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?

ATOC tt

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.

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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.

What makes a good warm-up?

A good warm-up is instrumental to any good performance, whether it’s a hard workout or a race. You can’t do your best unless you’re both mentally and physically prepared for the effort. In general, what follows is advice about how to approach any kind of hard workout or race, but of course there are a lot of different factors, so it’s impossible to address all potential contingencies at once, but I’ll try to address some of the main ones.

First off, one of the main features of a good warm-up, if not the key, is simply getting your body warm. As you get warmed up, your body increases and redirects bloodflow to the working muscles, allowing for more oxygen delivery, allowing for more metabolism to occur in those tissues, both causing the tissues to get warmer. Ultimately, this helps increase your potential for performance, because your enzymes for burning fuel operate best at higher temperatures. So, warmer muscles with more oxygen can burn more fuel more easily and efficiently. This is the main thing to think of when thinking about warming up.

Associated with the above happenings, as you exercise and get warmed up, your hormones and nervous system adjust to the new demands of what you’re doing and help your body rise to the occasion by becoming more hormonally prepared to burn a lot of fuel and by letting your nervous system get prepared for hard efforts. This is where hard efforts in a warm up come into play. Doing a few light sprints or some harder aerobic efforts can help your body get ready for longer or harder efforts than a simple aerobic warm up will prepare you for.

Any time you need to do hard efforts early in a race, you should include a bit of hard aerobic, anaerobic or power efforts in your warm up. Hard aerobic efforts will prepare your body for hard aerobic efforts. Anaerobic efforts will help prepare those energy pathways to be used to their fullest potential. Power efforts, like sprints and seated big-gear efforts will help your nervous system be more prepared for maximal muscle contractions needed in sprinting or other hard efforts. If you just ever just riden steady for 30m before doing some VO2 intervals, then you’ve probably felt that the first 1 or 2 efforts weren’t your best or didn’t feel as good as the 2nd or 3rd effort did, after you’d gotten more opened up. So, keep that in mind, and just do a bit of light work beforehand, and those efforts will feel better off the bat.

So what does that mean for workouts or races? How should I warm up for specific efforts?

For tempo and threshold workouts or road races that are not likely to start off too hard, 20-40m of steady aerobic riding should be adequate. Starting off slow for a few minutes, getting a feel for your legs, and slowly easing into a steady but conversational pace, you should be ready for some solid tempo riding or threshold efforts. Make sure you feel warm and loose, hopefully you’re breaking a decent sweat. If you’re doing some threshold efforts, continue riding and include a few minutes of light tempo to ease into the higher aerobic riding before really doing hard threshold efforts. Or, start your first threshold effort with a few minutes of tempo before slowly easing into the full threshold intensity.

If you’re doing VO2/aerobic capacity efforts, anaerobic capacity efforts or starting a time trial, crit or road race that will likely start off hard, then you’ll need to do the previous warm-up routine, but add some extra work. Do a few minutes of tempo and/or threshold riding, maybe do a couple of short 1-2m VO2 efforts, and maybe do a few short accelerations of 10-20s or so. Riding some easy, but slightly higher intensity efforts will help further the warm up and get you ready to do hard efforts more effectively.

What do I do personally?

For a tempo/threshold workout or road race:
20-40m of steady aerobic riding, maybe including a few minutes of light tempo

Basically, before high-aerobic work like threshold efforts or a road race with a modest start, I’ll mostly just try to get my aerobic engine well warmed up by getting warm, breaking a sweat, feeling my HR get elevated, and just make sure the I get a feel for being able to ride my threshold power comfortably.

For a time trial (usually on a trainer until the last 10-15m before the start):
15-20m steady riding
10-20m tempo riding
5-10m of threshold riding in 2-3m short efforts
2-3×30-60s high-VO2 efforts with 1-3m easy between
2-3 short accelerations on the road

For a time trial, I want to get my aerobic metabolism warmed and ready to go, just like a threshold workout, but I also want to make sure that I get my heart rate well elevated a few times before the start and my breathing highly elevated a few times, even if just briefly. I find that pushing your HR and breathing up towards their high-end a few times really helps being comfortable when you’re trying to sustain them at 90 or 95% of their max. For a long time trial, I think I usually can feel fine if I just do a heavy aerobic warm-up, keeping it at or below my threshold power the whole time, but especially for shorter <20m time-trials, I really feel that it’s key to get a few minutes of aerobic capacity efforts in and maybe a few accelerations on the road, to get my HR and breathing prepared for a maximal effort and my nervous system prepped for some hard contractions.

For a crit:
basically the same as a time trial, but probably with a few more sprints

Again, like a time trial, it’s just good to be ready to ride hard from the start, unless you know that it will be easy and comfortable to sit in for the first 10-15m of the race and use that as a part of your warm up. Otherwise, just doing a few extra short accelerations on the road helps get ready for all of the hard accelerations involved in crit racing.

Special Considerations

warm/cold weather
If it’s warm, then you can usually warm up more quickly because your body will get physically warm quicker. If it’s cold, then it will take longer to warm up adequately, and sometimes a lot longer. Always be sure to dress accordingly. Dressing well is often an issue of comfort, but also of performance. If you overheat or if you can never fully warm up your legs, both can compromise performance.

if you’re on a trainer
Generally, because you don’t have the wind-cooling effects, and because you can pedal without stopping, warming up on a trainer usually takes less time than warming up on the road, unless it’s exceptionally warm. I usually prefer trainer warm-ups for races if it’s cold, and for time trials. Warming up on a trainer is nice because you have control over how much and how hard you ride without deferring to the pace of a riding partner or any road issues (hills, descents, intersections, etc.). For what it’s worth, I’ll usually spend around 30 minutes on a trainer, and 10-15 minutes on the road before a time trial.

if you consume caffeine
A lot of people find that when they have some caffeine, they warm up more quickly. Probably the main reasons for this are that caffeine is a nervous system stimulant and its effect on catecholamines in your body. Namely, your nervous system gets a bit amped up and your body will have more epinephrine/adrenaline, again, potentially helping you to be ready to exercise.

if you haven’t ridden
If you’ve taken a day or two off, then sometimes it takes longer to warm up. Just feel it out and see how your sensations develop.

if you have ridden
Usually, if you worked out a bit yesterday, then today you’ll probably warm up better, more easily. If you’re pretty fresh, but did just a bit of hard work the day before, you’ll probably be pretty ready to go. If you did a big ride or a hard workout the day before, you may have some extra stiffness or lethargy and take a bit longer to get going.

If I did an easy 2h ride with a few minutes of threshold or a short VO2 effort yesterday, then today I’ll probably warm up as quickly as I am able. If I did a hard, long ride yesterday, then today it might take me an hour or two to feel remotely normal and ready to ride hard.

Bottom line: warm-up well, never force a hard effort when you really aren’t ready.