Dear Coach: Are Group Rides Good for My Training?
Cycling with others can be great for your fitness, bike handling, and confidence—but you've got to time them right.
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Group rides can be a lot of fun and great for your training, fitness, and motivation, but there are definitely times when it’s better to do your own thing. The following advice is geared toward how group rides can impact your training, but at the forefront of your mind right now should be staying safe through the pandemic. VeloNews does a great job of breaking down the topic of COVID-19 safety and group rides here, and you can read USA Cycling’s advice on group rides here. The bottom line: smaller groups are best and there are things you can do to make them even safer, like pay attention to the risk factors and activities of those you’re riding with, wear a cloth mask, and never go if you’re feeling unwell. Now, onto how they impact your overall training.
As long as I can remember I’ve been doing group rides as part of my training on the bike. I’m a social person and riding with friends is one of my all-time favorite activities. I have been on group rides of all different kinds all over the world and all over the U.S. Each one has its own dynamic and own personality. I’m asked on a regular basis: “When are group rides good for me and what do I have to gain or lose by doing them?”
Here are some key things to consider when deciding if and when a group ride might benefit your training:
- Is it a safe group?
- What are you training for specifically?
- How hard and fast is the group you are planning to ride with?
- Are your skills in line with the level of the ride?
From a training perspective, group rides can provide motivation and push you to an intensity level you might not have achieved on your own. Some athletes achieve huge breakthroughs (physically and mentally) during group rides. The question should be, though: Is the ride appropriate for what you need right now?
As an example, I live in Tucson, Arizona. The group rides here are typically at an elite level. The riders are fast, strong, and can handle their bikes very well. For me, if I choose to go on a group ride it is likely to be the same level of intensity as a top tier women’s professional road race. I need to be very fit and focused to be on this ride. That serves a great purpose if I’m preparing for an event or need a race simulation effort. I can achieve a total of three to four hours of riding as a high-intensity race simulation.
On the flip side, if I’m not fit and I choose to go on this ride I might go to maximal effort for three to five minutes, end up exploding, then drop off the back, finishing the ride just trying to recover from blowing up. The amount of quality training minutes that I needed to make fitness gains will have been compromised, so my fitness (and confidence) take a ding. In this example, I’d have been better off to ride on my own and get a good solid session in, hitting adequate intervals to see the desired training effect. For example, five minutes at maximal effort followed by three hours groveling along at a recovery effort isn’t as successful as riding three to four hours and achieving a total of two hours worth of broken interval work, all of which is geared towards helping you improve.
If you are one of the strongest riders in the group you can choose the level of intensity that is right for you while also potentially practicing skills and tactics too. If you need to work hard and you are the stronger rider in that group you can lift the effort to where you want it to be and have the motivation of others to help you along: it’s a win-win. Alternatively, if you don’t need that level of intensity you can sit in the group and get some good speed without overstressing the level of intensity. Of course, this only works if you are one of the strongest riders of your chosen group.
Group rides are fun, they can become a great part of your training plan when the time is right. Do your research before heading out on the group ride so that you get the most out of the day and enjoy the dynamic of cycling with others.
Marilyn Chychota is a USAT-certified coach and former pro triathlete who is now owner and head coach at Marilyn Chychota Coaching. Find her at MarilynChychotaCoaching.com.