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The Ten Commandments of Training

BY CHARLES HOWE

1. Keep stress (training and otherwise) and recovery in approximate balance.  Fitness gains are maximized when you are adequately (if not completely) rested for each workout; the more effectively you manage recovery, the more productive your workouts will be, and the more progress you will make.  Diet, rest, stress levels, massage, and even the time of day you work out (e.g., try to avoid the heat of the day) all have a direct impact on the extent and quality of recuperation.  A good rule of thumb is that you should feel fresh several times a week, just before a long or intense ride/race.  Avoid going too hard/long on easy days, and then not hard enough on intense days.

2. To achieve this stress/recovery equilibrium, consistency of training is key.  Maintain a sense of proportion in your training, being careful to avoid large, rapid increases in training variables (frequency, duration, and intensity); overall training stress (the product of all three variables) needs to be increased in a measured, gradual way, and especially in the early season, it may be better to undertrain a bit than do too much.  Power data, analyzed with TrainingPeaks WKO+ Performance Manager, is invaluable for quanitative assessment of training load.  Avoid rapid fitness gains that you cannot consolidate, keeping in mind that sustainable progress comes incrementally more than in dramatic fashion, and so is best assessed, not from day-to-day, or even week-to-week, as from one training phase to the next, and even from year-to-year; a common pitfall of training by power is the expectation of higher wattage values for each workout.  Patience is a virtue, and good things take time – these are not merely wise aphorisms that are ‘good for the soul,’ but an accurate qualitative description of physiological adaptation (i.e., years of intense, specific training correlate with improvement in lactate threshold).

3. Don’t confuse overtraining with underresting.  Athletes commonly worry about the former, but most recreational competitors are more underrested and overstressed, than they are overtrained, since work schedules and other obligations do not allow true overtraining to occur.  Professional riders, with few limits on their training time and opportunities, along with increased competitive demands, are much more prone to actual overtraining (i.e., chronic, or long-term fatigue), as opposed to the sort of overreaching (acute, or short-term fatigue) that typically occurs in recreational athletes, and in fact is a normal part of the training cycle.

4. Have a sense of who you are, where have you been, where are you now, and where are you going; this determines the structure of any training plan, as well as how it is carried out.  Learn when to use a race for training as opposed to for a result, when to push hard in training, when ease off the intensity and/or volume, when to end a workout early, and when to take time off.  For cyclists, this is where a power-measuring system is so valuable – you might feel good, but if power output decreases significantly, then you know it’s time for a break.  If you do miss/skip a workout, it is usually best to just move on, rather than “make it up,” since some other training will have to be postponed or omitted later on, such that over a given period (say, the 3 months before an important race), you have still done less of something than you intended.

The decision to “bag it” based on how you feel in relation to power output (even if able to finish the workout) depends on any number of things: how early it is in the workout, your level of motivation, whether the day ahead will be restful or particularly hard, where you are in your present training cycle/year, what you have planned for the weekend, etc.

On the other hand, it is inevitable that you will have to push yourself through a workout sooner or later, no matter how well your plan is designed/executed, and sometimes even when you’re well-rested.  While advocates of coaching are quick claim that a coach is needed to make adjustments to a training plan, there comes a time when nothing can make much of a difference.  You just have to go out and do it.

5. Learn to pace yourself.  This is greatly aided by the use of a power-measuring system, to the point of being nearly essential for interval training and flat time trials, since it allows you to maximize the work you are able to accomplish in a given period, while avoiding the fatigue that results from an uneven effort.  The integration of power and perceived exertion determines pacing: the former provides an objective standard by which the latter can be ‘calibrated,’ while PE, in turn, modulates power, since it incorporates more physiological information than heart rate, and in particular, correlates more closely with lactate threshold.

Several factors conspire to induce too fast of a start, including the anticipation of hard effort (‘intervals should hurt,’ the reasoning goes, and you should ‘leave everything on the course’), plus the fact that PE takes ~5 minutes to catch up to effort.  Starting too quickly becomes habituated over time, but can be unlearned, and eventually proper pacing becomes just as deeply ingrained.  Be more concerned with how you finish, than with how you start – the sign of a well-paced workout is whether you can keep from fading towards the end of each interval, as well as across the workout as a whole.  To quote an old and fundamentally useful maxim, train, don’t strain, or, put another way, work, but don’t suffer.

6. Balance periods of competition with structured training.  Racing (especially criteriums) and group rides impose specific neuromuscular demands as well as wide, rapid variations of intensity that structured training does not normally replicate, leading some to place excessive emphasis on the notion that ‘the best training is racing,’ however, it is not as effective as 2-3 hour steady-state tempo training and long (40-60 minute) intervals at lactate threshold in creating consistent aerobic demand, and increasing muscle respiratory capacity through a process known as mitochondrial biogenesis.  After a period of racing, aerobic endurance and lactate threshold need rebuilding through structured workouts, which are often best performed alone, but many riders make the mistake of neglecting any this sort of training beyond their pre-season preparation period, if they do it at all.

7. Maintain a level of fitness during off-periods that is specific to your sport.  Just as large increases in training stress are to be avoided, neither should you let yourself fall too far out of condition; an off-season maintenance program should include some intensity which stabilizes fitness of the three energy systems.  A friend recently remarked to me, “but I thought the off-season was the time to drink beer and smoke cigars.”  NOT!  Once again, consistency is truly the key.

8. Watch the transitions.  Be careful when moving from one form of activity to another, such as from cycling to running in the off-season.  Start slowly, perhaps alternating the two activities.  Keep things easy and short at first, as muscles, tendons, ligaments, and even bones need time to adjust to new demands, stresses, and patterns of recruitment.  If in doubt, do less, not more.

9. Have a plan, for the whole season as well as each workout.  All the preceding points underscore the importance of this; training programs should be divided into and organized by periods of time, each with a specific purpose.  The aim of such ‘periodization’ is to make performance consistent and predictable, while preventing overtraining and injury, by applying the appropriate training stress in the proper amount, thereby avoiding excessive and rapid changes in the three aforementioned training variables.  Typical designations in the pre-season preparation period are “Base” (or “Foundation”), “Build,” and “Specialization,” followed by periods of competition and recuperation/ rebuilding, then finally off-season phases of “Stabilization” and “Maintenance.”  Principles such as progression, overload, specificity, and tapering/peaking are the themes woven in to any training program.

Similarly, each workout must be carefully planned in relation to selected goals, and care should be taken not to ad-lib.  All too frequently, for instance, a couple hours of ‘just riding around’ get tacked on to an interval workout.  This accomplishes practically nothing, while stealing time that could be spent recovering.

10. Keep a record, and use it to evaluate your training.  Many riders dutifully record training information, but seem to make little use of it.  Pertinent workout details (particularly power data), if organized and analyzed, can help spot trends over the course of weeks, months, and seasons, allowing progress to be quantified, and training to be objectively evaluated.

11. Keep it fun.  Unless you are one of the less than one-half of one per cent of competitive riders who is truly a professional, this is a sport – not a job.  Since you’re not racing to provide for a family or for yourself, you’ll need to find motivation simply in the enjoyment of training and competing, and even most professionals will tell you that in the end, they race because they enjoy it.

Well, that makes 11, but training makes you fast – not necessarily smart!  


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