Coach Rob

Robert Armstrong, apart from being my step-brother and training guru, has been riding competitively for nearly his whole adult life. He has raced multiple Ironman events, placing as high as 10th in the Canadian version in Penticton, B.C. In 2011, he came to France and rode two stages of this year’s Tour de France, then blasted up Mount Ventoux in 1:34:50 – all this at age 55. He is a self-professed health advocate and you can tell immediately that he is passionate about the subject. His blog is full of interesting articles and excellent advice. Rob also offers excellent coaching services.

Since I started my new hobby, Rob has been an immense help to me, spending lots of time giving me the most excellent advice. It is so good in fact, I figured I shouldn’t keep it to myself! Therefore, I present to you snippets of emails that I’ve received from Rob this year. Keep checking back because I still have lots of questions for him and I’ll keep updating this page as advice comes in.

To skip to a topic (past ‘training’, which is just below) you’re interesting in, use these links: Physiology, Food and Drink, Bikes


Cycling competitively is full of riders surging and recovering and the better you become, the easier it will be to keep up with all the attacks that go on in the peloton.  The most effective training is a blend of hard intense efforts, followed with a recovery period and repeating these many times.

Spinning Workouts 

Selecting the right gear at the beginning of the workout is very important, as your heart rate will increase through your Zones, whereby the last 15 minutes you will be at or close to your Anaerobic Threshold.  When the season rolls around, you will be surprised how easy it is to hold 90+ RPM.  Also, you will be pedaling in circles and not squares.  High spinning forces the rider to use much of the 360 degree stroke.  You can’t hold 100+ RPM just by pushing down on the pedals.

Interval Training: I often ride a stretch of road close to where I live here in southeast Calgary that has a series of rolling hills where I push my heart rate up to its Anaerobic Threshold (AT) and then recover on the decent.  The route is an out and back course and there are 14 hills (nothing longer than 3 km and nothing steeper than 10% grade). This very effective training is approximately 60km long, including the 10km ride out to the road with the hills and is an intense workout.

Another form of training is to find a very flat stretch of road and hold your heart at approximately 95% of your AT for an entire hour. This too, is extremely intense and tough to maintain, especially the last 15 – 20 minutes, but yields great results.


All good cyclists are able to climb hills.  I often do hill repeats, whereby I ride out to a hill I often ride and climb up and down 10 – 15 times.  Each time I ride up, I’m close to my maximum heart rate (VO2MAX – higher than my Anaerobic Threshold) and my legs are screaming for me to stop because they build up so much lactic acid.

Hill repeats are great training for anyone interested in improving their climbing abilities and endurance capacity.  If you’re the kind of rider that doesn’t really enjoy the big climbs, look for your local “big hill” and ride up and down multiple times, and really push yourself up the hill (ie Zone 4 Heart Rate).  You will be amazed how much better you’ll climb and besides, no one wants to be that person that everyone waits for on the Sunday group ride.

Training for large climbs

Training for long sustained mountain passes like the Ventoux, Gallibier or Alpe d’Huez, I suggest doing some hard 20-30 minute sustained efforts, or find hills the take 15-20 minutes to ascend and do them at or close to your AT.

Benchmark Routes

As we transition from indoor to outdoor riding, we want to take the leg speed and power built up over the winter and transfer these short intense bursts of interval energy into longer sustained efforts on the roads.  Map out a route that you will use as your benchmark course.  You should become so intimate with this route that you will know every pothole and bump along the way and be able to identify the 5 stages of road kill decomposition.  The route should be around 45km-50km in length, contain some moderate climbs (nothing too extreme, or too long), and something with minimal stops and starts.

It’s important to monitor your time and speed in addition to your HRT.  This ride is where you race anything that’s moving on the road.  If someone is behind you, you should do everything possible not to be passed and if they catch you, ride as hard as possible not to be dropped.  And it’s not good enough to just catch someone, you have to catch and drop them.  Riding with this type of “race mode” aggression will prepare your mind as well as your body for race day.  Just like training your body to handle the stress of a long sustained effort, you also have to train your mind to maintain its focus.  Most recreational riders don’t train their mind to ride hard for long sustained periods, and as their mind wanders off, so does their chance to maintain position within the peloton.

Finding your Anaerobic Threshold

1. Give yourself a good 10 – 15 minute warm-up, whereby you gradually pick up your pace to near “race-pace” (i.e. hard as you can go without going into oxygen debt)

2. After you’re good and warmed up, ride a flat section of road that you can maintain a pace that’s as hard as you can sustain for 20 minutes

3. Monitor your heart rate throughout the 20 minutes and the average rate over this maximum, but sustained effort is your heart rate at your Anaerobic Threshold.

4. Since this will be an all-out effort, give yourself a good 15-20 minutes to cool down.  You’ll want a rest day after this all out effort.

Answers the two most common questions I receive about AT training:

  • How do I race based on my AT? This will depend on the duration of the event. For shorter, activities which last minutes at most, you do not generally worry about your AT as your lactate levels will often be quite high at the finish, but don’t last long by the very nature of the event. In events of longer duration (30 minutes to 1 hour) you will want to aim for a rate at or just slightly above your AT, and events that last for hours, like the ones you’re focused on, you will aim for a rate below your AT.
  • Can I improve my AT? Yes, training at or above your AT will result in improved LT dissipation and tolerance. Thus untrained individuals will reach their AT at or about 60% of VO2 max. With training, AT can increase from 60% to above 70% or even higher. And high performing athletes can realize ATs at or above 80% of VO2 max.

Some thoughts on Vo2Max testing and what it really means to an athlete’s performance

The very first time I got my VO2max measured I was 22 years old: they put a mask with a tube on my face and mouth, tied it to the nape of my neck while having me run on a treadmill, increasing speed and gradient every 3 minutes, until I reached my absolute maximum effort (or so we thought).  Note: it’s an extremely uncomfortable test.

The result of my maximum oxygen consumption was 4.528 L/min, equal to 72.8 ml/kg/min (my weight at the time was 68.2 kg – 149lbs).

I was told it was a good result, but my impressions back then were that running that test was totally another thing from running in a road race.

Indeed running on a treadmill is really different, and in any case it requires a lot of specific training in order to be able to use 100% of the muscles just like the natural running form on the road or track. The mask (or mouthpiece) is always annoying and hinders the respiratory flow, seriously stressing those muscles involved in respiration.  Furthermore, the mask is not always perfectly airtight, it hinders movements and stiffens up neck and shoulder muscles, which impedes a person’s natural gate

I’ve had a few VO2max tests done over the years and although the results were close, they were different each time.  So I asked myself how useful is this VO2max testing for an athlete anyway?  Surely this test gives a valuation on the maximum power of the aerobic engine of the subject, but it is a value that translated into competitive results.

As I mentioned in my previous email, Derek Clayton, marathon world record holder in the 70’s, had a lower VO2max value than mine, about 69 ml/kg/min, but he could run the marathon in 2h09’, approximately 30 minutes faster than my personal best performance.  This was simply because he was able to run at an intensity of 90-92% of his VO2max without accumulating huge concentrations of lactic acid.  At the same percentage of my VO2max value, my lactate concentration would be significantly more than his, hence my significantly slower time, even though I had a higher Vo2MAX.

In cycling the measuring of VO2max has about the same meaning as in running: it is useful and indicative of the potential of an athlete, but once again its correlation with competitive results is not so aligned.  Lance Armstrong for instance was measured with a VO2max of 85 ml/kg/min, which is an excellent value, but common to many other professional athletes and inferior to other cyclist, like Greg Lemond who recorded the highest ever result – 92.5, or Miguel Indurain at 88.0.  Maybe Lance was not on his top form when taking the test, or maybe he could not give 100%: surely he would find the mask or mouthpiece very annoying, but, most importantly, pedaling on a cyclo-ergometer or stationary bike is much different than pedaling on the road where he excelled.  And finally, the person’s mental will to win can’t be measured in a Vo2MAX test.  Some athletes have the ability to push through incredible, self infected pain to win the day.

The conclusion is not to take too much stock in Vo2MAX results, as they are not an indicator of actual performance, only potential.  And at our level, I’m more interested in increasing you AT and LT tolerance than worrying about your theoretical potential that have little bearing on your performance in a Gran Fondo.

Cadence: Cadence is very important.  New riders generally grind out a big hard gear that generates too much lactic acid and can also injure your knees.  Also, when there’s a break in the pack, if you’ve been grinding a big gear for miles, your legs will feel tired because of the lactic acid and you won’t be able to go with the break and you get dropped.  I spin a fairly high gear, anywhere between 85-95.

Training for the Etape du Tour – last 2 months (an example, not a recommendation)   

I used to do races throughout the season as I prepared for the Ironman or a big marathon event.  What you have to do now is a little “over training”, whereby you train further than your actual race distance.  But in the case of Etape, you’re climbing serious mountains, which makes the ride feel much longer than the 109km.  You don’t have to do your long rides at race pace, keep those for your shorter hard workouts, which you should do once or twice a week.  These rides should be very hard and around 40km to 50km.  You can do them on hills or all out time trials on flat roads – anything that really elevates the heart.  You should do 100km+ back-to-back rides at a high tempo (not race pace).  Or even triple 100km back to back.  A trick I use to keep my pace high during long solo rides is if I see a rider up the road, I go as hard as possible to catch them and if someone catches me, I never let them go.

Doing one of these rides with a club has the same effect and always makes the miles go by faster.  The second or third day of these back-to-back rides is very effective training, because your legs should be fatigued from the previous day’s ride, so it simulates how you feel in the latter stages of your race.  You’re also training your body to fuel itself when you’re fatigued, so get used to eating food you can stomach during these rides. Finally it trains you to increase your pain threshold.  It’s hard to push hard in a race when your legs are screaming at you to stop if you’ve never done it in training.

More on the 40km to 50km rides: If you can hold a time trail race pace for 40km, this will achieve the desired effect, however, you may want to break it into two long intervals. The important point here is to get your body used to riding at high level of stress for an extended period of time.  If you need a rest to do this, by all means take the rest.  The quality of this workout is more important than the quantity.  At the beginning, you may only be able to handle two 15km intervals with a 5km rest between the sets and build up to the long sustained 40km ride.  Monitor your heart-rate and speed on the same piece of road to gauge your improvement week over week.  Your heart-rate should be consistently at or around your Anaerobic Threshold.  This workout is so important in riding, as there are always times in a race where you have to bridge a gap to get to the next group, or catch the group you were riding with after being dropped on a hill, either way, you have to dig deep into your reserves for a sustained period.

Overtraining close to an event

Preparing for a race isn’t like preparing for finals at university.  Cramming doesn’t work.  In fact it has the opposite effect.  Piling on miles late in the training cycle when you should be into a taper will actually do more harm than good.  The base of miles that you have accumulated will have to do.  I would stick with the program as your body will benefit more from the taper than trying to cram in some missed 100km rides.  The reason why is that the benefit of training has a delayed reaction.   Because the cycle of breaking down and building up muscle fiber takes time, what you did leading up to approximately 2-3 weeks prior to your event will yield the benefits on that day.  I should have told you that last week and this week are the two most important weeks to ensure you put in the scheduled miles, especially the back to back 100km rides.  Try to get three 100km back to back rides in this week (Fri through Sun).   The timing will still work.  If you do them next week, the benefit will be felt one week after your race, in fact you will be fatigued just in time for the big day.  That’s why it’s better to rest than cram.  Lots of people cram extra miles too close to their event and wonder why they felt so crappy on race day.  Don’t give into the urge.   In fact, you’re better off putting your feet up and relaxing.

The week before an event

Objective – The objective is to deplete the glycogen stores in your legs and replace it with good food that’s high in protein to repair the muscle damage that occurs during these kinds of all-out efforts (Whey concentrate is best) and healthy carbohydrates that will be converted into glycogen, which you will certainly need on race day.  I would still do the 15-minute hard effort ride on Wednesday, with an easy 15 minute warm up and cool down.  It’s short enough to recover from and long enough to further deplete.

When you deplete your energy stores like this, your body will be screaming for nourishment and combined with high quality rest (elevate your legs if you’re sitting around), you will experience a peak of energy on race day.  A good friend of mine that used to be on the Canadian Olympic Team who I rode to Ft Lauderdale from Toronto with used to say, “the lower the valley, the higher the peak”.   In other words, the harder you trash yourself during the depletion phase of your training, (in a controlled manner), the high your recovery and peak for your event.

A Program

1. Six days prior to the event do an “all-out-effort” ride for at least one hour at race pace or better.  I usually do this on a flat piece of rode (out and back) on my time trial bike. This is an extreme effort whereby every time you feel like giving yourself a little break during the ride, you have to dig deep and push through the pain.  You’re heart rate should be at or a little above your Anaerobic Threshold for the entire ride.  Make sure you do a real good warm up to maximize the quality of the actually ride and cool down to completely flush out the lactic acid that will certainly be present after the ride.

2. Three days prior to the event do a 45-minute ride with a 15 minute block between your warm up and cool down at your maximum effort.  This should be above your AT and be extremely hard to maintain.  Huge lactic acid build-up.  The last 3 to 5 minutes can’t end fast enough.

3. Recovery rides between these hard days should be easy spinning in the small chain ring.  Ride each day to ensure you keep your legs loose.

4. By the time the race comes, you should feel very energized.

Recovery: This is the most important part of the pre-race program, as the quality of your recovery is what makes you stronger and faster.  Training hard breaks down your muscles and recovery builds them up.

1. You should digest a high quality Whey Protein Concentrate within an hour of the ride (not Whey Isolate).  Research has shown that the damaged muscle cells will absorb the necessary amino acids found in Whey Protein immediately after exercise and begin the repair process.  Whey Protein Concentrate (Organic is best), which is a whole food, will be absorbed within 15 minutes of ingestion.  In fact, you should take a Whey Protein Concentrate 30 minutes after every time you ride.

2. You also should digest whole foods that are high in antioxidants.  Small colorful berries are best. Blue Berries, Raspberries, Black Berries, Strawberries are all high in antioxidants.  These rides will introduce large amounts of free radicals causing oxidative stress that are very damaging to your body’s ability to recover.  I personal drink a product called YouthJuice drink (all natural whole food, only available in North America) that has an extremely high ORAC value.  It also has a type of seaweed called Fucoidan that has anti-inflammation characteristics in addition to its anti-cancer properties.

3. Eat meals that are high in alkaline, as the damaged cells that the body has to eliminate are very acidic.  Eating lots of leafy greens and vegetables is the best way to accommodate this.  I usually add some chicken to my salads for the extra protein my body requires.  (A rule of thumb: eat 1 gram of protein for every kilo of body weight).

4. Drink water.  Ensure you drink lots of water because your body will eliminate waste through urine and water will replace the toxic fluids.  And not mineral water, as is acidic with a pH of around 5.

5. Sleep is a critical component to recovery and you should do your best to get at least 8 hours a day.

Following this pre-race program will make you ready and in peak form on race day.

Off-Season / Winter

In the off season, you should reduce your cardio and increase your power during your workouts.  Ride in bigger gears during intervals than you’re used to and if you can, compliment this with weights. Your legs will love you when you get back into it next season, especially on the hills.

This is the time of year to introduce power into your program.  Lower cadence (even into the 70’s) and much larger gears.  Intervals should be short anaerobic efforts, like 30 seconds on with lots of recovery (1 to 2 minutes).  On flat roads, drop it down into a bigger gear and crank out a hard cadence of around 75, with an all out effort.  Hills are good too.  Ride as hard as you can for 30 seconds and then sit up in a very easy gear for a 1 – 2 minutes to recover and then go hard again.  After around 8 – 10 of those, you’re ready to call it a day.  Only do this once, maybe twice a week, as you’re really breaking down your muscle fiber.  This is very effective training and will increase your muscular endurance and power output.


Racing Strategies

The Start. Go with the lead group right from the start and go with every break until you can’t hold their pace and then drop back to the next chase group on the road.  It’s easier to fall back when dropped than to put in solo efforts to catch groups that are probably stronger.  Go until you blow up and then hang in.  Remember, if you draft these fast guys at the front (make sure you take a short hard pull so they don’t get pissed off), you’ll be doing 30% less work then the hard guys who are doing all the big pulling at the front.  You objective isn’t to win, but to hang in.

Hills: positioning. When you approach the hill(s) try to position yourself near the front of your group.  As the road goes vertical and the stronger riders pull away, you will drop back through the pack, but hopefully not completely off the back of the group and you will still be in the pack when the road either flattens out or goes down and you can recover when the pack regroups.  If you start at the back of the pack, there’s a good chance you’ll be completely dropped and you’ll have to wait for the next pack to hook up with.

It takes confidence that you belong up there.  I should be clear here.  You may not be riding with the lead pack, but whatever pack you’re with, ride near the front and should you ever find yourself in the very front, ride hard from a very short period and peel off and get back into the draft of someone else.

Hills: how hard to go. If the hills you’re climbing are collectively about an hour to an hour and a half over the entire race, you can ride at your Anaerobic Threshold for all of them.  Make sure you have a good carb meal the previous day, and you refuel throughout the ride like we discussed (real food at the beginning and middle then quick energy gels or chews at the end).  Riding this high to your AT uses lots more glycogen and if you don’t refuel, there’s a good chance you could run out gas and bonk.  And if the hills are a lot longer than the 1 ½ hours collectively, you’ll have to cut the pace back a bit.  The good thing is you have a very accurate and real-time read out of your engine, and just like the RPM gauge on your motorbike, you know exactly where the red line is.



Burning fat: I rarely eat anything for rides under 2 hours, because the human body has approximately two hours of glycogen stored in your muscles if you’re loaded properly. And you require glycogen to burn fat.  Even the thinnest cyclist has days worth of fat stores.

Think of fat like a great big log in a fireplace.  It’s impossible to get it burning without kindling to keep it going and glycogen is the body’s kindling that’s needed to metabolize fat for energy.  You want to burn fat in long races and keep refueling your glycogen stores throughout the event to keep the log of fat burning.  The better the athlete, the faster their body will shift from using glycogen as the sole energy source to burning fat, and only use glycogen to keep the log burning.  People that are out of shape will take around 30-40 minutes before they start burning fat, while high performance athletes will begin burning fat within as little as 5 to 10 minutes. That’s why I tell heavy people that the fatter they become, the harder it is to burn fat

As you get more fit you switch into the fat metabolizing mode much faster, so let’s assume you ride for an hour when you were just starting out, you would be lucky to get 20 minutes of fat burning.  As you’ve trained your body through endurance cycling, you will switch from burning glycogen to fat in 10 to 15 minutes, thereby increasing the fat you burn over the same hour time.  So if a person is obese or even overweight and only does those 20-minute workouts, they always wonder why they never lose any weight, well it’s because they never get to the fat burning process.  As I said, if you’re fat, it’s harder to burn fat.

‘Ideal’ Weight

Good question.  It’s one I get asked a lot and there’s lots of ways to answer it depending on who’s asking.  Weight isn’t really what you’re asking, as it can vary significantly because of height, bone structure, bone density, etc.  The question is what should your percent body fat be?  If it’s just “Joe or Jane normal person” asking the question, I usually tell them they should weigh within a few pounds (+ or -) of what they weighed in High School.  Of course they push back at this answer, saying it’s impossible because they’ve aged, or had kids, or some other excuse, like it’s human nature to gain weight.  That is until I list off a dozen people I know, including myself that weigh within a few pounds of their high school weight.  It’s easier for them to visualize this weight than telling them they should have a body fat of 11%-22% for guys and 20% to 30% for gals.  That said, with the increase in juvenile obesity within Canada and the US, this answer might not work in the future.  When I went to high school, there were very few overweight kids and no one was obese.  Today, we see over 40% of kids in high school to be either overweight or obese, so telling them to be their weight in high school when they were already fat isn’t a goal anymore.

But if an athlete (especially cyclists) asks the question about ideal weight (body fat) , it’s a very different answer.  I find avid cyclists are more concerned about their weight than an international super model, but it’s not about vanity or how the cycling kit fits their butt that matters (although, cyclists are really obsessed about having skinny asses).  Basically, we just don’t want to haul an extra pound up a mountain, so keeping the weight down while maintaining power output is really important.  If you were to lose 10lbs and maintain the same power output, you would save a whopping 2 minutes on a 8km climb.  The typical pro cyclist will carry a borderline unhealthy body fat of under 5% and still maintain their power to weight ratio.  These guys are on the fence between optimal performance and getting sick.  They’re low body weight is why they’re so susceptible to being ill during the long stage races.  People are always amazed how railed down pro cyclists are.  They maintain this low body fat percentage by combining an unthinkable volume of training and  unnatural eating habits whereby they measure every gram of food they eat.  I read once that Lance dropped his body fat to 1% during the Tour.  Check out the attached picture.  Guys like you and I will never get close to this kind of body fat and don’t want to.  A healthy body fat for recreational/competitive cyclist like us is somewhere in the range of 5% to 10%.  This body fat range strikes a good balance between good health and good performance.  Regarding the concern about losing power as you lose weight.  Until you get down to the scary body fat percentage of under 5%, there’s very little concern that you will be losing muscle mass.

Cramping and Spasms

The difference is one is just a tight feeling, and the other is uncontrollable cramping.  Every Ironman I competed in, I seemed to always get spasms around 16 miles into the marathon run where my quads went into spasm.   It’s generally a result of the body lacking water and potassium and you can’t eat enough bananas to compensate.  Some of the gel packs have higher amounts of Potassium along with the essential nutrients that can be helpful.

If you dehydrate you can go into spasm or just cramp.  You can lose up to 20% performance is you lose 5% water through sweating.  So it’s real important to drink lots of water while you ride.  In a race, I used to set my alarm on my watch for every 8 minutes to remind myself to drink, as I often got caught up in the race and forget to drink.

A Cardio Question

Regarding your cardio question.  Don’t you love what happens to your body when you introduce it to effective training.  I remember what I felt like when I first took up swimming.  What a wakeup call!  I could run a 10km in under 34 minutes and place in the top 1%-2% of any road race, but in a pool and I couldn’t keep up with 65 year old grandmothers and was in complete oxygen debt after one lap.  The body is a complete energy system that adapts to changing conditions, but it takes time and training to become extremely efficient.  It’s why the best riders of the Tour are in the 30’s, not their 20’s.  I could take the world’s fastest Marathon runner who has an amazing VO2MAX and put him on a bike and he would go into total oxygen debt on the first hill.  Like any specific training, the body likes consistency and time to adapt.   Over a long period of time, the body becomes more and more efficient with the transfer of oxygen to the active muscles, the use of glycogen and fat as fuel sources depending on the situation, elimination of waste, etc, etc.  In your case, it’s not surprising that your cardio system has become very familiar and more efficient with how it handles the demands of riding based on all your training, but that doesn’t mean the active muscles won’t fatigue when you run out of fuel (or the energy system still requires more training and adaptation).  The legs fatiguing could be a result of a lack of fuel (ie. food during the race), especially given this race lasted over 5 hours.  The problem on the last climb wasn’t cardio, but energy, and you just ran out of it.  If you run out of glycogen that’s required to burn fat (the body’s primary fuel source), the body will switch to its alternate energy system and starts burning protein in the form of muscle breakdown.  This is a much less efficient energy system and causes a few noticeable side effects.  1) your sweat smells bad as a result of burning muscle, 2) your legs fatigue much faster when you call on them to perform, 3) not that I’ve read this anywhere, but every time I fatigue like this my heart rate drops 10-20 beats lower than it should, resulting in not getting as much oxygen to my active muscles, hence the fatigue and in extreme case the dreaded “bonk”.  And that’s happened to me more than I care to remember.

So, it’s not like your legs needed more training in this situation, although it never hurts to train the body to adapt to 5 to 6 hours in the saddle; no, it was simply you didn’t eat enough food with glucose to keep the lights on in the glycogen/fat engine room and when you ran out of glycogen necessary to burn fat stores, your body had to call on the backup and more inefficient muscle/protein system to fuel your active muscles .  The reason I wanted you to do all those 100km back to back rides was to train the body to operate when it was already fatigued and as I said up front, it takes time for the body to leverage all its energy systems efficiently. 

More on the Cardio System: As for the legs giving out first, that actually is misleading.  It may appear that the legs give out first, but it’s really the entire cardiovascular system not being able to keep up with demand.  It could be the heart is not able to provide enough blood volume to the active muscles, or the lungs can’t process enough oxygen into the blood, or the vascular network may not be as efficient as it could be, or the volume of blood is reduced because the rider didn’t drink enough water to replenish the sweat (which steals the liquid from the blood).  It just looks like the legs gave out first, but it could be a dozen things within the whole system and we only see the symptom (i.e. tired legs).  The cardio system is only as strong as the weakest link and the way to improve the whole system is to train it at or a little above the AT.  If you train below, it will never improve.  That’s why intervals are so important to a person’s training calendar.

On Resting Heart Rates

A healthier heart requires fewer beats to pump the same volume of blood per stroke.  And if your heart is enlarged and healthy, which is almost a given if you train hard, you will most certainly reduce your heart rate.  In 1979 when I started running, I had a pulse of around 60 to 65 and now, over 30 years later, my heart rate is almost half.  My doctor is always amazed when I come in for my annual checkup how low my pulse is.  She makes my day when she say’s out of the 1000’s of patients she has, no one, regardless of age has a lower resting pulse than me.  If you continue to train hard, your heart rate will most certainly fall into the low 40’s or even the high 30’s.  Low pulse in athletes is a general indicator of superior fitness.


Food and Drink

Carbo Loading: I always eat my carbs two days before the race and eat very light the day before the race (salads, veggies, fruit, light carbs).  I like to feel lean and light on race day.  Combine this with a light ride on Friday and Saturday, just to keep the legs loose, nothing too hard and you will be race ready on Sunday.

Sports drinks

Many of the electrolyte drinks are now load with fructose, which is sweeter than sugar or glucose, so the fat kids like it, but it isn’t absorbed into the muscles and converted into glycogen.  It can only be metabolized in the liver and produces free fatty acids (Triglycerides).  Not a healthy alternative for athletes, or anyone for that matter.  Always look at the label and if it says Fructose, put it back.  If it says glucose than you’re ok because that’s the sugar the body craves, especially athletes.  Even Sugar is better than Fructose, because 55% of the sugar molecule is glucose and 45% fructose.   Pure Fructose is a killer.  Most pro athletes make up their own concoction, even if it comes in a bottle that says Gatorade.  You won’t see many of these guys drink stuff that produces fat.

Eating during/after a race: For a race of only 104km, all you’ll need is water and whatever you use for energy and electrolyte replacement.  I either use a gel pack, or those soft chews you find in just about any bike shop.

It takes a long time to find the food you can eat that supplies energy and you can stomach.  30 years at this game and I still haven’t figured it out.  I’m still experimenting, as I always have trouble in really long races (5+ hours).  I did a 164km ride a couple weeks ago and used a combo of Hammer Gel (raspberry) and a raisin bagel with organic honey that I ate at around 90km and I experienced sustained energy throughout the entire ride.  I’m going to try it again this weekend to see if it was just a fluke.  Also, and it goes without saying, but weight loss because of dehydration has a logarithmic effect on performance (ie. 1% weight loss = 3% performance hit, 3% weight loss = 15% performance hit).  I’m a sweater, so I really have to be drinking lots of water.  I found out this the hard way in a number of races.

For after the race (within an hour if possible), eat or drink something with protein, as your body will need the amino acids and enzymes to repair itself.  That’s a long way to say, you’ll recover faster.  I usually make myself a fruit smoothie (banana, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries) with Whey Protein powder.



There is no right answer, as it depends on what’s more important.  Are you more interested in speed and acceleration, or do you care mostly about comfort and enjoying the scenery? The answers to these important questions determine how you position yourself on your bike, not some computer program, or someone’s system of charts and graphs. How your friend fits his bike should have no bearing on what you do even if he has exactly the same body proportions as you. You know why you ride a bike and only you know what trade-offs you are willing to make in order to achieve your purpose on a bicycle.  You will see what I mean below.

Fore/aft Position: The fore/aft position is the most important position to get right based on what you want while riding, “comfort” or “power”.  It’s a trade-off.  Here’s how to start.  When in the drops, take your hands off the bars and hold the position without the use of your arms holding you up.  If you require your arms to hold you up because you have to strain your torso muscles, you’re probably in a power position, but if you can hold the position just with your torso muscles without to much effort, you’re more likely in a touring position.  If you watch the Tour, you will see all these guys bent way over with their backs flat and horizontal to get maximum power.  The compromise is it’s not as comfortable as sitting up, but these guys adjust their bike for power and aerodynamics.

As you ride more, you will find that you will lean further forward into the power position by extending your stem length and moving the seat further back.  That’s why you’re getting a longer stem.  This position is also better for out of the saddle climbing and sprinting.  Also remember, as you move the saddle forward or rearward, you are effectively changing the saddle height, relative to the cranks, since the saddle rails are not perpendicular to the seat tube. So be prepared to change the seat post extension as you adjust the fore-aft saddle position; lowering the saddle as you move it back to maintain the same leg extension, and raising it as you move the saddle forward, always keeping a slight bend in the knee whereby you never find yourself rocking your hips while peddling. I find, most new riders to racing opt out for a shorter stem length and too many spacers to raise the stem height so they’re in a comfortable position, and then they wonder why all those low profile guys can ride so much faster.  Power and aerodynamics (which I’ll get to in a moment) are the reason they ride so much faster.  But it takes time to gradually move into the power position.

Aerodynamics: The distance from the nose of your saddle to the middle of your handlebars is important to keep you in the position that you feel comfortable riding for hours, while maximizing your power output.  Over the years, this measurement has got larger and larger for me, because I’m more comfortable in the power position on my bike, which is also more aerodynamic.  If you look at time trial bikes, they are designed to maximize power and aerodynamics.  In fact, the rider is in such an extreme position, they require pads on their handlebars to rest their arms because there’s no way the torso muscles could hold them in that position for very long.

Besides being in a power position, reducing your wind resistance is extremely important because the coefficient of drag (wind resistance) increases by the cube of your speed.  So the faster you go, the drag increases by the power of 3.  The less profile you present into the wind (i.e. lower body position) will reduce your power requirements to maintain a certain speed by the cube of the speed.  New riders almost always ride too high, thereby presenting a larger surface area, increasing the coefficient of drag, while also being in a position that is reduces power output.

Wheels: Next to the rider’s position on the bike, which has the greatest effect on the bike’s performance, the wheels probably make the biggest difference because of their aerodynamic properties and how their weight effects angular momentum.  

 Check out Rob’s excellent blog on health and well-being.


27 thoughts on “Coach Rob

  1. I’m not in your league of competitive cycling, by miles, but there are some excellent tips there even for mere trundlers-around like me. Thanks Rob and Gerry.
    (I like the ‘pain as a hobby’ remark!)

    • I agree, Stephanie. That’s why I wanted to put it up on the blog. I’m sure there’ll be something there for riders of all levels. Has spring come to le centre yet? It’s cooking down here now.

    • Hey Stephanie – I’ve coached at all levels and the basic principles of training and diet apply equally to all athletes regardless of their ability. The only difference is the level of detail necessary to achieve the varying degrees of performance, and of course, how much pain you’ll welling to endure. If you ever have questions about cycling, training or health diet, please don’t hesitate to ask.

      • Hi Rob, Cracking advice, I passed this page on to a fellow cyclist who followed your pre event programme and he won the event, saying he had so much energy, so on his behalf a big thanks. I myself am planning on riding the 2011 Etape route in September, (Alpe D’ Huez) the group I am riding with are planning a gentle 60 km ride the day before our Big ride, this does not seem to fit well with your advice. I was wondering what your thoughts are?

      • Hi Simon – tell your friend he can send my percentage of his winnings anytime.

        Sounds like you’re doing a modified version of what I did last summer, although, I rode both Stage 18 and 19 of the 2011 Tour with no rest day in between. If this was a race that you were peaking for, I wouldn’t suggest a 60km ride the day before. But if this is a vacation ride your buddies through cycling Mecca, and everyone is reasonable about how hard they ride the day before the big ride, you should be fine.

        Again, if this is a vacation ride, you should enjoy the region, as it’s one of cycling great locations and is beautiful to see. I rode the three Hors Catégorie climbs of the Col Agnel, Col d’Izoard and the Col du Galibier the day before I rode the route you’re planning, and I raced some French guy the whole way, including Alp d’Huez and I have to be honest, I really felt the previous day’s effort once we started climbing the switchbacks of Alp D’Huez. But given I wasn’t racing; I wouldn’t have done it any other way.

        So my long-winded answer to your question is ride with your pals, enjoy every moment and draft them for 60kms the day before, and then crush up Alp d’Huez. Make sure you write back and let us how it went.

        Enjoy the Ride….Rob

  2. Hi Rob, I’m not a road warrier just an intermiediate (58 year old) avid road cycliste. Can you direct me to the part of your blog that deal with neck pain ( you know the spot…at the top of the spin) ? I’ve been out 3 times this last week (in southern Ontario) 35k, 26k & 45k & the pain is back. I put hot compresses on it last night, but realize I have to reposition myself while biking..

  3. Hi Cycliste Quebecoise,

    This a great question, one that I haven’t spoken specifically about, but it affects many cyclists, especially at the beginning of the season when you get back to outdoor riding with your helmet back on your head. Neck problems are most often due to poor cycling posture. Take a look at my description above for setting yourself up properly on your bike.

    A common source of neck trouble is when the neck is bent backwards in an extreme manner. A common cause that forces the rider to bend their neck in this manner is poor adjustment of the helmet, specifically, a helmet which is too far forward on the head. If the helmet is too low in front, the rider is forced to tilt the head upward to keep the helmet from blocking the view looking forward. This sharp backward bends in the neck may cause neck problems, so make sure that your helmet is properly fitted for your riding style. Riders with a more aggressive riding position need to wear their helmets a little farther back than those who sit more upright to prevent the sharp backward bend in the neck.

    Another cause of neck pain, which many riders don’t consider is poorly designed or poorly fitting eyeglasses. If your glasses slide down your nose you may have to tilt your head up higher to be able to be looking through, not over, the glasses. And if the glasses are designed with a low top, the rider will be forced to bend the neck back causing pain.

    As an avid Time Trialist I’ve experienced the neck pain you describe and beside the two causes I’ve described above, I would also tilt my head to the side to look forward instead of cranking my head straight back. It uses different muscles and the rider doesn’t have to bend the neck back so far.

    Finally, if you’re like me and rarely to never take any pain killing drugs and you’re currently suffering from neck pain. There are two pain relieving “Trigger Points” at the base of the skull that will provide temporary relief of neck pain. Take your two index fingers and apply pressure for approximately 15-30 seconds and gently release. Repeat this procedure about 2-3 times. As you release your fingers each time, you will notice the pain in your neck subside.

    I hope these suggestions help you out.

    Enjoy the Ride…..Rob

  4. I will definitely try out your suggestions. Today on my ride (100k in the last 3 days due to this FINE weather we are experiencing) I did also attempt to relax my shoulders and keep my head pointed towards the road ( the front tire is not a very motivating object to keep in one’s vision, especiallly with the beautiful Caledon countryside surrounding me, but overcoming this neck pain is definitely my primary goal).. Do you suggest any pre-ride or post-ride exercises ?

  5. Lucky you to get out and enjoy the early season riding.

    Again, proper bike fit is where you start. It’s always a balance between comfort and placing your body in a more aerodynamic and power position. As much as everyone wants to look like a Tour de France racer, we have to trade off this extreme position with comfort. One other thing to consider is the relatively new “Compact Handlebars” where drops are shallower than regular bars, so the rider isn’t bent over as far while riding in the drops for extended periods, therefore the neck won’t be as hyper extended.

    Besides the acupressure trigger points I mentioned above, here are some basic exercises that can help loosen up tight muscles and increase the neck’s range of motion. Try doing these neck stretches before you ride, if you take a short break during your ride, and after your ride. Like doing your leg and back stretches, introduce these neck specific stretches and you will find over time a greater range of motion in your neck.

    1. Flexion. The common chin to chest exercise.
    2. Extension. It is a head up exercise.
    3. Right and left rotation. Start with the chin pointing towards the shoulder, then rotate it clockwise then reverse.
    4. Right and left lateral flexion. This is the basic ear to shoulder exercise.

    I’ve also used the following relaxing position with success. Hope I can describe it. Lie flat on your back, while propping your calves up on a chair or block, so you look like you’re seating on a chair that’s been tipped over and your back and calves are parallel to the ground. This allows the muscles in your back and especially your neck relax after being in a contracted and in hyper extended position for hours while riding. Just lie in this position for about 5-10 minutes as the tension is released. Hope this helps

    Enjoy the ride ….. Rob

  6. Thank you so much for your help; I actually thought my cycling days were over. Cycling with pain (at our age) is not worth it. I am also an avid badminton player and when I developed corpal tunnel syndrome in my hand, over a decade ago (you know you are old when you count by decades !)) I thought that that was the end of that sport. But no, I’m still playing. My sore neck actually interfers with badminton too, as there are times you are in a stance with your head slightly elevated., so last year I wasn’t sure which sport was causing the problem. Hopefully you have solved it, as I too do not take drugs if at all possible.
    I will follow up with the video this weekend at the local library, as I’m an hour from Toronto (thank goodness), but still in the country, with dial-up. Thank you !

  7. Rob
    I get a sore spot on the inside of my right leg after 15 to 20 miles which stops me going further.
    It is always the same place. Any ideas that will help?

    • Thanks for the clarity to where your pain is. Sit bone pain is a fairly common issue for cyclists and is generally the result of a poorly fitted bike; specifically the rider sits too upright. This happens when the handlebars are positioned too high relative to the saddle. You can also get sit bone pain from incorrect fore/aft positioning, specifically when it forces you to sit too upright. It can also be the result of a poorly fitted saddle, which is also quite common. Finally, don’t think that gels, or a saddle with more padding will make a difference, as extra padding will only provide short-term relief. Besides, good cycling shorts should provide all the padding needed to be comfortable. I ride a carbon fibre saddle with no padding and it’s quite comfortable. If your LBS offers sizing, I suggest you give them a try. If not, take a look at the section on bike sizing above, or do a search on the internet. Good luck.

  8. Rob
    My heart rate has gone up on my last two rides. 20 miles,1,900 feet rise. Usually max under 160, now over 170 with an average of 150. I am 73. Should I rest or carry on?


  9. Hi Dennis – firstly, when it comes to issues like this, I’m not a doctor and if you have a health concern, I always suggest to visit your doctor. That said, it’s very unusual to see a “peak” heart rate jump this much in such a short period of time, and for no apparent reason. Especially at your age, it’s even more unusual, as the older we get the lower our HRT at VO2Max becomes. By comparison, my own HRT at maximum hasn’t significantly changed for many years, so a jump of 10 BPM would be a cause for further investigation. My suggestion would be to back off your intensity until you investigate with your doctor the reason why your HRT has jumped.

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