training: how less is more

crankpunk has a natural tendency to slack off. it’s just in me. after years of endless Slackers’ Anon meetings which i could never actually be bothered to turn up to, being ashamed of answering ‘i dunno’ to any and every question ever asked of me, and of thinking i should really train more, i finally embraced my punkslackin’ self.

and thank Eddy i did, because as far as cycling goes, it turns out that less truly is more. let me explain…

as cyclists and sportsmen, we grow up believing that the more we practise a sport, the better we get. and for the most part, this is true, but with a caveat – it’s not the more practise that makes you better, but the harder. it’s that old cliche that eternally dissatisfied women trot out when their hubbies are bemoaning their lack of girth – quality over quantity lover boy! – that’s what counts – and a drawer full of massive sex toys, of course.

back to the cycling aspect – the greatest danger for the cyclist is not undertraining, but overtraining, because if you overtrain you’re doomed to weeks of trying to get back to where you were, whereas the slightly undertrained athlete can always improve.

let’s take a specific example. you have a race. youʼve been training for weeks, maybe months for this one race. a couple of weeks before you are flying, going really well, hammering on the flats and racing up the hills like Alberto after a meal of top Grade A Spanish T-bone. a week before the race though you start to get doubts – did I train enough? should i talk it easy this week? or get out for another 150km today? some sprints tomorrow? and on it goes. invariably, you get out on your bike and put in more kilometres than you should, worried that youʼve undertrained.

race day comes and you have a stinker. your previously iron-like legs go to jelly, your breathing is not smooth, youʼve lost that EPO-like power you had just a week ago! what happened?

why didn’t i choose badminton…?

in the majority of cases, what’s happened is that you’ve gone beyond the tipping point – you’ve overtrained. in that last week before the race, if your preparations were thorough enough in the month before the race, you should have done very little. maybe a one or two 20 minute race-pace time trials early in the week, a couple of hours spinning on Wednesday, and a few one minute intervals on the trainer on the Thursday or Friday. the days in between, just get out on your bike and enjoy cycling.

after the disastrous race, when you should be recuperating, most cyclists make a classic mistake. they think that they performed poorly because they didnʼt train enough. as mentioned earlier, that mentality that says that hard work pays off kicks in again. the harder they train, usually, the stronger they get. but in this kind of situation, we need to challenge our mental hard-wiring, to step back and assess the situation and to reassess our attitude to Rest and Recovery.

if you perform badly despite having been training for weeks, take a few days off after the event. get your motivation back. the next time you head out to do those leg-busting intervals, be 100% motivated, not 90%. five 3-minute intervals at 100% will do you far more good than ten at 80%. itʼs a simple matter of listening to your body. donʼt be a slave to your pre-planned routine. if you donʼt feel like doing repeat hill climbs, donʼt do them. wait until your body and mind align, then get out and kill those hills. training hard right after a stinker will only compound the problems of overtraining.

itʼs easer said than done, listening to your bodyʼs signals, but the sooner a cyclist can learn to listen, the better he or she will become, and there will be far less risk of injury, illness and dissatisfaction. by some sort of near-divine intervention, when i was 15 i met a wizened old rider who told me that i’d be much better off battering myself over an hour twice or thrice a week and enjoying the other days rather than getting obsessed with kilometers. i did that for three or four months before i even considered racing, then, when i did, i was up at the front til the end in almost every race. his advice went against all the other advice i was given as a junior, about getting in long distances, building stamina et cetera, and it worked for me.

you should train not for the distance of the events you ride – though certainly you need to be able to cover the race distance – but for the intensity required in the race. you might have a 160km race and think you have to go train hard for 160km. that doesn’t make sense, unless you are super strong. in the race you will spend large parts protected by the peloton, out of the wind, saving yourself for short bursts of speed that will help you break free and get into breaks. and so your training should reflect that.

of course, you’ll need to be able to cover the race distance, but this kind of long distance, steady training should be finished with by (at the very, very latest) 3 weeks before the race. also, if the race distance is 160km, go train the amount of time that would take in the race, not for 160km at training speed. it all has to be relative, so, at 40km/hr, race pace, that’s 4 hours. if in training you can keep it at 30km/hr, that 160 would take you over 5 hours, and it’s unnecessary. instead, ride for 4 hours and try to push at certain points, recreating the ‘race feel.’

and, just as in a race, the final stages of your training session should be the hardest. so if you’re doing hill repeats, do the first at 80%, second at 85%, third at 90% and so on, and  – and this is the tough part – each ascent must be faster than the last, just as in a race. sound hard? well, it is. and that’s why you can’t be doing silly distances all week, or you’ll have no energy for the hard days.

i once read a great interview with Fabian Cancellara (where, i canʼt quite recollect, possibly ProCycling). he basically talked about this problem, saying  that most pros plan for one really hard day of training every 4 days, but that for him, one hard day in five was enough to get him prepared for racing and in top condition without risking overtraining. you can imagine just how hard a Cancellara Hard Day must be, and his ‘easy’ days would probably kill most of us…  but itʼs a routine worth thinking about.

i’m tellin’ ya for the last time, go get some rest…

another great rider, Jacques Anquetil, would spend just 2 to 2 and a half hours being motorpaced behind his wifeʼs car in preparation for the Tour de France in the month before the race. admittedly, he had an excellent base from winter training and racing before the Tour – and reportedly motorpaced at over 60km per hour for those 2 hours – but again, this is evidence of the less is more philosophy.

a couple of years ago i was fortunate enough to interview the English rider Nicole Cook, who is one of the most successful cyclists of her generation – men or women – and asked her if she had any advice for young aspiring racers. “quality over quantity,” she said immediately.

‘is your boyfriend in the room?’ i asked tentatively.

‘um… no… why?’

‘just checking’

so, mix it up. 150km a day at the same pace will do you no good. overtraining is the root of many of the problems we see in our progress. listen to your body, let it communicate with you. feel the force. your body beats all the power meters and heart rate monitors in the world – itʼs the best coaching resource you will ever find. and stop feeling guilty. go slack. just not on the bike.

oh and get ready to hurt. next training diary post will discuss the Hour of Power, and how it beats long slow distance hands down. but be warned – this kind of training brings the results but hurts like hell…!

not everyone believes less is necessarily more…

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