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We don’t want to jinx it, but it seems like spring has finally sprung. If you’re like us, you’re probably dreaming of your favorite back road, limestone path, or mountain bike trail. But after a winter of neglect, your lungs and legs may not be up to the task.
Fortunately, Kristen Meshberg - a Category 1 road and track racer, USA Cycling Coach, founder of Pedaling with a Purpose, and all-around cool person - was willing to share her knowledge and experience with us. We asked her to provide some tips and tricks for getting back into shape in time for that century, Saturday morning group ride, week-long bike camping trip, or even the spring criterium you wanted to try. Whether you’re an aspiring racer or someone who simply wants to get fitter and faster, she provides some solid advice for the DIY types, as well as some insight into seeking the help of a coach.
By Kristen Meshberg
So you’re thinking you might want to kick start your cycling fitness. Spring is on it’s way, and bringing some great cycling weather with it. Raw talent accounts for something but most likely your success is tied to how much work you are willing to do. Have you been riding the trainer all winter or are you thinking “oh $#%%! I better get on my bike one of these days!” Where do you get started? I have been a serious cyclist for 20 years, and a bike racer for 14 of them. For the last 11 years I’ve been helping Chicagoland cyclists get ready for spring by running the indoor cycling program, Pedaling With a Purpose (PWP). In this article, I’ll share some client concerns that have appeared as common themes over the years.
Figure Out What You Want to Do
The first thing you need to do is figure out what you want to do, and develop some goals. Have you raced multiple seasons in the past but now you’d like to do more, maybe cat up? Perhaps you’ve been riding, but have never raced and would like to try it? Do you want to race at the velodrome? Perhaps you don’t want to race but would just like to kill it on the group ride that you like to go on? Or maybe do a century? Or RAGBRAI? There are so many options out there, and if you aren’t familiar our local scene, your first goal should be to do some research and get that figured out. At PWP we talk a lot about goals and people share what they are working toward. Make sure you formulate them as SMART goals: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time Sensitive. Saying them out loud holds you more accountable, and if you don’t feel like saying them out loud to your friend or significant other, say them out loud to yourself! Now would be a great time to start a training journal, your first entry can be writing down your goals.
Where Are You Starting From?
What you’ve done previously and where you are starting from makes a difference in how your body is going to respond when you start training and how much volume and intensity you can handle. Questions to ask yourself are: How much experience do you have doing what you are working towards? How many cumulative miles do you have in your legs? Were you an athlete in another sport turning to cycling because of an injury? Have you been training for multiple years without seeing any improvement? Or are you are starting from zero? Answers to questions like these will help you figure out your plan.
How Do You Make a Plan?
There are several good books on training plans out there or a quick internet search can pull up any number of plans. Use your answers to the questions above and formulate your plan keeping your goals in mind at all times. If you are starting from zero, just get out there and get some miles in. Remember if you want to get better at riding your bike, you’ve got to ride your bike! Don’t forget to incorporate rest. Beginning cyclists often overlook rest, and it’s a common cause of burnout. I have all my athletes take two days a week off or at least very easy. When I was starting out, I struggled with this concept but without rest, you will at best plateau and at worst make yourself sick.
Meshberg battling with Chicago Cuttin' Crew's Daphne Karagianis and Marie Snyder at the Northbrook Velodrome. Photo by Catherine Watkins.
When Do You Need a Coach?
When I first started bike racing, I came from a background of lots of riding. I had worked full time as a messenger, did a few triathlons, ridden across a good chunk of the country, and was a pretty serious commuter. I had lots of miles in my legs and I knew I liked to ride my bike, but had no idea of how to “train.” After jumping in a few races at the end of one summer I was hooked! I loved the scene and felt like this was something I could be good at. I thought training meant riding as hard and as long as I could ALL the time. I think most beginners think like this. And when I say beginner, I mean beginner racer. I had thousands of miles in my legs at this point, but I was still a beginning racer. After I did some races, decided this was something I wanted to pursue, and realized I didn’t know anything about training, I was ready for a coach! A good time to hire a coach is after you’ve spent some time on the bike getting things figured out and maybe even having a season of racing under your belt. People hire coaches for all sorts of reasons. Not everyone that races has a coach, and not everyone that has a coach races. A coach’s job is to design a custom training plan that will maximize your time and help you achieve your goals while considering your work/life balance. Maybe you need help figuring out what some good goals are? A good coach can help you with that. There are lots of coaching styles out there and it’s important to find a coach that is a good fit for you. I’ve worked with several different coaches over the years, even some famous ones, and there were some that were highly recommended by other people, that did not work for me at all. It takes time to develop the relationship and you need to go into it with an open mind and heart and be willing to give their plan a shot. Once I had a coach that wouldn’t give me workouts, he would just have me come over to his house and do super intense intervals on a computrainer. I was so frustrated because I had no idea why I was doing this and what I should be doing the rest of the week. But because he came so highly recommended by people I respected, I wasted a lot of time trying to figure out what I was doing wrong. What I did wrong was not move on to a new coach. There are lots of coaches out there with lots of different styles and it’s important to find one that’s a good fit for you.
Sweating it up at PWP, hosted at BFF Bikes
What Sort of Equipment Do You Need?
When thinking about your equipment, safety should be your number one priority. All your equipment needs to be maintained by a good mechanic, and anything worn out should be replaced. You never want to crash because of an equipment failure and hurt yourself, but to crash someone else out in the process is totally unacceptable. This time of year when it’s still a little bit crappy out is the perfect time to get your bike in for a tune up. If you wait until the nice weather hits, you’ll be getting in line behind everyone else with the same idea so get on that! Getting into your local shop is also a great place to meet people and find out about clubs and group rides. If you do end up riding your bike a lot you will either learn how to do your own mechanic work or develop a relationship with a good mechanic as things constantly need to be adjusted, and/or replaced. Go to a locally-owned reputable shop and get to be on a first name basis with your mechanic! And showing up with beer and/or coffee when you drop your bike off never hurts. The amount of money you can spend on bikes and equipment is staggering. When you are starting out ride whatever bike you can get your hands on and focus on improving your motor. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard a beginning racer lament “if only I had ______, then I could be good” A power meter isn’t going to do the work for you, it’s only going to measure it. If you want to get faster, ride your bike!!! Nice equipment is fantastic and if you can afford it, go for it! Spend as much as you like and enjoy it! But don’t let not having “it” hold you back from doing what you’d like to do.
Meshberg says a supportive group atmosphere helps keep you focused and motivated
When is Indoor Training Helpful?
Living in Chicago, we don’t have great roads to ride on and we don’t have great weather in the winter. This combination makes training outside in the winter extremely tough. Remember, if you want to be good a bike riding, you’ve got to ride your bike! So the only way to really train in the Chicago winter is inside. I’ll never forget the winter I was trying to train to be a cat 2. I had just upgraded and signed with an elite team for the next season. I had hired a coach who was a good fit, and he was giving me solid training advice. I had purchased a computrainer for my basement, and I was ready to train! Problem was I could never seem to get through more than 20 minutes alone in the basement. It was soul sucking and BORING! My winter training that year consisted again of commuting to work, a couple trips to the gym and only a handful of workouts in the basement. I came out of the winter with the same fitness level as before. I floundered in the cat 1/2 fields and became discouraged. It wasn’t until I started doing Pedaling With a Purpose (PWP) that everything changed. After doing PWP, I was able to make HUGE improvements in my fitness over the winter. Every year I improved. I started winning races and competing nationally. I attained Category 1 status in both Road and Track. Seeing this improvement was extremely motivating! I’ve been running PWP for 11 years now and I always used to wonder if I would enjoy doing it if I wasn’t training for racing. Turns out I love it more than ever! The people that come to PWP are super interesting and I love hearing what they are working towards. I really do just love riding my bike and PWP gives me that time designated to riding each week. The positivity and communal energy during a PWP session is contagious. There is no way that I (and I’m confident to say this about the participants too) would ever be able to accomplish at home in our basements what we accomplish during each PWP session. It doesn’t matter what your goals are, PWP will help you achieve them. We have had all levels of bike racers, triathletes, and enthusiasts join us over the years. From total beginner to the world level competitor, and each person is working at their own level. Everyone is welcome and everyone works out according to their own level. Sessions run until the end of March and we have locations at BFF Bikes on Armitage in Chicago, and Hartley’s Cycle Shoppe in Hinsdale. Joining us for even a few of our final sessions will truly kickstart your fitness!
Can You Also Lose Weight While Getting Faster?
Bike racers are some of the most weight/body fat obsessed people there are. The spandex doesn’t help matters either. In my struggles with this issue I’ve found that focusing on performance is very beneficial. Only put high quality fuel into your body if you want it to run its best. Some people start exercising and the weight just falls off. If you’re one of those, good for you! Make sure you get enough healthy calories to maintain your energy. I’m one of those lucky people that can come back from a stage race heavier than when I left. Great for surviving the apocalypse, but not so great for the power to weight ratio. Like training, in weight loss there are no quick fixes. You’ve got to make food choices based on your exercise output. If you’re planning a full racing season, winter time is the best time to focus on weight loss. But spring is here now and if your weight is not where you’d like it to be you can still make progress. It is just all that more important to take it slow. Cyclists come in all shapes and sizes. Thinking you need a certain body type to be successful is just plain wrong. Often times people, women especially, look at those guys who race the Tour de France and think we need to make our bodies look that way. Shift the focus of what you think you should look like to increasing your power on the bike, making healthy food choices, and being healthy overall.
So that’s it. It’s not about finding that one secret workout. Results come by consistent work over time. You can achieve great things, it just depends how much you are willing to invest.
Lead photo by Burnham Racing.