How do I train when I can’t train? Part 1

As a lot of people know, at the end of this 2013 racing season I had the misfortune of crashing out of the Tour of Utah with some relatively serious injuries. Basically, I got knocked out when I went down, I fractured two vertebrae at the base of my neck (cracking one and breaking a piece off of another), sprained my right shoulder and left wrist, fractured my right arm, and scraped up my face, neck and shoulder. Now I have some scarring on my cheek, eyebrow, and neck that will probably always be there, a bump on the back of my neck where I have an extra piece of bone that broke off of my spine, and some physical therapy exercises to get my shoulder back in the right shape. At the end of the day, no big deal.

So, what have I been doing this last month since the accident? Clearly I can’t ride my bike. How can I train or try to make progress towards my goals when I’m injured like this?


Summary (for those who don’t want to read much):
modify my diet (eat more like I would if I wasn’t an endurance athlete)
train on the trainer a moderate amount, 4-5 times a week, ~30m each time, with a few hard efforts
ease into cross training
do some strength building aerobic rides once back on the road

Well, for the first two weeks, there’s nothing I could do that was physically active. I was supposed to be wearing a cervical collar (a neck brace) and taking it easy. The most that I could do was to just walk around and do normal everyday stuff at home and at work. No hiking, no running, and definitely no biking. But, that definitely doesn’t mean I can’t make progress towards my goals. In this case, the main priority was to recover, with a secondary goal of not putting on weight when my training volume went from 15-20 hours a week down to zero. So, I tried to take it easy and gave myself as much time to sleep as my body wanted to take. During that time, I was sleeping anywhere from 9 to 11 hours a night. Usually it was a pretty normal 8-9 hours, but for the first two weeks, I definitely slept 10 or 11 hours every 2 or 3 nights, and considering the fact that I had a low level concussion was probably a good thing.

For my diet, trying not to gain weight and provide lots of good nutrition for healing bones, mending connective tissue, and making sure my brain was functioning properly meant that I focused on trying to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, some nuts, a bit of fish and meat, some yogurt, oatmeal for breakfast most days, some eggs, and otherwise, just a lot less calories and almost zero refined carbohydrates. What on earth would I need high-octane carbohydrate fuel for? I definitely didn’t need it for training hard or racing, and if I had bread, pasta, and rice on a regular basis, I’d probably be producing insulin in higher amounts and storing more body fat than I would prefer to do. Going from very active to zero activity, some weight gain is inevitable, but I could try to minimize it… I tend to think of it this way: you always need a good balance of healthy nutrition with fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, maybe fish, meat, eggs, and perhaps fermented dairy, but then on top of that, you need extra fuel at a level that’s on par with your level of activity. So, if you’re not training, you just need good nutrition. If you’re training hard, racing, or what have you, then you need the same nutrition, but then you just add on extra calories and carbohydrate. Or, in the other direction, if you’re not training, then you can try to just limit the extra calories and carbohydrate that you aren’t using for training and racing.

After about 2 weeks, I was able to take my neck brace off, get on my indoor trainer, and even go running when my neck and shoulder felt good enough for it. Riding outside was against the rules for risk of falling, but just getting on the trainer was good. About this time, I was also considering some of the dietary changes I’ve tried over the last several years of racing as well as some of the research I’ve come across, and had decided, mostly for fun as an experiment, to try a reduced carbohydrate diet (similar to a Paleo type diet) for at least a few weeks as I started riding the trainer again and eventually got back on the road. At this point, my training consisted of 20-45m rides that were usually just pretty steady with a few hard efforts to get my HR up and my legs burning fuel at a high rate, even if only for a few minutes. Even if it’s short, riding a few times per week is way better for your fitness than not riding at all. Likewise, doing just a few hard efforts for some of that time will be much better than just riding steady. So, even though I wasn’t making any actual progress in my fitness, I was able to significantly diminish the detraining I experienced during this month away from the road.

While I was at it, trying a different diet as a fun experiment, I was interested to see how, if at all, my training would be affected by the change, especially as I got back out on the road. The aim for the lower carbohydrate diet would be to encourage my body to produce more aerobic enzymes while training in a glycogen depleted or partially depleted state, because some studies show that training while glycogen depleted is more effective for producing aerobic enzymes than training while fully glycogen loaded. Basically, I would hope to have better endurance as a result, even though training at a minimal volume. (The other side of this principle is that if you want to train your anaerobic energy systems and do very high-intensity efforts, you can do them with any diet, but you will be able to do more if you have more glycogen to burn during those high-intensity, anaerobic efforts. For this reason, I’m thinking I may experiment with cycling macronutrients in my diet this winter while doing blocks of endurance/aerobic training and higher intensity training. We’ll see, but I think it should prove interesting.)

Once I was able, I also wanted to start building up some running fitness in my legs by just doing a few shorter runs each week to put my bones under some running stress, so that more running later is less likely to result in a stress fracture or anything like that. That’s not to say that I or any other cyclist would necessarily be at risk for this, but it’s a distinct possibility, so I figure it’s smarter to hedge my bets and ease into it. Likewise, I used to be able to run 50, 60, or more miles per week on a regular basis, with long runs and intense intervals, and never really get that sore from it. Sure, I would be a bit stiff after a long run or a tough interval workout, but nothing that would inhibit my ability to run the next day. Currently, after riding and racing my bike almost exclusively for the last several years, just doing a 4 mile easy run ends up making me sore for at least 3 or 4 days. So, for various reasons, I’ve decided that my top cross training priority this off season is to get my legs to be more resilient when it comes to running, and to get to a point where I can run regularly without major soreness. To this end, I’ve been doing easy runs of 3-6 miles with some dynamic stretching and strengthening drills (lunges, bounding, etc.) and have done more foam rolling and light stretching after my runs than normal. Again, even though I’m not making huge progress in my aerobic fitness, at least I’m making good progress towards my goal of running regularly and with minimal soreness and discomfort. Ideally, I’ll be able to do longer runs and hard running workouts this winter.

Lastly, for at least my first few weeks out on the road, I’ll focus on doing steady to high-endurance riding with some tempo/threshold type efforts to just regain my strength and general power on the bike. I know that being off of the road for a month or more, and just riding the trainer for a bit in the meantime, there will be a lot of strength that will have to come back just to generate the kind of torque on the pedals that you usually do on the road. That will come back quickly, I’m sure, because among other things, your nervous system is usually one of the faster adapting systems in your body. But, at least for the first few weeks, the main goal will just be steady and high-aerobic work to regain a general baseline of strength and fitness.

How should I eat to maximize endurance?

What’s for breakfast today? Green tea and oats with raisins, some ground almonds, and molasses.

oatmeal and tea

This is a good question. It’s an issue where people have taken a lot of different approaches, and people offer a lot of different advice. Still, there are some nutrition strategies that are better than others.

If you were never going to change your nutrition strategy and were always going to follow the same basic approach to all of your workouts, then I’d probably do something like the following:

– have a snack or light meal 1-3h before working out
– start eating ~1h into your workout, 150-350 kcal/hr depending on body size and workout intensity
– drink ~1 bottle per hour while working out (depending on weather and workout intensity)
– eat a solid meal with carbohydrate and protein right after your workout (carb: protein ratio between 3:1 and 5:1, calories around 400-1000, depending on intensity and volume)
– every day, eat a good balance of moderate to high carbohydrates (depending on training volume and intensity), moderate protein and moderate fat

That should be a pretty reliable approach. You’ll be able to work out effectively, reduce any short-term immune system suppression that might result from harder, longer workouts, and you’ll be able to recover fairly well and work out effectively again soon.

In the short term, probably the most effective way to enhance endurance is to consume copious amounts of carbohydrate. That is, day to day, you’ll feel the best of you’re well fueled. It’s the fuel that’s quicker to digest and easier to burn, so it’s what will make any given ride or series of rides better. And, if you’re a professional athlete with all of the time in the world to train, you will probably have enough volume of training that you need to consume a lot of carbohydrate daily to meet your energy demands. And, you will have ample endurance because no matter what you’re doing in your training, if you’re working out 20-25 hours per week, you’ll have good endurance.

But, if you’re trying to put a little thought into modifying your nutrition to try to improve your endurance or ability to perform in general, then there are things you could sometimes do to get a little more out of your body, maybe once or twice a month to try to stress your fat-burning capabilities a little bit extra. Especially if you’re a working professional who doubles as a part-time endurance athlete, it’s always worth exploring ways that you can modify or optimize your training, nutrition, or recovery routine to try to make the most of the limited training schedule you have. Some ideas follow:

– reduce your carbohydrate intake from high to moderate levels during a 2-3 day stretch of moderate to high volume training (assuming that you do not plan high intensity workouts on anything other than the first day), because each new day that you start workouts slightly depleted will force your body to become more efficient with the fuel it has

– do a long ride with 2/3 of the normal calorie intake (so you become slightly more depleted and force your body to rely more on fat during the later portions of the ride)

– do a long ride where you only start eating 90-120 minutes into the ride (again, so you become a bit more depleted and rely on fat more during the later stages of the ride)

– go out for a 2-3 hour easy endurance ride with half the normal food the day after a hard workout

– have a relatively low carbohydrate breakfast before your morning ride (the reduced carbohydrate intake will encourage your body to use a higher proportion of fat during your workout)

Just like modifying your training routine from time to time or doubling up on workouts, you can do similar things with your nutrition. Consider trying different approaches out and make note of how they affect your day-to-day sensations at the time, and how they affect your performance and sensations 3-6 weeks after introducing the new protocol into your schedule. Again, on the whole, a moderate to high carbohydrate diet will help your overall fitness by enabling you to have the moderate to high intensity workouts that you need for optimal fitness, but to enhance the lower-intensity, endurance end of your fitness, some small changes added on occasion can make a difference.

Again, on the whole, I’m not an advocate of having a giant plate of rice or pasta at every other meal, but there seems to be good evidence that on the whole, a moderate to high carbohydrate diet is what you need to have solid fitness as an endurance athlete. 90% of the time, try to make sure that you are getting enough carbohydrate to recover well and perform workouts strongly. But, consider doing a workout every other week, or a 2-3 day block of training every 3-4 weeks, where you experiment with a lower carbohydrate protocol to see if it enhances your endurance and fuel efficiency.

Are antioxidants good for athletes?

Over the last century, there’s been an explosion of new understanding with respect to the chemical workings of the human body, it’s processes, the foods we consume, and the interaction between them all. Years ago, people were finding that exercise and exposure to pollution created a lot of oxidative stress on the body by creating free-radicals, and that those compounds can potentially cause damage to cells and even be carcinogenic. So, logically, if you were to supplement your diet with antioxidants like Vitamin A, C, E and other antioxidant compounds, you should be able to reduce the threat of damage caused by oxidative stress and maybe even reduce your risk of cancer or heart disease. After all, eating a diet rich in those antioxidant chemicals (generally a diet rich in fruits and vegetables) is associated with much better health and lower risks of heart disease and cancer. And, there’s always the potential that if your body is under less stress from working out, that maybe your performance could be bolstered by taking supplemental antioxidants that will allow you to work out without causing as much cellular damage and shortening the time needed for recovery between challenging workouts.

Well, it appears more and more to be the case that current scientific research is finding that the exact opposite appears to be the case. Eating a diet high in natural antioxidants and antioxidant phytochemicals is great for your health, but supplementing with antioxidants appears to be detrimental to exercise performance and probably health generally.

Every week or two, I seem to be running across articles citing new studies that indicate that the oxidative stress sustained during endurance training is key to eliciting the positive adaptations that are the main aim of endurance training. That is, going out for a hard run or bike ride causes oxidative stress and the stress itself is at least in part key to improving fitness. Similarly, your body’s own regulation of its production of its own antioxidant chemicals is affected by exposure to oxidative stress. Expose yourself to oxidative stress and your body will become more adept at defending itself against the damage that occurs as a result of that exposure. Likewise, artificially flooding your system with antioxidant chemicals (i.e. supplemental antioxidants) kills your body’s production of those internal antioxidant systems. Interestingly, the oxidative stress also seems to be key to directly influencing performance by bringing about the physiological changes that make you fitter. For example, my attention was recently brought to the following study…


This review offers an overview of the influence of reactive species produced during exercise and their effect on exercise adaptation. Reactive species and free radicals are unstable molecules that oxidize other molecules in order to become stable. Although they play important roles in our body, they can also lead to oxidative stress impairing diverse cellular functions. During exercise, reactive species can be produced mainly, but not exclusively, by the following mechanisms: electron leak at the mitochondrial electron transport chain, ischemia/reperfusion and activation of endothelial xanthine oxidase, inflammatory response, and autooxidation of catecholamines. Chronic exercise also leads to the upregulation of the body’s antioxidant defence mechanism, which helps minimize the oxidative stress that may occur after an acute bout of exercise. Recent studies show a beneficial role of the reactive species, produced during a bout of exercise, that lead to important training adaptations: angiogenesis, mitochondria biogenesis, and muscle hypertrophy. The adaptations occur depending on the mechanic, and consequently biochemical, stimulus within the muscle. This is a new area of study that promises important findings in the sphere of molecular and cellular mechanisms involved in the relationship between oxidative stress and exercise.

And, interestingly, on a hormonal level, the fact that your body is being stressed may be more closely tied to the adaptations that occur as the result of training more than training may increase growth hormone or testosterone production. A recent study found a positive correlation between cortisol production (the stress hormone) and gains in muscle size in a strength training routine, whereas growth hormone and testosterone had little or no correlation with muscle size or strength gains.

Just like most things in your body, if you take over one of its systems and try to cause a certain change, your body will basically do the opposite of what you do to it. If you break or fracture a bone, your body responds by building it back again stronger. If you never lift weight, sustain impact, or become an astronaut in a weightless environment your bones become weak and easy to break. If you train hard, your body will get stronger. If you never exercise, your heart, muscles and nervous system get weak from lack of stimulation… If you take a bunch of daily vitamin C, E in supplemental form, then your body gives up its efforts to create its own antioxidants. In contrast, if you exercise regularly, the exposure to oxidative stress will make your body much better at defending against damages caused by oxidative stress.

The interesting thing is that it appears that consuming natural foods high in antioxidants and antioxidant forming compounds do not cause the same downregulation of internally originating antioxidants. Maybe because if you eat an orange or drink some grean tea, most of the antioxidant compounds are plant chemicals that aren’t as directly related or recognizable to your body as something like vitamin A, C and E and their derivatives. Plants have their own antioxidant systems to keep them protected from the stresses they face, and in eating them, we can augment our own by appropriating their defense systems. Whereas, if we pop vitamin C like candy, we’re killing our own defense systems.