How to start your early season training

If you’re like a lot of athletes, late fall and early winter is about the time you’ll be coming off of a post-season break. You’ll be thinking about training and about next season. You may be getting antsy, and  anxious to get out and train after taking it easy or even totally off for a bit. That’s great, but just begs the question of how to approach getting ready for next season.

Here are a few thoughts on the subject, motivated by my past experience with myself, working with other athletes, and based on a lot of reading from a variety of sources, whether scientific studies, books on training, or anecdotes about training that other high-level athletes have done in the past.

In it’s shortest bullet-point form, here you go:

  • slowly increase the total volume that you’re training
  • keep the overall difficulty of your training moderate
  • include a lot of aerobic work
  • include some strength work (sport specific or at the gym)
  • include some core work and consider cross training
  • don’t go crazy and do hard intervals, but do include some higher intensity efforts sparingly
  • consider your past weak points and plan to improve where you can
  • plan ahead a bit what your season will be like

In a little more detail, but in the same order:

I usually prefer to stay away from the term “base training” because of the connotations that it implies for a lot of people. It doesn’t really matter what people call things, but I often refer to the November-through-March time period as a time for “foundational” training. For many people “base training” necessarily implies that an athlete is trying to get in a lot of miles and may be proactively avoiding intensity as much as possible. Yes, you need to get in an appropriate amount of training volume and aerobic conditioning in order to reach your potential, and doing too much high-intensity training may compromise that in the long run. But, that doesn’t mean that volume is the end-all metric by which you might gauge the quality of your preparatory training. In fact, some form of high-intensity training is one thing that pretty much every study on endurance athletes shows to be effective. In contrast, the control groups for these studies usually submit to only endurance training, and underperform every time compared to the intensity group. The concern would just be that you can’t continually subject your body to very intense training all of the time. So, for myself and my athletes, I liberally include a variety of moderate efforts throughout the year and sparingly incorporate high intensity efforts as well. This often includes short sprint drills, cadence drills, tempo or sub-threshold climbing efforts, and occasionally, shorter, harder above-threshold efforts. I usually also recommend core work, gym work, and maybe other forms of cross training to build strength and injury resistance. After all, durable athletes are usually the most successful ones.

Always remember that training is specific. Effective training will stress your body so that it progressively gets better at whatever stress is applied to it. So, doing a lot of endurance training will generally make you build endurance, but only to a point. But, if you can comfortably do a long endurance ride of 4-5 hours and you can average 160 watts for that ride, then how many 5 hours rides can you do at 160w and get better? If you do that all winter long and don’t include something else, you’ll go through January and February still doing 5 hour rides at 160w and be no better than you were in November when you started. You don’t need to go out and do peak intensity workouts, but you should include some strength and speed drills as well as some higher intensity aerobic efforts as well.

If your training is never challenging, then you can almost be sure that you’re not stressing your body enough to improve. In some sense, training is a protocol followed in order to create some form of fatigue so that your body can better resist that fatigue in the future. Just keep in mind that there are different forms of fatigue or stress. You can fatigue from running low on glycogen because you’ve been training for hours. You can feel weak and tired from lifting heavy weights. Both of these are very different. One is metabolic and hormonal, because you’re running low on a major fuel source. The other is neuromuscular, because your muscles are having trouble firing with as much force as they previously were, in spite of having fuel to do so. It is good, even necessary, to create different forms of fatigue at different times in your training if you’re to get better.

A note on fatigue, though. If you were doing that routine of just training a bunch, think about your long endurance session that you’re probably going to do every weekend during the winter months. That 2 hours run or 5 hours ride will pretty much always make you tired, but you could also get tired from walking for 10 hours. Clearly, walking for 10 hours will not be good training for pretty much anything… So, if you’re going to do a 2 hour run or a 5 hour bike ride, make it productive and do something within that time that will build strength or raise your aerobic power by including a few sprints or big-gear efforts or tempo/low-threshold climbing efforts.

You want your training to be challenging, and you want to be fatigued on a somewhat regular basis. Still, you don’t want to get carried away and decide that you should train as much and as hard as possible. Training like this can burn you out mentally and physically. Always remember, it isn’t training hard that makes you stronger, it’s the recovery that comes afterwards that helps you improve. That being said, none of the training you do in the preparatory/foundational phases of training should be terribly hard. You can and should recover fairly quickly from most of these training sessions. So, if you’re taking care of your body and have enough time to do so, you can probably train moderately most of the time.

Along these lines of making training challenging but not brutal, most of your training should be aerobic fitness and strength oriented. You can build aerobic fitness by doing steady endurance training and by including some tempo and low-threshold kinds of efforts. If you’re training, say, 8-10 hours per week, it would be great if you could get in 20-60m of training just below your last season’s peak 60m intensity. You could start out in November with just a few 10m efforts and build up so that in February, you’re doing 3x20m or doing a couple of workouts that include 2x15m, for example. You could also include a couple of hours at your tempo pace, which should be about 75-85% of that intensity. If you’re a more experienced and fitter rider, you could push that up to even 90% of your peak 60m intensity. Similarly, you should include some on and off the bike strength and power work. This can be strength training at the gym, as well as big-gear work and short snappy sprints out on the road. Or, if you’re a runner, hills and stairs are great for building strength, as well as strides at 90% of your sprint for 70-100 meters at a time.

Don’t assume that only practicing your sport of choice is enough to reach your potential in that sport. People in every sport recognize the benefit of having balanced strength, a strong core, and good flexibility. Doing other similar, but different activities can be well worth while. Running, cross-country skiing, rowing, kayaking, mountain biking, strength training, yoga, etc. There are a lot of good possibilities. When it comes down to the bottom line of performance, strength training in conjunction with some form of stretching and endurance training is about the best thing you can do to bolster your overall fitness. Strength training can significantly increase strength, strength endurance, aerobic capacity, and most every metric of endurance sports. It seems like much of this comes down to an increase in neural recruitment of muscle fibers and increased endurance of those neural pathways…. Increasing strength and power increase performance and those goals are perhaps best accomplished with weighted strength exercises, and can be complimented with sport specific movements. Outside of gym work, consider mixing it up and doing a few days away from your chosen sport, doing other activities you enjoy.

As much as it’s good to enjoy training and enjoy exerting yourself, it’s good to pay attention to your body and not overdo it in training. It’s okay to occasionally get wrecked from hard training sessions or to have big training weeks that leave you feeling very tired. But it’s not okay to grind away at a constantly challenging training regimen that leaves your body low on recovery and high on fatigue. Don’t plan out tons of training and blindly stick to it when you can feel your body is getting worn down. And, don’t get too excited to include intensity in your program so that you’re doing threshold or VO2-max intervals twice a week in January and reaching a kind of faux peak of fitness in the beginning of February when you could reach a higher peak later on if you planned things right. Always remember, training is meant to create fatigue. If you feel tired, then your training is at least a little effective. But, you get stronger when you recover from hard training, not from the training itself.

Lastly, look back on what you’ve done well in the past and what you’ve seen lacking in your fitness. What is it in races that you find easy or hard, what do you do well and poorly? Take stock of where you’re at and where you want to be. Look at ways that you can overcome your past or current liabilities. Sometimes just filling in an empty spot in your training routine can make a big difference. If you can’t sprint, then practice. Maybe go to the gym. Both can help a lot, and probably will carry over into other aspects of your sports performance. Or if you can’t sustain high-intensity efforts for long, then practice that. Maybe start with moderate intensity efforts for long periods and slowly increase the intensity of those efforts. Or, target a goal pace or power output and do intervals that get progressively longer and have progressively less recovery between efforts.

Along similar lines, plan ahead for the coming season and see what you want to do, when, and think about how you should plan for that. Consider adding breaks in your training so that you can get extra recovery part-way through the season to reset your mental and physical fatigue. This can be as simple as mapping out the races you think you might do, or even planning specific workouts ahead of time that you know will make you ready for those goal events.

How to deal with vacation time

One of the challenges that athletes may face when they have a job that requires travel, family vacations, or other reasons to travel, is that they have to spend days or weeks away from their normal training grounds and often away from their bike, pool, or good running routes. Sometimes you can’t train at all, or maybe you can, but all you have is a hotel gym and some running shoes. How do you cope with these challenges? Can you maybe even train effectively when you’re on the road? Well, here are a few thoughts.

Bullet points:

  • focus on intensity if you’re short on time
  • consider the hotel gym for an uphill treadmill run and/or weights
  • load up a little extra on higher volume and/or intensity training before the vacation (when you’ll presumably be getting extra recovery away from normal training)
  • don’t stress, but try to get in some training every other day if you can

A little more in depth:

First off, if you will actually have much more time to train while away from home, the trip is probably more of an opportunity than a limitation. Clearly, there’s no need to worry, and you’ll probably just plan ahead to make that week a little longer or harder than your normal routine at that point in your season. If you’re building your aerobic and strength foundations in the early season, then you might plan a higher volume week than normal. Or perhaps if you’re looking ahead to a stage race in 4-5 weeks, you might do a higher volume block of training that includes some high-intensity work as well. If you’re in the middle of the racing season, and intensity is the deciding factor in your races, and not endurance, then increasing volume wouldn’t be helpful and you should focus on race-specific intense workouts, probably the same as you would train at home. Just have fun and remember that your training should be specific to your goals.

On the other hand, if your trip away from home reduces your ability to train, then I wouldn’t necessarily get upset by the fact that you’re away from your bike for a few days or even a week or more. Likewise, it’s not the end of the world if you have to spend a whole day going to the airport, flying, and then driving to your destination on the other end, without any time to train that day… Just think of it as enforced recovery time. If you normally ride 2 hours every other day, or 1 hour every day, it can sometimes be disconcerting to athletes to think that they have to lose a few days of training, especially if they are already somewhat limited by their normal work/life/family routine. And, at the destination, sometimes athletes are really strapped for time while they’re at business meetings all day, and business dinners every night, or if they’re busy doing things with family during the bulk of their trip.

Well, given the fact that you may have the entirety of your trip off, the first and most important thing I would suggest doing before your trip is to do a small block of elevated intensity and/or volume if you can. If you’re traveling for the holidays in the middle of the off-season, then see if you can’t do a high-volume weekend right before your trip with 2 or 3 longer training sessions. If it’s in the middle of the season, then consider doing higher volume and intensity than normal, or if your competitive goals don’t rely on endurance and aerobic fitness so much as intensity, then just do normal training volume, but do a few workouts that are harder than normal right before your trip. If you go into your trip fatigued and thoroughly stressed from recent workouts, then regardless of necessity, you’d want to take some days off or easy traveling or not. Even on the day of your travel, if you have the day off and have an afternoon flight, for example, you could go out for a hard morning workout before you’re taken away from your bike or local training grounds.

Once you’re on your trip, it’s good to look into what options you’ll have while you’re gone and make a plan. If you’re busy all day at meetings or family events, then perhaps all you have the option to do is to get in some 30-45 minute sessions in the hotel gym or to go for some morning runs before your day gets started. If that’s the case, then consider your goals, where you’re at in your training, and what will be the best option for you at that time. Sometimes, just doing a light run, some core work, and a few weights will be great general conditioning as you build overall fitness early in the season. Maybe if you’re well into your preparatory training, you might get in a good warm-up and then do some moderate to heavy weights if gym work is already a part of your home routine. Or, perhaps if you’re getting close to the competitive part of your season and intensity is the priority, then consider using a treadmill or exercise bike to do some intervals at whatever intensities are relevant to your competitive goals. Or, sometimes more fun, you could find a good hill to run up or a stadium to do intervals on. Actually, for cyclists, uphill or stair running is one of the very best ways to cross-train for cycling, because you engage your muscles with similar speed and at similar angles to what you do while cycling. Flat running is great, but differs significantly in muscular recruitment patterns from bicycling.

If you have a bike shop near your destination, then maybe you can rent a bike for a day or two to get in some training, and even if you can only ride twice during a week-long vacation, that will make you feel much better when you come back and will mitigate or completely erase any training gains you would have lost if you took the week completely off. Or if biking is not an option, doing a few long hikes can be a great alternative to endurance cycling. I’ve definitely enjoyed trips where maybe I just rent a bike for a day and take it for an afternoon ride and a second ride the next morning before returning the bike, and just having 2 rides plus a few runs during a week away from home and I feel fine when I get back. Or, I also enjoy cranking up a hotel treadmill to 10% gradient and running at a comfortably quick pace for 20-30m plus a few weights. I know I got a workout that worked my aerobic system and maintained strength.

Ultimately, just think about how you think you can best make a few minor adjustments to your training before, during, or after the trip. Sometimes just adding an extra day before or a few extra miles the weekend before plus a few trips to the gym during the trip, and you won’t miss a beat. You can come home a little refreshed and ready to get back to your normal routine without any loss in fitness or good training sensations.

Things to Consider as the Racing Season Starts

Assess your fitness and adjust your training.

If you start your racing season, then try to pay attention to where your weak spots are in your fitness. Try to see if you’re lacking in endurance, high-end aerobic power, basic speed, or strength endurance for repeated hard efforts. All of these things can be limiting factors in race day performance, so if you can identify what is relevant to the events you will be doing and the aspects of your fitness that might limit your ability to get the results that you want. Early in the season as you start to do very hard workouts or start to race is the perfect time to re-evaluate your progress and consider whether you want to make adjustments to your training.

935083_10151482303821923_858001785_nConsider dietary adjustments.

Early in the pre-season when you’re probably focused on endurance and general aerobic conditioning, your diet can likely be very balanced without a need for large quantities of additional carbohydrate. As training and racing becomes more intense, there is more to be gained by increasing carbohydrate intake as well as considering extra protein after races and hard workouts.

Also, as your training gets more stressful and your high-end aerobic fitness becomes more important, you should try to make sure that you get enough iron and b-viatmins in your diet. Iron is necessary for the transport of oxygen in your blood and the absorption of oxygen by your working muscles for aerobic metabolism. Many reputable sources and studies on iron intake in endurance athletes provide strong support for the idea of taking supplemental iron during times of heavy training and racing. This can be even more important for female athletes. If you are vegetarian or vegan, iron supplementation is almost certainly a good idea, and B-12 supplementation is necessary. Other B-vitamins are available from plant sources, but B-12 is not, and must be consumed in meat or supplemental form.

If you are supplementing with iron or considering it, then definitely look into getting your blood checked at least once or twice a year. Iron overdose can happen in two forms. Acutely, if you consume too much of it at one time, then you can cause damage to your internal organs, but that’s only likely to happen if you swallow a half-bottle full of iron pills. This is clearly very unlikely to occur, but long term supplementation can lead to excess iron storage in some individuals. In general, with iron and a lot of other nutrients your body will automatically absorb less of nutrients that it has an abundance of, but all the same, if you have a lot of iron in your diet for a long period of time, you can accumulate excessive amounts of it in your blood. This is most likely to occur if you have an uncommon genetic trait that causes excess accumulation of iron, but like many things, what is enough for one person may be not enough or too much for another. Checking all iron related metrics in your blood is the only way to monitor this.

Take a break or take it easy when you need to.

Throughout the pre-season, most athletes are building endurance and strength at a slow and steady pace. They aren’t racing yet and aren’t doing super intense interval sessions yet, nor are they racing. So, with few exceptions, most athletes can construct a slow and steady progression with adequate stress to get fitter but also adequate recovery to keep from burning out mentally or physically. But, as you start to do harder interval sessions, blocks of hard training with multiple hard workouts in a short period, and races, you need to make sure that you recover adequately from those.

Remember, training doesn’t make you stronger or fitter. Neither does racing. Rather, recovering from those stresses is what makes you a stronger, fitter athlete, so just remember to take that into account as you do more races or as you plan a series of weeks with intense intervals. The harder you race or train, the more recovery you need. Recovery can be a reduction in volume, intensity, days training, or all of the above. But, at the same time, you have to take your long term development into account and if you’re doing intense interval sessions, but stop doing longer rides altogether, then your endurance and aerobic efficiency will suffer. If you take a few weeks off after a stretch of hard racing, then you might need to build back up again with some strength and endurance type training before high-intensity training will really benefit you much.

A few red flags and things to keep in mind when you’re training to see if you need to tone it down:

resting HR (chronically elevated)

peak HR during exercise (low)

consistently, significantly lower HR for tempo/threshold efforts

dead-leg feeling when training

need for sleep, quality of sleep

excessive, chronic soreness or achiness

sudden, persistent reduction in performance

sudden, notable, unplanned weight loss

increased adiposity (unexpected, not directly attributable to dietary changes)

significant changes in bloodwork (if you monitor that regularly)

increased irritability, anxiety, depression not directly attributable to outside sources

lack of motivation, desire to train

Plan ahead.268951_10151376917441923_1852308830_n

Whether you have well defined, specific goals for your season, or take a relaxed approach of work when you need to, train when you can, race when it sounds fun… it’s good to have an appropriate level of planning so that no matter your goals, you are building up towards them at a good rate. If you’re getting tired or overtrained, or if you notice that you’re behind where you want to be, then you can make adjustments if it’s 2 or 3 months out from your goal event(s). Even if it’s 4-5 weeks out, you can make a huge difference by making your training harder, easier, or whatever you need to do. But, if you realize that you peaked already and are coming down off of that level of fitness and you have 2 or 3 weeks until your goal event, or if you realize that you haven’t put in the intensity that you need, it’s hard to do a lot with just a few weeks to go.

Likewise, if you have a lot of goal races in April/May and then again in August, for example, then you should consider what kind of break you might want to take after the early season peak. Then you can re-build your foundation and top it off with some races and hard workouts when the time is right in late June and July, for example… Just don’t race every week or two throughout the year with the same intensity and focus and expect to ever get much better. It’s totally fine to do that if you’re just trying to have fun or your baseline fitness is in line with your goals for that kind of racing schedule. But, if you want to try to reach your highest level of fitness a few times throughout the season, then you need to plan for that and adjust your training appropriately rather than just keeping at it and hoping it works out for the best. It usually doesn’t take much to allow yourself a good progression throughout the season, even if it’s not perfect, you can realize good results and set PRs or achieve other goals with just a little foresight.