Off-Season Training For Masters Cyclists
TOOLBOX: With so many PEZ-Fans above the age of 45 years, off season training for masters cyclists is a hot topic right now. Fall is a time of change: weather, foliage, and of course our training. The fall has traditionally been seen as a time for cyclists to get off the bike, rest, and recover from a long season of training, but is this really a good idea for the masters cyclist?
At 38 years old, Alejandro Valverde is riding better than ever
Let’s tackle rest first. By the time the trees start on their fall colors, a lot of cyclists have been training for 8-10 months solid. That training period probably had some good base work, but by early spring, it morphed into either a highly-structured regime of intervals and hard work or the classic 3-4 hard group rides a week. All this work and intensity cries out for you to rest, right? Well, rest might not be the best answer for the masters cyclist (let’s say 50+).
I know, jaws just dropped, physiologists just gasped, and the traditional coaching pyramid just fell over. Just hear me out.
Costs & Benefits
Every decision you make in training has to be accompanied by a cost-benefit analysis. A simple way to do that is to write it out. For example, let’s say you you’re trying to build more short climb power to perform stronger in the local Wednesday night worlds, so you decide to add more days of short, high-intensity intervals to your workout week.
You could phrase the possible cost and benefit this way: Increasing my short, high-intensity workouts to 2-3 days a week will improve my short climbing power (the benefit), but I could decrease my threshold and sustained power (the cost) due to lack of focus in that area, resulting in me getting dropped before I reach the target hill.
This is a very simplified example, but you can use the same approach to identify the potential cost and benefit of any training decision.
So how does cost-benefit thinking apply to the fall?
Let’s go back to the traditional idea of resting in the fall. As a 50+ rider myself, my body tends to send the “rest” signal pretty strongly, so let’s put together a cost-benefit statement of taking a few weeks off in the fall.
The benefit: Chronic fatigue has been building all year long, and resting off the bike for a few weeks will help restore my energy and motivation.
The cost: Time off the bike will really drop my fitness, and it will take a lot of work to rebuild it.
At first glance, this is an oversimplification, right? Let’s dig a little deeper and play out the rest scenario by quantifying training with the TrainingPeaks Performance Manager Chart (PMC).
If you’re not familiar with this system of tracking training volumes, you can check out a great introduction article.
So let’s assume you build your “Fitness” (Chronic Training Load, or CTL) to 80 TSS per day by early summer, then generally maintain that number throughout the summer. Your “Fitness” (CTL) will drop an average of 10-12 TSS per week in a rest week, so if you rest 4 weeks in the fall, it would drop from 80 TSS/day to approximately 40 TSS/day before you start training again.
This is only part of the cost, however; the real cost is the work to get it back. As we age, we have to train a little less and rest a little more, so for the 50+ cyclist, rebuilding “Fitness” can only be done so quickly. I typically recommend a ramp rate (a weekly fitness growth rate score) of about 2-4 TSS/day for each training week. This means that to regain the lost 40 TSS/day at this controlled growth, you would need to train approximately 10-20 weeks. The cost of losing 40 TSS/day in 4 weeks off takes 10-20 weeks to rebuild, depending on training load.
Younger cyclists can rebuild at a much faster rate, because they don’t need the amount of rest we need. For cyclists in their 20s and 30s, weekly gains in fitness can be as high as 7-8 TSS/day, which means they can regain those 40 lost TSS/day points in as little as 5 weeks.
Why not just train harder?
Here’s the challenge, in my opinion. At our age, training harder and ramping up our fitness at a higher rate (such as the 7-9 TSS/day stated above) does not result in better performance. Why? Adaptation requires not only rest, but also energy. High-load training for the 50+ crowd can be done, but the acute fatigue can really interfere with the adaptive signal and resulting adaptation. Time and time again, I have seen a better response from a more measured approach to ramping training load in 50+ athletes, as it allows the body to absorb the strain and respond. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not recommending training less as a whole; I am simply suggesting that masters riders ramp up the load a little more slowly.
So is it worth the cost?
Extended resting for 50+ riders can create too much of a hole to dig out of. This is, to me, the real cost of a longer rest at our age. The benefit of the rest period might not be worth the cost of the lost fitness and the resulting need to train at a higher ramp rate.
Joop Zoetemelk (71) and Steven Rooks (58) climbing the Alpe d’Huez in 2018
I am a 50+ rider. What should I do in the fall?
In my opinion, I would simply not lose the fitness. A short rest (7-10 days off the bike) is the optimal target for rest, followed by 4-8 weeks of maintenance riding/training. That being said, however, there typically do need to be some changes in the training routine for the fall that will help your body recover better from the chronic fatigue that’s been building. Here are three changes I recommend that will allow you to maintain a higher level of fitness.
Change 1: Reduce the intensity
Fall is a great time to ride. We love to go out and hammer with our buddies at this time of year, but if you want to erase some chronic fatigue, limit the higher-intensity days to once a week or less (I target 1 high intensity day per 8-10 ride days). Sure, you can still do Wednesday night worlds or Saturday morning massacre rides; just pick one of them (at most). It’s also best to avoid a lot of hard climbing routes, as it’s difficult to control the intensity on these rides.
Change 2: Reduce the duration of mid-length rides
The steadily decreasing daylight often takes care of this one, but during the maintenance period, reduce your weekday ride length by about 25%. It doesn’t have to be precise; just cut out some time so that weekdays are not only easier, but also a little shorter.
Change 3: Introduce variety
As we age, we need more variety of exercise stimuli to help fight the effects of our age. This is an excellent time to introduce 1-2 days a week of other formats of easy aerobic training. Try hiking, fitness courses, easy running (but be careful, as easy running can be more stress on your body than you think, and watch for injury), or aerobic fitness classes at the local gym. Yes, I know we love to ride the bike and other aerobic exercises are never as much fun, but variety and change will help break up your training stagnation and improve your recovery from a long season.
Keep the end goal in mind. Rest some, but don’t lose too much fitness; the cost of rebuilding it might actually slow you down more than a longer rest.
Seven Paris-Roubaix between them – Johan Musseeuw (52) and Roger De Vlaeminck (71) still ride the cobbles
Tim Cusick is the TrainingPeaks WKO4 Product Development Leader, specializing in data analytics and performance metrics for endurance athletes. In addition to his role with TrainingPeaks, Tim is also Head Coach at Velocious Cycling Adventures. You can reach Tim for comments at [email protected] . To learn more about TrainingPeaks and WKO4 visit us at TrainingPeaks.com.