reading these, a couple of good things to take away and work on.

cavasta | 9 years ago

Thanks for taking the time to answer my question, Dave.  1

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