Old School Training
How the Pros Used to Train: Lessons from the Past
With new technologies, training has become more and more complicated. Amateur riders now have more information at their fingertips than pros only a few decades ago could only dream of. But with all this technology available to cyclists, it sometimes feels like you need a Ph. D in Sports Science to be able to understand it all.
Technology has been a catalyst for numerous improvements in training, so I am not saying there is anything wrong with use the tools available to us. I am pretty attached to my Edge 510 and heart rate monitor. But sometimes it is good to disconnect and return to simpler times.
Although much of the training of professional riders have changed since the days of greats like Coppi and Merckx, base training has largely stayed the same. That must mean they were doing something right, even without all the numbers and gadgets we have today.
Keeping up to date on all the latest training developments is great, but there are still many lessons we can learn from the past.
Just Because its Tradition Doesn’t Mean its Right
First off, there are many training techniques that professional cyclists used to use that are no longer considered to be the best practices.
For example, Dr. Marco Pierfederici, who worked with Eddy Merckx and a couple Italian pro teams, said that the first 1500 miles of the season should be done slowly, you should never go hard during that period. He even prescribed cadence and gear ratios: 60-70 rpm in a 42×17 or 16 gear.
Dr. Pierfederici also had some really good things to say but we will look at that later.
Giovanni Battaglin, winner of the 1981 Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a Espana, has a similar outlook on training as Dr. Pierfederici. He believed that the first 1200-1500 miles of the season should be done on flat terrain before moving to the hills.
This was the common practice among cyclists of the time. The early season, January and February, was for building the aerobic base. They would only go for long, slow rides. And avoid any hard efforts out of fear that it would undue all of the base building work they had put in. Which has been shown to wrong.
Base is Important
Just because some of the old practices were not exactly correct, doesn’t mean they were all wrong.
Putting in long, steady rides early in the season is still important to build a good aerobic base. And you cannot deny the success of riders who subscribed to this early season training.
Probably the greatest cyclist of all time, Eddy Merckx, would take his team out for 200 mile rides every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday all through January. Team members were expected to train on their own on top of that as well.
And it didn’t matter what the weather was like. Rain, sleet, or snow, it didn’t matter because, according to Merckx, that is what it would be like at the Tour of Flanders so they better be used to it.
The results don’t lie that this type of training worked. At the important moments in races, Merckx was normally well supported by his team allowing him to make the decisive move.
Pedalare! Pedalare! Pedalare!
A famous quote from Fausto Coppi when asked about how to get faster. When translated: “Pedal! Pedal! Pedal!”
The great Italian was refering to the specificity of training. The best way to get better at something is to do it.
Coppi was not the only who believed that riding your bike was the best way to improve as a cyclist.
“Very simply, the training that a competitive cyclist should do is based on riding a bicycle. Once the season is over, there is another thing the cyclist should do — and that is to ride a bicycle. When the cyclist doesn’t know what else to do, he should do a third thing — ride a bicycle. The cyclist must train the muscle group that is responsible for the repetitious motion of pedaling.”
The above quote is from Dr. Pierfederici as part of a lecture on training he delivered in Miami sometime in the 80s. Like Coppi, he believed that the best way to improve as a cyclist is to get out and ride your bike. Which makes complete sense.
Its a simple message in comparison to all the numbers and gadgets we have available to us to aid our training. But it worked for decades and created some of the greatest champions this sport will ever see. Maybe it is time to take a lesson from the past, especially during your base training, and just “Pedalare! Pedalare! Pedalare!”