Damage Control: Training When You’re Slammed with Work or Life

It happens to everyone. Sometimes things are going good and steady. You wake up, you get some training in, you do your work, relax or go out on the weekends, and everything’s fine. But then something comes up or your schedule changes, and then it seems like training is disrupted, interrupted, or otherwise just plain messed up. (Skip to the bottom if you just want to skim some bullet points.)

I think that establishing a balanced rhythm or routine for your activities/commitments is one of the most important things you can do for their athletic success, personal satisfaction, and general well-being. Maybe you can ride every day and race whenever you want to, or maybe you have to squeeze in a 45m indoor training session 3x per week and just get in a slightly longer workout on the weekends, and you’re happy to get in just 5 or 6 hours on the bike each week. Whatever you can do to keep a routine and keep a steady flow of training is going to pay off in the long run. Clearly, some people have more time to train than others, or sometimes your schedule’s flexibility changes. Maybe we don’t like it, but that doesn’t really matter. What matters is that we try to make the most of the resources that we have on hand without worrying about things our of our control. It doesn’t really matter what our schedule could be like or about what other people do. Rather, making comparisons can often make us dissatisfied by thinking things could be better. Do take advantage of any tweaks you can make to your routine to maximize your productivity at work, your free time at home, and your availability to train, but never worry about the things that you can’t change or can’t control. Rather, just try to make the most of whatever it is you’re dealing with.

Do what we will, things still come up and get in the way. It can be a challenge sometimes if you get swamped at work and have long hours, if you’re planning a wedding, have a child’s soccer season or family vacation to work around… Sometimes you just can’t train the way you’d like to or the way you’re used to. Though this may be the case sometimes, I think the worst thing you can do is take an all-or-nothing approach and give up.

You might tell yourself: “This is lousy! I can’t train at all this week, next week looks like a mess, and the week after that I’m out of town for work. It looks like my training just isn’t going to happen for the next three weeks, and it’ll probably take me at least a month or two to catch up after taking a break like that! I guess it doesn’t matter what I do now, I might as well give up and just do what I can to start over in a month or two!”

Anyway, try not to worry about it, and just do what you can. Here are a few thoughts on what to do:

  • Just do what you can. 30 min on an indoor trainer before work is way better than nothing at all.
  • Commute by bike or foot. Take the long way home, or stop by the gym.
  • Stop by the gym on your lunch break. Do some strength work or a quick 30m interval session.
  • Work on your weak spots. Do some core work, strength exercises.
  • Focus on intensity. After a warm-up, doing sprints, 30 sec efforts, or 1 min efforts with short recovery is almost certainly the most efficient way to train when you’re temporarily tight on time.

If you’re stuck on a trainer or treadmill, then consider condensing the hard work of a longer ride into a quick few minutes of discomfort with short intervals or a few longer high-aerobic efforts. Basically, if you can’t train for 2 or 3 or 4 hours, then focusing on intensity will do the most for your fitness in the least amount of time. You’ll engage your muscles at a high level, create more metabolic stresses on your body, and get your heart and lungs to work at a high level. Basically, you’ll train your nervous system, your mitochondria, and your cardio-pulmonary systems at a high level for a short time, yielding far more improvements in your fitness than if you were to just do a steady session of “endurance” or “conversational” paced training for 30-40 min.

Consider the following workout suggestions to squeeze in a decent amount of training in a short period of time:

  • 10-15m steady to get warmed up
  • 5-10m alternating steady with some tempo or short accelerations to get ready to ride hard
  • workout (do one of the following):
    • 2-4 sets 5×30 sec hard, 30 sec easy
    • 2×3 min threshold, 4-6×1 min hard/maximal, 2-3 min easy between
    • 2×4 min threshold, 2×2 min VO2/hard, 2m easy
    • 3-4×6-8 min tempo easing into threshold, finishing the effort as it becomes highly uncomfortable, 2 min easy
    • 4 min threshold, 8×20 sec hard, 40 sec easy, 4 min threshold, 2 min VO2/hard, 2 min easy between efforts or sets
    • 6-8 min tempo, 2×2 min VO2, 4-6 min threshold, 6×30 sec hard, 30 sec easy, 2 min easy between efforts or sets
  • 5-10m easy spinning to cool down

If you’re tight on time, and you’re trying to develop your high-end fitness more, then try to get in more intense workouts if you can and make sure that you have a bit of a snack or meal after your workouts, nothing crazy, but just a few calories, some protein, and fluids will be good. If you’re trying to focus more in building endurance, but you’re tight on time and can’t work out that long, then you may experiment with training in the morning before you eat breakfast, skipping breakfast and training on your lunch hour, and/or limiting your carbohydrate intake a couple of days each week… all of these things will encourage your body to be in a hormonal state that favors fat metabolism and mitochondria production (i.e it encourages general aerobic/endurance fitness). If you rely on a high-carbohydrate diet all of the time, and you aren’t training at a high volume, you’re giving yourself a handicap by preventing your body from ever having to fully develop better fat-burning capabilities. If you’re a professional athlete or have a very flexible schedule and can train 4-6 hours a couple times a week or get in 20 hour training weeks, then you’ll be training at least several hours each week with relatively low glycogen. But, if you’re training 1-1.5 hours 3-4 days/week and 2-3 hours once per week, then you’re never really requiring your body to work out much or at all in a glycogen depleted state, which is perhaps the most significant stressor that makes us develop better endurance and increases our fat-burning capacity.

Don’t worry, just try to get it done. Even if you just carve out 30 minutes every day or every other day to do something, you’ll be way ahead of where you’d be without that 30 minutes, and it’s something that most of us can make time for.

Thoughts on Triathlon

As I work on transitioning into triathlon, I’m clearly approaching a different set of challenges and have to orient my training very differently than I’ve been doing for road cycling the last several years. The obvious questions I face, along with any athlete, is how do I best train for my goal events? Well, here are some of the main topics I’ve been thinking about, which I’ll post a few articles about:

– positives and challenges as I move to triathlon

– training structure and periodization (and how it will differ from past training)

– body composition/body mass

– pacing (bike versus running, even pacing versus not)

To get things started, I thought I would address two of these issues. The first two and last two listed above seem highly related to me, so I’ll do two at a time.

Positives: I’m happy with all of my cycling experience and hope that I can sustain a lot of the bike fitness that I have from road cycling as I try to enhance my swimming and running fitness. With the cycling fitness that I have, I will probably lean on that training more than the others as I transition into running and swimming more and more. This is largely because my workout quality and risk for injury will probably be better on the bike than running, but the aerobic fitness will carry over well to running. Swimming, on the other hand, seems like its own thing to a certain extent and relies on its own training and technique development.

That being said, I’m also pleased to look back on my running background and derive some level of confidence about my previous ability to train at a relatively high mileage and my previous running performances. Already, I know from the feel of things that I am basically as fit of a runner as I ever was in past years, because my training paces and faster running paces in workouts feel very much the same. But, I do have a little extra body mass that helps with cycling, but just hinders efficiency running and increases the stress on my bones and joints. (Not that it matters, but I used to weigh about 138-142lb/63-64kg as a runner through high-school and early college, whereas as a cyclist I have been more like 162-165lb/73-75kg.)

Concerns/Challenges: My biggest two concerns or challenges are swimming and injury prevention, primarily with running. More specifically, swimming is an event driven largely by technique, and I know that I will need to work on improving that in order to be competitive. I’m confident that I can, but at the same time, it’s not like running and cycling where you generally will get better by just doing the sport. Swimming requires learning and practicing good technique. Ultimately, it’s the sport in which I have the least experience and the most room for improvement.

In order to try to move forward and keep a good outlook on things, I’ve proactively tried to focus on improving technique and taking positive lessons or experiences out of every swim practice. Rather than be concerned about how I might not be a good swimmer now, I can try to identify things (or use other people to help identify things) that I can work on and improve. And, just as a general observation and experience that I’ve had so far, it seems like swimming should probably look easy. If you look like you’re trying hard, you’re probably not working very efficiently and are wasting energy, so if you can make it look easy, that is likely to be a very efficient technique… Clearly that won’t necessarily teach you anything about what good technique is or what’s going to be fast, but it’s something to keep in mind.

As far as injury prevention is concerned, I’ve never had any serious running injuries in the past and have been very happy about that. Even in college as I worked up to keeping a pretty steady 50-80 mile training load per week, I was able to avoid anything other than minor passing aches and soreness. That being said, I haven’t run much in several years and have more weight impacting my bones and joints, so just being aware of those things, I am trying to be proactive in keeping the volume and intensity of my running modest. I intend to increase it slowly and steadily, paying attention to any discomfort that I feel, so that I can hopefully avoid any trouble.

Overall training structure and periodization: Triathlon is definitely a very different sport than cycling and has very different energy demands, so the training structure will necessarily be different in order to accomplish different goals. I’ve done a lot of thinking about how I want to arrange my cycling, running, swimming, and cross training.

First off, the events themselves will be determined mostly by your ability to sustain a high pace for a long time, whereas in bike races that’s very important but so too is your ability to put in much more intense efforts intermittently at crucial moments. In training for bike races, intensity usually rises progressively throughout a training cycle, but for triathlon, it seems a different approach should be taken. Roughly speaking, I think that the first 2/3 of a training cycle for a triathlete should get higher in volume and intensity as the athlete tries to build up their endurance and high-end aerobic fitness. This would look similar to a traditional progression for a bike racer. But, in the last several weeks before a key event, the triathlete will probably engage in a cycle that narrows the focus (and reduces their intensity a little) to focus specifically on training at or around race-pace, building their tolerance to those intensities. I think I’ll approach the sport by trying to build the most endurance and aerobic capacity that I can before narrowing the focus down to threshold or just below as I get ready for goal events. I will still want to be doing some longer and more intense workouts to try to sustain a high level of endurance and aerobic capacity, because I think that will still be important. So, that might look something like this graph:

triathlon macrocycle

A training cycle might start out with moderate volume, but quickly increase over a few months and then sustained at a high level before being reduced in the last 3-6 weeks before a key event. Intensity would also start out at a moderate level, slowly increase, and then peak maybe 2-3 months out from a key event before being decreased to focus more specifically on race-pace intensities and less so on above threshold efforts to develop maximal aerobic capacity or anaerobic fitness. Likewise, cross training (e.g. strength training, plyometric training, flexibility training) would start off at maybe 2x/week, progress to 3x/week as volume and overall foundational fitness progresses, and finally could be reduced as sport specific training intensity increases, at which time it may be included just 1-2x/week. Of course, this is vague and general, but I hope gets the idea across. Basically, you still want to develop maximal aerobic fitness, but I think that then it will be good to focus that fitness on race-pace specific training for 3-6 weeks going into a key event so that you can use your fitness to its potential by increasing tolerance to the sub-maximal efforts required by triathlon.

Again, because of my recent background, I will rely more on cycling than running to gain fitness initially, but will increase my running volume as I find that my body tolerates it (i.e. that I get less and less sore or stiff from running). I do think, however, that I will never engage in truly high-mileage running, because of the increased risk for injury and because I know that runners are more prone to anemia than cyclists or swimmers, largely because of the trauma that blood cells sustain while pounding the roads or trails.  I don’t know if this was the case with me, but I do know that I personally had low blood values (i.e. hematocrit, hemoglobin, etc.) back when I was a runner, whereas the last few years as a cyclist, my blood values have been much more normal (say, hematocrit around 42-44 versus 36-38 as it was 10 years ago). Of course there are other factors in involved in this, so it’s hard to say for sure, but it’s definitely something I want to monitor. To that end, with moderate running volume I will focus more on brick workouts and running at or around race-pace more than just getting in mileage at slower paces. This should allow effective training at a lower volume and maximize the improvements at race-pace, because runners tend to get the most efficient at the paces they regularly practice. For that reason, I want to practice the neural and muscular stresses of running at those paces more than I want to rack up a lot of miles just for the sake of doing so. (Again, I would insert a plug for my favorite book on endurance sport training, Better Training for Distance Runners by Martin and Coe, advocating for multi-pace training as opposed to the popular but increasingly outdated Lydiard method.)

Likewise, I will try to develop good swimming technique through practice in training sessions, but there is limited fitness to gain from swimming itself. Even though it is probably my biggest liability right now in the sport, it’s also the shortest leg and relies the least on fitness per se and more on technique and being able to quickly and efficiently cover the distance. Just like biking, as you increase your speed swimming, the effort and energy required goes up exponentially, but for the time gained, that curve is even steeper. Namely, if you go faster on the bike and try to save 2-3m then you probably have to go maybe 4% harder, but if you want to save 2-3m on the swim, then you have to go probably 10-15% harder assuming you’re swimming in the mid-20m range. Again, 70.3 favors fitness and effort in cycling and running more than in swimming. I will do what I can to get as fast as I can, but focus on doing so in the most relaxed fashion that will allow a smooth transition into the bike leg with minimal wasted energy… again, assuming you’re an average to good swimmer, saving 2m on the swim will likely tire you out and cost you more time later in the race.

How should I approach the off-season?

It’s October now, and for most cyclists that means that the competitive season has been done for probably 1-2 months now. In all likelihood, you’ve taken some time off the bike, or at least shied away from doing a lot of intense workouts, intervals, and all of those things race-specific in your training, which is probably a good thing. It’s good to take a little time to reduce the volume and intensity of your training at the end of the racing season. A break from steady training can help give your body and mind a bit of a rest. Ideally, your body can hopefully heal any minor aches it might have, and your mind can get refreshed with increased motivation and focus to resume training when the time arrives.

Now that it’s been a month or two since training seriously and competing, now what? Should I be doing a lot of long-slow distance [LSD] riding? Should I be lifting weights? Should I start off slow and increase my training volume slowly for 3-4 months leading into the coming season? What about doing VO2 intervals? long-threshold efforts? sprint drills?

Well, to try to get to the point, we can just start off with a list of things to do in sequence:

1. Take a break from hard training. Give yourself a mental and physical break from the stress of training hard and racing. Take some time to do some things you don’t get as much time to do during the season.

2. Assess your past training and racing, and see where you’ve done well and where you can improve. You can probably quickly regain fitness in areas where you are strongest, but those areas where you struggle to equal your competition can lead you towards some of the work you’ll want to do in the off-season.

3. Make a plan to establish a good foundation of strength, endurance, and aerobic fitness. Everyone will need to build their strength and endurance while maintaining a moderate level of aerobic fitness during the off-season. That way, when they replace more and more of their foundational strength and endurance training with race-specific, higher intensity workouts, they will have a broader foundation upon which to build that high-end fitness. Once you find yourself in the middle of the season racing every weekend instead of doing longer training rides and focusing your workouts on aerobic capacity, sprint, and anaerobic capacity workouts, you don’t want to find that your strength and endurance are fading significantly because you didn’t get enough of that work done in the months leading into the competitive season.

4. Over the next few months, proceed to develop strength, endurance, and aerobic fitness as you ease into harder workouts as the competitive season draws near. Basically, once you have a plan, you need to implement it as well as you can. Clearly, weather, work obligations, family holiday plans, etc. etc. can make it more challenging to do each part of the training plan that was originally worked out. Try to stay relaxed and don’t get frustrated or throw your arms up when your training gets pushed around by other things in your life. When that happens, remember that any training that you can do will add to your future fitness, so even if you can only get in 2-3h on the Saturday that you had planned for 5h, definitely go for it and maybe modify things a bit to try to mitigate the loss of training time. Don’t ever feel like the goal has been lost because of minor setbacks. Do what you can to keep on track, but also have a flexible mindset where you can move training days around or tweak things in your training to try to make the most of it and get where you want to be.

5. Eventually get back into racing when the season starts, knowing that you’ve build a good base of foundational fitness that can help carry you through the season, hopefully better than before. This is less of a concern for us at the moment, but eventually you’ll be racing and doing a bunch of race-specific workouts. Just remember that if racing is one of your primary goals, that even in November, what you’re doing in training will influence the race that you’re doing in March… or May… or August.

Hopefully by now you’ve been taking a break from hard training, and you’re now pretty fresh and motivated to get back to training. Or maybe you’re like me and you just love getting out and exercising almost daily, but have just shied away from truly intense workouts and structured intervals, providing a mental break and some extra recovery. Either way, you should be very fresh, recovered (mentally and physically), and ready to get back to it, as they say.

Assuming all that, this time of year it’s good to sit back for a moment and assess what’s been good and what has room for improvement over past training and racing experiences. Once we know what we want to focus our energy towards, we can get started with a focus. What it is that limits you might point you in the direction of something you would want to work on a bit during the off-season. That way it’s likely to be less of a limiter in the coming year and during the season you can then move your focus more to maximizing your strengths. For me, that might mean that I practice sprints and seated accelerations during the winter a bit more, but during the season, I might focus more specifically on threshold and aerobic capacity workouts. It may be something different for everyone, but it’s good to include a bit of hard work, even this time of year. But again, for the most part, we’re trying to build fitness from the ground up, as it were, this time of year and the focus is on moderate workouts. So, even the harder efforts are not too stressful, like they might be leading into peak competitions.

Working on specific weaknesses aside, what should I be doing to build foundational fitness? I think research and experience suggests some combination of the following:

volume/mileage

workouts focused on endurance, aerobic power and efficiency

strength and power work, on and off the bike

cross training

some, but limited high-intensity work