Monday, July 29, 2013
I spent most of my 30s and 40s training to improve as a triathlete. There was even a period where I got quite good at it, with even some modest success - I completed a couple of Ironman events and won my age group in the Malaysian Powerman championships. It's great to have such a specific agenda in training. It gives you a very clear fitness component to work on and, with target races to train for, a clear point in time towards which you can periodize a linear path of development.
For the past few years I've been just as keen to get out on my bike - by now it's a lifestyle - but have less freedom to focus all my energies towards races. Life has other priorities. As a freelance person I already keep too many plates spinning at the same time, and it's impossible to block race weekends and allot time-slots other than in the immediate future. You could call it living in the moment, but it's more like living in a constant fuzz of looming deadlines! I'm trying to change all that.
Most of us riding a bike have at least some desire to improve our fitness or cycling performance. Without specific goals though, we usually fall into the trap of reaching a plateau that we can't get off. By training year-round without a specific peak fitness point we can achieve good basic fitness, but we will not realise our full potential. The classic scenario is the weekend warrior whose training focus recurrs every Sunday. It's easy to laugh at it, but it is all too easy to fall foul of this syndrome. You fail to plan, you plan to......
In a previous article I talked about the recovery component in training. This not only refers to the rest between rides, and recovery at the end of a 2- to 3-week training block, it is also a mandate for an annual recharge. It's necessary to schedule a period of complete down-time where we let our fitness go in order to let our bodies get a complete rest. Once we're fully recharged, we can then start the build again to an even higher level of fitness. The obvious point for this to happen is once we have reached the point that our peak level of fitness for the year has been attained - we reach a point of diminishing returns where continuing will not produce better results.
For the pros, this period of letting go is naturally at the end of the racing season. For those in a temperate climate, it's natural to time this for the worst period of winter weather. The hardest thing for those who live in a constantly warm environment like Singapore and Malaysia, is knowing when to take time off.
Every sport training method asks you to first consider your goals. A cyclist will be expected to target one or 2 races in a year to which you then devise a methodical plan to achieve maximum fitness at those exact moments. But what happens if you're not really a racer? What happens if you just want to be better at riding hills, or your goal is to do a particular route or hill faster or below a certain time? Or maybe your dream is to do a ride through the Alps or Pyrenees sometime but you don't have any specific timetable.
One suggestion, if you don't fancy finding a race, would be to target an organised group excursion or tour. Find one that challenges you and that gives you some time to prepare. You can even look at a series of these with gradual increases in level of challenge. Then ascertain exactly what you need to work on to rise to this challenge and build your training plan towards that goal. There are numerous methods and training manuals out there that can give you adaptable but well-structured plans - one of the clearest and most popular is Joe Friel's The Cyclist's Training Bible (also available for triathletes).
In future articles I aim to give some outlines of different approaches to what is known as periodization - the systematic building of fitness in several blocks or stages with a period of recovery between each. The established process would be to build volume first: increasing the time spent on your bike up to a reasonable maximum based on your available time and your goal. After this point volume is reduced somewhat and intensity is introduced - again specific to your goal's demands.
The most recent ideas in this however (sometimes referred to as Reverse Periodization) is to work on intensity from early on and increase volume later. This is a system that was used in other sports such as swimming first and has been more famously introduced to cycling via Team Sky through coach Tim Kerrison.
It's not entirely radical either. I remember the greatest Ironman debutant ever - Luc Van Lierde - who came out of nowhere to smash the course record, running his first ever marathon and becoming the first European to win Hawaii back in 1996. His approach was also to train for speed and the short course season first and then ramp up his mileage later in the season in preparation for the longer events.
Ok, maybe I'm not helping here. The truth is that there are so many ways of approaching this thing. The fundamental limiter however, is your body. Though we're all different of course, we can't suddenly start training like the pros out of nowhere. It will take years to build your physical condition just to be able to train 20 hours per week, let alone put enough intensity in there to take you up to a competitive fitness level.
Start though! Regardless of how long the journey might be, you have to take the first step. And it's an immensely enjoyable journey if you approach it in the right way, just remember that some overview must be maintained if you want it to go anywhere.
Training with power meters in cycling has given us a massive boost in our ability to specify, qualify and quantify everything we do, but to me the greatest asset to the weekend warrior of a tool like this is: humility.
We read the stats. Froome holds 450 watts on a climb for 20 minutes. Cavendish wins sprints with a blast of 1500 watts for 15 seconds. Most of us, when we start training with a power meter, are talking about raising our FTP (Functional Threshold Power) above 200 or 250 watts as a major goal, maybe some of us are working towards 300. Only a talented and disciplined few go beyond that. Aside from natural ability, what's the difference between the pros and us?
The difference is: a plan.