Keeping Training Effective

Training is an integral part of bike racing. Bike racers train to get better, so if training is not making them “better” they should obviously change something. The question is how to measure the effectiveness of training so one can know when it needs to be changed.

Bike racers train because they want to win or come in closer to the front of the pack more often, or to provide better support for teammates. If performance is improving, training is working. If performance is stagnant, or if race outcomes seem random, sometimes closer to the front and other times not, it can be hard to judge effectiveness of training. In the absence of clear improvement in race results, one needs other ways of measuring.

If average powers are increasing or times are falling on routine training routes of various lengths, repeated at similar effort, race results will eventually follow, so improved times or powers are possible metrics for training effectiveness. There are different kinds of fitness though, so ideally, one analyses race results, notes areas of weakness and works to correct them while maintaining in other areas. One may even trade excess capacity in one area for improvement in another. Whatever one is working on currently should be improving in a measurable way on a time scale of a few weeks to a month. Race placings may not be changing monthly, but speeds and physiological markers should be. If they are not, there’s something wrong.

Fitness Metrics and Training Assessment

There are three main energy systems used during bike racing. Each can be developed and measured separate from the others. The most important by far is the aerobic system. Aerobic power at Lactate Threshold is a common measure of aerobic fitness. It is closely related to Functional Threshold Power (FTP) and is the laboratory measure most closely associated with racing success. One doesn’t need to do a formal LT or FTP test to know if one is progressing or adequately trained aerobically. If one can keep up with competitors, breathing hard only when most others are breathing hard, then one has adequate aerobic power. If one starts to gasp while most others are chatting or working quietly but with controlled breathing, one needs more aerobic power. Aerobic power comes from doing longer hours at moderate effort, and, when one is adequately conditioned, doing occasional sessions of low-cadence, high-force pedaling.

If one has a power meter, one can track aerobic fitness by noticing power output at a particular, comfortably sustainable effort, or average power on longer rides. Aerobic fitness can also be tested and tracked without a power meter by looking at average speeds for whole rides completed at similar efforts and under similar conditions. If training is working, those average speeds are climbing. One won’t see big enough changes to measure from day to day, but if average speed is not increasing by tenths of miles per hour on similar rides over more than a month during a period of focus on aerobic fitness, training is not working and needs to be reassessed.

(Note: While it would be nice to say that everyone should make an increase of so many percent over some particular period, it’s not really possible. Riders who are close to their potential might be thrilled to get a 1% improvement over a season, a relative beginner might double some aspect of fitness in a month. Thus an absolute lack of progress is a bad sign, but any progress, no matter how slow, means that training is working, even if it might not be optimized. )

If one can comfortably keep up with the group as it cruises, the next energy system to consider is anaerobic glycolysis. This system supports extended anaerobic efforts. If one can keep up with the pack, breathing hard for a few minutes when others are breathing hard, then this area of fitness is adequately developed. If one blows up before others during multi-minute jams, then more of this sort of fitness will help. This is often called “lactate tolerance”, though physiologically it is not lactate or lactic acid that causes muscle burn or failure. This sort of fitness is built by making all out efforts at a level that can be sustained for a few minutes but not longer. These efforts are tiring enough that it’s impossible to do quality endurance training in the same period with enough volume to keep building aerobic power, so it’s important to do most of the aerobic training before starting this harder work.

With a power meter, extended anaerobic fitness can be tracked by power sustained for times in the 3-8 minute range. Without a power meter, track the distance covered in an all out effort a bit longer than the longest one can really go all out. A ten-minute hill-climb or TT is a decent low-tech measure of extended anaerobic fitness. Watch both how far you can get before having to slow down, and how far you get in ten minutes. Again, if training for this sort of effort is working, powers should be going up and distances covered should be increasing by a few percent, not daily but over a period of a few weeks. This sort of testing is a hard training session in itself, so it should be counted toward the limit of two days per week or three days in ten of intensity in regular training weeks.

If one can keep up for the length of a race, including the short jams, then the next energy system to consider is the alactic anaerobic or phosphagen system, which supports maximal efforts up to ~30 seconds for matching attacks and making final sprints. If one tends to arrive at the sprint already tired, then one of the above forms of fitness is lacking, but if one gets to the finish fresh and still moves backwards, it’s time to work on the sprint fitness and tactics by doing sprint-like efforts.

One can track progress in physical sprinting ability with a power meter by noting peak and average power over a 30-second sprint. Without a power meter, one can track sprinting ability by peak and sustained sprint speed, or by how one places on club-ride sprints. Again, if training is working, power, speed and placings are improving measurably over periods of 4 weeks or so during periods when sprinting is a focus.

Recovery ability is another potential measure of fitness. The ability to make a hard effort and then go hard again sooner than other riders is a competitive advantage. The main way to improve that sort of recovery ability is to improve aerobic and extended anaerobic fitness so that one doesn’t dig as deep while producing the same power, leaving less to recover from. It has been suggested, though I’ve never seen it scientifically demonstrated, that repeated efforts with short rests will cause a physiological change that improves recovery. Sometimes the focus of training will be restoration of freshness, as during the taper for a big race or the post-season rest period. During a short rest from harder training, freshness and performance capacity improve. Extended rests will mean decreasing performance capacity, but long experience with many athletes shows that what is lost during a month or so of rest is easily regained, while skipping the annual rest period increases the chance of earlier burnout in the following season.

Throwing a monkey wrench in this whole simple-sounding scheme is the fact that efficient riding (drafting, avoiding both braking and hard accelerations, cornering smoothly, etc) can make up for a lot of aerobic and anaerobic capacity. A good lead out can substitute for at least a few hundred watts of sprinting power, and excess body weight will hold one back on hills no matter how aerobically or anaerobically fit one is. Often one can get quicker improvements in race outcomes by learning to ride more efficiently or losing weight than by physical training.

Poor habits of sleep, hydration or nutrition will also block performance, so that training does not lead to improvement, even when the training is otherwise just right.

When Training Doesn’t Work

If training is working, the aspect of fitness or competitive ability on which one is focused will be improving in a measurable way. If there is no improvement for several weeks, something is wrong and should be corrected. Otherwise precious time is wasted. The most common causes of non-improvement are 1) Too much training without enough recovery: If one is EVER training when already tired, pushing to complete rides despite going slower or feeling worse than on a similar ride in the recent past, one is not recovering adequately. Training done when already tired is mostly if not entirely wasted. Sometimes that means one needs to train fewer hours or less intensely, but often it means one needs to adopt better recovery behaviors such as increasing sleep hours, staying better hydrated, eating a better diet, or reducing emotional stress. 2) Inappropriate training: Training near LT while lacking basic aerobic fitness is the classic example. Riders who do hard-for-them club rides and races most days of the week rarely thrive. (Riders who are so fit that they can do club rides as aerobic endurance can do them every day and win). 3) Not enough training: One really needs to train at least every other day consistently to get stronger. Most of those rides need to be an hour or more with a weekly three-hour ride for several months to reach beginner-racing fitness. Many more hours are needed for elite fitness. Skipping 2-3 days again and again, or riding only on weekends usually means fitness stagnation at a low level.

If one is paying attention, working with a good coach and following a good training plan but still not improving, something is more seriously wrong. One should not expect to improve if the training plan is not focused and balanced, but if the training is focused on the limiters and balanced with recovery and the rider is still not getting stronger, it’s time to do some deeper analysis, not just more training.

Issues that can Block Performance Despite Good Training

There are many issues that can prevent a rider from thriving despite what looks like good training. They can be broadly divided into medical issues and behavioral issues, with some overlap. Anemia (lack of oxygen carrying capacity in the blood) and certain hormonal imbalances will absolutely prevent fitness gains. Training always challenges the weak link in the body. If the weak link is the ability of the blood to carry oxygen, the legs and heart won’t get much stronger, no matter how much one trains. Low testosterone causes a variety of problems. Poor recovery and failure to benefit by training are common effects. (Low testosterone can be corrected by taking supplemental testosterone. That makes one ineligible to race in sanctioned races without an almost impossible to attain special exemption however, so it’s worth noting that testosterone can often be increased by doing the stuff that the coach should be recommending anyway: improve diet, reduce stress and improve sleep).

Lingering illness and cardiovascular disease also present as reduced performance despite good training. People who do a lot of aerobic exercise really can still get cardiovascular disease. They often are able to delay it or make it less severe. (I have a few male clients who have managed to get to 60 or 65 before needing surgery when most of their male male relatives had heart surgery or died from heart disease by age 50 .)

One cannot diagnose one’s own hormonal condition, anemia, or cardiovascular disease, so anyone who is training for professional level performance should be getting regular physicals, and anyone training at any level and hoping for improvement but not seeing it over several months is well advised to visit their doctor.

Some behaviors just aren’t compatible with success in bike racing. Smoking and overeating to the point of being overweight are unforgivable in a bike racer. Alcohol consumption beyond a couple of servings per day will prevent improvement in fitness and competitive results, as will all night poker games, all night programming sessions, and waking up for phone calls or texts. The athlete’s recovery ability needs to be optimized and focused on training and racing. Anything extra to recover from, or anything that decreases the effectiveness of recovery is a potential roadblock.

One less-obvious thing that can interfere with development, depending on where one races, is altitude. Living and training long term at altitude are great for racing at altitude, but disastrous for racing at sea level. There are two reasons. First, power is reduced at altitude so the rider who trains only at altitude, even if he or she makes all-out efforts, never trains at as high a power as a rider who trains at sea level. Second, because higher altitude air contains less oxygen and oxygen is required for recovery, recovery is impaired at altitude. It is still true that “sleep high, train low” makes a better racer, but only if one modifies that to “sleep high on days when recovery is not challenged, sleep low when recovery is at a premium, and train low most of the time”.

Patience, But Not Complacency

If the training plan is well designed and followed intelligently, and recovery behaviors are good, fitness will usually improve. Sometimes an aspect of fitness is so underdeveloped that it may take months for improvement to be reflected in race results so it’s important to track elements of race-fitness separately rather than just race results. If fitness is not improving despite focused effort and good recovery behavior, it’s time to reassess the training plan and the activities that support or undermine recovery. If there are obvious problems, correct them. If not, it’s time for a doctor visit about possible health-related impediments to performance. The athlete’s worst enemy, along with all the other worst enemies, is complacency. Stick to the plan long enough to see if it is working, but if it’s not working, don’t stick to it any longer.

With realistic expectations about how quickly one should expect to see changes, one can quickly move on from ineffective training plans without changing plans unnecessarily. That makes for efficient training and maximizes performance gains.