It’s a neglected part of your cycling physiology but possibly the most important. Here’s why training your neurological system will lead to faster cycling…
Cycling lore says that recreational cyclists keep riding intensity lower in the winter months, before cranking things up in the spring.
But research suggests that’s to neglect the importance of the nervous system on cycling performance, which is broken down into the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) and peripheral nervous system, comprising cranial and spinal nerves.
Every pedal stroke derives from the nervous system, and research indicates that prolonged and specific movement influences how the central nervous system controls muscular recruitment and patterning. Cue Bompa…
Noted physiologist Tudor Bompa observed that to move your body – or bike – as fast as possible when sprinting, the speed of signal transference in the central nervous system needed to be as rapid as possible.
That’s why when it comes to your riding, by adding a modicum of sprint work to your off-season training – and certainly your regular rides right now in spring – you’re either reminding or demanding your central nervous system how to transfer a signal at fibre-optic speed.
Leave out sprintwork for any period of time and neurologically you simply forget how to pedal fast!
Just remember that when it comes to winter sprints, there’s an argument that you don’t need to fire up those synapses for more than 10secs at a time.
Beyond this point you’re generating significant levels of lactic acid, which isn’t necessarily what you’re after when your main aim is to improve oxygen delivery and extract greater amounts of energy from fat rather than carbohydrates. Also sprint from a rolling start to reduce the chances of injury.
Sprints can be longer at this time of year, though heed that rolling advice all-year-round.
In essence, when you cycle you recruit neurons. The more you cycle, the more neurons you recruit, leading to a wonderful new internal cycle network that improves pedalling efficiency.
As well as recruiting more neurons, key to improving your cycling performance is a white, pearlescent substance known as myelin. In fact, to many, this is one of the fundamental reasons behind elite success, along with huge aerobic capacities and robust minds.
Myelin is a sausage-shaped layer of dense fat that wraps around the nerve fibres and works the same way that insulation works on a wire, namely it maintains a strong electrical signal by stopping electrical impulses leaking out. The thicker the myelin, the thicker the insulation, the stronger the signal from one fibre to the next. And you achieve that by consistent riding.
As you repeat any movement, the myelin becomes thicker. If you look at violinists, for instance, and the hand holding the violin, myelin is a lot thinner than the hand holding the bow because the bow hand is working through a more complex process and at greater speed.
The same applies to cycling – faster cyclists will, in general, have a thicker covering of myelin over the nerve fibres involved in the movement.
It takes between 40-60 days and a lot of repetition to change your neural map, for new technique to become an automated process and to begin thickening that myelin.
That’s why you should cycle at least 30mins a day for the first seven to 10 days when learning any new skill, whether it’s a new bike position or tweaking your pedal stroke. Cycle three times a week thereafter and you’ll reinforce these new pathways.
It’s time to be a nervy cyclist…