What do I do differently from other pro cyclists?

Every athlete is unique and has a lot of things that influence their training and lifestyle. Where we live, work and family obligations, personal experience and physiology, available training resources, and a million other things affect our training. Still, there are things that each of us do differently by choice. Here are a few things that I do differently from a lot of other cyclists and endurance athletes.

1. I try to include some intensity in most of my rides. That’s not to say that I go out and hammer every day. Far from it. But I do spend most of my training time going out with a purpose, and that purpose is almost never to just get time in on the bike. I don’t do a lot of “base miles” or “long-slow distance” training. The way that a lot of people talk about both of those things, I would say that they’re of very little value, unless you’re coming out of an off-season break or dealing with an injury issue, in which case just doing easy to moderate riding can be the best option, or even the only option, as you get your legs back under you for some more normal training.

Under normal circumstances, if you have the time and energy to go out and train, then why don’t you do something that’s actually going to stress your body so that you can get better? Most of the time, you definitely should. LSD isn’t going to do that for you. If you don’t have the energy, time or motivation to train, then you should be focused on recovery. Recovery can be easy riding, easy cross training (like a hike), or just plain time off. I usually prefer the latter, as it’s generally the most effective form of recovery.

If you’re going to go out for a 4 or 5 hour ride to build your endurance, then why won’t you include some focused efforts along the way to get more out of that time out training? No matter what you do, if you’re out for 4 or 5 hours, you’ll be doing something to maintain or enhance your endurance. You can do a lot more if you include some focused efforts in that time by working on aerobic strength and power with some tempo or threshold riding, working on maximal aerobic power with some VO2 efforts, enhancing your speed with some sprints, or strength with some big-gear efforts.

Think about what’s lacking in your fitness or what is relevant to your goal events, and consider doing some focused work on those things during all of your training rides. And, when you’re not doing those things, then it’s generally time to recover and get stronger from the workouts and drills that you’ve been doing. In neither case should you be doing just “long-slow distance” training.

2. I don’t do many “recovery” rides. This is a corollary to number one. Basically, if I need to recover, then I’ll usually take the day off. If I have the energy to go out for a real ride, then I’ll plan some actual training. It’s not common for me to just go out and ride easy. Less than 20% of my riding is easy or recovery riding.

Most of us have probably read articles or hear people say that you should include a certain amount of easy recovery rides in your schedule, and even dogmatic claims that you really need to include them in every training week, that you’re short-changing yourself if you don’t. I’ve read and heard people say that you need to have 3 or 4 easy days each week and/or that on your easy days you need to ride “embarrassingly slow.” Why should you be getting dressed and going out to move your legs around “embarrassingly slow”? Should you lie in bed for an extra 2 hours a day because “active” lying is better rest than actual sleep? No… I’m being a bit polemical, but really, if you need to recover, then you can feel totally confident about the value of taking the day off. Most of us who are busy outside of riding and racing can use that time for other things.

If I have the time and energy to ride, I find that things work much better even on my easy days if I ride enough that I get warmed up a bit and my legs get loose and my HR gets a little elevated. If I go out and soft-pedal for 1-2 hours, then I generally don’t feel better that day or the next day and am usually fairly confident that I could have used that time better doing something else.

I used to follow other people’s guidance rather than listening to my body and experience, and rode especially easy 2-4 times per week, religiously doing “recovery rides” of 1-1.5 hours. These days, I take more days off, do fewer recovery rides, and seem to notice that my recovery is usually better, so I can include more real training days in my schedule.

3. I try to cross train year-round, both running and strength training. A lot of athletes include some cross training during the early part of the off-season to build overall strength, fitness, and mobility. It’s a good way to stay fit without getting burnt out on your sport of choice, and to help undo the imbalances that arise from being singularly focused on one sporting activity. But, a lot of professional athletes don’t do more than a couple months of cross training during the off season, whereas I try to include it any time I have a break from racing for more than a week or two.

When I’m racing every week, I don’t include these activities because I don’t want to have a lot of muscular soreness going into races. But, even in the middle of the racing season, I’ll try to include running and strength training sessions in my routine. I think that this is good for my overall health and fitness, and I think that it benefits my sporting performance. I didn’t use to include as much cross training in my schedule, and never used to include it during the season, and I find that I perform better with it than without.

Specifically, I notice that weight training helps enhance my neurological recruitment more than cycling alone can accomplish. I notice feeling stronger and more powerful on the bike when I’m able to include strength training in my routine, especially in the saddle. I’ve noticed the biggest benefit to the power I generate on my time-trial bike.

With running, I really appreciate the fact that running (especially hill running) works out my cycling muscles hard, but differently and more explosively than when I’m riding. I think it’s great that running can get my heart-rate up as high or higher than it gets riding, and hard uphill running seems to require a greater increase in cardiac output and blood pressure than any kind of riding I can do, thereby strengthening my heart beyond what I can get from just cycling.

4. I modulate my diet. Depending on where I am in my training year, what workouts I’m doing from day to day, whether or not I’m racing, and what kind of racing that is, I try to modify my diet to suit my goals. Mostly, this refers to increases and decreases in carbohydrate intake, but also comes into play with fiber and iron intake, whether I avoid or consume processed foods and carbohydrates, when I’ll consume meat, and probably other things that I’m forgetting.

Basically, I’ll eat more carbohydrate when I have hard interval training or racing. If I’m doing more strength, endurance, tempo and threshold training, then I’ll eat less carbohydrate and try to avoid most, if not all, processed foods if I can, especially carbohydrates. I think that keeping carbohydrate intake moderate for foundational training is worth trying, because training without having your glycogen stores topped off enhances some of the endurance adaptations that your body makes to that training.

If I’m racing or doing high-intensity interval training, then I’ll eat more carbohydrate, and use processed carbohydrate as a way to get easily digested carbohydrate into my system to maximize glycogen storage. I’ll also reduce my fiber and meat intake when I’m racing, to try to keep things easy and quick to digest.

During heavy training and racing, there is a lot of evidence to support taking an iron supplement, but absorption is an issue, especially after a training session. So, I’ll try to include liver in my diet every week or two, and will take an iron supplement regularly, but in both cases, I try to avoid doing so in the hours before a training session. First thing in the morning or in the evening usually are best for this.

5. I train at a lower volume. If you’ve read other materials on my site, then you’ll probably already be aware of the fact that I am not a proponent of high-volume training, but am an advocate of moderate-volume, multi-intensity training and greatly appreciate the value of cross training. There are a lot of reasons for this, and I think that four of the reasons that this works well for me are listed above. But just for kicks, here’s a quick glance at the top 20 finishers at the 2013 Tour of California (you can see me in 14th), with some discussion below…

1 Tejay van Garderen (USA) BMC Racing Team 29:43:00
2 Michael Rogers (Aus) Team Saxo-Tinkoff 0:01:47
3 Janier Alexis Acevedo Colle (Col) Jamis-Hagens Berman 0:03:26
4 Mathias Frank (Swi) BMC Racing Team 0:03:32
5 Cameron Meyer (Aus) Orica-GreenEdge 0:03:33
6 Matthew Busche (USA) RadioShack Leopard 0:03:50
7 Francisco Mancebo Perez (Spa) 5-hour Energy p/b Kenda 0:04:52
8 Lawson Craddock (USA) Bontrager Cycling Team 0:05:24
9 Philip Deignan (Irl) UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling Team 0:05:33
10 Chad Haga (USA) Optum p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies 0:05:52
11 Leopold Konig (Cze) Team NetApp-Endura 0:06:03
12 Marc De Maar (AHo) UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling Team 0:06:28
13 David De La Cruz Melgarejo (Spa) Team NetApp-Endura 0:08:58
14 Nathaniel English (USA) 5-hour Energy p/b Kenda 0:11:17
15 Brian Vandborg (Den) Cannondale Pro Cycling 0:11:32
16 Laurent Didier (Lux) RadioShack Leopard 0:11:40
17 Haimar Zubeldia Agirre (Spa) RadioShack Leopard 0:11:51
18 Lucas Euser (USA) UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling Team 0:12:41
19 Bartosz Huzarski (Pol) Team NetApp-Endura 0:14:29
20 Lieuwe Westra (Ned) Vacansoleil-DCM Pro Cycling Team 0:14:59

Of course, I don’t know exactly what goes into each one of these riders’ training routines, though I do wish more athletes would make their training programs public. I’d be willing to bet that every one of the riders in the top 20 at California, or at most any race that I attend, do at least 20-50% more riding than I do. If I ignore the biggest race weeks in my calendar because they skew the numbers, then my average weekly volume sits around 16 or 17 hours per week of riding… year round… as in, about 2/3 of the roughly 22-26 hours per week that is pretty average for a lot of pro cyclists. That’s not so much training time.

I think that this example is a good one to illustrate my point. I’ve been racing fewer years than most of the riders above. I train a lot less than most of them, if not all of them. I spend a lot of my “free” time away from riding holding down 2 jobs (coaching and working at a bike shop)… yet somehow, it works out that I’m able to be competitive with most of these guys.

It’s clear that at least at the present time, most of those riders were able to out-perform me that week, and some of them probably always will (Tejay, for example). Perhaps more importantly, it’s also clear that my approach to training is very effective if I can get so much out of myself in maybe two-thirds the time of other athletes performing at a similar level. How does that work? Because of some of the reasons stated above. I try to include a good amount of intensity in my riding, I cross-train, I modulate my diet, and likely some other things I’m not thinking of at the moment.

I do wish that I had more time to train, and think that I would perform better if I could. However, I would still adhere to the principles that I currently subscribe to and would keep my volume at a lower level than most other pro riders, choosing to focus on quality over quantity, and always looking for ways to maximize my training and recovery time.

Reflections on 2012 Race Beginnings

So, this past weekend marked the third week of racing in a row for me, and basically the first racing of the year, not counting the 15 minutes uphill at the San Bruno Hill Climb on January first.

A few things have struck me after racing the Madera, San Dimas and Redlands Classic stage races…

1) After feeling a little nervous about racing, I was pleasantly surprised at how decent I felt racing after having done no local “training” races.

2) No matter how much I debate in my mind whether I’m getting better or by how much I might or might not be improving, I can always trust in steady, smart training to pay off in the long run. And, I can rely on occasional maximal efforts in training to find and expand my personal limits.

3) Having high expectations of yourself and others having high expectations of you can yield good results, as long as you know and believe that you are capable of meeting them.

To expand a little, if you feel like reading more,

1) In previous years I’ve tried to ease into racing and at least do a handful of local races (both crits and road races) as a means of warming up for bigger races. I absolutely think this has been worth while. I’ve always felt that it was a good way to get hard workouts in the schedule that require higher intensities than I might focus on in my day to day training. Basically, racing has seemed like a good way to get some extra snap in the legs for racing better in subsequent races. It also seems like a good way to get once again used to fast group riding. But, now that I’ve been racing for maybe 5 years now, I feel as though maybe my body is more readily able to remember old race-preparedness that I’ve had in the past with fewer high-intensity workouts. I also feel like it’s easier to integrate into pack riding now than in years past.

As far as fitness is concerned, that was my main interest, and I think my lesser need for using racing as training for more racing comes down to the fact that it’s probably easier for your body to do things that it’s done in the past, even if you haven’t been training for it as much, versus training to do it the first time around. Also, in my case, I think it is also largely due to the fact that I’m not a very snappy rider and developing the small amount of snap that I have probably takes less work than it would take a proper sprinter or crit rider to prepare for their best performances. With that in mind, I would bet that most sprinters would need more racing and hard workouts to get into good sprinting form.

2) I’m always hoping to get to the highest level of fitness that I can for a given point in my development, but since I’m still developing and seem to be getting a little stronger each year, it’s hard to say exactly where I should be at a given point in time. Should I be 1% faster than I was last year or two years ago? 2%? 3%? 5%? It’s hard to say. Also, each year the gains may be smaller and smaller, so it becomes harder to identify those gains. And, each year, it may be one or two things that get a little better, but not every component of my riding. So, where do I look for improvement?

I’m once again reminded of my belief that hard training is the best way to find, explore and expand your limits. Every year, I’ll do a lot of hard workouts over the course of my preparation for specific races, and most of them are just that, hard workouts. But, sometimes, the hard workout I do seems to work out just right so that I can see that I’m somehow just a little better than I was last month or last year, because I went up a hill a little bit faster or set a new best power for 2 minutes or 5 minutes or 40 minutes or whatever. But, at the same time, as I get stronger, and presumably closer to my maximal potential, where the gains in fitness are smaller and smaller, it becomes less frequent that I see a workout that shows that I’m better. So, when I see those relatively rare occasions that my performance has improved a little, I begin to question whether or not it’s an improvement or just a fluke. Maybe the wind was better that day? Maybe my power meter wasn’t properly calibrated? Maybe the last time I did a maximal effort up this hill I wasn’t as well rested as I was this time around? It’s always hard to say.

But, when it comes down to it, even though I’m not sure how much stronger I am than last year, or two years ago, or whatever, I always want to give my best effort on any given race course. So, when I went to San Dimas and Redlands and did the uphill TTs, I wasn’t sure if I’d finish 1st or 10th, but I always know that I’ll deeply regret it if I feel like I left any extra time out on the course. So at the race, I forget everything and just focus on giving my best effort that day, and it usually works out. I was happy to see that I finished 3rd and 5th this year, better times and better standings than last, so it seems that I’m still slowly getting better…

But I think that each of those (confidence and questioning) things are key traits for a lot of successful athletes. It’s good to always be testing yourself and looking for where your limits are, because doing those workouts that test your limits will also expand them. But, I think it’s also good to question things, and always be looking for small changes to your approach. If you’re confident that you’re doing everything right, then you may stop looking for places to improve, and thereby limit your potential to improve. I’d rather be confident that I’m doing everything smartly, but question where I could tweak things to get an extra 2% somewhere in my training, racing, recovery, or whatever.

3) Lastly, there are a lot of studies that I’ve come across over the years that basically say something to the effect that if you don’t think you can do something, you’re usually right, but if you think you can do something, it greatly increases the possibility that you can. It’s good if you have the expectation that you can and will do something, or if someone else expects you to. Still, I think it’s necessary to look at it in a positive light. Sometimes people choke and give a sub-optimal performance when they’re stressed about performing up to their expectations and focus on the expectation and how hard it is to do the task at hand. In contrast, if the expectation is viewed as merely a expression that something can be done and no reason it can’t, then if you just give your best effort, you’ll have a good chance of meeting that expectation. If you’re focused not on how incredibly difficult it is to have a personal best performance, and rather just focus on the simple fact that it’s possible, then with the knowledge that you can, you can just try to realize that potential and actually do it. Even something as simple as tying your shoelaces is hard if you focus on each individual step, but if you just do it, focusing on the end goal and kind of zoning out in the process, then you’ll do it efficiently every time.

So, why not train hard to expand your limits and to know that they are expanding, and then when race day comes, you’ll just have to focus on doing your best with the knowledge that your limits are better than they were last time. With nothing else in mind, you’ll probably end up seeing just where your new limits lie.