How do I train when I can’t train? Part 2

Just recently I posted about some of my post-accident thoughts regarding my efforts to train, even tough I really couldn’t in any normal sense of the word. On a similar topic, I wanted to address some basic ideas I had about a more normal, real-world problem: How do I train when I can’t train… because I’m busy, my work schedule is packed, and I have swim meets for my kids or soccer practice or whatever other family stuff on the weekends? This is the real challenge that most everyday athletes face in their efforts to achieve their goals.

Even though you and I may have slightly different goals for our sporting activities, and we may even participate in different sports (cycling, running, triathlon, or what have you), the issues we face are probably the same. In an ideal world, we could do the right amount of training, at the right intensities, at the right times, and thereby maximize our body’s ability to get fitter and thereby we could perform at our very best physical potential. But, unless you’re a well-paid professional athlete or you’re independently wealthy, you’re probably like me and everyone else you know in that you have to balance your sporting life with the rest of your life. This basically leaves us with an optimization problem: how do we get the best results out of our training with the time we have? Ultimately, I try to think of everything as an optimization problem; in training and in other things, I think it’s often a good approach.

The way I look at it, you shouldn’t worry about things you can’t control or change. Don’t get upset if your work schedule or family obligations keep you from training the way that you want to, unless there’s something practical that you can do to adjust things, get a bit more time to train, and keep everyone happy in the process. Definitely do look for those places in your life where you can streamline things, save time, move things around in your schedule, so that you can have a more stress-free existence and make a little more time for your training. Streamlining things is clearly helpful in other areas as well, but as far as training goes, it can be key.

After we’ve seen what our schedule is like and what our realistic training time can be, we should just think about what’s the best way to get the most out of it. How many days should we train? How many hard days? Easy days? Long days? How much or how often can we race? What kind of fitness will I need most for the events I want to do, and how can I get the most of that kind of fitness out of the 6, 8, 12, or however many hours I have to train?

Just for kicks, we can look at how I try to approach my training. Between my work at Mike’s Bikes 30-40 hours each week and my work with my clients, it’s challenging for me to carve out more than 16-20 hours a week to train. Sometimes, I can do more, but not consistently. Most successful stage racers who focus on climbing and time-trialing will train at least 30-50% more than me, but I’ve been able to be competitive with my time by trying to make the most of it. What do I need to focus on as a stage racer with a need to climb and time trial well? I definitely need endurance, a high threshold and aerobic capacity, good strength, and an ability to ride hard day after day. How do I try to accomplish those fitness goals? Each week looks like this:

2 long rides (4-6h) with lots of threshold and aerobic capacity work
2-3 medium-length rides (2-3h), usually with strength, threshold, and aerobic capacity work
1-2 easy rides
1-2 days off the bike to recover
1-3 cross training sessions per week, usually running and/or strength work (especially in the winter)
1 day a week (on average) on the TT bike doing hard efforts (sometimes more)
2-5h of tempo each week
1-3h of threshold each week
20-45m of aerobic capacity each week
variable strength, power, and anaerobic capacity work, depending on the time of year and upcoming events

Trying not to get too bogged down with details, I’ve found that it works well to try to get a lot of intensity into a few medium length rides, to get 1 and hopefully 2 high-quality long rides each week, some time on the TT bike and in the gym, and usually 2 days of quality rest each week. (If you care about the details, check out my Strava, everything is on there). Long rides without high quality efforts are much less valuable than the same ride with hard efforts. 3-4 quality days with 1-2 easy days and 1-2 days off is much more effective than training 6 or 7 days a week at a lower intensity, even for endurance.

What would I do if I had a 9-5, with just commute riding and weekends to train? Most weeks, I would do the following. Every 3 or 4 weeks, maybe if I was extra busy, I would take an extra day or two off, but with a full Monday-through-Friday schedule, it’s hard to overreach on your training. Also, if commuting by bike, we might be dealing with an assumed commute ride back home after work, but that’s fine, just extra time on the bike building an aerobic base.

Monday: off the bike, go for a jog, do some core work, strength training, maybe plyometrics

Tuesday: ~1h, ride to work, warm up 15-20m, do some aerobic capacity efforts (e.g. 3x5m, 5x3m, etc.)

Wednesday: ~1h, ride to work, warm up, do 15-20m tempo, do some big-gear efforts (short accelerations or sustained efforts)

Thursday: ~1h, ride to work, warm-up, do some anaerobic efforts and/or some high-tempo/threshold efforts (depending on racing goals)

Friday: take off the bike, go for a jog, do some core work and light strength work

Saturday: 3-5h, long ride with some high-aerobic efforts (tempo, threshold, and/or aerobic capacity work) or race

Sunday: 1.5-3h, short to medium aerobic endurance maintenance ride with some optional tempo, sprints, and skill/technique drills

That’s only about 6-8 hours of actual riding, maybe 9 or 10 if you had a big week. But, you’d have a good foundation of aerobic fitness, strength, and high-end aerobic and anaerobic power output. I think you’d be doing about the best that you could with that schedule. Plus, you’d have 2 days off of the bike to take a break from riding, rest those muscles a bit, but also work on general conditioning with just a light warm-up jog and then some valuable core work and strength work that should help keep you strong and healthy. Even if you raced every other week, doing a 3-5 hour ride twice a month would keep your endurance in very respectable shape, especially if you could double up with a moderate ride on Sundays at least a few times a month.

The exact recipe will differ for different people or different schedules, but look at what you can do to get in 3 or 4 days with some quality and look at the days when you’re tight on time as a chance to cross train or rest. Always look at how you can try to work things out to get you towards your goals. It’s impossible to address every schedule that different people will have, but hopefully some of the above examples and thoughts might be helpful to some.

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