Your training questions answered with Dig Deep Coaching: part one
Back in early July we announced a new collaboration in which the team at Dig Deep Coaching answers your questions about training, nutrition and more, all here at CyclingTips. We received a huge number of questions after calling for submissions, and in this first instalment, Stephen Gallagher and the team at Dig Deep have selected a handful of questions to answer in detail. The team will also be answering a whole bunch of questions in an upcoming webinar – read on for more information.
Hi Dig Deep,
In all of my road races this season, I hit a wall at about 25-30 minutes in. I typically feel comfortable towards the beginning, I position myself in the first dozen or so riders, but towards the end of the first 30 minutes I inevitably get dropped (almost always on a little uphill rise).
The irony is that in the off-season this year I had done quite a lot of work focusing on reasonably long climbs (roughly 12 to 20 minutes) and increasing my lactate threshold, which has been really useful for endurance, but it hasn’t translated well to road racing (which here tends to be 90 minutes to two hours, and often features short, punchy climbs and the occasional longer uphill drag). It may be that the focus on long efforts has been at the expense of shorter, harder interval training focusing on power?
I’m lighter and stronger than I was a year ago, but where last year I had some really good results including a few podiums this year it’s nothing but DNFs.
It sounds very frustrating to find yourself struggling to hold position in the bunch after just 30 minutes and being unable to reach the results you have had in the past, especially after all the hard work done to build your fitness.
Working on your threshold efforts like you have is an essential component of performance and one that needs to be prioritised at certain times of the year. Judging by your comments I think you have lost that ‘sharpness’ or ‘jump’ that is needed in these short and intense races.
Punchy short climbs on a circuit with perhaps with some twisting corners and aggressive racing leads you to really rely on your anaerobic ability and recovery. Hitting these shorter efforts — 30 seconds to two minutes or so — we are using a considerable amount more glycogen in our muscles which leads to us building more lactate. If you have not built this area of performance and your ability to recover between high intensity efforts, then you are going to hit a wall, like you are doing after 30 minutes.
Focusing too much on threshold or sub-threshold work has perhaps lead to a underperforming anaerobic ability like you had previously. My recommendation would be to back off on the threshold work to around once a week and mix in two sessions of tolerance efforts and anaerobic efforts to bring back that sharpness.
Tolerance efforts would consist of short bursts out of your comfort zone — e.g. a 20-second sprint then 40 seconds at ‘tempo’, repeating this over an eight to 12 minute period. You are not focusing on producing your best sprint in each 20-second effort but you are trying to teach your body how to utilise lactate and clear it at a quicker rate.
Anaerobic efforts lasting from one to three minutes can be incorporated into training sessions mid-week also. With these efforts you should be looking at hitting each effort at a similar rate to the previous as we don’t want to see a big decline in power — otherwise you will lose the significance of the training.
Try four efforts of two minutes at the limit of your aerobic ability with a four-minute recovery between (again depends on current fitness). Do two or three sets of these. These can be reduced to one minute in length and I would also advise doing each set on different terrain — e.g. first set on a flat road (focus on speed and smooth pedal stoke) and the second set on a climb (focusing on in/out of saddle efforts).
Answer by Stephen Gallagher
Hi Dig Deep,
As a B-grade rider I find that I am always hurting in the hills (who doesn’t!) but what I am finding is that I am exploding in ‘Masters A’ races as the race crests the major climb of the day. The road will be 2-3% and ramp to 10%-ish for a short 300 metres and then level off (1.5 to 2km total).
I will be climbing at 180-5 HR leading in to the sharp pinch at the front of the pack when, with 400 to 600 metres to go, I am suddenly in a world of hurt and the HR is over 195 (max is 197). I am then off the back and wishing I wasn’t as the bike race goes away from me. I hang 200 metres off the back of the peloton hoping someone gets a puncture and will work with me to get back on!
What training is needed three to four weeks out from the event that would allow me to endure the suffering a little better? Just riding hills is not really working for me. How often? How intense? What should I eat before the sessions if anything (training is between 5am to 7am three to five times a week).
Thanks for your question. What you are experiencing is nothing different to what many people do. Climbing hills is never too much of an enjoyable experience and always involves a world of hurt no matter what part of the bunch you are riding in.
In a climb like you have described — where the gradients vary over 2km — this will not only stress your aerobic limit, but also test your body’s ability to produce a high power output at different torque levels as the gradients change. This requires training your ability to switch from producing a high power output around your aerobic limit (VO2max) from a lower torque level — e.g. on the 2% gradient to begin the climb — to a higher torque level when hitting the 10% section which leads to the flatter section over the top, changing your rhythm once again.
Switching your muscles’ ability from using more aerobic effort in the flatter section via a higher cadence (perhaps around 80-90rpm) to relying more on ‘strength’ to power over the 10%, 300m section, is leaving your legs dead or unable to recover for you to hold on over the top as it flattens out.
To help build your ability to switch from using one dominant muscle fibre type to another — fast twitch (FT) to slow twitch (ST) or vice versa — you need to work on specific cadence drills that can assist in your ability to adapt. Every rider’s genetics are different and the objective is not to boost one fibre type but to help switching from one to another.
For example, when you are sitting on at 25mph (40km/h) on a flat road in a bunch of riders at 90rpm and then hit a 10% hill which takes you two minutes to climb at 60rpm, this has different torque requirements along with aerobic abilities. Lower cadences (~70rpm) generally use a larger amount of FT fibres and require greater glycogen requirements, while high cadences (90rpm+) use more ST fibres and tend to utilise fat better as an energy source along with recruiting more muscle groups.
Try doing some sessions that we call ‘cadence drills’. These normally involve three, eight-minute efforts at tempo/lower-end threshold intensity. These should be done as one minute at 60/70rpm and one minute at 100/110rpm, repeating until you have total of eight minutes completed. Take six to eight minutes recovery time between each set.
The duration of the intervals and recovery periods will vary depending on fitness. I would be doing this at least once a week in the four to six weeks leading up to your upcoming event, perhaps twice a week at the start of this block.
To boost your maximum aerobic ability to really attack the last section of the climb, I recommend what we call ‘Belgian hill repeats’, as these sorts of effort are what is seen in many of the Classics races in Belgium and Holland in Spring.
These efforts involve hitting a steep climb of two minutes in length (6-8% preferably) and riding it at a lower than comfortable cadence, 60-70rpm approx, but keeping the effort at a medium intensity while staying seated. So we are relying on muscular strength at this point. Once the hill begins to flatten out (dropping to 2-4% preferably) change your rhythm to ‘attack’ at a max intensity. The last minute over the top should be done at a 95rpm+ effort, going in and out of saddle to help adapt different muscle groups.
Hitting five to seven of these in a set would really push your limits, having a three to four minute recovery period between. Again, you should increase the total number of efforts as your fitness improves. These need to be done with a substantial warm up.
Start these once a week but build to twice a week at the end of your final preparation towards your main event. Never do these after a previous hard session. They are best done two or three days apart.
As for your early-morning nutrition routine, it is essential that this is honed to your personal liking and to something that agrees with your stomach at that time in the morning. Everyone is different. When doing a one- or two-hour training session with a variety of of intensities it is always necessary to have some sort of fuelling.
I recommend staying away from something with a high fibre content — therefore making the food easily digestible — getting in at least 400 calories (1,650kJ). Something like toasted bagels with peanut butter is a personal favourite or some natural yoghurt with berries/honey is also a winner. Even a breakfast smoothie with berries/yoghurt/milk/honey can be easily digested and is quick to consume early morning.
It is a case of trial and error to an extent to make sure you have something you enjoy and that agrees with you. Going on ‘empty’ — i.e. having no calories pre ride — can be managed when riding at a lower intensity but can be tricky to manage an energy balance when performing harder efforts. If leaving for training on ‘empty’ I would suggest fuelling on the bike early with some dried fruit/muesli bars/energy mix in bottles, for example.
Answer by Stephen Gallagher
Dear Dig Deep,
I would like to ask about nutrition before, during and after training. I would like to know what is the best food just the night before the training day, the food during the training, and the food after training to recover and keep riding the next day.
Thank you very much for your help.
The most important part is not only the breakfast before the race or training, but what you also eat/ drink in the days before. If you only focus on one thing it’s not good enough. It’s about a plan.
Normally I advise to have the same breakfast and drinks that you have in general when training and not training. You know how your body reacts to this food and that is important. Make sure you have around 20g of high quality proteins and enough carbohydrates (150-200g) and fat (nuts, seeds etc.) and enough fluid because after sleeping you’re already dehydrated!
Try in training to drink around 500-750ml. If you train more than two or three hours try to reach 90g of carbohydrates an hour. Find a drink with a combination glucose and fructose (2:1). I would advise the same in your carbohydrate drinks to have a similar ration of glucose and fructose. Normally it is 1 (750ml) bottle with a isotonic drink (60g of carbohydrates) and banana (20-30g), for example.
After the ride, try to get a recovery drink with 20g (400ml of milk, 400ml yoghurt, 200ml of quark) of high quality protein and 60-90g of carbohydrates (fresh juice from 5-6 piece of fruit). Drink it a soon as possible after you’re long training or races. After the drink try to get in the ‘normal’ rhythm of the day. The recovery drink or smoothie can be a part of a lunch or dinner. But when you have something fluid it will be absorbed quicker by the body.
Answer by Rob van der Werf
Hi Dig Deep,
My questions are as follows:
1. Age group racing – unfortunately I have now passed the big 40. As we get older how should our training change? What elements of our fitness do we lose? For instance I’ve noticed weight seems to hang around longer now!
2. Are rest weeks necessary? Lots of coaches swear by them. Do you?
As we age our body changes — we all know that — but how this is related to sporting performance is something that not everyone is aware of. One of the biggest changes is a loss of muscle mass as we pass the 40 year old mark. Some research says that we can lose up 25% of total skeletal muscle mass by the time we reach 65.
Developing a strength/resistance training regime is important to help us maintain this muscle mass as we approach older life. Protein synthesis is also slower in older age compared to younger adults so adaptations in this area can be slower to achieve when compared to younger adults.
Another change we see as we get older is a loss of peak aerobic capacity (VO2 max), but again the rate of decline is dependant on previous training history and personal genetics.
The same decline is not seen as much when looking at other essential components that are needed in endurance sports. Lactate threshold, for example, maintains a good level as we get older and our ability to use fat as a fuel also keeps us at a good level compared to the younger adult population. Regarding weight management our metabolism starts to change and certain hormones begin to dip.
All this leaves it a little harder to shift those extra few kilos as you have mentioned. Maintaining a balanced diet and being a little bit more specific in the quality of food you eat is a basic way to approach this problem. Unfortunately we can’t stop nature but with a bit more attention to detail we can help balance it out to enable us to continuing enjoying and performing at a high level in sport.
As for the rest periods in training blocks, this is something with many different variables and the answer can be different depending on each variable. In a general sense I do not see the requirement for most athletes to have full ‘rest week’ as doing a greatly reduced amount of volume or intensity for a seven-day period would lead to a loss of fitness and performance. I would prefer to have more micro rest periods built into training blocks.
For example, it might be worth resting for two to five days, at more regular intervals, rather than training into a large fatigued hole over a three to four week period and then needing one week to rebuild and enable you to once again produce constructive training.
If you do need seven days of full recovery then you have either overreached by a lot and are unable to continue at your current training pattern, or your health/immune system is not allowing you to recover adequately and rest is needed to bring you back to a normal level. There are exceptions of course — if you have just finished a stage race – 10 days to three-weeks long for example — I can see why a week of active recovery is needed. But for the general cyclist I think smaller recovery periods are a better option.
Answer by Stephen Gallagher
Is it more beneficial to do climbing repeats of the same hill to gain strength and get quicker or is it better to include several different types of climbs over your selected loop for the day?
I generally think mixing it up is best as every climb is different and gives a slightly different response. For example, a short steep hill is a more explosive effort likely ridden out of the saddle and a longer more shallow climb would likely be ridden at a more sustained rhythm while seated.
It’s good to mix it up by doing efforts on different types of climbs but also not forgetting to do some on the flat. That said if you are doing a specific workout — say five lots of five minutes at VO2max with a short recovery — then doing repeats of the same hill might be more convenient if the recovery period does not allow you to get to another climb in time.
Sometimes on longer rides I will do a big loop and try and accumulate a set amount of climbing in a certain zone throughout that ride. For example in a three-hour ride I might try and accumulate 45 minutes of zone 5 climbing using as many climbs as I can and do some seated and some standing. That’s a great way of doing an endurance ride but still having plenty of intensity in there.
In general the more you can mix things up the better for body and mind.
Answer by Dan Fleeman
Hi CyclingTips and Dig Deep Coaching,
I am a MTB rider, but love road cycling just as much. I am training for a 50km MTB event (Kowalski Classic) but would really appreciate some guidance regarding structuring my training.
Having completed the Capital Punishment 100km last March I learnt a lot regarding what works well and what doesn’t come race day. I spent many hours and hundreds of kilometres on the fire trails and hills and felt super confident but I got hammered at the race start and in the first 48km which was all single track. My legs went into shock and cramped up like mad from the 40km mark — very disappointing.
For the Kowalski 50km I am focused on single track, currently banging out 45km rides with 80% single track and 20% fire trail. I’m also using my trainer (once the kids have gone to bed) for one-hour sessions targeting threshold power. I’m basically doing five six to 13 minute efforts at 85% MHR but in a gear that I can just manage to hold for the timed effort.
Any feedback would be great.
Great question. It sounds like your general riding fitness is good but you need to be a little more race sharp. Lots of people ride lots and get really fit but then don’t understand why they do not do as well as they hoped in the races.
MTB in particular involves lots of short explosive efforts over little climbs, out of corners or kicking out of berms and so on. But it also involves long periods at a high intensity or heart-rate. To replicate this you need to try doing you efforts at 85% max heart-rate but throw in a 20-second burst every fourth minute or so.
Another consideration is that although you will warm up for the race you will likely spend a long time on the start line so it is important to practice front-loaded efforts from cold. For example, two minutes all out followed by six minutes at a hard tempo will help with race starts. Do three or four within a ride on the MTB but stand around for a few minutes at the start of each to cool down a little.
The third and possibly most important thing to consider is working on your technical skills. There is no point in being mega fit if you lose time on the technical parts. Find a nice loop and do laps at race pace while focusing on being really smooth on the technical parts of the course.
I hope this helps with you training over the next weeks leading up to your event. Good luck!
Answer from Dan Fleeman
Do you have questions you’d like to ask of the Dig Deep Coaching team? Simply send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Dig Deep Coaching question” and we’ll forward it on to the appropriate person at Dig Deep. The team will select some questions to answer in the next instalment in this series.
In addition, we’re happy to announce that the team at Dig Deep Coaching will be putting on a free webinar to answer a whole bunch of your training-related questions. If you’re interested in joining the webinar, simply fill in the application form and we’ll keep you up to date. Note that the registration form lists a date for the webinar but that might change — you’ll be kept up to date on any changes via email once you’ve registered.