How do I train when I can’t train? Part 2

Just recently I posted about some of my post-accident thoughts regarding my efforts to train, even tough I really couldn’t in any normal sense of the word. On a similar topic, I wanted to address some basic ideas I had about a more normal, real-world problem: How do I train when I can’t train… because I’m busy, my work schedule is packed, and I have swim meets for my kids or soccer practice or whatever other family stuff on the weekends? This is the real challenge that most everyday athletes face in their efforts to achieve their goals.

Even though you and I may have slightly different goals for our sporting activities, and we may even participate in different sports (cycling, running, triathlon, or what have you), the issues we face are probably the same. In an ideal world, we could do the right amount of training, at the right intensities, at the right times, and thereby maximize our body’s ability to get fitter and thereby we could perform at our very best physical potential. But, unless you’re a well-paid professional athlete or you’re independently wealthy, you’re probably like me and everyone else you know in that you have to balance your sporting life with the rest of your life. This basically leaves us with an optimization problem: how do we get the best results out of our training with the time we have? Ultimately, I try to think of everything as an optimization problem; in training and in other things, I think it’s often a good approach.

The way I look at it, you shouldn’t worry about things you can’t control or change. Don’t get upset if your work schedule or family obligations keep you from training the way that you want to, unless there’s something practical that you can do to adjust things, get a bit more time to train, and keep everyone happy in the process. Definitely do look for those places in your life where you can streamline things, save time, move things around in your schedule, so that you can have a more stress-free existence and make a little more time for your training. Streamlining things is clearly helpful in other areas as well, but as far as training goes, it can be key.

After we’ve seen what our schedule is like and what our realistic training time can be, we should just think about what’s the best way to get the most out of it. How many days should we train? How many hard days? Easy days? Long days? How much or how often can we race? What kind of fitness will I need most for the events I want to do, and how can I get the most of that kind of fitness out of the 6, 8, 12, or however many hours I have to train?

Just for kicks, we can look at how I try to approach my training. Between my work at Mike’s Bikes 30-40 hours each week and my work with my clients, it’s challenging for me to carve out more than 16-20 hours a week to train. Sometimes, I can do more, but not consistently. Most successful stage racers who focus on climbing and time-trialing will train at least 30-50% more than me, but I’ve been able to be competitive with my time by trying to make the most of it. What do I need to focus on as a stage racer with a need to climb and time trial well? I definitely need endurance, a high threshold and aerobic capacity, good strength, and an ability to ride hard day after day. How do I try to accomplish those fitness goals? Each week looks like this:

2 long rides (4-6h) with lots of threshold and aerobic capacity work
2-3 medium-length rides (2-3h), usually with strength, threshold, and aerobic capacity work
1-2 easy rides
1-2 days off the bike to recover
1-3 cross training sessions per week, usually running and/or strength work (especially in the winter)
1 day a week (on average) on the TT bike doing hard efforts (sometimes more)
2-5h of tempo each week
1-3h of threshold each week
20-45m of aerobic capacity each week
variable strength, power, and anaerobic capacity work, depending on the time of year and upcoming events

Trying not to get too bogged down with details, I’ve found that it works well to try to get a lot of intensity into a few medium length rides, to get 1 and hopefully 2 high-quality long rides each week, some time on the TT bike and in the gym, and usually 2 days of quality rest each week. (If you care about the details, check out my Strava, everything is on there). Long rides without high quality efforts are much less valuable than the same ride with hard efforts. 3-4 quality days with 1-2 easy days and 1-2 days off is much more effective than training 6 or 7 days a week at a lower intensity, even for endurance.

What would I do if I had a 9-5, with just commute riding and weekends to train? Most weeks, I would do the following. Every 3 or 4 weeks, maybe if I was extra busy, I would take an extra day or two off, but with a full Monday-through-Friday schedule, it’s hard to overreach on your training. Also, if commuting by bike, we might be dealing with an assumed commute ride back home after work, but that’s fine, just extra time on the bike building an aerobic base.

Monday: off the bike, go for a jog, do some core work, strength training, maybe plyometrics

Tuesday: ~1h, ride to work, warm up 15-20m, do some aerobic capacity efforts (e.g. 3x5m, 5x3m, etc.)

Wednesday: ~1h, ride to work, warm up, do 15-20m tempo, do some big-gear efforts (short accelerations or sustained efforts)

Thursday: ~1h, ride to work, warm-up, do some anaerobic efforts and/or some high-tempo/threshold efforts (depending on racing goals)

Friday: take off the bike, go for a jog, do some core work and light strength work

Saturday: 3-5h, long ride with some high-aerobic efforts (tempo, threshold, and/or aerobic capacity work) or race

Sunday: 1.5-3h, short to medium aerobic endurance maintenance ride with some optional tempo, sprints, and skill/technique drills

That’s only about 6-8 hours of actual riding, maybe 9 or 10 if you had a big week. But, you’d have a good foundation of aerobic fitness, strength, and high-end aerobic and anaerobic power output. I think you’d be doing about the best that you could with that schedule. Plus, you’d have 2 days off of the bike to take a break from riding, rest those muscles a bit, but also work on general conditioning with just a light warm-up jog and then some valuable core work and strength work that should help keep you strong and healthy. Even if you raced every other week, doing a 3-5 hour ride twice a month would keep your endurance in very respectable shape, especially if you could double up with a moderate ride on Sundays at least a few times a month.

The exact recipe will differ for different people or different schedules, but look at what you can do to get in 3 or 4 days with some quality and look at the days when you’re tight on time as a chance to cross train or rest. Always look at how you can try to work things out to get you towards your goals. It’s impossible to address every schedule that different people will have, but hopefully some of the above examples and thoughts might be helpful to some.

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Do the workout you fear.

Generally speaking, any successful endurance athlete is going to regularly include a wide range of intensities throughout their training cycle. The emphasis of their efforts will vary as they progress through their season, but they’ll still include some endurance training, some tempo and threshold workouts, VO2 max work, and anaerobic work, in order to maintain or develop their different energy systems.

The problem for some people is that they sometimes focus almost exclusively on 2 or 3 of those intensities and rarely, if ever, do much work at the other intensities. To a point, this can be okay, but for the best overall development, it’s good not to completely forsake a certain type of workout or intensity.

All too often, people will do the workouts they enjoy the most, and the workouts they enjoy are often the ones that feel the least difficult for them and the most fun. I’m all for having fun, but if you enjoy anaerobic workouts because you’re a good crit rider and that’s what you’re best at, or if you’re a good time-trialist or climber and you enjoy threshold workouts, that’s fine. It’s great that you either enjoy the intense pain of all-out 1-minute efforts or the long mental stress of pushing for 30-40 minutes on an extended climb at or just below your threshold. But, if that’s all that you focus on and never work on your weaknesses, you’ll be deficient in certain areas.

Most often, the workouts people fear the most are the ones they expect to hurt the most, and more than likely, are the ones they feel they aren’t as good at. I know that I don’t especially look forward to anaerobic workouts, and often rely on local races to provide that kind of workout, because it’s a little more fun and as a stage racer who’s best at climbing and time-trialing, anaerobic workouts seem to be less important to me. But, from talking with others and from knowing my own tendencies, sometimes it’s good to think about the kinds of workouts you’re afraid to do and ask yourself when you last completed a workout of that type. If you’ve been doing them every couple of weeks, good job. If you haven’t done a workout like that for a few months, then it’s probably worth considering when you could fit a few of them into your schedule. As long as you’re not in the down-time you set aside at the end of the racing season, including 2 or 3 workouts of that type each month will likely help fill a hole in your fitness, whether you’re a sprinter who needs to work on his staying power or a time-trialist who needs to work on her sprint.

Think about what you’re afraid of in training, and be sure that you plan on facing it on a regular basis. You’ll get a little extra mental toughness, and you’ll build a more complete fitness as a result.

How much do you train? How do you balance work and racing?

So, I get this question fairly frequently from people that see me in person, both racers and non-racers. I’m definitely aware that most of the people I race against at the NRC level don’t work as much as I do, or at all, for that matter. A lot of them probably also ride a good bit more than I do, too. I also get the impression that people who know me at work don’t really see exactly how I can work pretty full-time and still make time to train for racing… and do well at it.

Anyway, I basically train around 15-18 hours most weeks. Sometimes I’ll do up to the low 20-hour range. The only way I think it works out is that most of the training that I do is relatively high-quality riding. I also cross train varying amounts throughout the year, both running and lifting weights. Still, I spend the vast majority of my workout time on the bike. Ideally, I would love to have an open schedule where I could ride 20-25 hours each week, but at the moment, I don’t have that luxury, so I work with what I have to try to maximize it. Like most things in cycling, I look at it like an optimization problem, where given certain parameters I’m trying to maximize a certain outcome or set of outcomes.

As for the breakdown, on any given week I’ll usually do 1-2 long rides that are 5-6 hours and will usually include 30-60m of threshold riding, 60-90m of tempo riding, and a few shorter aerobic capacity/VO2 max efforts and brief accelerations. I’ll usually do 1 ride that focuses on VO2 max intervals of 3-5 minutes in length, and maybe a longer effort of high-threshold riding. Then a couple of other rides that are a little more moderate, but will definitely include some tempo riding, seated accelerations, sprints, or shorter VO2 max efforts. Basically, I’ll do a lot of mixed intensity riding, a couple of focused workouts that emphasize a specific intensity, and then a bit of easy riding.

As far as how I balance it with work, I do work 30-40 hours pretty much all year when I’m not away at a stage race, but I do have the luxury of working at a bike shop where I can often have my days off separated from each other (say, Sunday and Wednesday, for example), and I am able to work in the afternoon/evening hours most of the time, rather than starting work at 8 or 9 like many people do. This schedule allows me to go riding for a few hours in the morning most days and to be pretty fresh for longer rides on my days off, so I can not only get through a 5-6 hour ride on my day off, but I can also really go hard for large portions of the ride.

Ideally I would like it if I had time to do more riding, and could routinely ride more than 20 hours per week, but if I were to do that now, I think I would be forcing it a bit, because it would require me to wake up early to go riding or would maybe cut into time I need for other things. Also, considering my work schedule, if I tried to fit in an extra few hours of riding each week to get 20 hours or more, probably some of those miles would be kind of junkie. I don’t want to ride just for the sake of riding, I want it to count for my racing and fitness gains.

Along those lines, the last couple of years, I’ve felt like adding an extra hour or two of training might be better spent lifting weights or if it’s during the winter, going for a run. I feel weights are useful, because they require a more neurological activation than I feel I can usually get on the bike. Running is useful because it’s such a focused aerobic workout and works your core a bit more than on the bike. Probably, if I had a rowing machine, I would use that once or twice a week to strengthen my back. Or maybe kayaking, for core strength, if I had easy access to that sport. Really, anything that will make you stronger or more aerobically fit, in principle, will help enhance your cycling up to the point that it compromises your ability to recover for your cycling workouts, builds muscle that you don’t need cycling, or gets you injured. So, basically, being sane and not getting hurt it is the first rule of anything sport related, but outside of that, anything you can do to build general fitness during the off-season and even a little during the season is probably well worth your time.