Toolbox: Have you Stopped Improving?
It happens to all athletes at some point in their careers. Whether you’re a professional or amateur racer, all athletes go through a time where the improvement process stalls. For some it can be a plateau, even though they’re putting in an immense amount of work. For others, not only do they not improve, they feel like their fitness is going backwards. That feeling can be extremely frustrating and take a big toll on morale.
Let’s examine some different angles on this common subject and see if we can get a good perspective on why it may be happening and what to do about it. One note – we are not examining lack of improvement due to overtraining or excess fatigue. Although very valid, that is a rather large topic and not the focus of this article. Being slightly fatigued or tired is part of a normal training program. If your fatigue is excess and consistent, you have another more important issue to address!
What we can learn from corporations? – The first question you need to ask yourself is simply, “where are you coming up with the conclusion that you are not improving? And additionally, whom are you comparing yourself to?
As stated in the subject line, tracking your long term fitness is analogous to companies comparing their books month-to-month, quarter-to-quarter, and year-to-year. Can you imagine a major public company not doing comparisons and just guessing at how they are doing? It would be ridiculous! So why shouldn’t an athlete do the same types of comparisons as companies do? Bottom line here is that you really don’t know which direction your fitness is going until you track it. Once you begin tracking it over time, you can gain a true perspective on where you stand fitness-wise.
It’s hard to compare fitness week to week (or year to year) in race situations, because each race has different demands and competition. In other words, there are too many external variables to use this as a valid indicator of fitness. Getting yourself on a good performance testing or power profiling program may be just what you need to really understand how your fitness is stacking up month-to-month and year-over-year.
Think about how cool it would be to have years of performance tests (or power profiles) to truly understand where you stand from a fitness perspective. This type of ongoing data analysis allows you to get a visual on your current fitness level, and what it takes to get to another level or back to where you were previously.
The base of the pyramid (or lack of) – When new athletes come and visit us for the first time, one of the first questions we ask is what their training program has been in the past. You would be surprised how many athletes tend to understand the basics of training, yet how few apply it to themselves. They don’t take the necessary time to work on one of the major components of a complete training program: The base level of aerobic fitness. Not defining “base” and applying it over time is probably the single most common reason athletes don’t improve like they expect.
Not having a proper base can lead to a very “rollercoaster” season, with many ups and down in terms of how you feel and what your body gives you during race days. One week you are feeling great, the next, you are wondering what the heck you are doing at this race! First defining what base is right for you is important. Every athlete is different in his or her needs. Then taking the time through consistent training is necessary to build the foundation for a solid year and career. The longer it takes to get fit, the longer you stay fit!
Patience – We live in a 24-hour society where results are expected quickly. If they don’t occur, most become impatient and stray from the plan, search for another coach, and blame anything and everything. Getting fit takes time and you must commit to a program and stick with it for a while to see if it helps. In general you will make significant gains early in your career, then plateau. Make sure you get some perspective from your coach as to where you are in this timeline. Obviously at some point, you may need to search for a different style of training, but for the most part, understand where you are in the big picture and have perspective.
Life – One of the hardest things to understand and accept for most athletes is that it is primarily the limitations of life off the bike, and our chosen environment, that dictates how far we go in the sport. Most athletes who come to us have the required physiology to compete and to do well in the sport, but it’s their lifestyle off the bike that limits their development. At the professional level, there are no boundaries, as bike racing is what they do for a living. Their whole focus in life is bike racing and their athletic development.
At the amateur level, it’s another story. When you line up at the start line every Saturday, the chief referee doesn’t ask all riders who had to travel for work the last week to raise their hand, so they can get a head start. The reality is that most of amateur racers have jobs, kids, and responsibilities and can only devote a limited amount of time and energy to our hobby. That is where the comparison thing to other racers gets tricky, as certain riders sacrifice more than others and have different priorities.
It’s not easy to see and understand this concept. Each person must gain perspective on where they stand and what they are willing to sacrifice to improve in the sport. The last thing you want to do is compare yourself to another friend, teammate or competitor, even though the temptation is there to do so. Every athlete is unique and comes from a different athletic and life background and mindset. Just because they do something that’s helpful for them, doesn’t mean it will work for you.
If you give two people starting at the same fitness level (watts per kilo at threshold as an example) the same training program, you would not expect they would achieve the same fitness level. And this is only using the physical training program as an example. There is not a training program in the world that measures sacrifice, emotion, and perseverance of an individual. The key point to remember is when you look at another athlete, you really have no idea as to what they are doing or thinking. Learn from other athletes, but focus on what it takes for you to improve.
As we stated at the beginning of the article, everyone goes through a time period (if not many) when they are not improving and their morale is tested. It’s all part of being an athlete. Understanding that there are ups and downs is part of the journey. The key is to have a good plan, good guidance and good perspective!
Ride safe, ride strong,
Bruce Hendler is a USA Cycling Coach and owner of AthletiCamps in Northern California. For the past 10 years, he and his experienced team have helped athletes of all levels achieve their goals in the great sport of bike racing thru cycling training camps, cycling coaching and performance testing. To contact AthletiCamps, visit their website at www.athleticamps.com or follow them on Twitter.