Going the Extra Mile: The Costs and Benefits of Supplemental Training
Racing, especially stage racing, favors those willing to train long and hard and to suffer intensely, so serious bike racers exercise in ways that sound crazy to non-racers. Occasionally, some racers train to such an extent that even us cyclists are impressed, and we wonder, “Should I do that too?”
While Alejandro Valverde was suspended for doping in 2010 and 2011, he allegedly maintained a routine of 3,000 sit-ups per day. When he returned to competition he won his third Liège-Bastogne Liège and a stage of the Tour de France. Were all those sit ups his own personal punishment for screwing up, or were they an essential part of training for his post-suspension successes?
There’s a popular video of mountain bike world champion Nino Schurter’s gym workout. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xW-nWnl5hYk) The workout is intimidating to watch—he hops up flights of stairs on one leg, does spinning box jumps and performs a variety of intense abdominal exercises. Between sets, he recovers by balancing on an exercise ball and juggling. If you are a real bike racer, seeing such things makes you want to do them. We think “If it’s good enough for the world champion, it’s good enough for me.” Additionally, we are innately competitive. We think, “If he can do it, I want to prove that I can, too!”
I’ve often asserted that if many of the world’s best, clean riders are doing something, it can’t be bad training. The behavior may not be necessary, but it clearly isn’t holding them back. If champions have habits that the scientists can’t explain, I expect the scientists will need some time to catch up. But, what if only a select few of the best do particular supplemental training? How do we know if it is cutting edge or if it is a dead end?
As racers, we seek an edge, something we can add to our training or take out of our diet to give us that slight advantage. We tend to believe that challenging training will be beneficial. Arbitrary but large hour, mileage or altitude goals are attractive, as are intimidating exercise routines. An old teammate of mine swore by the annual “Megameter Week” in which he would attempt to ride1,000 kilometers (620 miles). The goal sounded impressive but the only year I watched him attempt it, he failed spectacularly and to general derision at about 450 miles .
The 3500-foot continuous climb of Mount Diablo on the eastern edge of the San Francisco Bay has been the site site of several stages in the Amgen Tour of California. Local riders looking for an edge in hilly races have been known to climb it three or even four times in a day. Personally, I like long climbs in the 53×12, but are megameter weeks, 3500-foot climbing repeats or leg-busting low-cadence climbs productive? Are they the best use of training time and energy?
Other riders seek an edge in different ways, deliberately riding long distances without food to increase fat metabolism, riding trainers in an altitude tent to increase hematocrit or pedaling in a sauna to increase plasma volume. If I thought that any of these supplemental modes of training—or CrossFit, 3,000 sit ups per day or juggling on an exercise ball—would help me win bike races, I’d try them. Wouldn’t you?
Will It Help You Win?
As you ponder adding super-challenging efforts to prepare mentally and physically for the rigors of multi-day racing, or even for tough single-day races, think about how those efforts are likely to affect your performance. Just because something sounds super tough does not mean it belongs in your training regimen. It’s cool to tell your buddies about your mega-meter week, but the effect is lost if you then can’t keep up on the ride.
Hours on the bike result in improved riding fitness, at least up to somewhere around 15 to 20 hours per week. The largest improvements occur in the first 8 to 10 hours with diminishing returns thereafter. If you aren’t already riding eight or more hours per week, and you are looking for an edge, focus on riding hours and correct known deficiencies before considering supplemental exercises that will detract from time on the bike.
Skills and riding efficiency are worth more than all the physical fitness you can possibly accumulate. If you are braking excessively or not drafting as closely as possible, time invested in those skills will pay off more than anything else you can do. Fatigue and injuries will slow you more than any super-charged exercise will increase your speed. Therefore, plan several weeks recovery time between fatiguing training efforts and important races. If your skills are good and you are getting plenty of bike hours, maybe you would benefit from some crazy hard training that is not particularly specific to cycling. Hot yoga or thousands of sit-ups may be the answer.
The Case for Crazy-Hard Training
Doubt undermines performance. Winners never quit and quitters never win. If the suffering at the key moment in a bike race is a novelty, there’s a tendency to wonder if that feeling is okay. “Does this pain mean I am damaging my body?” Riders who train hard are familiar with suffering. They know that discomfort abates when effort stops and that pain doesn’t have to mean injury. Armed with this knowledge, the well-prepared racer can maintain effort, undistracted by doubts. Incredibly hard training prepares riders emotionally for the suffering of racing. Supplemental training that also prepares you for the physical challenges of competition is even better.
An early season road race with steep hills will challenge some muscles, particularly in the lower back, that just don’t get trained enough from base miles, unless those miles also include intense climbing. Maximal uphill efforts engage those back and core muscles like nothing else on a bike, and soreness is inevitable in the first hard races of the season, unless those muscles are effectively conditioned. Preseason, hard-hill repeats will strengthen this area at the cost of fatigue in the leg muscles. However, a core routine to prepare those same muscles without engaging the legs and compromising other training will achieve the same goal with less wear and tear on your race legs. Though that’s one example, many muscles are called on only in very specific cycling situations, so they are unlikely to be adequately prepared by routine riding.
Consider the body English and bar wrestling required to control a momentary loss of traction while cornering. This arm and core strength will not come from base miles or even hard intervals on the bike, but you might get it from a “hit every muscle” gym routine.
Advantages and Disadvantages
Riders often avoid gym work for fear of gaining muscle mass and weight. They are rightly concerned that adding mass in irrelevant muscles will slow their climbing and acceleration. However, studies show that combining strength training with a high-volume endurance program will not add muscle mass. A small percentage of the fuel for any endurance exercise comes from muscle protein. If that use exceeds the rate of adding mass from strength training, you won’t gain muscle mass.
Concern about injury is another valid reason to approach strength training or any other supplemental exercise with caution. Forceful engagement of a muscle that has not been called on to do hard work in a week or more can cause soreness. Excessive use of dormant muscles can interfere with other training. For instance, squats may build sprint power, but a hampered ability to pedal on race day will undo that benefit.
Fortunately, it is possible to circumvent soreness by timing the start of your supplemental training, building gradually and training consistently. Allow time for your muscles and joints to strengthen in response to each level of challenge before increasing the load, and use excellent form for any exercise you do. These steps can help you avoid ongoing soreness and ensure freshness come race day. Another critical consideration is to back off if you are injured.
Avoid fatigue on race day by reducing add-on training in the final weeks before important races. Muscles that have been worked to soreness are not truly recovered and ready to perform at 100 percent until a full three weeks after the tough workout, even though pain usually clears sooner. Be sure to time supplemental workouts accordingly. Note that Some riders will actually deliberately come into some early season races a bit tired in order to delay their seasonal peak which would otherwise hit a few weeks after the start of regular racing.
When competitive people hear about Valverde 3,000 daily sit-ups or Schurter one-leg hopping up long flights of stairs, they want to do their own crazy training stunts. We feel driven to exceed others. Supplemental training beyond simple bike riding can boost your on-bike performance if you approach it intelligently. However, avoid falling into the trap of competing in training. This doesn’t mean simply avoiding getting into speed duels on endurance base rides, but also avoiding the temptation to train harder than anyone else or to match the insanity of someone else’s workout. Remember, Jade Wilcoxson won the 2013 Professional Road Championship on about 18 hours per week, beating many riders who trained as much as 50 percent more hours.
Pick your battles. If you race bikes and you want to win stage races and hard road races, that’s your battle. Add forms of training to support that by making you tougher, or developing the skills, strength and agility that will let you deal with unusual as well as routine bike riding situations. Avoid training that actually detract from your performance, whether that is by using up time that is needed for riding and skills work, or leaving you too tired, sore or injured to make good use of time available for pedaling. Going the extra mile in training is good, but only if you go that extra mile in a reasonable direction.
Scott Saifer, M.S., and the coaches of Wenzel Coaching keep up on the latest and most effective training methods. We help our clients decide when it does and when it doesn’t make sense to take up a new modality of training. Could you benefit by working with one of us? To inquire about working with Scott or one his colleagues, please all (503) 233-4346 or visit www.WenzelCoaching.com.
This article first appeared in ROAD Magazine in June of 2016