Training Notes: Pre-Season 2020

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.

Pre-Season macrocycle

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.

With that much intensity, it's imperative that all my other days are nice and easy, to allow sufficient recovery. Unfortunately, my old habits resurfaced during the first half of the phase.

The plan has easy rides on Sundays, and I'm much more likely to accomplish this if I ride on my own. However, I really enjoy group rides and always tell myself that I'll be able to avoid riding hard and keep things easy. So, during the first mesocycle, I decided to do a group ride instead of riding solo. But of course I just couldn't resist doing pulls that were both too long and too hard. Nothing crazy; I merely accumulated about an hour at an intensity too high to be described as 'easy'. But that, on top of all the other stuff I'd done over the previous two weeks, was all it took. I ended up overloading one week too soon. My legs were really sore the following Monday. Another clue: that evening I slept for 11 hours!

Ironically, I have more problems with this on the easiest group ride, where I'm the strongest rider; I feel like I should be doing proportionally more work in that group, whereas on other rides with more people willing and able to be workhorses, I'm quite happy to hang back (at least until the last few hundred metres leading up to a sprint).

However, the great news is that, unlike in the past, this time I both recognized what had happened and did something about it, by bringing forward my Recovery Week.

It sounds pretty simple: to recognize that I need a break and then take one, but it really was a struggle.

Being a one-man operation, I'm involved in a perpetual battle between the rational coach and the meat-head athlete. The coach knows how to correctly balance a training schedule; the athlete always thinks whatever's on the menu isn't enough. The coach knows the athlete is tired and needs a break, but the athlete just wants to hit the road and put in some work. When the two are the same person, it just makes life difficult.

But that's all part of the challenge! Even if I could justify spending money on a real coach, I wouldn't want to do so. Over the last couple of years I've ridden tens of thousands of kilometres, read scores of cycling-related scientific research articles and many books, overreached on countess occasions, and made dozens of changes to my training plan, both big and small. And I've learned a great deal and (despite all the moaning) had lots of fun. But one thing I haven't done is undertrained, so I'm pretty confident that me taking more frequent recovery blocks isn't what's going to break me. In fact, I've got a sneaking suspicion that it might just make me stronger!

And now that I've got a power meter, there's no more fudging numbers or second-guessing: it gives brutally honest feedback on my performance.

I've acknowledged before that I'm not a pure sprinter, but I have become increasingly certain that I am a fast-twitcher. And that's led me more thoughtfully to consider my overall goals in light of my strengths and weaknesses, and modify my training accordingly.

There's surprisingly little research that I've been able to find on training as it relates to muscle fibre typology, but from what I have found it seems clear that fast-twitchers can tolerate less volume than slow-twitchers, as well as needing greater recovery time between efforts and sessions. They probably also respond better to shorter, higher-intensity intervals and worse to a lot of work around threshold. They gain endurance quickly, but gain speed slowly. They're more likely to overreach, and find it harder to stay on peak form. They need to keep the easy days very easy to enable full recovery. A true polarized training distribution probably works best for them, with relatively little work in the middle of the intensity range.

That all rings true.

My intervals now are all at VO2max intensity and above; no tempo/threshold/super-threshold work except on group rides and in races or other events, i.e. generally once per week. All the rest of my riding must be at a genuinely low intensity, and the volume (including intervals volume) should (at least for now) be kept moderate relative to what I was doing previously. When I deviate from this, I overreach. When I overreach, I have to take a break, regardless of what I had planned for upcoming days, or I overreach even more. I've got a stack of evidence from the last couple of years riding that shows this. The coach has known this for a long time. But the athlete is an idiot who can't quite accept that periodically recovering could actually be a good thing.

In contrast to the earlier problems, the latter part of the Pre-Season (illustrated above) was very good. I've been working on both my maximal aerobic and anaerobic systems. For VO2, I switched away from the 40/20s to 2.5 minute intervals at around 125% CP, recovering until my heart rate got back down to 120 bpm. 15-20 minutes of that is a great workout. Twice a week was pushing it though, so it was imperative that I did not go too deep (and ever since I lost interest in Strava segments, that has become much easier).

On the neuromuscular side, I've already been seeing pretty decent gains. Frustratingly, my peak power is still yet to hit 1100 Watts, but I'm pretty confident that over the next few months I'll be able to go beyond this. I just need to be more violent with the bike; I think there are big gains to be had just from improving my technique, and more from neural development. Add in the weight training and plyometrics and I think I should be able to get up to 1200.

But this has been trickier than I thought, because as I learned to use more of my body and the full pedal stroke, I had a few twinges in my hamstrings and calves, and even a full-blown episode of cramp. I decided that more strength work in my posterior chain was needed, so I've spent the last few weeks working on that, and it will be a while longer before I really let loose again. So the peak power work is on the back burner for a while. Since group rides and events are currently off the agenda, this isn't a big deal at all.

I'm not actually too concerned with my peak power per se, but rather for the effect this should have on the entire top end of my power curve. For that reason (as well as the twinges) I abandoned specific neuromuscular intervals in favour of 20/40s: I wanted to develop my aerobic, anaerobic and neuromuscular capacities together before going into the main season, giving me a platform to switch focus to my forte: pure anaerobic work.

Although my peak power is pretty flimsy, my 10- to 60-second power is actually very good. I'll be working to make it even better over the summer, but at least as important is building up my threshold power, giving me a bigger platform from which to launch.

The final weekend of the Pre-Season saw me finally getting a Profile Test right. The only true way to test 1-hour power is of course to go out and ride as hard as you can for 60 minutes. Like most people, that's not something that really appeals to me, so I use an abbreviated protocol. A lot of people get this wrong: they just go out and do a 20-minute max effort, take 5% off and leave it at that. But that nearly always significantly overestimates the true value, especially for those (like me) with high levels of anaerobic energy. So what I do is, following a warm-up, ride for 5 minutes at full power (to drain anaerobic work capacity), recover for 10 minutes, then do another 30 minutes at threshold, taking the average power/heart rate for the last 20 of those 30 minutes.

This protocol has the disadvantage of producing much less flattering numbers than a straight 20 minutes when fresh, but on the positive side it's actually far closer to reality. The best I can make out, my true 60-minute power is currently in the 260s with my W' (anaerobic work capacity) around 29 kJ. The second value is pretty good, but the first needs work, and I'll be watching it closely over the next few months, trying to identify the reasons behind any changes.

I'm continuing to enjoy my re-balanced training; the reduction in volume has allowed for more intensity, as well as increased (off-bike) strength and power training.

Overall, my numbers have all been heading in the right direction, and the few extended maximal efforts I've done have seen me closing in on several of my season power goals. However, since such efforts seem to have a greatly disproportionate effect on my recovery time, I'm going to continue to keep these relatively few and far between.

Now moving into the In-Season (below), the aim is to spend the first couple of mesocycles getting up to the top of the sets/reps range on the intervals rides and establishing an appropriate level for the group rides (which are actually solo Free Rides due to the pandemic). After that, I can experiment with changes in volume to see what effect this may have.

In-Season macrocycle

Hopefully by the end of the summer I'll have a good idea of what works best for me.

Despite everything, here's to a good year ahead.

#cycling #training