What's Cool In Road Cycling

Toolbox: Transition Time

October, and racers are working to put that final exclamation point on their season. For some this means they are on the cusp of a well deserved break from the arduous training and structure that has defined their summer. For others it is the start of the fitness ramp towards cyclocross! Either way your season is in transition, so what should you do to make the most of the coming weeks?

By Matt McNamara

Many of my athletes have been racing since February. They have all been training hard since before then. Several have more than 60 days of racing in their legs, some have less than 5, but to a person they are all in transition towards the fall. Despite my affinity for the ’old school’, simply putting the bike away until December, like those stalwarts of yesteryear, is not the path to improvement. Instead allow yourself to…

Take A Moment
If you’ve been training and racing for the better part of the last 6 months take a breath! The physical and psychological toll of hard riding, racing and training are sometimes overlooked as you stride towards the next cool race or big event.

Hopefully your training has been structured enough that you’ve had some micro-breaks during the year and aren’t completely shelled. That said, it is still a good idea to give yourself a mental and physical respite from training at the end of your season. Which begs the question, how long?

How long will largely depend on how taxed you are. If you are finding it difficult to even look at the bike, then a few weeks away is not a bad choice. I wouldn’t walk away from physical activity entirely, but I would certainly redirect my energies into another sport or past time that stimulates your mind and peaks your interest.

On the other hand, If you’ve had a more modest season, and feel pretty good, then it is reasonable to adjust your ‘down time’ down to as little as a few days. The key criteria is a realistic view of where you’re at physically, mentally, and emotionally. As with most training elements, I tend to err on the side of caution and would rather an athlete take a few extra days off than not.

What Price Lethargy?
Physiologically there are some notable changes that occur during a transition phase. From alterations in blood chemistry, glycogen storage, and mitochondrial volume, to changes in endurance performance and increases in lactate concentrations during sub maximal exercise (to name a few), the effects of detraining are important to know.

Dr. Bryan Bergman wrote a great summary article about the effects of detraining, which he defined as “the partial or complete loss of training-induced physiological adaptations due to reducing or stopping training.” In his paper Dr Bergman cited over a dozen studies (sixteen to be exact) looking at the effects of detraining on endurance athletes.

Among the notable observations after 4 weeks of detraining are a 9% drop in blood plasma volume, a 25% drop in endurance performance, and a 4 – 14% drop in VO2max.
Muscle glycogen stores decrease with as little as a week of detraining. Lactate threshold also shows consistent degradation, although power at threshold was not discussed. Each of these values tends to stabilize after 8 weeks of detraining.

These trends should help you solidify just what is the ‘right’ amount of transition/detraining time for you and your goals. If your goal is to keep the training adaptations close your seasonal gains (e.g. you are transitioning to ‘cross), then a shorter transition is suggested. If you are fried from a steady diet of MAP Intervals and racing, and your next racing phase is a long ways off, then enjoy some time either away from the bike, or at a high fun threshold.

Transition to ‘Cross
For those looking to have a full and complete cyclocross season, now is the time to begin properly. “Properly” looks very similar to resting. I say this not to be cheeky, but because you well and truly need a short rest period between seasons. It doesn’t have to be long, 3-5 days is adequate for most. It doesn’t have to be completely off the bike either; fun rides with no expectations, metrics or measures are a great way to break the monotony.

It may sound strange to hear a devout power guy extolling the virtues of ‘just riding along,” but give it a try! Leave the power meter, heart rate and GPS at home for a few rides. At the minimum it’ll keep you focused on the ride rather than the numbers, and you might find some new ways to gauge effort that can become reliable reference points throughout the training year.

At the minimum you should have two or three ‘recovery’ rides. These are usually around 60 minutes and are done under your endurance power/heart rate. If you feel good on the other days it is ok to light up a few tempo and above efforts…but don’t let your ambition derail your long term goals. This is a rest and recovery period, not a time to push for fitness

If you ‘have’ to enter some data, then estimate. It won’t kill you or your training load averages to have a week or more of rides that aren’t ‘true.’ That said don’t fudge your estimate to sooth your ego. Compare the ride to another of similar duration and intensity and substitute those numbers, or just copy and paste the workout.

A week or so of light recovery and introductory skills rides on the ‘cross bike will give you a nice break and help reset you for the fall. Then when you are ready to resume training you’ll have the added confidence of a positive mental outlook.

The approach of September often signals an important shift in ones training. Whether transitioning to the off season, or ramping up ones training for a winter of cyclocross, it is important for the athlete to recognize the importance of some down time.

Taking time off does have an immediate effect on your overall capacities. Your endurance, lactate threshold power, glycogen stores, and blood plasma will all fall readily. But a modest transition of 1 – 4 weeks will not ruin your fitness gains from the season. The total amount of fitness lost will not be hugely significant (e.g. less than 10%) if your winter program is built to gain fitness over time. You can’t maintain race fitness all year round, so embrace the change in schedule.

For those transitioning to cyclocross a few days off the bike (up to a week even) can help recharge your batteries and allow you to refocus on the structured high intensity efforts endemic to that most glorious of winter pursuits. If you are feeling mostly fresh and motivated, do easy rides instead. They shouldn’t have any sustained efforts above tempo pace, but they can be a great segue to the ‘cross bike and its unique set of skills.


Bergman, B.C. Maintaining training adaptations during the off-season. Internet article at www.trainright.com

Howe, Charles The Road Cyclist’s Guide To Training By Power, 3rd Edition, June 2007

About Matt McNamara:
Matt McNamara is a USA Cycling Level 1 coach with over 20 years of racing, coaching and team management experience. He spends inordinate amounts of time reading about cycling and science and not nearly enough time actually riding. You can find him on www.facebook.com.. Facebook, or via email: [email protected]

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