Neural conditioning: training tips to unlock cycling’s secret weapon

If you watch professionals in sports like golf, snooker, darts and even tennis, you’ll notice that they will often play “shadow” shots next to the ball or at the side of the court before taking their next shot. 

Is this last minute practice? After the hundreds, thousands even, of hours they’ve practiced to get to this level, how can they think that a couple of extra practice swings now can make a difference? Of course, they’re not trying to improve their swing now. They’re trying to tap into their neural conditioning – making the connection between mind and body that’s been developed over thousands and thousands of perfect swings in the years before to make sure that the next shot is as effortlessly efficient as all those that went before.

Although it’s a very different sport, the same principles apply to cycling. Neural training is crucial for cyclists to maximize their performance and efficiency on the bike. While traditional cycling training focuses on building aerobic capacity and muscular endurance, neuromuscular training enhances the connection between the brain and muscles, allowing for more efficient and powerful pedaling.

The importance is proven

Studies have shown that elite professional cyclists are more efficient than their amateur counterparts, despite having similar VO2max values. In a study by Lucia et al. (2002), world-class professionals exhibited a slower rise in VO2max as intensity increased, indicating greater efficiency at higher intensities. This efficiency allowed them to complete a VO2max test at an average of 500W, compared to 430W for elite amateurs. Remarkably, one two-time world champion achieved exceptional performance with a relatively low VO2max of 70ml/kg/min (nothing remarkable in professional endurance sports), compensating with exceptional neuromuscular efficiency.

How indoor training can develop neuromuscular efficiency

To develop neuromuscular efficiency, cyclists must train their brain and muscles to work synchronously and recruit the right motor units at the right time. This is where indoor cycling becomes invaluable, as it allows for highly specific and controlled training environments that mimic outdoor riding conditions.

However, it’s also vital that, to maximize the effects of neural conditioning, cyclists train on an indoor bike that recruits the same muscles used outdoors in the same way. As we showed in our previous blog post (and in the image below), the vast majority of modern smart bikes and smart trainers recruit muscles in a way that is inconsistent with outdoor riding due to their use of flywheels. 

In this respect, the TrueBike and TrueTrainer, which use motors and robotics instead of the flywheel to provide an accurate outdoor riding experience, become powerful neural training tools and provide a significant advantage to riders who want to leave on stone left unturned in their hunt for performance. This level of accuracy ensures that the neuromuscular adaptations gained during indoor training directly translate to improved outdoor performance.

Neuromuscular training techniques

Several training techniques can be employed to enhance neuromuscular efficiency:

  1. High-cadence training: Practicing high cadences (aiming for 150- 200 RPM) trains the body to fire muscles rapidly and synchronously, improving neuromuscular fitness. Spin-ups, one-minute intervals, and long high-cadence rides are effective drills. One easy way to incorporate this type of training could be to include 10 sets of 20 second spin-ups during warm-ups for intervals or endurance rides. Aim for the highest cadence you can manage while still maintaining control (not bouncing in the saddle) and look to increase that cadence over time. 
  2. Low-cadence training: Low-cadence tempo training (50-60 RPM) requires greater force production, activating more muscle fibers and improving neuromuscular efficiency. Old-school Italian SFRs (Salite Forza Resistenza) are a classic example. Try longer intervals at around 90% of your FTP and 60 RPM. Start with 5 sets of 5 minutes and increase the duration of the interval over time, up to 20 minutes.
  3. Sprints: Sprints train neural drive and rate of force production (RFD), teaching the body to send signals to the muscles quickly. Variations like neuromuscular power zone sprints, big gear sprints, and seated accelerations can be employed. You can either do these in a dedicated session (6-10 x 30 second sprints at 150% of your FTP with long recoveries in between) or you could throw in 2-3 sprints at the end of other sessions.
  4. Strength training and plyometrics: Off-the-bike exercises like strength training and plyometrics complement on-bike neuromuscular work by improving overall neuromuscular power and efficiency.

Most cyclists spend hours and hours training their aerobic fitness each week, but by incorporating some of these drills and concepts into your training, you could find those not-so-marginal gains that take your fitness and performance to the next level. Just make sure you’re using the right tools for the job!