The Intensity Trap

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We all know someone who thinks that if a ride doesn’t hurt, it’s a waste of time. He never goes for an easy ride and is always half-wheeling trying to push the pace. This person is always good in their training rides, but can never time their form when an important race approaches. This might be you?

I’ll share a recent personal experience with you that I’m sure most of you can relate to. Back at the start of 2011 I was playing catch-up with my fitness. I took a month off the bike during Christmas and then was racing the day after I got back from vacation. I was time-poor and I figured that I’d race myself back into form and be back on top in no time.

And so I did. I raced two times a week, rode at the pointy end of the fast bunch rides, and everything was going decently well. I was getting stronger, but not “on form”.

Then after a couple months of riding like this I completely blew up. I felt absolutely horrible every time I tried to ride. My legs would produce no power whatsoever and seemed to fill with aching lactic acid within moments of trying to ramp up the pace.

I had a fairly important race coming up in 8 weeks and my immediate reaction was that I needed to train harder. I would go on more fast bunch rides, bumped up the intensity and was very hard on myself both mentally and physically. I was getting worse, not better. I had adequate rest and days off between sessions but it didn’t seem to help. I was stuck in a rut and didn’t know how to get out of it.

I had seen other people caught in this trap many times before and the common advice is “just take some rest…you need some time off”. Up until this point I had been fortunate to have never been in this position and always managed to have an adequate balance of fitness and recovery. I knew I needed some rest, but taking a month off the bike wasn’t an option since I had committed to being on form in less than 8 weeks.

I then turned to a mate of mine who I respect and look up to – Dr Stuart Morgan. He helped coach Darren Lapthorne to his national championship win in 2007 and always has some good practical advice whenever we’ve chatted. I needed an outsiders opinion on this one.

I didn’t give Stuart much time to work with, but it was enough to get me back on track. Here is an excerpt of an email with some of Stuart’s advice to me based on the my training patterns and the hole I dug for myself:

I think there is some low hanging fruit for you here..

First and most obviously, riding every day is important. I know a working week can be hectic, but even 60 minutes on the bike is better than nothing.  As a minimum, I think you need to ride every morning.  Missing 3 days in a week is the real problem for you – its as many as 12 days off in a month!

My initial observation is that there is a big gap between the high intensity work (racing and your short efforts) on one hand, and the aerobic work on the other.  Too much of the former, and not enough of the latter.  There is a trap in all endurance sports, doing your fast work too slow, and your slow work too fast.  I would recommend you take a step back and rebuild your aerobic infrastructure with 3 weeks of disciplined aerobic riding. By “aerobic” I would rule out 30/60sec efforts, SE [strength endurance] work, racing.  I would rule in “controlled” 15min climbs, long steady-paced rides, normal group rides, daily frequency.  Lets try to get 90-120mins minimum every day.

The aerobic aspect can’t be understated, and in my view it underpins the whole of your top end training and racing.  As you seem to be experiencing, it is hard to combine the density of sessions required to be racing well and feeling good, without the aerobic strength that provides for rapid recovery. Its a simple metabolic equation – if you are a bit underdone aerobically, you don’t have the metabolic capacity to fuel your rides with fats so easily, and consequently you are empty by the end of a long day.  It’s difficult to put multiple long days together on empty, and the vicious cycle ensues with inconsistent training, poor high end efforts.  By the time riders reach your level, its a combination of sessions over a week/block that matter.  You can go and ride 230km, and that session alone won’t make much difference to you, as it might for a beginner.  When we talk about periodisation and progression in training, it is the density of sessions that you try to manipulate for a training stimulus.

So, for you I would seriously recommend that you ease back the quality for the next 3 weeks, and get right into some proper aerobic training.  You will feel the right time to up the ante, because there is always a natural momentum that follows as your form emerges.

The first disclaimer in all of this is that this is Stuart’s advice for me based on my experience level (many years of racing), my upcoming goals, and my situation. There is no such thing as a solution or training plan for everyone. However, the reason I chose to bring this up is because this as a common mistake with so many people and it brings us back to the basics.

If there is one piece of advice I’d like to highlight from Stuart’s email which is a mistake that nearly every experienced cyclist makes, it is this:

There is a trap in all endurance sports, doing your fast work too slow, and your slow work too fast.

So many people neglect aerobic training and consider it a waste of time. Just because it doesn’t hurt, doesn’t mean it’s not stimulating a response in your body. Aerobic training will trigger many responses in your body that are extremely valuable in your fitness:

– increases mitochondrial enzymes (sometimes called “cellular power plants” because they generate most of the cell’s supply of ATP (from sugar and other organic molecules)
– increases lactate threshold (to some extent)
– increases glycogen storage
– increases muscle capillarisation
hypertrophy of slow-twitch muscle fibres

If there’s a sports scientist out there reading who can expand on these points I’d love to hear from you. I’m not a exercise physiologist, but have never heard anything contrary to this (I would however like to read a proper review of Chris Carmichael’s “Time Crunched Cyclist” from someone with a scientific background, because it seems to go against everything I’ve ever learned). What I can tell you from experience is that there is no substitute for the aerobic part of your training.

There’s no doubt that there’s a time and place for hard rides in your training, but don’t neglect the easy ones or you might get caught in the same trap as so many others.

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