Do you have a coach?
Do you follow a training plan or just ride your bike?
What is your approach to training?
Do you do a lot of High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)?
Do you do long rides on the weekend at an easy pace? Or do you instead do high-intensity group rides on the weekend?
Do you sometimes get fatigued and wished you didn’t have to train to enjoy cycling? Do you sometimes look at your bike and feel like throwing it away? How often do you think “Why am I doing this, cycling isn’t my daytime job”?
Depending on how you respond to these questions, you may need to reconsider your training techniques. What follows is a summary of my own personal training history and that history, addresses each and every question above, especially the last five.
I think it was about 2005 or 2006. I was running and riding a few times a week in order to stay healthy, mainly running. I would always run the same 5 km course and no matter what I tried or how much I trained, I could never get any faster. I then researched the Internet to find out how to get faster and the most intriguing answer I found was: “Slow down.” This is a core principle taught by Dr. Phil Maffetone.
I narrowed down my research to this training principle and that took me to the website http://www.trainright.com. And it is as a result of that research that I became completely immersed in cycling. The website in question is the website for Carmichael Training System (CTS). I immediately signed up for coaching and shifted my training focus from running to cycling. As they say, the rest is history.
The CTS approach to training is what I would call ‘traditional’ which means it is heavily based on periodization (starting with a large aerobic foundation and building fitness progressively on top of the foundation towards you season’s main cycling goal event) and interval training (training different power zones/energy systems starting with the aerobic system and adding harder anaerobic workouts as the base takes shape). This approach served me very well for about seven years, leading me from training my first cycling season entirely to reach my goal to complete my first 100 km ride (2007) to riding sixteen Pro stages in one season (2012). It made me stronger and never wore me down – or at least, not for long.
At CTS, all our training was based around six power zone which are called Recovery, Endurance, Tempo, Steady State, Climbing Repeat and Vo2max. Most of the time was spent in the first three zones building the aerobic engine with progressively shorter and higher intensity Steady States, Climbing Repeats and VO2max efforts being added later on in the season. I went from success to success using this method.
Then in 2014, my coach left CTS and I followed him. With that move, the approach to my training also changed. I went to polarized training. Polarized training can be defined as follows:
- Long and Very, Very Slow. About 80% of your training should be really slow and easy. If you are a follower of the Coggan five-zone system, this means zone 1 and the very bottom (maybe 5-10%) of zone 2. If you are a use heart rate, it’s about 70% of max HR or below. It’s easy. Really, really, really easy.
- Almost No Threshold Training. Threshold pace is very close to what we race at, regardless of whether we’re running a 5K or a half-marathon. Polarized training models have almost none of it– not even as the race season draws closer. This just seems to violate the training principle of specificity in the biggest way.
- Fast is Very, Very Fast. About one out of every five training sessions is devoted to interval training. These interval sessions are very fast– about 90% of maxVO2 or higher. For running, these are just a little slower than all-out mile pace. For cycling, these are all-out two- or three-mile sprints.
- No Major Periodization. There are slight variations in the program between pre-season and race season, but they aren’t huge. Unlike traditional block periodization, the changes are more fine-tuning than massive changes.
At first I loved it. I even wrote about it on this blog:
My normalized power numbers were all up by a lot in a short period of time, I placed second and third in the first two races of 2014 and then, it all went downhill from there. I remember exactly when and where it happened. It was just outside Zurich in mid-May 2014. I was there on business but had brought my bike so I could go train with my friend Marco in preparation of the Haute Route 2014. Marco and I have ridden a lot together and our battles on the climbs have always been epic.
We met at my hotel on a Saturday morning at 7 am and went for a five hour ride. Marco dropped me on the first small hill. I panicked. We weren’t even going that hard. I did my best to stay with him but we when got to the bottom of the first real climb I knew something was wrong with me. I got dropped again. When I got to the top (struggling) I knew from Marco’s face that he couldn’t believe what he had just witnessed. On the descent he asked me about my training as if to ask if I had been training.
I never recovered that season and entirely gave up cycling from July to December.
I am not blaming my old coach for my troubles. He still coaches one of my friends using this method with much success i.e. multiple wins and podiums. He also coaches many other accomplished athletes, including very successful pros. My point here is that there are pros and cons to any coaching approach. With training, one shoe doesn’t fit all sizes. What works for one person may not work as well for another person.
This post was partially triggered by a conversation I recently had about coaching with a great friend. I was trying to spark a conversation on different coaching techniques when my friend asked me, as if to say I didn’t have the right credentials to discuss the topic: “Are you a scientist?” Just like you do not need to be a priest to be a good Christian, I feel that a cyclist doesn’t need to be a scientist to be knowledgeable about training. In four short words, my friend clearly described my thought on where some amateur athletes go wrong: “They are not involved enough in their own training.” Coaching is very individualized thing with many different techniques, theories and approaches. No one will ever know better than you your predisposition for certain types of training, cycling goals, life stress, personal health issues and other factors that affect your training. Your physical training needs to match your psychological ability to deal with the training challenge.
This blog post was also triggered by my recent jump in power numbers, renewed enthusiasm for the sport and the best feelings I’ve had on the bike in a very long time, all while training in a way that never leaves me “crushed” or depressed by not being able to complete a certain task or type of interval. In a way, I have slowed down on the bike and my power numbers have gone up dramatically.
As I mentioned above, at first, while using a ton of HIIT in my training, I became very excited about my short-term progress and devoured countless studies on the topic of HIIT and they all had the same conclusion: “If I keep going, I’ll become Superman.”
What I was missing, is the wisdom of researchers such as Dr. Maffetone. He recently wrote on the HIIT technique: “Most research is performed on healthy individuals, typically young college kids who respond well to many kinds of exercise stress and tend to recover faster than the average age group athlete. Most studies are also relatively short and limited in what is being tested, making the results misleading. Following a training routine for three weeks, for example, such as one used in many research designs, can have a much different outcome when it is applied for three months. And more often than not, the negative, or harmful, effects of a study are not included in the published findings or never disclosed.” He concluded: “Athletes following the protocol of this study could improve their oxygen uptake, and get faster, as all subjects in the study did, but at what price? ” For me the price was about four or five months of struggle to find my form and passion for cycling. https://philmaffetone.com/research-paradox/
2015 wasn’t much different than 2014 and 2016 started out the same way as I did not ride my bike between April 4 to September 23, 2016. Then everything changed.
On September 23, 2016, I went out on an hour bike ride with my seventeen-year old son Alex and after about 45 minutes I felt like getting my wife to come and get me by car. Not only I wasn’t fit, I had also let myself put on weight. I went from a low racing weight of 142 pounds achieved in August/September 2013 to a sedentary 177 pounds on September 2016.
That’s when I thought: “This is not who I am.” There is a world of difference between being a lean and mean, insanely dedicated 142 pounds Masters racer and an untrained, overweight 177 pounds middle-aged man. Being somewhere in the middle would suit me just fine, it certainly would suit better than feeling like being picked-up after 45 minutes of easy riding.
I then decided to get back to training, lose weight, stay healthy and be more consistent in my training without killing myself. Having been coached for about ten years, I have a good idea of what is needed to get back in decent shape. Keeping in mind the struggles of 2014 and 2015, I set a very simple main training goal: “Be consistent and enjoy riding my bike.” That’s it. I threw in the odd group ride, got dropped like a dirty shirt on a regular basis but didn’t care at all, as “doing well” in group rides wasn’t one of my goals at all. Then on December 29th, I went on a long ride with Alex’ local racing team. We climbed Mount Lemmon up to mile 14 (Windy Point). I posted decent twenty and sixty minute power numbers and felt I was on the right track. By that time, I had already lost 21 pounds and I was weighing a more respectable 156 pounds. But more importantly, I was remaining true to my training objectives of being consistent and enjoying riding my bike.
With that said, I actually love formal training and having ‘work to do’. I started to read up again on training techniques and the dreaded HIIT of polarized training. Polarized training and HIIT became popular when certain studies came out and demonstrated that doing really hard short term efforts can quickly increase you fitness. Back in 2014, when I read those studies, I fell for the short-term appeal of power increase and ignored the fine print about accumulating too much physical (and psychological) fatigue too quickly. You can’t build a cement house on wood foundation but you certainly can build a wood house on a cement foundation.
In order not to repeat the mistakes of 2014 and 2015, I went back to the studies I had read back then and also did additional research on the topic of modern training techniques. I recently found a pretty good summary of recent research on the topic HIIT, polarized and traditional training methods (http://www.sportsci.org/2009/ss.htm)
Here are the conclusions (emphasis mine):
- There is reasonable evidence that an ~80:20 ratio of low to high intensity training gives excellent long-term results among endurance athletes training daily.
- Low intensity (typically below 2 mM blood lactate), longer duration training is effective in stimulating physiological adaptations and should not be viewed as wasted training time.
- Over a broad range, increases in total training volume correlate well with improvements in physiological variables and performance.
- HIIT should be a part of the training program of all exercisers and endurance athletes. However, about two training sessions per week using this modality seems to be sufficient for achieving performance gains without inducing excessive stress.
- The effects of HIIT on physiology and performance are fairly rapid, but rapid plateau effects are seen as well. To avoid premature stagnation and ensure long-term development, training volume should increase systematically as well.
- When already well-trained athletes markedly intensify training with more HIIT over 12 to ~45 week, the impact is equivocal.
- In athletes with an established endurance base and tolerance for relatively high training loads, intensification of training may yield small performance gains at acceptable risk.
- An established endurance base built from reasonably high volumes of training may be an important precondition for tolerating and responding well to a substantial increase in training intensity over the short term.
- Periodization of training by elite athletes is achieved with reductions in total volume, and a modest increase in the volume of training performed above the lactate threshold. An overall polarization of training intensity characterizes the transition from preparation to competition mesocycles. The basic intensity distribution remains similar throughout the year.
In other words, after much hype about HIIT, while it seems clear that it can produce short-term results, it should be approached with great care otherwise you may just be hurting yourself in the long-run, like I did two years in row. A good friend of mine visited me in Tucson these past few days to train for the June 2017 Mavic Haute Route Rockies. On the way home from the airport, he described to me how his focus on HIIT in early 2016 lead him to become extremely strong early in the season, only to come crashing down in the second part of the year. He described his experience in the same way I describe mine: “Fatigued, illness, don’t want to see/touch your bike and no explanation for going to super strong to not wanting to ride other than having driven himself into the ground by riding too hard too much.”
Being fortunate enough to be involved in the world of professional and amateur cycling from a business perspective, I do have access to specialists on the topic of training. I was particularly fascinated by a recent conversation with a member of one of the best World Tour teams around and how “It’s all about power numbers”. No more riding aimlessly trying to accumulate kilojoules. No more doing as many races as possible as a way to train. With the advent of the power meter, training has become a very precise and individualized science. Through various conversations with guys from the pro peloton, I was able to establish that two riders who are among the most dedicated to their individualized training plans are….drum roll….Chris Froome and Alberto Contador. Why am I not surprised?
But probably the most fascinating things I learned from these conversations, is that interval training has now advanced to the point that they are designed to mimick bike racing situations. In other words, instead of training your ‘threshold’, modern training consists in training specific power zones and energy systems, as they are used in actual race situations. Here is a great example of that technique by Cinch Cycling:
In other words, kilojoules are not all born equal. Going out there suffering in a hard group ride for five hours and putting out 3,500 kilojoules isn’t the same as using 3,500 kilojoules and applying that energy expenditure in training specific power zones. Have you ever wondered why Chris Froome, Alberto Contador and Nairo Quintana don’t race every week?
Based on my study of training techniques and my long and successful experience with Carmichael Training Systems, after Christmas, I upgraded my training goal from being consistent and enjoying riding my bike to:
- Be consistent
- Don’t over do it
- Use interval training to train power zones in a fashion that mimics what happens in a race or group ride
- All zones need to be trained, not just that ‘threshold zone’
- A training schedule for middle-aged guys like me should elicit a ‘I can do that’ response not a ‘Not another hard day’ response
- The training time in each zone should result in you wanting to go harder at a particular power output during the interval (or know you can actually complete the interval at the very least), not wanting to die
In other words, I combined all of the knowledge and experience I gained by working with my friend Chris Carmichael over the years with the new approach of making the intervals more varied and closer to what happens in real life as opposed to a certain percentage of a particular power average during a test. Don’t get me wrong, testing is important, what I am talking about is ‘what you do with the test results?’
I remember when I was being trained by CTS, we would do a particular interval called Tempo which was the third-lowest intensity zone after Recovery and Endurance. I recall that Tempo work would always have a huge impact on my fitness. Tempo was basically our ‘I can ride all-day at a that very good pace’ zone but we didn’t have to ride at that intensity all day; rather, we trained that zone for only a specific amount of time. In other words, we didn’t need to ride all-day in that zone to be able to do it when we needed it. We were slowing down to get faster.
In addition to all the great training I got from CTS, one big inspiration for me lately has been reading about Cinch Cycling’s approach to coaching guys like me and reading the following from their blog:
“Are you training to become a better cyclist? If so, I’m sure you either have seen training programs built around Functional Threshold Power (FTP) or are currently participating in one. The reality is, while focused training at or below your “FTP” may raise your “FTP,” this is not necessarily making you a better cyclist. Here’s why.”
My training needs to fit my priorities, not some imperative of going super hard to gain strength in the short-term. My friend who visited me last weekend recently got tested at the University of Colorado on Boulder. The scientists who performed the test were able to immediately determined that he had been training too hard and focusing too much on the higher intensity zones. That approach left him over-trained and without a good aerobic engine to help him recover from the hard training. I guess that is also what happened to me in 2014. The specialists recommended to my friend that he goes back to basics: slow down, train easy and build your aerobic engine. “Stop focusing on hard training and untangled all those zones.” Training power zone requires an horizontal approach: “To train the zone, stay in that zone for a certain period of time”. Doing group rides is a vertical approach: “You consistently hit all the zones but train none.”
I can already hear my buddies who like to race saying: “Nothing can create intensity the way a hard group ride or race will.” Granted. So what? I’m not suggesting group rides or races don’t have a place in the development of good middle-aged cyclists with full time jobs. My point is that when I used to train a lot the way I am now training and would show up at the odd group ride, amateur race or cycling events like Haute Route, I would do really well and drop plenty of people. When I changed this to focus on riding hard and killing myself, the short-term results were great but I seriously handicapped the long-term of my cycling “career”.
Since I went back to the basics of focusing intervals on lower intensity training zones , I have seen a real jump in power numbers. Critical short-term (4 minutes) and medium-term (20 minutes) power numbers are back to where they were they were when I would consider myself as fit in 2013. Obviously, I am satisfied with that. But the most important thing to mentioned is that I achieved this without killing myself. I have achieved this without ever looking at my training schedule and thinking: “You gotta be kidding, I don’t want to do THAT!” Most times I am out doing these lower intensity intervals, I feel I am not working enough.
So there you go, I’ve gone full circle. I experimented with many different types of training and came back to the one training approach that fits my physiological and psychological needs, with great success. I have fined tuned my intervals to make them more like what actually happens in a race or hard group ride. My conclusion on all of this is simple: “When embarking on a training plan, there are no short-cuts. No matter what studies say, they don’t get to change the way the mind and the body work. And when you are an amateur who likes to view himself as a pro in certain situations (like me), just remember: you are not a pro. So pick a training approach that fits your needs, not the other way around.”
That said, I look forward to my hard four hour ride this afternoon!!!