Life’s busy – work, family, perhaps doing up a new house purchase, leaving time for a structured training plan seeming almost impossible to slot inbetween… Luckily endurance racer and physiotherapist Scott Cornish is on hand with some guidance on how to get started on a beneficial training plan.
You may have concocted a plan to enter an event or events that will challenge your current level of riding – perhaps it’s a mountain bike stage, your first 100 mile sportive or some summer crit racing.
You commute to work occasionally, get the odd evening ride in and/or a longer ride at the weekend with mates, but the only high end ‘training’ is the friendly competitive ‘race’ to the top of the hills or chasing down others on the ride to work. You realise that you will have to put in a bit of work to survive your chosen event(s) as there’s no backing out now!
The first challenge is getting around the idea that training is quite distinct from simply getting out for a ride. A majority of your riding will be very structured with no stopping, save for the odd café stop on a few ‘permitted’ social pedals. It’s not all ‘forget about the riding for fun factor’ though, as training sessions can be fun (although the occasional upper end sessions will require sheer doggedness and focus to get through!), especially as you begin to feel those fitness gains creep in. Most programmes will have days built in given over entirely to simply riding for why we ride in the first place, for fun and a ride with friends.
The next part to think about is investing in a heart rate monitor (HRM) to get the most of the time you have to train. It doesn’t have to be one with a multitude of functions, a basic one can suffice as a tool to monitor and keep within the levels of effort recommended for a training session. Getting fitter is not about the quantity of time spent training, but the quality of the sessions and this will become apparent as you embark on a programme. Some riders will opt for a power meter, a more accurate and immediate way to measure effort, but at a significantly higher cost. Even if the amount of time you can commit to training is limited, you can achieve a lot with quality sessions and the accumulative effect of all those sessions will add up over time. You may be surprised at how many hours riding you aren’t doing and how short some of the sessions are! Getting the chance to ride the distance of the event in one hit prior to the start or getting away to sunnier climates for a training week is not always possible, but with effective training and tapering that multi day event, long endurance challenge or crit series is very achievable.
One concern I often hear riders voicing that they ‘need to get the miles in’ over speed sessions, but it is these shorter 45 to 90 minute sessions that make us faster over an endurance event. Yes, it is of course important to build endurance if that’s the type of event(s) you are targeting, but shorter, higher intensity sessions are an important element to developing increased power and pace. To be ready for an endurance event, you don’t need or want to be constantly putting in long rides or going at maximum effort on every ride. Most training sessions are actually at the mid to lower end of effort and some will feel really, really slow, almost like they are of no benefit, but which are also an essential part of the adaptation process. These can be the hardest sessions to manage, keeping the HR/power low, even on inclines and when other riders come flying past you, reigning in the temptation to chase is a hard one! There is a reason behind every session and every block of training, recovering or building.
Think of breaking down easy to hard sessions in the ratio 80:20 respectively. Many riders make the mistake of either going as hard as they can each time they ride and end up riding in ‘no man’s land’, effort levels which are neither recovery or hard enough for fitness gains and the net result is becoming overly fatigued which may lead to overtraining. To get the most out of any high intensity session, the body needs to be well rested.
Becoming fitter is not something that can be rushed, even with all these recovery products, foods and treatments, as we all recover at our own rates and the fitter we become that recovery process does becomes quicker. This is where active recovery, short rides of really low intensity, are a critical part of the programme or complete days off. Rest IS training, training breaks the body down, rest is where the body adapts to the stress of training and how much we need is down to your individual requirements. Just because a training programme says rest on one day then back to it the next, you may need another active or complete rest day. Don’t be afraid to adapt any programme. Rest days in the week are there for short term recovery and whole recovery weeks are designed for effective recovery in the long term. These weeks are where intensity and duration is significantly reduced relative to the overall activity level of the programme and a good opportunity to spend time catching up with other aspects of life!
As mentioned, we all adapt at different rates and respond to and recover from harder sessions differently. Nature has a way of defining the levels of fitness to which we can attain, which is why we aren’t all pro athletes! If embarking on the same 12 week training plan as a friend, for example, you may not be the same level by the end. We have to be adaptable with any programme as sometimes it just isn’t possible to follow it to the letter. Life’s demands can take priority and occasionally we get ill. If a day is missed, don’t panic train and try to make up for it. Just leave it as a day missed, trying to cram in missed days may contribute to overtraining in the long term. A critical element is listening to your body which may override what our training tech may be telling us. Stress and the daily demands of life can leave us feeling fatigued and affect the training plan and recovery. Don’t be afraid to swap sessions around. You’ll know pretty rapidly into a high intensity session that it isn’t going to be achievable, so make it an active recovery session instead. There is no point slogging it out because it says so on the programme, you aren’t properly recovered and you’ll only end up becoming more fatigued and require longer to fully recover. Always think long term.There are the short term goals of the week/month and the long term goals of the programme to get you to the event feeling ready, fresh and injury free.
Overtraining can be quite common, and its effects are often not felt until it becomes a significant issue. It is an accumulative effect of the body not recovering appropriately from training. Symptoms can manifest as; constant fatigue and not being able to reach HR targets and/or elevated resting HR, constantly finding easy rides an effort, problems getting off to sleep, niggling injuries start to appear and changes in mood and eating habits amongst others. Coming back from overtraining is a frustrating and lengthy process, so erring on the side of training less or at a lesser intensity than planned is better than forcing a session. A combination of listening to your body and using monitors is key to avoiding its clutches.
The most accurate fitness marker, that is commonly talked about in cycling, is FTP or functional threshold power as this measurement is the physical power you can sustain for 45 to 60 minutes. Power is instantly changeable whereas HR is a physiological measurement so is slower to respond, i.e it will takes the heart time to reach a required HR zone and for that to be displayed on the HRM, whereas changes in power are immediately displayed. The easiest way to test this at home is using a power based turbo home trainer or with your coach over a 20 minute period, but remember to keep your pedaling from the start at a pace that you can sustain for 20 minutes! Your overall FTP is then calculated using 95% of your average power over this 20 minute period and from that your individual training zones can be calculated.
Whereas HR will remain fairly steady over the course of training, power and pace will increase (which is the point of the training of course!) and periodic testing is the best way to constantly assess fitness gains. This is of course more commitment in terms of time and financial outlay, purchasing a power based turbo trainer and/or bike based power meter and paying for regular testing. I trained with soley HR for a number of years and the results were significant, but moving over to training with power did improve things that step further, mainly in the quality of each session.
Tapering in the lead up to the event is a another key element to performing at your best and is usually started around 10 days out from the event. Some pros may ride a minor race in the week before to keep the body primed (as their physiology can cope with this and recover in time) whereas for us amateurs, a significant reduction in hours and intensity allows the body to fully absorb the preceding months of training and be ready to use it in anger! Depending on the event, very brief, high intensity sessions during this time are useful to keep the legs sharp, but not to the extent that these sessions cause any lasting fatigue. It can be a frustrating time though as you’ll want to be out pedalling and feel like you should be riding at higher efforts, but it works! You’ll arrive at the event with plenty of energy and ready to ride! Panic or last minute training in the days before the event won’t be absorbed in time to be useful and will only result in fatigue before you arrive that start line.
The questions that most riders end up worrying about is am I fit enough? Will I be fit enough in time? We have to accept what we can achieve in the time that we have available and how we are able to perform at the event. Training has the additional effect of teaching us a lot about our abilities and the pace that we can expect ourselves to sustain at the event, but it is often our psychology that limits our physiology, convincing ourselves that we simply can’t push any harder without hitting the wall. This is knowledge that comes with experience and it is often necessary to utter the words of Jens Voigt to ourselves, ‘shut up legs!’ as we have more to give than we think we do.
Specific training really does work, especially if you are time limited. Getting a coach who will set out a plan is an investment, but a worthwhile one to achieve specific goals. Despite all the available tech to measure fitness, HR, power speed etc, listening to your body is often the best tool available. As you train you will get attuned to feeling when you are capable of hitting those upper end training targets and what that feeling of fatigue is like, where you need to rest. The best piece of advice my coach gave me was to not be afraid to adapt a training programme to how your body feels on any given day. We all have our individual limits and life’s demands play a significant role in how we adapt to the physical AND mental stress of training. There is never any point to getting stressed about missing sessions or having to rest more, after all, we do this for fun!