Although, as I indicated in my previous entry, I got a nice boost in my sprinting numbers following the changes I made to my training (reduced volume, overgeared sprint work, lots of time in the gym), I was still a bit disappointed with my rate of progress on my lifts.
This was especially frustrating given all the effort I was putting into it: not just under the barbell, but also in studying both the science and practice of lifting, and experimenting with different training approaches.
I'd had the usual initial rapid improvements that all novices experience, when your body is learning to use the muscle it already has more effectively. In my case, this lasted for about ten weeks, after which period further gains evaporated. I spent the next five or six months in a futile effort to tweak the novice linear progression approach (low volume, high frequency, high intensity), with little to show for it.
It was obvious at this point that there was no more blood to be squeezed out of that stone, so I switched to a real training plan (higher volume and more varied intensities). This helped a little, but still I wasn't progressing anything like I wanted.
Then, almost exactly one year into my strength training, the problem finally dawned on me.
The last five months saw me working primarily on strength development whilst continuing to refine my sprint training plan.
The transition from endurance to sprint training was pretty abrupt, but not difficult; my cycling volume has come down to around 6 or 7 hours per week and I'm actually spending more time in the gym than on my bike. Most of my cycling has been base training combined with short, overgeared sprinting. No group rides, no tempo or threshold work; almost everything has been either very easy or full gas. This is to ensure my cycling is as complementary as possible to my weight training.
In fact, it's so clear to me that strength is the limiting factor in my sprint performance that I've been almost exclusively focusing on it throughout this period. 6 days per week lifting weights in a garage in South Carolina wasn't the most fun way to spend the summer, but there's no disputing the results.
The big changes continue. My garage gym is fully operational, and I've spent the last couple of months figuring out a decent strength training regimen; finding a good balance between strength training and cycling; as well as actually working on the technical performance of each lift.
I've mentioned before that strength training is now a major component of my plan, and since (despite previous dumbbell dabbling) I'm basically a beginner, I decided to extend the off-season period to 6 months this year. I want as big a platform as possible on which to build power.
It's been an interesting year, albeit mainly for the wrong reasons. I'm going to limit this discussion to cycling, although of course everyone has been affected by the pandemic in many ways. In my case, my personal circumstances lead me to avoid all group rides for almost the entire season from March to October. That came as quite a shock, as ever since I started doing them group rides have been the central pillar that I've organized all my other training around.
However, one good thing that came out of this was the chance for me to step back and get a bit more perspective on my cycling: what I was doing, what my goals are and how best I could optimize my training for them. It was great having the freedom to just train however I wanted to, without worrying about anything else.
The final mesocycle of the In-Season was a continuation of the approach I established over the summer: relatively low volume and high intensity. After seeing good results from this in the previous mesocycle, I wanted to make sure that it was sustainable by continuing in the same vein.
It worked. I added another 3 Watts to my 20-minute power, but the biggest improvements were higher up on the power curve, including 25 W on my previous best 5-minute power and 48 W on my 2-minute power.
This block marked the start of a 3-month experimental phase with which I'm going to close out the season.
I've reduced my training time, averaging around 12 hours per week on the bike throughout this period, and upped the average intensity (although much of this intensity increase is a consequence of the reduced base load).
Analyzing my ride data over the past year or so that I've had my power meter showed that I appear to respond much better to intensity compared with volume. The two graphs below show my VO2max, first versus volume and then versus intensity. The trends are clear:
You can see that higher volume hasn't lead to increased VO2max values, whilst higher intensity has. There are other factors involved that could possibly confound the data (especially my lack of recovery during my highest volume phase last year), and VO2max isn't the only important aspect of performance (more on this below), but nevertheless I judged it prudent to at least try completing the remainder of the season with a lower-volume-and-higher-intensity period to see what effect this has on my performance.
I've remarked a few times about how my fitness has been consistently improving all year, and I still think that's the case. My heart rate variability (HRV, an indicator of autonomic stress) has been steadily increasing, my resting HR trending downwards, and my best efforts at a wide range of durations regularly improving. All that is good.
But, almost from the moment I published the May update saying how great everything was going, my form sharply declined. It took most of June for me to start feeling good again; over the last few weeks I haven't been able to perform to the level I'd expect on longer-duration efforts (around threshold).
During this time my volume and intensity distribution have stayed the same, I've been taking regular recovery periods, and my HRV and resting HR have remained great, so there's no reason to think my fitness has significantly declined. I think that the likely explanation for my decline in performance is fatigue, and because my heart analysis numbers are good, the fatigue's got to be peripheral (muscular).
Building on last month, this was another great training block: probably my best yet. Certainly recent weeks have seen the biggest sustained gain in fitness I've had for at least two years (back when I'd just started serious group rides).
My build weeks were 14, 16 and 18 hours, and I've now definitively moved to only two hard sessions per week. Wednesday and Saturday works well and allows me to go deep and recover enough to go again next time out. Trying to squeeze in a third hard ride just reduces their quality and builds too much fatigue. That's not going to happen anymore.
Now the basic weekly structure consists of rest/recovery on Mondays, base training on Tuesdays and Thursdays, hard intervals on Wednesdays, leg speed on Fridays, a tough group ride (or solo free ride at the moment) on Saturdays, and an endurance ride on Sundays. This with a progressive increase in volume over the mesocycle, followed by a recovery week with reduced volume and only one hard ride (more on this below). Simple, but it's been very effective for me.
My training is going great; it really seems like I've been on the right track for the last few months. Maybe I've finally got it all figured out!
I just completed the first In-Season mesocycle, which went very well. The timing seemed to be spot on — by the final weekend I was feeling a little overloaded but not terribly so: exactly what I aim for at the start of a cycle. My physiological markers were also in agreement with my subjective feelings of fatigue. Through the four weeks of the cycle, as stress accumulated, my resting heart rate increased by about 10 bpm, my heart rate variability decreased more than 15 ms, and even my resting blood pressure increased significantly (from low to normal). So everything seems to be in sync.
In navigating my way through the Pre-Season, the main stumbling block was deciding on the correct length for each mesocycle. The Post- and Off-Season blocks are quite long with a progressive increase in volume at a mostly easy pace, whereas the purpose of the Pre-Season is to build intensity on top of that base. Therefore, I settled on the idea of two sets of 3-week mesocycles, each with two hard build weeks followed by recovery and testing. The idea was to be able to go hard on every high-intensity ride without worrying about trying to pace myself.
The weekends, as ever, are flexible as well, making it easier to generate the right amount of stress. Add in plyometrics on top of weight lifting, as well as my regrettably consistent tendency to go too hard rather than too easy, and the shorter cycles made a lot of sense.
The blue shading indicates a day with both lower-body weight training and plyometrics (pink is upper-body weight training). And, as you can see, I also have three hard cycling sessions per week. I even underlined them, just to be clear. That makes the riding quite a lot harder than earlier in the year.