Stop going hard all of the time

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.

Get Your Core Strong

No matter what kind of athlete you are, no matter what sport, or how “good” you are, having a strong core is one of the most helpful things that you can do beside practicing the sport you do… Whether you’re a runner, cyclist, triathlete, swimmer, tennis player, golfer… no matter what, it’s really key to have a strong torso, so that you can do the moves you need to do, do them powerfully, and do them without pain or back problems.

For most endurance athletes, I would try to do what you can to identify 2 or 3 days each week where you can set aside at least 10m of time to work on your core (abs, obliques, back, etc.). It doesn’t have to be crazy or require a lot of equipment. If you have a boot camp workout or class you can go to, or you have a favorite routine that you can do at home or at the gym that takes longer than that, by all means, do yourself a favor and go with it. More can be better, but doing something and doing it consistently is better than doing something sporadically or not at all.

My go-to routine, that I’d offer as a starting point goes like this:

push-ups (as many as I can do repeatedly for 3 sets)

front planks (for about as long as I can until my form starts to deteriorate)

side planks

back extensions (lie down face first and raise head and shoulders in a controlled fashion… again, as many as I can for 3 sets)

bent over row (bend over a chair or bench with a dumbbell, as many as I can repeat for 3 sets)

Russian twists (sit in a crunch position with a dumbbell and twist slowly from side to side to work the abs and obliques)

pull-ups

repeat (you guessed it, 2 more times for a count of 3 sets)

The whole thing might take 15-20m max. If you don’t have dumbbells, they’re cheap and cost less than a month at the gym. Or, if you still don’t have any, just do body weight stuff and it’ll be great. If you have a pull-up bar, then you could add a TRX style suspension trainer to hang from the bar and use for planks when they get too easy. If you’re suspended, the extra instability makes your muscle engagement reach higher levels and the same amount of time is a much better workout than doing it on solid ground.

Keep it simple. Come up with a routine that you can do regularly, without pain, and have some fun doing it. Listen to music if you like. That’s always a favorite. Or listen to the news or a podcast. Just be sure that you keep moving and don’t get distracted… Just do each movement, flip over or sit up for a quick second and move on to the next. If you need to take a quick break between moves to take a few breaths at first, then do it. After some practice, you shouldn’t need more than a few moments to move from one thing to the next. I’m always in favor of quick, efficient workouts, so I can get things done and get on with other things in my life.

Believe me, if you do something like this or your own variation 2-3x weekly for 10 or even 20m, you will feel better throughout your life because you’ll feel stronger, your back will hurt less, and you will be stronger and more powerful at your chosen sport.

As a little bonus, here’s a video I made on the topic. It’s a favorite topic that comes up a lot, so I really hope that some of the above or this video are useful to you!!! Happy training!

Bonus anecdotal coaching commentary:

Personally, whenever I’ve had a gym membership and have gone to do some basic whole body conditioning or leg work, I always enjoy running to the gym, doing 15m or so of core work, and then doing my leg or body work. I would sometimes just add a couple of sets of core exercises after the workout if I had time and energy as a bonus. I love doing that in training generally. If you have extra time and energy and you have a workout that day, then go for it and do some extra. If it’s a recovery day, then make sure that you have energy for the next workout, but if you can add a few miles without taking away from tomorrow’s workout, then go for it.

Lately, I’ve been focused more on my work and have been training to stay fit, but haven’t been able to train as hard as I would want in order to be in top shape. Still, I try to get in a little core work when I can. Honestly, I haven’t been able to do nearly as much as I would like. And, there’s a part of my brain that tells me that I’m failing at something for missing out on that core work, but we should always question or dismiss that part of our brain. Whenever you feel yourself getting uncomfortable or feeling regret about not doing core work or getting in your training session yesterday, tell your brain that it’s in the past and you only care about what’s happening right now and how it sets you up for the future. For me, that means taking a step forward and doing some core work tonight an hour or two before bedtime. Who cares if I didn’t do any since last week. I’m going to do some tonight. We should always just do what we can to take action on our goals or priorities and not worry about doing more than we actually can or what we think we “should” be doing. That’s just noise. Take action and do what you can. Don’t let your brain second-guess you as you follow through on your intentions to do something.

7 Hacks to Sleep Better

All of the workouts in the world won’t do you any good if you can’t recover from them. Two of the things that have the most impact on how well you do or don’t recover from your training is your diet and your sleep.

Because eating food seems like a more complicated activity and involves more variables and more decisions, I think that many people spend more time analyzing, monitoring, or planning their dietary strategies. It’s incredibly important for our health and our success as athletes. But, it would be a big mistake to assume that your sleep is something that happens naturally and automatically. If we never pay attention to our sleep environment and sleep habits, then we may miss out on a big opportunity to enhance our physical performance as well as our mental and emotional well being.

Things that benefit our physical performance often also have a significant positive impact on our mental and emotional health and performance as well. This is definitely true of sleep. Aside from allowing you to get the most out of your body, it also enhances your ability to learn, be creative, form memories, be healthier, happier, and live longer. No matter how you look at it, getting enough quality sleep is very important.

How can we get better sleep?

  • Go to bed at a regular time.
  • Avoid white and blue light the last few hours before bed. Use dim, warm colored lights instead.
  • Get apps for your phone and computer like twilight and f.lux to dim the screen and remove blue light at certain hours.
  • Make your sleep environment dark.
  • Use light to wake up if you can.
  • Use light in the winter to reduce symptoms of SAD.
  • Avoid caffeine after the early afternoon.

 

Regular sleep times.

Our body’s circadian rhythms are established by our sleeping and waking cycles and our exposure to blue and broad-spectrum light (e.g. sunlight). Throughout history, our daily rhythms have been mostly determined by exposure to sunlight. When it’s light out, our bodies understand that we should probably be awake. When the sky turns red and then dark, our bodies produce melatonin, we get sleepy, and we sleep, releasing high amounts of growth hormone and allowing our bodies and our brains to recover from the waking hours. Around the time that it gets light outside, our bodies get exposed to more and more light, melatonin goes down, cortisol levels go up, and we become alert and ready for a new day.

In the past, this whole cycle was pretty easy to maintain for the most part. Now that we have nearly infinite access to electricity, lights, and computerized devices with screens, this whole system gets disrupted. Our bodies get mixed signals, and our circadian rhythms are not as clearly defined or as strong… We may not get as much quality sleep, we may have less growth hormone around when we sleep, and we may have elevated cortisol levels.

To combat this, try to have a consistent time that you wind down, avoid blue and white light, and eventually go to sleep. This doesn’t have to be an exact time, but it should be a narrow window of time. Likewise, if you can wake up consistently in a specific window of time, your body will know what it needs to do throughout the day, and it will be able to do it better. No matter how much sleep you get, it will be better if it’s always at the same time.

Avoid white and blue light the last few hours before bed. Use dim, warm colored lights instead.

If we sleep at the same time every day, but we are looking at our phone or computer right before bed, it will reduce melatonin levels. With low melatonin levels we may not fall asleep as quickly, but much more importantly, our growth hormone production will be reduced and our sleep quality will suffer. Avoid blue light by getting apps on all of your devices or avoid them altogether in the last 1-2h before bed. Also, avoid bright white lights in your home. Go for softer, warmer lights. Get a dimmable salt-lamp for your bedroom.

Make your sleep environment dark.

We may turn out our lights, but if there is light coming through the window or bedroom door, then you may not be sleeping as deeply as if it was pitch black or close to it. Do what you can to get your room as dark, and quiet, as possible while you sleep. Most of us have street lights or other things outside of our windows, so consider getting blackout curtains to really lock down your room.

Use light to wake up if you can.

If you can leave your window open and get sunlight in the morning, then great! If you cannot use sunlight to wake up, because it’s really foggy where you live, or the sun doesn’t rise around the time that you intend to wake up, then consider a light alarm. I have a light alarm that I’ve used for several years now and I love it. It gets slowly lighter over a half-hour. I have the option to have an audible alarm at the end of the 30m. I have it set to a quiet sound of birds chirpping. It is much less abrasive than using the alarm on your phone. You wake up more slowly and it gives your brain a chance to awaken at a lighter moment in your sleep cycles. Again, if this happens at the same time every day, then you may not even need an alarm after a while. At the very least, your brain will be trained to awake at the preferred time.

Use light in the winter to reduce symptoms of SAD.

Sleeping at specific times can help a lot in establishing a good circadian rhythm. But, without exposure to bright, broad-spectrum light (including blue light), the rhythm is not as strong. You may not have as much energy during the day if you never get any sunlight. If you don’t get any morning light, then your body tends is not getting the strong signal that it’s daytime at the time that it is most receptive to that message.

Many athletes train in the morning and get enough sunlight exposure early in the day. But, many people who train indoors, who live in cloudy climates, or are training in the winter time may not get enough bright light in their life. Or they may only get it intermittently at different times throughout the day. This isn’t great for your sleep, but can also result in seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which is basically a mood pathology of mild to moderate depression that usually occurs seasonally in the winter when there are fewer daylight hours and it is less bright when the sun is out.

For anyone who has trouble with SAD, or any form of depression, getting outside and getting some exercise during daylight hours is by far the best first-line treatment. Exercise and time outside is safe and statistically much more effective than any other treatment. Some people need more than that! But, do everything that you can to exercise and get outside every day! In addition to that, getting a therapy light box can be very helpful. There are a lot of good options for lights that put out bright, broad spectrum light (similar to sunlight). Use it in the morning for 30-60m to create a strong signal for your body that it’s daytime… Light therapy can reduce symptoms of SAD and reinforce a regular circadian rhythm. It can be great for your mental health and your physical performance… Good sleep is a key ingredient for physical and mental performance!

Avoid caffeine after the early afternoon.

Coffee is great! Green tea is great! They’re good for you and there’s good research to suggest that they can reduce your risk of certain cancers, improve cognitive function, and the caffeine content may enhance performance slightly, whether mental or physical. Not everyone drinks coffee or tea, but coffee specifically is a pretty integral part of cycling culture.

If you do drink coffee or tea, or take caffeine in any form, try to take it only in the morning or midday hours. Stop taking caffeine of any kind after the early afternoon, say 2 or 3pm. Having caffeine even 5 or 6 hours before bed can diminish sleep quality. Go for something else or make a cup of decaf coffee.

 

Even if you sleep pretty well, consider whether there are any small things that you can do to adjust the timing, duration, or quality of your sleep. You may be able to get more out of it. Many of the small things we do have huge impacts over time, so don’t underestimate the results that you may experience with even one or two small changes to your routine. You could find yourself thinking more clearly, feeling better about life, and performing better when you train and race.