Group Rides: everyone seems to have an opinion regarding their inherent value. Some say group rides are bad and should be avoided at all costs. Others wouldn’t miss them for the world, showing up like clockwork every Tuesday or Thursday night, primed and ready to take out their frustration over being emasculated by an office cubicle for the last 8 hours.
Coaches Hate Group Rides
Most coaches love to hate on group rides. As a general rule of thumb coaches love order and discipline. In large part it’s what attracts them to the profession (as it did me). The group ride is often seen as the archenemy to order and discipline, a chaotic and unstructured mish-mash of saddle time (not unlike a race ironically) that could be better spent drilling precise and measured intervals.
A longing for precision and measurability is what leads many coaches to look at their athletes like science-experiments (which can be a good thing actually, as I wrote about here). Pour in X ingredient, wait X amount of time, and observe the results: measurable, controllable, and repeatable. The problem with this singular perspective on training is that it ignores human variability. Few athletes have the time or mental fortitude to be coached like a science experiment. They struggle with motivation, get tired, stressed, and maybe bored. They balance work, school, and family lives with their desire to train and improve on the bike. They have a capacity to train hard but also need a balance of fun.
Group Rides Have Value
This is where the group ride comes in. It offers an instant injection of social interaction, external motivation, and race-like adrenaline. While a group ride might have debatable “training” value, it offers value in a larger context of an intelligent training approach that focuses on long term, steady improvement rather than instant success brought on by a three-month block of bone-crushing intervals. So how do you implement group rides into your training plan while insuring that you’re continuing to maximize your available training time and get faster on the bike?
First of all, it might be helpful to look back at the old-school principle of “overload”. This principle states that in order to get faster or stronger one needs to introduce a training stimulus that challenges the body. Simple concept, you need to “overload” your body with a training stimulus in order to elicit positive training adaptations. So what does the principle of overload have to do with group rides?
Group rides generally follow a pretty predictable pattern. There are the fast guys launching attacks and riding aggressively at the front of the group. There are the medium guys who throw in an attack or two but generally hold their cards close to the chest, and there are the slower guys who are hanging out and looking to simply enjoy the dynamics of a group ride.
Comfort: The Enemy
The problem with this caste system is that it rarely introduces a training overload to anyone but the most aggressive in the group. For the majority of riders a sufficient training overload isn’t the outcome of a group ride, comfort is. Comfort and familiarity are the counterparts of overload, insuring that you never get any faster. If fun is your primary objective then don’t worry about any “training objectives”, just go out and exercise the demons of your work day.
Whatever your approach, remember that your body is incredibly efficient at adapting. You can’t expect to get faster if you’re not challenging that adaptation. It’s up to you to provide the overload, through focused and disciplined training or by stretching yourself beyond your comfort zone on a group ride.