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by Wade Wallace
September 30, 2020
Photography by Brazo de Hierro
The world continues to struggle through the coronavirus pandemic and what a rollercoaster it’s proven to be. For months my social media feeds have been lighting up with our European friends living life in relative normality (while headed toward a ‘second wave’); meanwhile in Victoria, Australia, we’ve been in full lockdown for nearly two months now with still a few more weeks to go. America appears to be in a state of purgatory with no end in sight.
If you’re anything like me, you’re probably goal driven and thrive on having upcoming races and events to keep you motivated. I feel like I’m on a treadmill of signing up for an event, getting motivated, seeing promising signs of progress, and then the event getting cancelled. I thought I enjoyed the process of training and keeping fit — until the past few months when I’ve had nothing to train for.
How on earth do you keep motivated during this time of uncertainty? And what can you possibly do if you want to maintain some semblance of form?
Well you can do one of a few things:
For me, the most important thing to do is to keep the daily habit going, no matter how big or small. It takes just days to break a habit and weeks to form it again, so staying on top of it is half the battle. There’s a lot of truth to the old adage, “motivation can be hard, so you need to be disciplined.”
Maintenance mode is sometimes described as keeping the intensity down, riding without urgency, but making sure you ride with intent.
My coach Mark Fenner, founder of FTP Training, always reminds me, “you have a suitcase filled with courage, and you can only open that suitcase a few times per year”. There is absolutely no reason to dig deep into that suitcase of courage right now, so Fenner’s advice is to not worry about intensity and stretching yourself at this time.
You can still create good training stimulus and adaptations on the trainer in an environment that is relatively fun by changing your sessions into shorter interval-based work that can keep you fresh and keep you motivated to jump on the bike.
It’s important to still maintain some discipline and some training structure that’s going to give you a focus while events are still on hold. So what does that look like at a time when typical training approaches have been thrown out the window?
Fenner says it’s important to think about the bigger picture.
“We’re not coming into a peak at this moment in time (when those efforts are required),” he says. “What we want to try and do is maintain the level of condition that we’ve had without losing too much. So reduce the intensity to threshold efforts and maybe some low VO2 intensity efforts. But try to mix that up.”
“This is an excellent time to try to do things different and see how your body adapts to different types of workouts, and adding different types of non-cycling cross training sessions,” says Neal Henderson, Head of Wahoo Sports Science. “It’s OK to set some personal goals and see what you can accomplish without the typical competitive environment that events give us.
“Having some sort of test effort [FTP tests for example] every 6-12 weeks can help ensure that you are making gains from your fitness,” adds Henderson. “Just like we discuss after a big event, it’s important to have a little break or transition in your training for a week or more to reset both the mental and physical stresses of training.”
Even without specific events to prepare for, it’s still critical to think about balancing training with recovery to ensure that you are actually benefiting from the training that you are doing and actually getting fitter and faster.
“Having a 3-5 day break every couple of months is important to keep things fresh,” Henderson continues. “And after a season’s worth of training, even without any real races/events, you should still have some sort of training break/recovery period.”
Motivation can be hard, so you need to be disciplined.
So what might a training week look like under these conditions?
“Generally a 30-50% reduction in normal training volume would be appropriate, with the addition of some cross-training,” Henderson says. “With that reduction, it’s still OK to have a couple of high-intensity training sessions each week. In some cases, putting a little additional emphasis on your weaknesses might be a good idea to change things up.
“Strength training needs to be added fairly gradually, and it will take several weeks of adaptation before your body is ready to perform heavier or more challenging strength training. Frequency of mental training and yoga can be much higher than strength training, and you might find that several shorter sessions of each of those activities each week will help you much more than one or two longer sessions per week.”
Here’s what Fenner recommends: “A mixture of good quality tempo, SST [sweet spot training] and threshold based work through the week is going to leave you in a great position,” he says. “You may drop overall CTA [chronic training load] because obviously you may not be getting the same amount of volume that you normally would, but you’re doing quality work on the trainer. When you’re able to jump back into training, you’re coming from a really good position.”
If you’re really motivated and have the time, a good way to break up the monotony of the indoor sessions and get great results is by doing two workout sessions in a day. I spoke to a few European WorldTour pros who employed this technique during their time in strict lockdown. It was far more common for them to do double sessions than five-hour sessions.
Fenner is certainly a fan of double sessions.
“What I’ve done for a lot of athletes over many years, not just now, is we can look at doing double days,” he says. “Doing double workout days can be quite good for relieving that boredom and also stopping that cabin fever. If you’re doing two of those sessions in a day [one-hour sessions], they’re each actually more like hour-and-a-half sessions, so by the time you’ve done two, you’ve actually spent more like three hours of time focused training”
Being physically slightly under-prepared and motivated is always 100% better than being more optimally prepared but mentally fatigued.
“Double sessions on a given day are very routine if you’re adding in cross training,” Henderson says. “If you’re talking strictly about double cycling sessions in a day, there can be a place for them. In many cases, I think about double training sessions to either be able to accumulate a little more volume on a given day without doing a really long ride on the trainer, or even outdoors.
“Having one session that is higher intensity, and a second session that is either active recovery or general endurance focus is a good use of double-day training sessions.”
If you’re very self-motivated and love to smash yourself silly, you might want to employ that self-discipline on yourself now more than ever. Not only is there no need for intense sessions right now, but it can also do far more harm from a public health perspective.
“One of the things to be concerned about athletes doing very high-intensity exercise is their vulnerability to getting sick if they came into contact with someone with the virus,” Fenner says. “If you have asthma, if you’ve got a precondition or diabetes, etc. it’s very, very important to make sure that you distance yourself from those potential threats. So going out and doing massively high-intensity exercise is not conducive to that.”
So if you’re laying off the intensity, and also riding less, is there anything you can be doing that will create a training response for endurance while under restrictions?
“Endurance capacity can clearly be both developed and maintained riding strictly indoors — you can insert the example of Matthew Hayman’s Paris-Roubaix victory coming off primarily indoor sessions as an example,” Henderson says. “Having specific goals for your indoor training sessions is important. Just doing mind-numbing, long endurance rides on the trainer is not the best use of indoor training time.
“During Spain’s lockdown this spring, for the ProTour riders we train who would normally be riding 20-25 hours/week, we reduced their training to about 10-12 hours of indoor riding with specific Sufferfest training sessions two to three times per week with an occasional maximum two-hour long endurance ride a couple days per week.
“These athletes both performed well in the virtual races that they did with their teams, and have returned to normal training levels within about four weeks and been performing well in the restart to racing. If that approach can work for a ProTour rider, I’m pretty comfortable encouraging a similar plan for amateurs to follow.”
It’s easy to get yourself down when you look at social media and see everyone (or what feels like everyone) pinging with form, setting personal bests, and having the time of their lives. But you’re not alone. We’ve all been out of form before, and we’ve all eventually gotten back into it. This pandemic will eventually end, and when it does you’ll have your goals to look forward to again, and you’ll be in a good place to start from again.
Henderson closes with some sound advice. “Being physically slightly under-prepared (versus ‘optimal’) and motivated is always 100% better than being more optimally prepared but mentally fatigued,” he says. “Having mental freshness and a high level of general strength, mobility and improved mental skills can probably benefit most recreational cyclists much more than adding more training volume, in my experience of working with master’s athletes who work full-time and race.”