11 mistakes that self-trained cyclists make

Those of you that have followed CyclingTips since the early days will know that the site started as a way for Wade Wallace to share his deep knowledge of all things cycling. The site has grown and evolved since it began in 2008 and in recent times Wade’s been more…

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Those of you that have followed CyclingTips since the early days will know that the site started as a way for Wade Wallace to share his deep knowledge of all things cycling. The site has grown and evolved since it began in 2008 and in recent times Wade’s been more focussed on the bigger picture than onwriting content.

Today, though, Wade is back with a classic “tips” piece that will be of use to anyone that’s training up for a big event, especially if you aren’t working with a coach.

Once upon a time I heavily identified with being a ‘bike racer’. It was my hobby, my community, my competitive outlet, and my identity.

Once life began to take over, the bike racer mentality began to take a back seat. I struggled with this and it was anything but a graceful transition from ‘racer’ to weekend warrior. During and after that difficult transition, I thought that returning to any type of competition — and losing the 15kg I gained — was something I’d never do again.

But now, years later after starting a business and becoming a father, I have a bit more time for myself, to reclaim my fitness. I began looking for a competitive outlet again.

Every once in a while Facebook reminds me that my racing days are much further behind me than I remember.

After being scared into ‘training’ (i.e. riding more) for my lap around Annecy a couple months ago, I wanted to keep up the momentum I had gained. I wanted a goal to look forward to, and something to structure my training around.

I knew that setting a goal wasn’t enough though. If nothing changes, nothing changes, and I needed to be more methodical than ever in order to use my time effectively and to get the most out of myself. Waking up early and riding whenever I felt like it hadn’t done the trick in the past, and it wasn’t going to do it in the future.

The deal I made with myself was that none of this would interfere with my family or my job.

That led me to look for a coach. Every time I’ve done well in cycling, I’ve had a coach to tell me what to do, and to reassure me that what I’m doing is on the right path. For me, it also takes the mental pressure off. When left to my own devices, more is better, which I know is wrong.

So through many recommendations I reached out to one of the best in the business: Mark Fenner, founder of FTP Training and Today’s Plan. I asked Mark to guide me through the next two months and to help me build up to the Tour of Bright. From the first conversation we had I knew I’d enjoy working with him.

I’ve had a few different coaches and have gone through the process of training many times. I know just enough to “know what I don’t know” and also understand the pitfalls that cyclists can fall into when left to their own devices.

Going through the process once again, much later in life, I was reminded of some of the common mistakes self-trained cyclists make, and a few new things I’ve picked up throughout this journey. Here are 11 mistakes that self-trained cyclists make:

1. Not riding hard enough on your hard rides, and easy enough on your easy rides.

This is a classic. Most riders default to averagely hard tempo riding most of the time. I’m no different, and as much as I tried to resist giving up my ‘grey zone’ rides to Mark’s coaching, he made me remember not to make that mistake.

2. Smashing yourself into a coma every training ride and not getting enough rest.

When you’re motivated, a coach’s job is to hold you back when necessary, and to push you harder than what you thought was possible. Think about it this way: you don’t get fit when you train; you get fit when you rest.

3. Putting in your best efforts in training, and not in the race you’re training for.

Everyone knows that one super-strong rider who smashes everyone in training, and doesn’t have what it takes in racing. Mark keeps referring to his “suitcase of courage” analogy — if you empty the suitcase when it doesn’t matter, there is nothing left for when it really does. Often a cyclist’s best performance happens a week before a race instead of in the race itself.

4. Making every training session a ‘breakthrough session’.

Consistency is the key, not massive sessions every day. You need to leave something in the tank to back it up again tomorrow, and the next day. The advent of Strava has led to many riders looking to take segments every ride and feeling as though everyone is watching.

5. Skipping the easy rides.

The intense rides are the ones that matter, right? Not necessarily. You need the easy rides to be able to build your aerobic system and facilitate the recovery process. The easy rides are just as important as the hard rides.

6. Getting caught up in what others are doing and not sticking to your own plan.

It’s important to structure group rides into any plan to keep the social aspect of the sport (that’s a big reason we do this, right?). But key workouts often need to be completed alone to make sure you get the very best out of them.

7. Not committing to a concrete goal.

You need time-bound and realistic goals to work backwards from. This creates the basis of a training plan. It’s easy to just float along in your riding and when an important event or race comes up, just pretend it wasn’t important and let it pass on by.

8. Thinking that you should never miss a training session.

It’s important to understand that it’s fine to take a day off or miss a workout if you have been smashed at work or your kids been up all night and you’ve had no sleep. The benefit of having a coach is that he or she can make this decision for you, taking away the nagging doubts. A day or two missed in the short term is far better than running yourself into the ground and missing a week because you wound up sick.

9. Trying to fit in the same training hours as the pros.

You need to be realistic about the time you have available in the real world of working 40-60 hours a week and having a family. All that will happen when trying to follow a plan with unrealistic hours is a downward spiral in performance.

One of the most enlightening parts of working with Mark has been understanding that I don’t need to be riding 20 hours a week. It’s easy to get caught up with those who are putting in massive hours on the bike, but in reality I’m only racing 100km races which are less than three hours long. You don’t need five hour rides for that.

10. Not training with specificity.

It’s incredibly important to understand what the demands of your target race or event are and develop workouts to target them. There’s no sense training speed for a race in the mountains, for example.

11. Creating unrealistic expectations.

Are you are targeting the right race or event for your physiology? A coach can give an objective view based on the data and sometimes this is something we don’t want to hear. I’ve done well at the Tour of Bright (which is a pure climber’s race) in the past, but to Mark’s credit he quickly burst my bubble by telling me that my current power/weight isn’t where it needs to be in order to get a good result. I’m okay with that … for this year.


It can take a long time to trust a coach and even longer to trust the process, but if you want to get the best out of yourself, it’s well worth it and you’ll make far fewer of these common mistakes. Even now I make them time and time again.

I’m looking forward to this weekend at the Tour of Bright I can’t believe the Tour of Bright has been cancelled! Sigh. Even though I had no expectations of doing well, I was fine with whatever happened because I knew I’d done everything I could and I enjoyed the process. I believe that’s the key to longevity in this sport and what will lead to results in the long run.

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.