As cyclists we are always looking for ways to improve our performance on the bike.
Chances are, you're training hard whenever you're on the bike, but what often gets forgotten is all the time we spend off the bike.
Of course, the best way to go faster on the bike is to train hard - and intelligently - but there are also plenty of things you can do when you're not in the saddle.
Here are five things I've picked up in my time as a professional cyclist and coach that you can be doing off the bike, to improve performance on it.
If there is one thing you should be doing off the bike it is strengthening your core, made up of a complex series of muscles that stabilise the movements of your arms and legs.
Cycling is an asymmetric movement, whereby your legs are performing different movements at the same time: one leg is driving down on the pedals whilst the other is moving though an upward trajectory. To transfer this movement as efficiently as possible we use our core muscles and without these our torso would simply twist as we pedal.
You can see this by doing the following exercise. Select a big gear and slow almost to a stop. Now try and accelerate away without moving your torso from side to side. You will find that you naturally lean your torso over the leg driving down on the pedals. To keep yourself straight you need to engage your core more, thus giving yourself a solid platform from which to put the power down.
There's an old adage that says you can’t fire a canon from a canoe. In cycling, that means you can have as much leg power as you want but if you can only transfer half that amount into forward motion, there's a lot going to waste. Strengthening your core can also help prevent niggling injuries.
Before you do any core work it's worth making yourself familiar with which muscles to use when doing core work. You can do this by going down on all fours, then lifting each leg and arm in turn. When you lift a limb you will become unstable and your natural inclination will be to lean to one side to balance and stop yourself from falling over. However, it is possible to stay centered and not shift your weight by contracting your core muscles to transfer the imbalance into the limbs in contact with the ground. This can take a little bit of practice but will give you a great feeling for which muscles you need to use to stabilise your core.
There are plenty of great apps out there for core work; one I use personally is BeFitApps.com, which has an excellent, progressive core programme aimed at cyclists. If Yoga is more your cup of tea then Yogaglo also has a range of great cycling-specific workouts.
You can also do core work as you go about your everyday life. For example, whenever you are carrying something, aim to keep your torso perfectly straight, this activates and works the core. If you continue to do this day to day then you can make a daily activity such as walking back from the shops an exercise that will help you next time you get on the bike.
An old national coach of mine once told me that you can never over train, you can only under recover, and it's while we're asleep that we optimise our recovery.
Without adequate sleep, you won't recovery fully from the training you are doing. Everyone will have all heard about getting eight hours of sleep a night but in my experience working with athletes, the amount of sleep needed is very individual. The key is ensuring you are getting quality sleep.
Instead of focusing on the amount of hours you need, focus on the amount of sleep cycles. A sleep cycle typically lasts 90 minutes, therefore once you know how many sleep cycles you need (based on the average number of cycles you would sleep for naturally) and what time you need to be up in the morning, you can work backwards and see what time you need to go to bed.
In addition to this, aim to have a 90 minute period before you go to sleep to wind down. Don’t exercise in this period and try and stay away from your mobile phone, tablet or laptop as the unnatural light from digital screens can wake us up. Nail this and you'll drift off easier and get in that all important recovery.
Before I go any further I want to make it clear that there is no rock-solid scientific evidence for the benefits of massage. However, after more than ten years as a professional cyclist, I can honestly recommend massage.
A massage, in my experience, helps to relieve tight spots in the muscle that can cause pain or cramps. On top of this, the time spent relaxing while having a massage does as much good mentally as the massage does physically.
There's a misconception that to be of benefit, a massage should have you holding onto the side of the table screaming. That's not the case at all. Yes, there may be tight spots that will induce some discomfort while the masseur works on them, but the process as a whole should be a relaxing affair.
If a massage is too deep and painful then this can cause additional muscle damage. Needless to say, that's the exact opposite of what you want to happen during a massage.
In my experience, the placebo effect of massage shouldn't be underestimated, either. I personally use massage in the run-up to important events so I know I have done everything possible to be in top shape on the day. On top of that, as you receive more massages, your body will become more accustomed to the process and you will respond better. As a result, if you're considering massage then I'd recommend having a series of treatments in the run-up to an event, rather than just one session the day before.
Professional cyclists are lucky in that they will often have a soigneur or member of team staff available to massage tired limbs, but you can also use recovery aids such as foam rollers or massage balls. When used effectively they can really beneficial, especially in releasing the tension in your gluteal muscles and IT bands (the outside of your quads).
As a simple equation, power = cadence multiplied by torque. Seeing as each rider's cadence on the bike tends to stay within a self-selected range, normally between 80-100rpm, the most effective way to increase your power is to put more force through the pedals at the same cadence.
Most training plans are focused around the cardiovascular system, and while, of course, this is very important, the cardiovascular system is simply the fuel pump, not what is producing the power. Your muscles produce the power.
Weight training increases the force with which your muscles can contract. More force = more power = more speed. However, weight training doesn’t just mean pumping iron in the gym, and there are many ways you can improve muscle power without taking out a gym membership.
One of my personal favourites is a single leg squat. Not only does this exercise improve muscle power but it also works on your core stability. Doing single leg exercises also means that you aren’t relying on your stronger leg and therefore you aren’t creating any muscle imbalances.
For endurance cyclists I would recommend doing 3 x 8-15 reps per exercise per leg. This means you focus on building strength not endurance (you can do that on the bike).
Shaving your legs
This is often a hot topic among male cyclists - to shave or not to shave! Of course, leg shaving isn't got everyone, so this one comes with a pinch of salt, however, there are also some genuine benefits.
Firstly, aerodynamics. Having shaved legs can save around 70 seconds over the course of a 40km time trial, according to wind tunnel testing by Specialized. We're not talking marginal gains here - and not bad for the price of a disposable razor, rather than thousands of pounds on an aero bike or set of aero wheels.
On top of that, if you are looking to get a massage, not only will the masseur be forever grateful of your slick legs, but they will also be able to give you a better massage without ripping out your hairs - ouch!.
Last but not least - and with tongue firmly in cheek... maybe - shaved legs will put you on a fast track to that 'pro' look. We've all checked out our tan lines in the mirror (you know you have really) and without all those hairs in the way, you could be the proud owner of a pinstripe sharp tan line.