Back to Basics: Cycling Terminology Explained

Training Feb 25, 2021

Within the world of cycling, we see a lot of jargon thrown around. TTs, FTP, cadence, RPE, VO2, etc are used to refer to bike-specific metrics and strategies. They pop up everywhere: on blogs, apps, podcasts and even around the table on ride coffee stops.

Getting started in cycling can be a whirlwind of new subjects, from bikes to kit. The addition of jargon is often confusing and off-putting.

At Pillar we believe in keeping cycling accessible to everyone, so we decided to go back to basics. Starting with our guide to cycling terminology. Below you'll find explanations for training, nutrition and strategy-related jargon, from cadence to carbs, written by our own Pav Bryan.

The world of cycling terminology can be tricky.

Training terminology

What is cadence?

Cadence is the speed at which your legs complete a full pedal rotation. It is sometimes referred to as Revolutions Per Minute (RPM), although cadence is typically relevant to leg speed and RPM is relevant to crank speed, albeit they are the same!

What is leg speed?

Depending on where you live in the world, leg speed could mean a different thing, but we use the term leg speed meaning cadence.

What is FTP?

FTP, or Functional Threshold Power, is an estimation of the average power you could hold for one hour. It is important as it is typically used to gauge effort across other durations and intensities.

To estimate your FTP, you could perform one of several different tests, including, a 20-minute test, a ramp test, or something similar.

For newcomers to structured cycling, it might be prudent to estimate your FTP, keeping the number relatively low, until you have had enough time to familiarise yourself with structured training; as it can be easy to not complete a test correctly.

When it comes to at-home training, you'll keep running into terms like FTP.

What is FTHR?

FTHR, or Functional Threshold Heart Rate, is an estimation of the average heart rate you could hold for one hour. It is important as it is typically used to gauge effort across other durations and intensities.

To estimate your FTHR, you could use previous data or perform a test to see the average heart rate you could sustain for 45-60 minutes.

For newcomers to structured cycling, it might be prudent to estimate your FTHR using old data of a hard ride/session of around 45-60 minutes, until you have built up enough fitness to perform a more structured test.

What is the zone or flow?

Have you ever had a time - perhaps while working, driving or another activity - where time almost passed instantly and before you know it you’re done with that task? It is likely that you were in ‘the zone’ or ‘in flow’.

Being in ‘the zone’ or ‘in flow’ typically reaps some amazing performance benefits.

What are intervals?

Intervals are when you perform at a certain intensity for a certain period of time. Intervals might be made up of a number of repetitions (reps) and sets. They can be at any intensity and of any length.

What is RPE?

RPE is Rate of Perceived Exertion. Typically this is scored on a scale of 1-10, but other scales do exist. This is a subjective view of how hard an effort was; 1 being incredibly easy and 10 being incredibly hard.

It is important to become mindful of your RPE and you will notice benefits of being able to ‘pace to feel’, which is where you can rely on how you are feeling to gauge if you can continue riding at a given intensity.

What are training zones?

Training zones are specific ranges of intensity that relate to either your power (typically FTP) or heart rate (typically FTHR). They will have an upper and lower limit and are used to ensure an athlete is training at the right intensity for their body to produce a certain adaptation, with sufficient recovery.

An example of this might be training in zone 5 in order to increase VO2 max, which will help an athlete climb a steep hill faster.

Sometimes an athlete might experience adaptations in a different zone or said adaptations might ‘bleed’ across into other zones.

Cycling watches and computers use a lot of training terminology.

What are time trials?


Time trials (or TT’s) are often referred to as the “race of truth” as they might be the only true way to compare the raw physical performance between different athletes.
They often vary over a number of different distances or durations (10 mile, 25 mile, 50 mile, 100 mile, 12 hour, and 24 hour are the most common), and allow for no drafting or team tactics amongst competitors. (Note: there are some team time trials (TTT) which allow drafting and tactics between each team).

Courses are often simple and held on open public highways. Competitors are held before a countdown to the start, and then released to go as hard as they can until they complete the course or the time.

In the UK, time trials are often very cheap to enter and can be found almost every day during the typical British summer time, making them a popular choice for those who want to compete against themselves, get a different workout in, or enjoy something new.

Riders can complete a time trial on any bike, but often choose to use time trial specific bikes, with TT specific aero adaptations, clothing, and helmets.

What is VO2 max?

VO2 max (V= volume, O2= oxygen, max= max) is the maximum rate of oxygen consumption during exercise. The higher your VO2 max, the faster you will be able to convert fuel for your muscles to use with oxygen present. This represents a benefit as you have a greater amount of energy available when converted using oxygen.

What is lactate?

Lactate is a chemical byproduct of anaerobic energy production, when there is no oxygen to convert fuel for your muscles. You might experience muscle pain, cramp, and fatigue when lactate is present for too long.

A standard VO2 max test, monitoring your consumption of oxygen.

What is lactate threshold?

Your lactate threshold is the point at which you are building up more lactate that your body can flush away. This results in the horrible feeling when you’re really exerting; like you want to be sick.

What are power words?

Power words are individual words or phrases that you say to yourself as a form of self-encouragement. They can be as primal as a scream or as complex as affirmations. It is highly individual and there must be a degree of enthusiasm from the vocalist.

What is sweat testing?

Sweat testing is a non-invasive method of collecting a sample of your sweat. Typically performed using an electric current (that you can’t feel!) to stimulate your sweat glands to secrete sweat.

The resulting amount of both fluid and sodium content can determine how much you need to drink in water, and how much sodium you need to supplement, per hour, in order to not dehydrate.


Nutrition Terminology

What are electrolytes?

Electrolytes are minerals in our body that carry an electrical charge. We need them in our body to function correctly and are usually lost via urine or sweat (although vomiting and diarrhoea will too).

A deficiency in electrolytes might cause you to feel the following symptoms:

  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Blood pressure changes
  • Muscle cramps
  • Low energy
  • Feeling ‘off’ or unwell

We get our electrolytes from the food we eat. Sometimes it is useful to supplement electrolytes. This often depends on if you eat a specific way or sweat heavily.

Replace electrolytes quickly with sports drinks

What is protein?

Protein is one of three macronutrients, the other two being fat and carbohydrate, used in the body. Protein is made up of amino acids and is essential to building muscle mass.

We find protein in meat products as well as plant sources such as legumes, nuts and seeds.

What is carbohydrate?

Carbohydrate is one of three macronutrients, the other two being fat and protein, used in the body. Carbohydrates (carbs) are made up of naturally occuring sugar, starch and fibre. Carbs make up a large part of how we fuel our body, alongside fats.

We find carbs in fruits, grains and vegetables, as well as processed sources such as sugar.

What is fat?

Fat is one of three macronutrients, the other two being protein and carbohydrate, used in the body. In food, fats are categorised as saturated, unsaturated, polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, and trans fats. As well as providing our body with fuel, fats also have other benefits such as keeping our skin and joints healthy.

We find fat in both meat and plant sources such as oily fish, avocados and coconut.

Carbs, carbs, carbs!

What is glucose?

Glucose is the ready to use source of fuel that powers our body, in this case our muscles. When we eat carbohydrates, our body converts this to glucose. If we have an excess amount of glucose, our body will turn this into glycogen. If we eat far too many carbs, this might also be stored as fat.

What is glycogen?

Glycogen is glucose which was absorbed as carbohydrates. When we eat carbs, our body first turns this into glucose, which is used by our muscles. However, if our body doesn’t need this glycogen, it is then turned into glycogen, which is  easily stored in our muscles and kidney for later use.


Mental and strategic terminology

What are affirmations?

Affirmations are simply a few words, a sentence, or a saying, that you would repeat to yourself (or sometimes read to yourself) to improve a certain aspect of your life. For example, you might say to yourself “I am a strong and capable athlete”, to help build self-confidence in your athletic ability.

What is meditation?

Meditation is a type of mental training. People who meditate tend to practise mindfulness or they focus on thoughts, objects or activities. The benefits can include a calmer more positive mindset, amongst many others.

What is a process goal?

A process goal is a shorter term stepping stone towards your overall, or “A”, goal or event. For example, you might consider a half century ride a process goal for your “A” goal of completing a century ride.

Setting goals will help you structure your journey.

What is an “A” goal?

Your “A” goal is your number one target for any given macro-cycle of training. You might have between 1-3 of these per calendar and they will be the event you focus your training efforts on.

What is a “B” goal?

Your “B” goal is a secondary goal or event that you’d like to do fairly well in, but would sacrifice in order to achieve your “A” goals. You might taper slightly into this event, but would avoid doing your full taper.

What is a “C” goal

Your “C” goal is something that you’d like to complete, but would sacrifice for either an “A” or “B” goal. You probably wouldn’t do any tapering for a “C” goal.

What is a taper?

A taper is a gradual decline in training duration and/or intensity as you head into an event. You might see significant performance improvements by tapering correctly, although you would avoid doing too many tapers as, ultimately, you will find some reversibility.

What is reversibility?

Reversibility is where you have not trained enough and your performance has declined. This can be common for those who taper too much, take too long in recovery weeks or off-season, or those who get sick or simply stop training.

What is a macro-cycle?

A macro-cycle is typically defined as the period between when you start training for your next goal and completing that goal. Macro-cycles are usually 9-12 months long, but are determined by the individual.

Cycling terminology is a sprawling mess of acronyms, jargon and metrics. Don't be fooled, however. Anyone can learn to love the sport with just the basics covered!

In the next article of the Back to Basics series, we'll be covering warm-ups: why they're important, how-tos and Pav's top warm-up routine.


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Pav Bryan

Performance director at Spokes Fit, BikesEtc magazine's "cycling guru" and published author.