When people ask me how to get faster on the bike my first response (other than to hire a coach!) is to ride slower. This is often met with a perplexing look, as if I was making it up. I’ll admit that it does sound counter-intuitive, ride slower to get faster, but there are sound principles behind it. Often referred to as base training, it is important for building a strong aerobic foundation that will prepare you for harder, faster riding down the road. It all boils down to one word, efficiency. Specifically, the goal of training is to become more aerobically efficient, making the body better at utilizing oxygen along with fat and carbohydrate to produce energy.
At rest, the body produces most of the energy it needs aerobically. It mainly breaks down fat in the presence of oxygen to produce a molecule called adenosine triphosphate, or ATP. This is a very clean, efficient process and uses an energy source (fat) that is in abundant supply in the body. While exercising at lower intensities we are still relying largely on fat to fuel our activity. As we increase the intensity at which we are riding we become more and more reliant on carbohydrate (stored as glycogen in the body) as a fuel source. We start to rely more on carbohydrate because it is a lot quicker to breakdown compared to fat. The problem with this is that carbohydrate is in limited supply in the body. If you’ve ever bonked or “hit the wall” during a ride you’ve experienced glycogen depletion firsthand. You’ve exhausted the supply of stored carbohydrate in the body and your brain is forcing you to slow down since you’ll now have to rely on fat as your main fuel source. Remember that fat takes longer to break down compared to carbohydrate. So it stands to reason that if we can get better at utilizing fat as fuel we’ll be able to ride faster while using up less of our precious supply of glycogen and prolonging that dreaded bonk.
This is where riding slow comes into the equation. Spending some long, slow days in the saddle will help to build your aerobic system in a number of ways. You’ll see an increase in the enzymes that help to metabolize fat, helping you to break down more of it. Your body will start to form more capillaries, and increase the size of existing ones, to deliver more oxygen to your working muscles to help metabolize that fat. You’ll also see an increase in the size and number of mitochondria in muscle cells (the part of the cell where aerobic energy production takes place). Riding slow also helps the body to increase its ability to store glycogen, so you’ll have more in the tank for those long climbs or hard efforts into the wind.
Don’t be afraid to ride easy!