Training Notes: August-November 2019
The last Notes was back around the time of the Boone Gran Fondo. This update includes everything from that point until the end of November. I'm going to post training notes much less frequently from now on, just covering any broader developments and insights from each training cycle, and see how that goes.
The Fondo went well, but my fitness progression pretty much stalled for several weeks afterwards. My lactate threshold power failed to improve from August until the end of September, and my performance had basically stagnated.
In fact, the whole season didn't go as I had hoped. I managed to go through the entire Summer without being able to complete the full ride with the fast group in Savannah. I just didn't have the ability to handle the repeated surges. Given that last year was a totally different story (I only got dropped once, on my first attempt, just ten months after starting riding; by the end of that Summer I was actually one of the stronger riders in the unlimited group), I was struggling to determine what was going on.
At first I suspected a relative lack of anaerobic training was responsible; last year I was obsessed with short (30-60 second) Strava segments, and so did a very large amount of work in the anaerobic range. This year I was essentially rebuilding my aerobic base over the Summer, with intervals an afterthought1.
But it wasn't lack of any specific work that was holding me back; it was my stubborn refusal to take enough time out for recovery. In fact, I wasn't getting close to the amount I needed.
It's actually great that I have the time and motivation to do big training blocks, and this shouldn't (and isn't going to) change, but what did need a huge rethink was the length, frequency and intensity of my recovery periods.
One of the most basic exercise principles is that of build-overload-recovery. Within a training cycle you progressively increase volume and intensity until your body is pushed harder than it can currently tolerate, goes into overload and performance declines due to an acute build-up of fatigue. At that point you (should!) stop and rest until you've properly recovered, during which period your body grows stronger than it was before (this is called supercompensation). Only then should you begin the next cycle.
To keep progressing, you must have all these elements; waiting too long to begin the next cycle negates the effects of supercompensation, whereas beginning the next cycle too soon, during the recovery period (or having a recovery period that's not easy enough, or just not having a recovery period at all), leads to excessive fatigue, overreaching and eventually even overtraining syndrome. Furthermore, sticking to the same kind of volume and intensity all the time rapidly leads to a training plateau and stagnation due to lack of overload and training monotony — another reason to have these build-peak-overload-recovery cycles.
That's the fundamental training conundrum.
In my case, I have no problem either building up to a sufficiently tough level during a training block, or of going out and training day after day. My big problem has been training too much. A lot of people need a coach to motivate them to workout harder and more often, whereas my coach (me) is constantly trying to stop me training. I know this perfectly well sitting at home, but then I get out on the bike and do everything I shouldn't. I think this time my need for rest may finally have sunk in, but then again I've been here before. Maybe I need someone to lock up my bikes from time to time.
The good news is that for the last few weeks I really have reined it in, a lot. I had three relatively light weeks leading up to the final event of the year, Pedal Hilton Head, before starting the first of two planned winter endurance blocks. This block was tough: 16 days, 1613 km (1002 miles), including five consecutive 100-mile rides. Due to the easy time that preceded the block I was nice and fresh going in, and due to the nature of the block I was overloaded coming out.
Afterwards, I immediately transitioned into a big recovery period: a rest week (very low volume and low intensity, which is ongoing as I type; I'm on my fourth consecutive day of total rest, and the difference already — to my mood, energy, sleep, appetite and sense of well-being — is amazing), to be followed by a low volume, moderate intensity 'Free' week, after which I should be fresh again, ready for a second endurance block.
This is the kind of thing I want to be doing: big, hard training blocks followed by easy recovery periods that go until I'm fully recharged. And my training plan, which was in constant flux for months as I vainly tried various tweaks to the individual workouts, has now settled on a very different shape from what it was, reflecting this need for recovery and recuperation.
This year (before I hit the brakes) I was headed for 900 hours cycling. Since I backed off I'll actually be a little short of this, but should still end up having covered over 15,000 miles. That's a lot of riding. With my totally revamped plan, next year I'm looking at just under 750 hours. The 150-hour reduction comes entirely from the increased frequency of the far, far easier recovery periods; my build blocks will be just as tough as they have been.
I know I can tolerate these kind of training loads because it took at least six or seven consecutive big weeks in the middle of the Summer before things started to go backwards. And as you're about to see, I no longer go anywhere near that long without a recovery week.
Let's do a brief run through of each macrocycle, starting with the Post-Season.
This is coming off the In-Season, usually around the first week in October. I immediately begin with two unstructured Free weeks followed by four Rest weeks, to shake off the mental and physical fatigue built up over the year. This is new to me, but crucial. Its most important function is to restore hormonal balance — basically to give my adrenal glands a break.
The remainder of this cycle is a transitional period, consisting of the first endurance block of the winter. This is mostly low intensity, with maybe a couple of efforts on Saturdays and some strength work on the midweek Endurance+ rides. This should prepare me for the real endurance block that's coming up next:
The Off-Season follows a very light Recovery week at the end of the Post-Season, and runs from December to early January. The four-week build block increases the intensity a little more with the addition of under/over efforts to the Wednesday endurance rides and super-long rides to end each week. Finishing with a hefty 26-hour week should certainly ensure I achieve overload!
By this point I'll have fully restored my aerobic base, ready to pound out some intervals in the Pre-Season:
The extra-light Recovery at the end of the Off-Season will allow me to start the Pre-Season extra fresh, which is vital as the intensity now ramps up much more, without much reduction in volume. There are three short mesocycles; the first focuses on twice-weekly 8-minute interval sessions, the second on VO2 Capacity intervals at still greater intensity, and the final one is a whole lot of anaerobic intervals. Strength and power training also get increased emphasis.
The first two cycles have a 2-week build. On the first I go easier on the Saturday group rides (it's only January to early February so that's not a problem); Tuesdays and Thursdays are where the intensity is concentrated. This changes in the second cycle as we get closer to March; tougher Saturday rides in addition to the midweek intervals.
The third cycle is just one week long, but has five straight days of anaerobic intervals. I've never tried this so-called block periodization before, but I think it's worth experimenting with as a one-off, as there is some published research showing it can work well. We shall see.
As you guessed by now, an easy Recovery week is added at the end of each of the three mesocycles. The mesocycles are also shorter, since the increased intensity should lead to a much faster overload.
All the above should see me arrive at the main season in great shape, but still ready to go. It is disastrous to get to this point already fatigued, even to the point of injury (as happened to me in the Spring earlier this year). It would be much better to err on the side of being a little undertrained, as there's plenty of opportunity to catch up during the late Spring and early Summer.
The modular In-Season plan covers late March until the end of September. The mesocycles vary in length, since they're built around specific Events; Build weeks are moved around as necessary to fit the schedule. Here I do my highest-intensity intervals workout during the week, and also have the toughest Saturday group rides. All my other rides are at low intensity; I'll no longer be attempting high-intensity work any more frequently than this during the main season.
I'll generally be targeting 2-3 key events during the season. For these I'll do a full taper, so I'll be at my freshest on the day. If there are any other events I want to enter, I'll just work them into the regular plan in place of weekend rides.
For example, there is a local criterium series with about 6 races over the course of the Summer. I'll probably enter a couple of these, but they're not really very important to me. So in these cases, I could add one to the weekend of a Recovery week, following the 3-week Build period, before starting the next mesocycle with Build 1.
For more important events, however, I'll do a proper 2-week taper. So after Build 3 I'll do the Taper and Event weeks before the Recovery week. I've got a few ideas for good events to do, but so far the only one on my calendar is at the beginning of May when I'll be heading back to the UK for a two-week holiday. A big weekend should ensue. I may also pay a visit (or two) to Mount Mitchell later in the Summer, which would definitely also be worth taking seriously.
I'm expecting these changes (a reduced number of high-intensity sessions during build phases of the In-Season, reduced volume during more frequent recovery periods, and greater flexibility concerning both these factors based on the overarching principle of build-overload-recovery) to lead to big performance improvements for the next year and beyond. I'm sure there'll be further tweaking and refining of the details, but I think I now have a good overall approach.
What made me see the light? Eventually, my diminished performance this year became so great and so consistent that it was undeniable even to me. I had the occasional glimpse of what I can do if I get my training balance right, but overall I was shockingly bad. And this despite an improvement of over 50 Watts in my lactate threshold just between June and November (which is at least some good that I can take out of this; the year wasn't entirely wasted and I've now got a big base on which to build)!
2020 could be very good indeed, if I can stay balanced in my training by getting off the bike occasionally.
I may even have the time and energy to write about it.
Time 310 hours (17.7 hours/week) Distance 8,990 km (513 km/week) Start FTP 258 Watts (1st August) End FTP 302 Watts (30th November)
1, This did change starting in mid-September; I'd been experimenting with various intervals protocols and eventually found one that worked well. I call it Sprint Repeats, and it's simply 4 sets of 6 repetitions of 15 seconds flat out followed by 30 seconds recovery. One of the problems I'd been having with longer intervals e.g. 4-minute ones, was incorrect pacing. Specifically, I've tended to go out much too hard and fade badly later on. With the Sprint Repeats this isn't a concern; I'm either going as hard as possible or recovering. The nature of them also means all energy systems get a good workout – ATP-PCr during each acceleration, glycolysis in the later reps, and aerobic between sets.
Of course, I need to fix the problems with going off too hard on longer efforts, and in fact I've already been working on this. My most important realization was that perceived exertion should retain primacy, even with power data available. Perceived exertion tells the experienced athlete what they need to know. Power and heart rate are useful additions, but both vary from day to day so must remain subservient to RPE.
Another reason I wasn't often able to get through my longer steady-state intervals was my fatigue, discussed in the rest of the article.