While tools like heart rate monitors, power meters and cadence sensors help you pace your efforts during a ride, these aren’t the only things you should be paying attention to. In fact, many cyclists rely so heavily on their technology they forget about one of the most crucial, overlooked and low-tech aspects of cycling — the need to listen to your body and adapt to those signals.
This is just as true for knowing when it’s OK to push yourself beyond the limits you may have already set for yourself as it is knowing when you might need to back off despite what your metrics may be telling you.
Here, we address how cyclists can learn from and interpret the feedback their body is providing during and after a ride.
WHY NUMBERS DON’T TELL THE WHOLE STORY
As useful as power and heart rate metrics can be, using devices can only provide you with a portion of the bigger overall picture. While it’s commonly known some of your cycling metrics can be affected by factors like dehydration and temperature, there are other aspects to your performance on the bike that also can’t be easily quantified with a device.
Things like knowing when you’re truly at your maximum, those instances when you’re too exhausted to continue at a given pace, or when you might need to stop because of a concerning twinge in your hamstring are all signals only your brain can provide if you’re tuned in and willing to listen.
“Just because your numbers are OK and say you’re on track, this doesn’t tell the whole story,” says Peg Maass Labiuk, Wenzel Cycling coach and author of “Sports Psychology for Cyclists.” “Your body can give you a whole range of signs that something is brewing — such as saddle sores, cold sores, muscle soreness, lethargy or an inability to focus and follow instructions.”
While these can all be signs of being overworked physically on the bike, there are also neuromuscular and emotional signs that are just as important to pay attention to. These signs can be more easily overlooked but should be paid attention to — particularly when you’re off the bike between rides.
“One sign of neuromuscular fatigue is clumsiness — like dropping or bumping into things more than usual,” Labiuk says. “Irritability is another indicator. That’s why it’s important to not just check with your physical attributes, but your emotional and mental state, too.”
Even though science has developed ways to measure how tired or recovered you might be through metrics like VO2 max, lactate data and heart rate, your brain also has the ability to determine when you are tired or have pushed your body to a point that increases the risk of injury or illness. The key is to learn how to listen to the body and know what to do when these signals are present.
KNOWING WHEN TO BACK OFF
If there’s a tried and true principal in endurance sports, it’s that hard or intense days should be followed by recovery. This allows your muscles to repair themselves before the next hard workout. While one recovery day in between hard days is enough for some, your body ultimately tells you when it’s recovered enough for the next hard session. This is an instance when more experienced athletes will be able to alter a training plan and push a hard workout back a few days instead of going ahead with a workout just because it’s on the schedule.
One other instance where experience can play a role is when racing. During training, listening to your body is important so you don’t push too hard and injure yourself when it isn’t necessary. In a race, the signals you get from your body and what you do with them may change because of the circumstances.
“It’s funny, because when you’re training you want to listen to your body as much as possible,” Labiuk says. “But when you’re racing this isn’t always the case because you’ll want to respond more to tactics. This is when it’s important for athletes to understand that you don’t have to feel perfect to perform well.”
According to Labiuk, this ability to know when to push past a perceived ceiling and when it’s best to hold back is one of the toughest parts of cycling. “The ability to listen and then decide to adjust your training or to adapt in a race situation is often what separates an amateur athlete from an elite one,” Labiuk says.
Of course, for those of us who aren’t being paid to complete a race or other event, your health and well-being should always take top priority. This means knowing your body and when pushing yourself could result in injury versus when it’s OK to push back against a mental limit you’ve placed on yourself.
HOW TO INTERPRET YOUR BODY’S SIGNALS
The most difficult task you’ll have during a ride or race is knowing what to do with the information given to you. While this can be difficult during a ride if you’re a beginner who’s new to the sport, a good place to start is paying more attention to other signs and signals your body may be giving you when you’re off the bike.
“Brushing off information is undervaluing the info your body gives you freely,” Labiuk says. “To begin paying attention to these signs, I recommend keeping a journal. Monitor things like sleeping patterns, bowel movements and menstrual cycles. I even had an athlete monitor flexibility using a simple reach test.”
Since every athlete is different and will have varying signs and signals given to them by their body when something is wrong, hiring a dedicated coach is one way to learn how to interpret and identify patterns. More often than not, what Labiuk sees, particularly among beginners, is that they overlook the clues that something is off and more rest and recovery is needed.
“It’s really rare that anyone can consistently train for more than five weeks without fatigue getting the best of them. This can be in the form of sickness, an overuse injury or even getting burned out mentally,” Labiuk says. “This is why I like to schedule preventative rest, which can actually help bring out peak performance. New athletes will usually give me some resistance here. But once they reap the benefits they begin to understand that hard work needs to be followed by rest.”
For those interested in racing, shutting off the brain at certain times can be important — but that doesn’t mean to ignore warning signs when something could go wrong. Labiuk recommends spending some time listening to your body during the warmup before the race begins to work out any issues you might be having.
“If you warm up gently and know from experience how much time it takes for your muscles to get going and for you to start feeling more relaxed and focused, you’ll know when something is wrong,” Labiuk says. “If things aren’t coming around as usual, that’s when you should decide to forgo a hard workout or race and reduce the volume. It’s not bailing or chickening out — it’s making an educated choice.”