Want to get stronger? Don't do these things!
Having spent more than three decades involved in endurance sport and most of that as a scientist / coach / adviser, I have on many occasions felt a high level of frustration watching athletes make the same mistakes over and over again. So for the record, based on 30 years or so of research, observation, participation and more recently, data analysis, here are the five things you MUST avoid if you want to reach anything like your cycling potential. I implore you to have an honest look at what you have been doing, get you plan together and get off the "two steps forward - two steps back" road to nowhere. Time is precious, so stop wasting it.
One: Fall into a pattern of stop / start.
Unquestionably, the most important component of any endurance training plan (or application of that plan) is consistency. It is almost certainly true that all endurance athletes will make some progress, no matter what training plan they use, provided they simply maintain a diligent, consistent commitment to complete training sessions (75-80% compliance is excellent and rare) over an extended period of time (6-24 months). It is the repetitive disruption to training commitment that is the biggest barrier to progress. So if you find yourself in a challenging circumstance that makes it difficult to train consistently, undertake to at least complete some training sessions. Pick a realistic target (two sessions per week) and commit to it. If you are able to "keep in touch" with your fitness, good form will never be too far away.
Two: Take your training advice from your mates (or Google or a magazine or Sagan or any other "out of context" source).
One of the best (and worst) things about our modern society is the access to information. The challenge that comes with this access, is being able to wade through the "chaff" in order to get to the "gold". Some information is even subject to a "dual personality of sorts", great for some and counter-productive for others. So be rigorous with your scrutiny of information, seek out qualified, experienced people and be 100% sure that your own unique training history, age, physiology and riding goals, are a considered part of any training solution / program. Rest assured, it is entirely possible that the same training that produces a great result for your buddy, will actually send you backwards.
Three: Ride with your ego
Aside from lack of consistency (see point one above) the mistake I see most often is cyclists (almost always males), ridding too hard too often. This is usually out of a misguided view that prioritising intensity over "miles" is the most effective and time-efficient way to train. Intensity IS very important, but is only really effective if applied in the right dose, at the right time and with a targeted purpose. Intensity without base in the metaphorical "house of straw", you get your form built quickly but it is very unlikely to last long. Cycling is an endurance sport and endurance is founded on the aerobic energy system. If your riding is always short and hard, you ARE relying too much on anaerobic processes. The inevitable outcome here is a form collapse........sound familiar?
Four: Make it up as you go along
There is an old saying in the legal profession....."a person who represents themselves in court has a fool for a lawyer". If you are making up your own training plan and worse still if you are taking "piecemeal" advice from a variety of sources (even if each one of those sources is qualified), without knowing how the pieces fit together, you WILL fail. The key is knowing how each thing you do effects everything else, a diet (or nutrition plan) may be wonderful when assessed in isolation. However that same plan may become completely useless when the physical activity demands of an individual are over-layed. So get a plan (best to have ONE expert coordinate), trust it, stick to it and stop looking for shortcuts or magic solutions.
Five: Overthink the process
I am consistently astounded by how complicated athletes seem to want to make things. There are a few core principles that need to be in place, but essentially, the process of improving as an endurance athlete (and YES even the nutrition) is NOT complicated. So if you find yourself in a place where it feels complicated....STOP.... simplify things, find a coach / trainer you trust and just commit to the process. Accept that your fitness will go up and down. Accept that you cannot BUY fitness. Accept that it is going to take some time. Make a plan / Set some goals / Keep it simple. Then get out there and ride.
The Final Word
Cycling (sorry trackies) is an endurance sport. One of the most important attributes of all successful endurance athletes is PATIENCE. Yep, not VO2, not genetics, not limb-length ratio, just patience. In fact I would go so far as to say that if you do not have patience, are not prepared to wait (and work) for results, you are not going to make it to your "potential best". Find an experienced, trusted, qualified person, get a plan and be patient. Your success is ultimately in your own hands.....which may be a good (or bad) thing.