Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Review: Sufferfest Cycling Training Videos

It may seem incongruous that anyone would have anything positive to say about the pollutant cloud that has descended on the region in which I live recently. The consequences for health in the hardest-hit areas will only become apparent in the future. But for me, living in an area with still-tolerable levels of haze, the fact that it forced all of us outdoor dwellers to retreat into our air-conditioned sanctuaries for a couple of weeks forced me to rediscover the benefits of working on that most hated beast in any cyclists arsenal, the turbo-trainer, or stationary home-trainer. Through that revival, I then came to discover the true joys of the Sufferfest.

Sufferfest is a series of videos devised to offer structure - and motivation - for developing cycling fitness and power on an indoor trainer. The videos are the brain-child of David McQuillen, who started making them for personal use while holding down a high-octane banking job, and still maintains full engagement with the product 6 years after it's launch, though the 9-to-5 was jettisoned 2 years back. With the imminent release of another 3 editions, there will be 23 cycling videos available, and he has also added 4 more for runners and triathletes.

The videos use HD footage from pro races, including on-bike and helmet cameras, as a backdrop, and motivator, to specific timed interval workouts devised with top coaches for developing all elements of a cyclist's fitness spectrum. The clear, on-screen instructions and timing are mixed with David's own brand of cajoling humour, prodding you to go harder, or to complete the challenge. He creates an on-screen identity for you as a Sufferlandrian, and builds a story around your exploits to spur you on.

Most of the full-length workouts are around an hour in duration and cover every type of intensity. They use a scale of 1-10 of effort which you need to get used to in order to perform the workouts to best effect. I  found that I overcooked the intensity initially and could barely finish the workouts. This was, in part, not being used to the home trainer I was using, but also because I was trying to gauge it using a power meter calibrated for road use. I've realised that, at least on my equipment, I can't get a realistic calibration on a flywheel, so I've reverted to rate of perceived exertion (RPE) which works well, as long as you are fairly clear on what your FTP (Functional Threshold Power) feels like (7.5 on the Sufferfest scale), and with an eye on my heart rate just to make sure I'm in the right zone.

They are truly awesome! You will never work this hard on a bike on your own. In a one-hour-plus workout you can really get the maximum training effect in whatever fitness component you're aiming for. I would recommend warming up for at least 10 minutes before you start the video - I'll usually do at least 20mins - as the workout "warm up" is usually pushing your pace up almost immediately.

The cadence stipulated for each effort has to be read with some flexibility in mind. When 90rpm is indicated, read that as "normal" cadence, and likewise if it pushes that number up or down, gauge it against what is normal for you. My cadence is naturally around 100 so I adjust all figures by +10 (-ish) for instance. For those who are used to slower cadences, I'd say its good to try and stay with what is indicated during the warm ups, and generally if you can handle it, the purpose is to speed up your natural cadence. But until a cadence at or above 90 becomes comfortable for you, if it asks for 90 during the main set, use whatever is a "normal" cadence for you - with perhaps an additional +5rpm if you can manage it.

I've found that it's better to ignore the timing of the efforts on your gadget, even though you'll no doubt be recording them. The videos also won't count your efforts down on-screen until the effort is about to change and, especially on the longer intervals, it's just better not to know how much more suffering you have left. It's part of the deal - just do what the coach says. It also takes away any need for unnecessary movements. Believe me, you'll welcome that!

Videos I've used so far include:
  • Angels (climbing). 62mins. Main set: 3x8mins. Develops: Threshold/anaerobic endurance. Pushes your ability to stay above your threshold for longer stretches while climbing. Lots of low-gear and out-of-saddle efforts.
  • Revolver (VO2max). 45mins. Main set 15x 1-minute-on, 1-minute-off. This is designed as a VO2max endurance session, and the instructions are clear: flat-out all the way. Could also be used as a force-development session using big gears, or quite a few other possibilities. Short and effective.
  • Local Hero (race simulation). 85mins. Main set: 3x6, 5x3, 4x2. Starts out with 3 pyramid intervals designed to push up your threshold pace. The next 5 are more towards Anaerobic endurance, and the last 4 improve your ability to finish with a sprint. Easy to overdo the first 3 and compromise the rest, so keep it conservative the first time out. Good for when you have few other chances in a week to do a hard workout.
  • Rubber Glove (threshold, FTP test). 60mins. Main set: 20min TT. Actually an FTP threshold test, but good for developing threshold anyway. Winds up the intensity gradually in the warm up, and then, after a break, straight into a 20-minute all-out effort. Simple and painful.
  • Nine Hammers (VO2max). 55mins. Main set; 9x intervals of 3-4:30. Develops: Anaerobic endurance. This is my favourite so far. 9 intervals starting each group of 3 with a threshold effort followed by 2xVO2 efforts of 3 minutes. Very hard, but very effective for pushing your VO2max.
  • There Is No Try (threshold). 60mins. Main set: a "pyramid" set of intervals starting with one minute and building up to an 8 minute time trial and then back down: 1:00/2:00/3:00/4:00/8:00/4:00/3:00/2:00/1:00, with not a lot of rest in between. Each intervals is divided into 4 equal parts and builds over each quarter to a searing finish above your threshold. Great for pushing up your FTP if you can really handle the required intensity. Painful!
  • Downward Spiral (VO2max). 55mins. Main set: 2x descending interval sets using an equal effort-to-recovery ratio, starting with 2:00 on and 2:00 off, and working down in reductions of 15 seconds to an all-out 15 second sprint. Very effective at pushing up your VO2max as you definitely go naturally harder as the set progresses.
I am gradually expanding the above section, so check back periodically for updates. For developing anaerobic power and endurance I already have a pretty wide-ranging assortment collected here....but there's more. With a range like this you could already formulate a pretty effective program!
Expect a few extra surprises here and there in the sessions that don't appear on the menu. So far I've focused on collecting mainly anaerobic endurance types of workout that are hard to do outdoors, as I can (usually) ride all year round where I live, and have some good routes for pure training focus for other fitness components. I have friends who swear by these workouts though, and I can see how well they work on developing power for those with limited riding time. All of the videos push you to your limits if used correctly, and if used as part of a structured program, they will be instrumental steps in achieving your full potential as a cyclist.

By now it has gained a cult following. Users feel proud to be part of an elite fraternity of sufferers with the tenacity to push themselves that hard. The mantra is summed up by an acronym: IWBMATTKYT - I Will Beat My Ass Today To Kick Yours Tomorrow, and it has become the war cry of the Sufferlandrians who have their own flag, national team jersey and shorts. You can become a Knight of Sufferlandria by completing 10 videos in one session back-to-back! (though you should time it carefully as your immune system will be impaired for days afterward).

Training for sport involves the process of adaptation. We push our bodies to withstand more stress than they're used to, and in the recovery process they adapt to be better able to accommodate that effort the next time. Most of us are encouraged to introduce these stresses gradually, so that we back off the intensity as soon as our bodies can't respond at the same level. The Sufferfest way is to throw something at you that is virtually impossible to complete at the given intensity. It takes a LOT of willingness to suffer to complete the session - and a good deal more recovery than normal too - and you're really only getting close to nailing the required intensities after a few weeks of repetition. But the net result is some serious fitness. IWBMATTKYT!

I guarantee you that there is no better way to include those extreme-intensity structured workouts, that are crucial to improve your cycling fitness, than to add these videos to your workout schedule. In a workout taking not much more than an hour out of your day you can get a major boost to your fitness. I have realised a completely different level of suffering since I started using them, and I know it's translating to new levels of power and fitness when I get out on the road.

Sufferfest videos are available from and downloadable for around $12-15 each for the full-length ones, though the files are quite large so you'll need a good connection. All other information also available through the website. There is also an app available which means you can subscribe to have constant access to all videos for $10 per month.

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