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Before you get back in the saddle, make the gym your friend

Building strength and avoiding injury happen simultaneously in the off-season, and that translates to quality time in the gym

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I receive the same call almost every December. An upset cyclist, determined to make this year his year to ride better than ever, explains how he immediately traded the Halloween costume for tights and got back on the bike, guns blazing. But now a knee injury is threatening to derail him. The inevitable question: “Could you please coach me and help save my season?”

December is a great month for coaches. But, if you want to avoid having such a conversation, here’s a guide to dusting off the bike and getting back in the saddle the right way.

The most important lesson I can teach cyclists in the fall: There is nothing you can do in November or December to make you a superstar in May. But there is a lot you can do to make sure you’re off the bike by then, if you do things wrong. In November, rested and eager, cyclists feel a huge temptation to get a leg up on the season. The danger, according to Dr. Andy Pruitt, the head of Boulder’s Center for Sports Medicine and developer of the Body Geometry Fit System, is simple.

“By February, they are on top of their game. That’s the wrong time of year,” he said.

UCI WorldTour cyclist Ted King has an even more blunt warning for these cyclists: “You don’t want to just jump back into it full bore like an idiot and give yourself tendonitis.”

So, if hitting the road hard November 1 is a bad approach to training, what should you do?

“Tendonitis is, basically, the result of asking your body to do something it wasn’t strong enough to do,” Pruitt said. “From my standpoint, what we’re trying to do is see a change at the cellular level of people’s musculoskeletal and tendon systems to tolerate the work that they’re going to ask their body to do.”

Put another way, the best thing we can do in November is prepare our bodies for the real training that begins in January. And much of preparing the body for a successful season happens off the bike. “The weight room is a great place to build patella tendon, quad tendon, and Achilles tendon durability,” Pruitt said. Osteoporosis is also a consideration. “Masters and women who only ride their bikes or Nordic ski, I really worry about their skeletal health. Getting them in the gym where they really put stress on their musculoskeletal systems to build bone density is pretty crucial.”

But even before that, getting back in the saddle often starts with, well, the saddle. Many of us change equipment in the off-season and as Pruitt points out, “that changes everything. For example, a new saddle brand or even model can affect stem length by as much as two centimeters.” Changes in our bodies can also affect our position. “You got orthotics, or did a foundations class, or went to physical therapy to improve strength. Your bike fit may have changed.” A common mistake, according to Pruitt, is to ramp up your training without a proper fit when “your physique or bike itself has changed.”

So if we can’t get a leg up, should we continue to let the bike collect dust in November? “I’m not sure it’s good to ever get completely off the bike,” Pruitt said. “We are not made to turn in circles. It is a learned neuromuscular event. I’m not a big fan of giving your body a chance to forget that skill.” But Pruitt does say that doesn’t mean you must stick with specific, dedicated training.

“Oh Lord, I wouldn’t be doing anything hard,” he said. “I wouldn’t do anything outside of zone 1, zone 2, zone 3. For me, November is the time in the weight room and you’re using your bike for something fun or different, but you are still neuromuscularly turning circles.”

Even as we ramp up the training in December and January, it should be easy. “Those guys doing big volume in late fall and early winter, they’re doing it all zone 3 or under. That’s when you build that aerobic base.”