Let’s Get Real: In season training and tactics

The racing season is here. Racers are hitting peak fitness and doing their best racing of the year. In some districts there are opportunities to race six or seven days per week including the track, mid-week TTs and twilight criteriums. In smaller districts, one can race once or twice on the weekend and do hard training rides on most other days. Riding hard is so much fun, one may be tempted to join in every available race and club ride. That is a fine approach, if one’s main goal is to be able to talk about how many races and hard rides one has done. If one’s goals involve using peak fitness to win races though, doing every available killer ride will take one away from rather than towards the goal. Racing is great training, but racing season is not the time to be focused on training. This time of year, riders who want to win should be focused on winning current races. That means adjusting the training schedule for optimum current performance.

With an appropriate in-season training plan, one can optimize preparation for current races and also realistically plan for a long and strong racing campaign. If off-season training went well, then with good tactics, that long and strong season can be studded with competitive successes.

In-Season Training Load

Many riders fail to perform in season despite adequate off-season training. The most common cause of such failure is not under-training but too much or too hard training intermingled with racing. Racing season is not the time to be training up. One must be fresh and well recovered to race well so one must train little enough to allow good recovery. When race results are the main goal one must decrease rather than increase training load. Riders who bump up volume or train intensely between races arrive at races tired and unable to use the fitness they already have. The vast majority of riders are well served by decreasing the length of their longest weekly ride by about an hour once they start racing, and by going racing-hard only one or two days per week.

One day per week of gut-busting intensity is enough to get the full possible physiological benefit of racing. Riders who are stronger than they are tactically savvy may benefit from additional race days for the opportunity to practice rather than for physical training. Some riders can handle a second day of racing each week week-after-week and still prosper. That depends on just how hard racing is and how well they are able to relax and recover. Very few riders benefit from doing intervals or other hard training near or above LT once they are racing weekly, and most would be hurt by doing them.

Recovery Timing

Trying to race too often or do too much high-intensity training will leave a rider unable to perform optimally in races. One need not feel tired to have performance impaired by fatigue. Many riders are unaware of low levels of fatigue. The time required for recovery from a given workout depends on the length and intensity of that workout as well as individual recovery ability.

After a workout hard enough to make one really sore, the soreness usually clears up within a week, but a muscle biopsy viewed under an electron microscope will show muscle damage in the form of patches of torn and disorganized muscle fibers out to about 20 days after the workout. Performance is impaired by the soreness-making workout for about two weeks after the soreness clears up. Super-intense, soreness-making workouts should not be planned in the three weeks before important events.

After a hard race, even if it is not hard enough to make one sore, it takes a week to 10 days to return to full strength. This may or may not be due to muscle damage that is not quite bad enough to create soreness. In general it’s best not to race hard the weekends before important races.

When one rides at an easier pace but long enough to mostly deplete glycogen stores, it takes roughly 72 hours to fully replenish them even if one eats appropriate amounts of carbohydrate. Eating massive amounts can’t speed the process, but can lead to storing fat. Racers should avoid depleting glycogen stores Wednesday before a Saturday race or Thursday before a Sunday race.

When one sweats away a few pounds of water on a ride, one loses salt along with the water, but simply drinking water and eating salt does not immediately put the salt back in the correct compartments within the body. Performance requires the appropriate concentrations of salt within the blood, inside the muscle cells and in the intercellular spaces. Sweating removes salt and fluid from those three spaces in different amounts. After a really sweaty ride, it takes about three days to get everything back to homeostasis. Performance is compromised until that balance is restored.

The time required for recovery following various workouts dictates the appropriate timing of those workouts compared to upcoming races. In particular, there should be a full week between hard races, and a gap of 10-14 days of no racing before a particularly important race. The times given above all assume good recovery behaviors: getting plenty of sleep, sitting or lying down most of the time when not training, getting an occasional massage, stretching as needed, minimal alcohol consumption, not too much stress… if a rider drinks a lot, stays up late, has a stressful job or has to stand all day for work, recovery from training and races takes even longer, and in-season training has to be cut back even more.

In Season Training Week

Taking account of recovery timing and the desire to maximize training without compromising race performance, here’s a typical in-season training week that has worked well for my clients in a period where one race weekend is about as important as another:

    Monday-Short Recovery Ride (1-2 hours in zone 1 or 60-70% max heart rate), plus stretching and a light strength workout if they’ve been lifting

    Tuesday-Focus Day, pick one area to work on. This should be another Recovery Ride unless one is feeling really well recovered from the weekend. If well recovered, this is a good day for skills work, sprinting, cornering, riding the aerobars…. Whatever it is will be mostly at an aerobic endurance pace (zone 2 or 70-80% of maximum heart rate for most riders) for 2-6 hours, possibly with short bursts.

    Wednesday-More recovery if needed or base maintenance if well recovered from the weekend. At 2-6 hours this is usually the longest ride of the week, definitely at an aerobic-endurance pace. Maybe low cadence for power building. Don’t bonk.

    Thursday-Off before a Saturday race, or short Endurance Ride before a Sunday race

    Friday-Tune Up Ride (one hour zone 1, with five minutes near LT or a few sprints in the middle) before a Saturday race, or a Day Off before Sunday race.

    Saturday-Race or Tune Up before a Sunday race.

    Sunday-Race or Recovery Ride if tired or Endurance Ride if fresh

A note about the Tune Up: An easy ride of an hour with some harder stuff in the middle is enough to turn on the glycogen storage machinery, but not long enough to deplete the glycogen supply. The result is that if this ride is followed by a meal rich in complex carbohydrates, it will result in storage of above-normal amounts of glycogen and improved endurance the next day. The effect lasts about 18 hours, so the Tune Up should be done late the day before the race, but before dinner.

Racing or weekly hard club rides, provide adequate intensity in season. Between races, the number one priority is recovery. One trains when and only when one is nicely recovered from the previous race as indicated by a heart rate that rises easily, legs that feel peppy and ready to push, a high level of enthusiasm for training and good power compared to effort. Ideally one would maintain volume through the racing season, but that ideal is met only if one is recovering quickly enough after each race to get high-volume rides in before resting up for the following weekend. When one is feeling other than peppy, the heart rate does not rise easily or power is low compared to effort, it is time for more recovery rather than more intense training. Recovery does not mean taking days off. It means riding for an hour or two in zone 1. When a rider is training appropriately, we know that they will perform at the level they have trained up to. If they still are not performing satisfactorily, there are two possibilities: They may need tactical improvement or they may need to correct a fitness-related limiter.

Unrealistic Tactics

When a rider complains about a performance, some people who call themselves coaches will immediately try to identify the physical limiter and prescribe training to correct it. A real coach will start with a reality check. Before trying to correct a physiological deficiency, we want to know that there really is one. Often for relatively new racers who are feeling invincible on the bike for the first time ever, the problem is unrealistic expectations rather than physical ability. They feel good. They can jump again and again to close gaps or ride off the front for laps at a time, so they do, using up their energy for the whole race before the race is half over.

Most racers have to ride conservatively most of the time to win. They have to draft and not use the brakes much. Very few riders can join multiple breaks and still finish strong, or attack again and again and still match late-race attacks, especially when others have been saving their efforts. Covering breaks is a job for domestiques who are expected not to win. Riding a crit by sprinting out of each corner allows one to stay near the front for a few laps, but is not going to work for a whole race. No amount of training will get a rider who outweighs his or her pack-mates of similar height by 15 pounds or more over long hills with the leaders. If the performance a rider is expecting is not humanly possible, it’s time to change expectations. That doesn’t mean being okay with not winning. It means, at least at first, changing how one attempts winning. Everyone needs to draft. Everyone needs to take advantage of pack-flow to avoid having to sprint repeatedly. Even the strongest riders need to make a few, well-timed attacks. Heavy riders need plans that involve being off the front before the climb, or chasing after it.

What’s the Problem?

With good tactics an individual or team should improve in strength compared to other riders or teams as a race progresses. Good tactics help to level the field for weaker racers, or increase the advantage of stronger racers. One sign of poor tactics is getting weaker compared to others as the race progresses. In the absence of impartial observers though, riders often read their failure to perform late in a race as an indication of a need for more or harder training. For instance, riders who attack unrealistic numbers of times are unable to ride away from the field because they make themselves more tired than others who don’t attack as much. Still they often mistakenly plan TT intervals to build up their ability to make speed once they break away. Better they should learn to be patient and wait for the field to be worn down a bit before attacking or learn to counter other attacks. Those who sprint out of corners until they blow mistakenly add speed work or jumps to the mix rather than working on their pack handling skills so they should not need to jump so often. Heavy riders who get dropped on long hills often decide to do more hill repeats rather than more base riding and dietary improvement. It is easy to misread unrealistic expectations as a need for more training.

Often it’s not immediately clear if a failure to perform stems from inadequate pre-season training, or from unrealistic tactics or training loads. Riders need to identify the problem before deciding what to do. Adopting realistic tactics that call for expending less energy than pack-mates, good recovery strategies that maximize between-race recovery and appropriate in-season training loads will turn around most cases of poor performance within about three weeks. If performance is still below expectations after three weeks, it’s time to carefully consider physiological limiters. If a rider needs more aerobic power (as indicated by heavy breathing while others are still chatting on flat roads despite efficient drafting), or a loss of weight (as indicated by keeping up comfortably on flats and getting dropped on hills), it’s time to take a break from racing and correct the deficiency before racing again or to enter races in which one can be more competitive without making the correction. If a rider’s aerobic power and body composition are okay but sprinting is lacking, sprinting can be trained during a weekly focus workout, even while continuing to race.

Getting it Right

Once the problem has been identified, it can be corrected. If the problem is unrealistic tactics, the solution can come as soon as the next race, if the rider gets some good tactical advice. If the problem is an unrealistically high in-season training load, improved performance can come within a few weeks of lightening that load. If after adopting realistic tactics and an appropriate training load performance is still not up to the desired level, it’s time to consider correcting limiters through more or better training. In any case, doing a reality check on current performance is the first step on the shortest possible path to improving that performance.