Toolbox: Minor Changes Can Produce Big Results
One of the primary aims in our sport is to improve. We wish to improve in our fitness, results, and positive experiences on the bike. These changes can range from minor adjustments to a massive overhaul, but the common denominator is to see what has or has not worked, and then to try to improve on them. Great athletes are always looking for new methods, or even slight tweaks, to their training and routines to make themselves better.
One notable example is Tiger Woods. He is clearly one of the greatest golfers of all time, yet during the past 10 years, he made it publicly known that he was trying to change his swing. Why would a guy like this, with all his success, change the core element of his game? Because, as he simply put it, “I want to get better.”
All athletes reach plateaus in their fitness. As we hit the heart of 2012, I’d like to suggest some modifications you could try that might help you break through the fitness plateau you are in. At this time of year, the excitement of a new season provides big motivation, but what do you do with that motivation to actually make improvements? Let’s review a few things you might try changing, and how they can help you to get to the next level of fitness or become more competitive within your racing category.
Increase volume – Nothing can substitute for additional time on the bike (volume). There have been multiple studies over the past few years proclaiming the benefits of high intensity training, and there is no doubt that this is a useful method to achieve some types of improvements. Despite the benefits of this approach, increasing the number and quality of miles is an inevitable necessity for long-term success.
Increasing volume helps athletes to become better bike racers for multiple reasons, which I will detail in a moment. The many positive aspects of increased volume help riders to become more consistent in their performance throughout the year. The benefits of increasing time on the bike are maximized when you:
• Choose the correct length of ride – Different levels of athletes have different needs for ride length. If you are training for double centuries, or participate in races of 100 miles or more, then you need to have a ride length that roughly approximates these distances. In fact, for racing, there’s a strong argument to occasionally ride for lengths of time that are perhaps 50% more than your races (e.g., if your 100 mile race takes 4 hours, then you might wish to do the occasional 6 hour ride). But if your target goals are not quite this lofty, then you should choose distances/times that are more appropriate to your goals. General rules of thumb: for recreational riders, you should be able to ride 75% of the distance of your goal before attempting the goal; for racers, you should be able to ride (at less than race pace!) 50% greater time than the time it takes for your longest race.
• Ride volume in a way that is consistent – when one rides in a big, diverse group ride, where you have everyone from Cat 1’s through recreational riders, it is very hard to get the necessary volume at the correct intensity. True volume riding is done in the correct endurance zone, generally, something around medium endurance (while there are various terms for this level of output, it is generally around 3-6 on a 10-point Rate of Perceived Exertion scale), with good focus, limited stopping and steady intensity. Spiky intensities are often the outcome of larger group rides, and this tends to be less productive when you are trying to effectively increase your volume. For example, one of the simple things I look at in a power file for this type of ride is an average power that is very close to normalized power (or a VI – variability index –that shows how peaky the ride was). If you do your volume riding in a group, try to keep the group to a limited size with people that are either at a similar fitness level to you, and/or those who are willing to share similar goals for the ride.
• Increase Volume Slowly – Volume increases must be done slowly and sometimes over the course of years. If you choose to ramp up your volume, it can generally be accomplished by increasing your time on the bike about 10% a month, with at least one of the weeks during that month being a “recovery” week where you spend somewhat less time than normal on the bike. Being conservative with slower steps is the best way to go about increasing your volume over time.
Increase intensity – If have a good base of hours over many years, and are already at your limit of riding hours given job, family and other commitments, then try increasing the intensity within those hours. I know this sounds obvious, but until you track your training, you really don’t know how much intensity you are doing and at what level. I just completed a study with UC Davis Sports Performance where we tracked training for 18 weeks with a group of Masters level racers. I was surprised that even when we were doing a phase dedicated to higher intensity, much of the time they were actually riding at lower intensities. It was eye opening to say the least.
Resist the habitual – Over the past 5 years or so, athletes in cycling, especially with the availability of power devices, have had the ability to track massive amounts of data. There are many books out there that have programs defined, coaches are creating programs and if you search for them, you can find workouts and training programs for free on the internet. The bottom line is that planning and structure has become a big part of an athlete’s program year after year. This is a very positive development in our sport.
On the flip side, it’s important to tailor program styles to an athlete’s unique personality. Some athletes love to ride and train within a structure and enjoy tracking their data (and hopefully improvement!). Others simply have the “I just want to ride attitude.” As a suggestion, try doing the opposite routine for a specified period of time and note how it affects your program, mental outlook, and overall fitness. This approach reminds me of the Seinfeld episode in which George did the exact opposite of his habitual response, which ended up leading to total success!
Some athletes have to let go and just ride more without thinking too much; others need to gain some structure and learn to track their progress. It’s just different for different athletes. I am not suggesting that you do the exact opposite, but perhaps blend in some of the “other side” and see how it feels. It will feel strange initially, but it may be just what the doctor ordered to gain that extra edge.
Weight decrease– This seems to come up in some shape or form in almost any article on improving your fitness…..and it comes up all the time because it is such a basic and important change to make. It may be that losing that extra 2-3 kilos will make the difference you need to jump to the next level of fitness or competition. But make no mistake about it, losing that weight is challenging. If it were easy, you would have already accomplished it. It takes a plan and focused effort, just like a training program to improve your fitness. Is this the year you are able to lose that extra couple kilos?
Even though we all want to improve every year it’s difficult to do so. I always tell my athletes that it’s not necessarily your physiology holding you back, but more the environment in which you are training and competing, mainly because of “life.”
At some point we are looking for a slight percentage increase in fitness, as this may result in the difference we’re seeking. Normally the difference between winning and losing is so small, it’s just that extra 5-10 watts at threshold or that extra time hanging on for dear life or that extra attack when you are suffering like a dog.
Hopefully, some of the above changes in your program can help you achieve that small change that puts you over the winning edge.
Ride safe, ride strong,
Bruce and Matt
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.
Matt Larson is a USA Cycling Level 2 coach who works for AthletiCamps. Check Matt out here