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.

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.

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.