One issue that comes up repeatedly when talking with athletes about their training is that many athletes have a tendency to go a little too hard, a little too often. Many people who enjoy feeling fit and strong, want to get better, and have a competitive streak will use their energy on most of their training sessions to push the pace more than they should. Every ride turns into a moderate to hard workout, and every group ride turns into a race for the tops of the hills and all of the town lines.
For anyone that knows me, you would know that I love to ride hard. I love getting in solid workouts and feeling depleted at the end of training sessions. For anyone that has looked over scientific studies about the training of endurance athletes, you would rightly conclude that high intensity exercise is one of the key ingredients to athletic development, and without it, you cannot reach your potential.
But, just because intensity is good for your fitness doesn’t mean that more intensity is better. The desire to have fun going hard doesn’t mean that you should do it on every ride. And, the experience that hard workouts make you fitter doesn’t mean that all of your workouts should be hard.
If you think about it for a second, this is clear. You can’t go hard on every training session and hope to get the most out of them. Whether you train 4 days a week or 7, you need to balance the stress of your training sessions with the amount and quality of recovery that you can get between sessions. And, you need to focus your intensity on the kinds of fitness that will benefit you as an individual pursuing your specific fitness goals. You need to make sure that your training is specific to your history and abilities as an athlete, as well as specific to your goals and the fitness outcomes you are trying to reach.
So what does this mean? If you go out and hammer up every climb, sprint for every town line, and race your buddies on most of your training rides together, then you are creating a lot of moderate stress and you are likely not fully recovering. If you toned it down on some of your training sessions, then you could almost certainly go harder on your hard workouts. Moderate workouts will yield moderate results. If you want to get the best fitness that you can, then you need to get in the highest quality training that you can, and you can’t do that without being fully recovered sometimes in order to do those properly hard, full-gas intervals or very long endurance sessions. And, you can’t reap the full benefit of your training sessions if you don’t allow full recovery.
Just because you feel good enough to push the pace, doesn’t mean that you should. If you could cruise at a steady pace for an extra session or two, and then go 10% harder in a few days, then maybe that’s the right call to make so that you can do that hard workout much better and get more out of it.
I think that many athletes that have work and family obligations and are tight on time feel compelled to go hard on most of their training sessions. It’s tempting to think that if you have scarce training time, then you should try to make the most of it by going hard. Yes, this is true, but you should balance the quality of your training with the quality of your recovery. You should listen to your body and make sure that your harder sessions are actually high quality training sessions and that your recovery is also high quality. That may mean that instead of going kind-of hard on 4 or 5 training sessions each week, maybe you go steady on 2 and go very hard on the other 2 or 3. And, maybe instead of doing a random mix of efforts depending on the terrain and the group that you’re riding with, you could consolidate almost all of the anaerobic intensity of your training into one workout and almost all of the high-aerobic intensity into another session.
To provide an example, maybe one day you do your longest sessoion on the weekend and you do a lot of tempo or threshold intensity climbing efforts throughout that ride. And, then mid-week on one of your shorter sessions you do all of your above-threshold work, whether that’s aerobic capacity intervals or anaerobic sprint efforts. Then, the other days you ride steady and get in some aerobic conditioning, but don’t push too hard so that you can recover well and push hard on the harder sessions.
You may end up doing the same mix of things throughout the week, but if you consolidate your recovery into 2 or 3 blocks each week and you consolidate all of your more intense training into 2 or 3 individual sessions each week, and have a focus for each of those sessions, then you should be able to get much more out of your training. You will be able to create a bigger training stress in a particular direction and then you will be able to recover from it more fully.
Just take a step back from your training, look at it, and ask yourself it makes sense. Could you be more efficient or effective about how you distribute your time and effort throughout the week, month, or season? There are no real shortcuts in training, but there are definitely more efficient ways of doing things and less efficient ways of doing things. Whenever you hear people talking about hacking the human body or hacking training outcomes, if there’s any truth to what they’re saying, it basically reveals something about how inefficiently many people may be doing things. Hacking doesn’t really exist as such, but efficiency definitely does.
I can speak from experience with myself and with my clients, effort rightly applied can get better results than spending even twice as much time and energy on training when that effort is poorly applied.