Cycling Weekly takes a look at some of the extremes cyclists will go to see improvements in performance

While on the face of it cycling has never been in better shape, with participation levels continuing to soar, behind the smiles, saddles and sportives lies a peculiar world, where amateur cyclists are going to great depths with their training regimes in order to see improvements in performance, no matter how small they are.

Everybody wants to get better, whether that means losing a few pounds in body weight, shaving a couple of seconds off their 10-mile time trial or being able to get round an event without grimacing.

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With busy lives and ever more extreme cycling challenges, it seems everyone is looking for a quick fix. The traditional foundations of hard training and good nutrition have already been exploited and now riders are looking for smart shortcuts to fitness. And rather than seeking help, many are going it alone and looking at novel ways to become a stronger, fitter and faster cyclist.

So we’ve examined some of the typical approaches that cyclists are putting their bodies through in order to break the performance plateau, and take a look at what methods are worth trying and what are best leaving alone.

Wind tunnels

Alex Dowsett, Hour Record preparations in a wind tunnel

Alex Dowsett, Hour Record preparations in a wind tunnel

What is it?

Wind tunnels are used to measure aerodynamic drag. They consist of a large tunnel, with some giant fans that blow air through at a carefully measured speed, and a set of strain gauges that measure how much ‘pull’ this exerts on whatever object you’re measuring.

What’s in it for cyclists?

As soon as you’re riding at much over 10mph, aerodynamic drag is most of the resistance you’re pedalling against. If you can accurately measure it, you can start to experiment with ways to reduce it and go faster for the same effort.

Wind tunnel testing for bikes and cyclists consists of measuring drag at a wind speed that matches the speed a rider would achieve on the road, then changing something about the set-up, and repeating the process.

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The most traditional use of a tunnel has been developing aero bikes, which today include machines for general riding as well as for time trials and track racing. Helmets, wheels, handlebars, and jerseys have also all had the tunnel treatment.

More usefully, a wind tunnel allows you to refine your riding position. The time trial position of riders like Sir Bradley Wiggins or Alex Dowsett have been tweaked over hours and hours in the tunnel.

The time saved can amount to several seconds a kilometre, which can be a decisive margin in a race. Wiggins’s Tour de France and Olympic titles from 2012 were both achieved on the back of a great deal of time spent bettering his position, down to how he aligned his hands on the bars.

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The same gains are available to anyone. Even for a fairly modest rider on a standard bike, a better position could take several minutes off their time round a sportive.

Is it worth it?

Tunnel time is around £500 an hour, and you’ll probably want a minimum of two to make real progress and allow for changes of set-up. That makes it pretty expensive for all except the most serious of riders, who’ve already done everything else they can think of to go faster.

Cryotherapy

How cold is too cold? Crynotherapy  chambers reach as low as -150°

How cold is too cold? Crynotherapy chambers reach as low as -150°

What is it?

Cryotherapy involves standing for three minutes in a specialised chamber in temperatures down to -150°. It is believed cryotherapy can help alleviate fatigue, relieve backaches and pain, help osteoporosis and assist in accelerating muscle recovery after exercise.

What’s in it for cyclists?

While many people use cryotherapy to help recover from injuries, it can significantly help the body recover quicker after hard efforts on the bike, too.

Any moderate to intense exercise damages muscle tissue and causes inflammation. Research has shown that ice helps reduce inflammation and help ease muscle pain and soreness.

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Ice baths — a similar concept — are nothing new. For years riders have immersed themselves in tubs of freezing cold water after a day’s racing, particularly during a Grand Tour when cyclists need to recover as quickly as possible for the following day. Cryotherapy, however, takes it to the extreme.

According to reports, French team Ag2r La Mondiale will use cryotherapy at this year’s Tour de France. All riders will have to endure three minutes in a special whole body suit, filled with liquid nitrogen at –150°.

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“We use [cryotherapy] in our athletes for two reasons,” says Ag2r’s team medical director, Eric Bouvat. “First, to facilitate recovery and fight against pain after exercise. Secondly, when used over the long term, cold can help boost the immune system.

“We use cryotherapy on the team after the stages, but we also use it in the morning because cold stimulates the endocrine system and the production of hormones.”

Is it worth it?

For the elite, it may be worth it, although immersing one self in temperatures up to –150°C is uncomfortable to say the least and can be dangerous.

For amateur cyclists, whose performance isn’t largely dictated by how quickly they can recover, then an ice bath will suffice.

Altitude tent

Hydrotherapy

What is it?

Hydrotherapy uses water to treat a number of conditions such as arthritis, and can help rehabilitate cyclists returning from back and neck-related injures, and even help fractured bones.

Hydrotherapy differs from swimming because it involves specific exercises that are performed in a warm-water pool and are usually accompanied by a physiotherapist.

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Hydrotherapy isn’t just for those who have injuries. You can perform exercises that will help increase range of movement and strength. However, these exercises are much slower and controlled that aqua-aerobics.

What’s in it for cyclists?

The very nature of water therapy will help build aerobic endurance. Exercising while immersed in water creates resistance, which helps build strength and fitness. Little impact is put through the joints too, which means that you can exercise for longer without stressing your body.

Any form of therapy in water is brilliant for cyclists returning from injury. Bad backs and neck complications are common cycling problems. Not only are they painful, frustratingly, they prevent you from doing much exercise, so your fitness takes a hit too. Hydrotherapy will help rebuild fitness — if you are returning from injury — or even maintain it, if you can’t get out cycling.

Is it worth it?

Certainly. Injuries don’t mean that your fitness necessarily has to suffer. Hydrotherapy can help both professional cyclists and amateurs.

OK, so it’s not going to improve your performance dramatically, but it will certainly provide relief if you have hurt yourself and can help slow the decline of fitness if you get injured.

Sweat tests

Sweat test

Stay hydrated on rides and replenish fluid lost to sweat. Photo: Daniel Gould

What is it?

Everybody sweats at different rates and the content of their sweat varies too — some are naturally saltier sweaters than others. However, the majority of sports drinks offer a ‘one size fits all’ solution.

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Many companies now provide sweat test analysis, which can tell you how much you are sweating and the content of it. From here, you can develop a plan to rehydrate more effectively.

Is it worth it?

While dehydration can have a negative effect on performance, research states it’s more practical to start hydrated and minimise dehydration, rather than maximise hydration.

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Many factors also influence your hydration status (environment/intensity of your ride/pre-ride fuelling) so it can be hard to replicate, unless you’re a professional.

Sweat tests cost around £100. Our verdict: make sure you take enough fluid with you on your ride and drink up to 150ml every 20 minutes.

Training at altitude: the real thing

Riding at altitude

In 2012, the year Sir Bradley Wiggins won the Tour de France, Team Sky took their riders to Tenerife to ride up and around the delights of Mount Teide, a volcanic mount that peaks at 3,718m, the highest point in Spain.

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The team stayed at the Parador Hotel, which is situated near the top of the mountain some 2000m above sea level, allowing riders to sleep at altitude, enhancing aerobic efficiency.

“There is no other environment that can beat Mount Teide,” said Wiggins in 2012. “We ride our bikes, get a massage, eat and then sleep. Then we get up and do it again. And again. We have altitude, heat and virtually empty roads most days.”

No quick fix

Over the years at Cycling Weekly we’ve seen all manner of quick-fix training sessions, and read multitudes of press releases promising rapid fitness gains with the latest gadget, nutrition product or fitness fad.

Unfortunately the only way to get fit, fast and lean is through sweat and hard work. There, we’ve said it.

Of course some sweaty sessions work better than others and there are lots of ways of improving and refining your training but until you have the bedrock of a consistently followed training plan and good healthy diet, anything else is a waste of time and money.

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Get the broad fundamentals right then address the details. Marginal gains only make a difference when you are 99 per cent of the way there already, so concentrate on the big stuff first.

Placebo effect

Placebos can be a powerful thing and are currently at the cutting edge of science. Peer-reviewed studies repeatedly show that if you believe something is going to make you better, it often will

  • TG

    I heard that people who can’t spell cryotherapy are really dangerous!

  • Bob

    I am the owner of a whole body full of pies and beer and I too see no danger when I open my chiller cabinet for a cold one – cheers

  • dseal

    I am the owner of a whole body crotherapy facility. What dangers are you referring to?