It didn't take much to motivate this cyclist to take a step closer to being the best he could be, but the results were profound and the lessons invaluable.
As a cyclist, endurance athlete, and coach, I have observed other cyclists and endurance athletes at all levels of competition, from elite to beginners.
Over the years, I have witnessed painful struggles and amazing triumphs. Often on the same racecourse. The commitment to keep moving forward despite the pain, the cramps, the hunger, and the thirst is what drives us each day. Or is it?
I have noticed that not all endurance athletes reach their full potential. I am sure you have seen this too. Individuals that are naturally gifted at our sport but seem to choose not to maximize their capability.
Please understand that I know all people have their limits. I am curious why some people are content not to achieve theirs fully.
Why are some good athletes content to be good when they could be great? I’ve decided to try and find out one “content” athlete at a time.
I recruited an “A” category Zwifter, Matt, to help me in my quest for knowledge.
A Bit of Background
So the athlete I chose, Matt, I have ridden with on Zwift for about a year. He is consistent, strong, and dedicated to riding, all qualities that make him perfect for my experiment.
The reason I say this is simple: he is good at cycling, but he could be better.
His goal is to ride 15,000 miles this year. His physical training (other than cycling) consists of push-ups and sit-ups. He progresses his program by adding one repetition each day for a year, completing 365 reps of each on Dec. 31st.
During our riding conversations, he often states that he is not competitive and is content with his current fitness level. I chose Matt, not for his strengths but his weaknesses.
This “content” athlete has complained multiple times throughout our year of riding together about missing a power goal, a set time, or not being first on a given ride. Why would someone content care?
Was he already at his peak? Or could he, with a bit of a nudge, be better? I had to find out. With my plan, I would have an answer in sixteen weeks.
The Plan: Keep it Simple
First, to discover if Matt was actually at his peak or just riding the wave of contentment, I had to get him to agree to work with me. I should note that Matt did not come to me asking for help.
I went to him and pitched an idea about strength training and cycling. I asked him if he would be willing to do a few targeted exercises to help him improve on the bike. After some discussion, he said yes.
Matt rides every day (yes, every day), so his cardio is good.
I decided to focus his plan on increasing overall power (watts) and improving his flexibility to help prevent injury. The goal is to see statistically proven improvement after sixteen weeks.
Part One: Adding Strength Training
The first step was to integrate bodyweight exercises into his workout schedule once a week. Matt is on the bike every day. Adding strength training couldn’t interfere with cycling.
We agreed to keep the strength training sessions short, less than 25 minutes, and only once weekly. There was no schedule. Matt could complete the workout at his convenience.
The exercises were basic, fundamental movements like squats, lunges, lateral movements, and core exercises. We started slowly with only two sets of 10 to 12 reps once a week.
The program progressed by following the principles of periodization, which you can read more about here: Periodized Strength Training for Cyclists.
After three weeks, the exercises got slightly more challenging and sometimes included dumbbells and TRX. We still kept the workouts short, no more than 25 minutes.
To help Matt, who had never done any strength training before, I sent him a link to videos explaining the exercises I wanted him to do. These were full-body exercises designed to engage and strengthen his core while elevating his heart rate.
You will find examples of the different exercises he performed here: EnJoy Fitness – YouTube
Part Two: Flexibility Training
As the strength training progressed, we added the second part of the plan, flexibility training. I introduced this component during the fourth week of Matt’s training.
Flexibility is a tricky concept to buy into for some athletes, and Matt is no different. However, he agreed to add stretches and foam rolling to his workouts.
By addressing flexibility, Matt would increase the blood flow to his muscles, help prevent injury, and speed recovery (Read more about stretching and the benefits here: Stretching Essentials for the Virtual Cyclist.)
A Thought on Nutrition
Matt is not my client and did not ask to be involved in this experiment, so we did not focus much on his nutrition. To say that his diet is not good would be a fair assessment of it.
Fortunately, Matt noticed good results from our work together and agreed to try two of my suggestions. I made two requests. Give up cereal (sugary ones specifically) and all carbonated soft drinks, which he calls “pop.”
This change is no small sacrifice for Matt, but he undertook the challenge with my expected level of dedication.
To determine if Matt’s work for the last sixteen weeks was worth it, we had to measure progress. It is essential to understand that we did not change his cycling training when looking at the results.
We just added basic strength training and flexibility exercises. I also provided Matt with constant feedback and motivation.
We decided to focus on an area that could be easily tracked and compared to see the impact of strength training and motivation on his performance.
It is also a metric that is extremely important to cyclists, Peak Power. We compared Matt’s peak power during the following intervals. Five minutes, 30 minutes, 60 minutes, and 90 minutes provided the results below.
As you can see in Matt’s five-minute comparison, his power was 426 watts before this experiment. In the end, his peak power is 495 watts. His 30 minutes peak power increased from 373 watts to 404 watts. See Matt in action here: Yankow in Action – YouTube
Matt’s 60-minute power improved from 338 watts to 375 watts. Finally, his 90-minute peak power climbed from 300 watts to 362 watts.
Although Matt claims he is not a sprinter, we also saw a considerable improvement in his 5-second power. Anaerobic power was not a focal point, but once again, the improvements were staggering when encouraged.
Witnessing the consistent improvement that Matt achieved was quite fun. For someone who commented four months ago, “I am not really interested in being the strongest I could be,” I am amazed at what Matt has accomplished.
Matt bumped up to A+ rider on Zwift Power, once again proving what a little nudge can do.
Also see where Matt has “top watts” during a WTRL Team Time Trial Zwift race.
For Matt this experiment was not about results, his takeaway is different, deeper and more profound and has a lot more meaning. Matt is happy with his performance improvement but still not comfortable talking about it.
He would prefer to discuss a group ride or your goal, then discuss himself. There are moments of pride in his voice when we discuss a new peak, but then he humbly changes the topic again.
Matt has learned that he is a little more competitive than he thought, but the competition is with himself. Maybe through this he realized that he could push himself harder tomorrow than he did today.
He can do that without losing the contentment because the ride is for him. He is not trying to prove anything to anyone but himself, where he likes to keep the results.
As for me, did this experiment provide me an answer? It is evident that Matt’s performance increased during the 16 weeks. The point was to discover if a content cyclist could improve and remain content.
As I stated earlier Matt is not my athlete, and I am not his coach. Matt is my friend, a friend that I saw potential in that maybe he did not see.
I also knew that what Matt needed more than strength training was motivation. The belief that he could be better than he was.
By providing him with a bit of guidance, a little motivation, and a simple plan, he excelled to numbers that he had never reached before.
In 16 weeks, we have learned, perhaps, that motivation is our greatest strength. In the end, I am happy to say that Matt is still my friend, and he is still content, but he is also, now, a stronger cyclist.
Are you content, but know that you could be better if you tried? What’s stopping you? Comment below! Your fellow virtual cyclists want to know.
To learn more about this once content athlete, check out this introduction and interview of Matt on The ZOM.
Excellent method. I guess we all have a but more in us.
I absolutely believe we do. So much of this is mental and sometimes, you need to have a very strong “reason why” to keep you motivated.
Awesome stuff ! I have to say , I love the gym and enjoy strength training a lot ! You never have to twist my arm to get me in the gym ! lol
You and me both, Kelly. Thank you for your interest and caring enough to comment. Cheers!
Great read, im wondering how you did the testing protocol, just flat out at each power duration? All in one session or over multiple days? and did he test before and after the 16 weeks? or just after?
Matt didn’t know exactly what I was doing throughout this experiment. So whenever there was an opportunity that I saw during a race, I would jump on Zwift and fan view. I would text him in game telling him numbers to hit. And he would do it. With the encouragement, he always pushed harder. Here is one example of a race: Yankow in Action – YouTube
Am a 58 yr old cyclist and heartily believe strength is a necessity as we age, and yields big benefits for my riding. Trick is to fit it in! I push hard with my leg strength and it takes 3 days to recover. Replaces some mileage but may be more purposeful. Go Matt!