The truth may surprise you
Ever since my days dabbling in marathon running, I have known endurance athletes to use the term “junk miles”, usually whilst robustly defending the credibility of their own training regimes. In almost all cases, the junk miles to which these athletes refer are those performed at relatively low intensity as part of longer weekend rides. The insinuation is that rides performed at lower intensities are somehow “junk” and more serious riders need to focus on high intensity or “quality” sets. This blanket, generalistic attitude will mean missing the most productive and valuable part of training.
So, to set the tone, here is my criteria for what constitutes junk miles:
Why slow miles and junk miles are not the same thing.
It is in fact true that cyclists of all levels need both low and high intensity riding in order to reach their potential as an endurance athlete. It is also true that the gains often appear most obviously to come during or after a block of high intensity work. However, these gains WILL be limited and finite and largely determined by how much lower intensity (or “base”) work a cyclist has performed prior to completing the more macho, adrenalin-fuelled fast stuff. The key to success on the bike is in getting the following right:
So there it is; ride too hard too often and aerobic efficiency will suffer, but ride too slow too often and anaerobic capacity will shrink. Because solid endurance performance relies heavily on both, a good training plan will ALWAYS include slower and faster riding. It is just the amount, timing and type that will vary.
By now it should be getting clearer, any riding session may be junk, just as any may be productive, which it is most certainly not determined solely by intensity.
A very wise lecturer that helped to shape my training and coaching philosophy once said: “if your training session does not have a purpose, it is simply NOT a training session”. Later I made this a more cyclo-centric thing that goes something like this; “If your ride has no purpose, it is no longer training, it just a ride”.
Purpose, of course, does not have to mean structure. Sometimes the purpose is to completely switch off, relax and enjoy the scenery and these rides can often be the best rides of the year, by no means junk.
Here are some tips for creating purpose in your rides that have nothing to do with intensity:
De-junking your riding is not about avoiding low intensity endurance rides (all pro riders do plenty of this). It is about knowing what /how much to do and when.
Do yourself a favour, get a well-devised plan and STICK to it and please stop pretending you know what junk miles are, until you actually do.
Enjoy the ride
You may have heard professional cyclists speak of needing to accumulate “racing miles” or “race days” in order to reach their best form. It may also seem a foreign idea for cyclists used to plugging away on training rides as a way of building form for a race or event.
So what it is about racing that seems to have the potential of lifting cycling performance to a new level and is it something that may work for the average rider? Well the answers can be a little bit complicated of course, so it first may be useful to look at how racing is a little unique in comparison to most other forms of cycling:
Of course, some riders are uniquely capable of simulating most of these characteristics in training. It is also possible to simulate some of these things using group riding sessions. In recent times Team Sky have developed a reputation for dosing in “race-like” training sessions at training camps and Sky riders have been known to say that “racing is easy after being at camp”.
I would encourage all cyclists to try some racing and/or incorporate some “race-like” intensity into their training plans. The key is to know how and when to do it, because although racing can be of enormous benefit, too much emphasis on this type of riding can erode aerobic fitness and endurance, which inevitably leads to a dip in performance over the medium to long term.
So, you may want to try some of the following strategies:
Enjoy the ride (race).
More effective than drugs, just a little less sexy
There are two sides to any coach / athlete relationship and with those sides comes two different perspectives. This is never more relevant (or important) as when the inevitable happens and the athlete's progress stalls, or is simply not moving quickly enough (again "quickly enough" will be matter of perspective). This is why open and regular communication between coach and athlete is vital because coach may well have a plan in place, possibly even be expecting some stalling in performance that is all part of the long game, but all the athlete sees (feels) is a drop in performance. When both parties are on the same page, harmony and co-operation is far more likely.
In order to keep relevance here, most of the references and examples are specific to endurance cycling, sports with different performance parameters are well outside the scope of this blog. So on with endurance cycling. It is also worth keeping in mind that the word "coach" can often be substituted with "training program", as many riders don't in fact use a coach but source and download training plans from a variety of sources.
I have some favourite examples that highlight the importance of year on year progress and building towards reaching the full potential of the rider. Miguel Indurain is a Spanish cyclist that won the Tour de France five years in a row, between 1991 and 1995. Most cycling fans know this but far fewer are aware that 1991 ("Big Mig's" first title) was in fact Indurain's SEVENTH participation in the race, hardly an instant sensation. Obvously many years were spent in diligent and consistent training, no doubt there were many occasions where his progress stalled, or even went backwards. But in the end, year on year progress led Indurain to the very top of the cycling world. Then there is our own Richie Porte, who actually first rode the TDU (for UniSA) in 2008 and placed 7th overall in his first Grand Tour, the Giro in 2010, where he also won the young rider category. It has taken close to a decade of year on year development for Richie to become a genuine contender for the overall title in the Grand Tours
Whilst the examples of Indurain and Porte highlight the importance of consistency, building and patience, the path of the professional cyclist is always a little different to that of the weekend warrior or even the serious amateur racer. There are however some mistakes worth avoiding for ALL cyclists trying to improve and some foundation principles to keep firmly routed in your approach to training.
Stay Safe and Train Smart
Perfecting the aerobic / anaerobic dose
When an athlete performs any kind of endurance exercise, there will be energy contributions from both aerobic and anaerobic pathways. Most cyclists, runners and triathletes seem to know this and certainly know the feeling of being too long in a highly anaerobic state (in the RED). Each pathway has it's unique advantages for bike riders, aerobic metabolism is highly energy efficient, powering muscular activity for long periods of time, but unable to fuel the super high intensity efforts required for power climbs, sprinting etc. So this is where anaerobic metabolism has the edge, producing energy rapidly to fuel high level exertion, but of course there is a cost, which is the rapid onset of fatigue. Cyclists need both systems working well, but the cruel reality is that over-using either of these pathways will erode the other, so getting the balance or "dosing relationship" right is paramount for increasing endurance performance and building reliable consistent form.
A certain amount of muscular work requires a fixed amount of energy, so it stands to reason that the more energy supplied anaerobically, the less is contributed aerobically and vice versa. As in all aspects of physiology, the more one's system utilises a particular process, the better the body becomes at doing it. Conversely, should certain processes be under-utilised, the capacity for using these processes is eroded. The bottom line is that over-reliance on either of the two metabolic pathways, will negatively impact on the other.
This sounds simple enough but the process becomes far more complicated if you consider that athletes vary greatly in terms of which points on the intensity continuum they become anaerobically dominant. Some cyclists can remain highly aerobic VERY close to threshold (this means they have a very large zone two) whilst others become significantly anaerobic well below threshold. A big aerobic capacity also pushes the threshold point much closer to maximum, which is the holy grail for endurance cyclists.
Put simply, training zones cannot be accurately established using simple percentages of threshold / FTP and without defining training zones more precisely, it will be almost impossible to get the training dose right. The chart above shows an athlete with diminished aerobic capacity and a small zone two. Zone three represents a significant shift towards anaerobic metabolism and occurs at relatively low power / heart rate for this rider. Knowing this is critical for getting the training dose right and avoiding continual erosion of aerobic efficiency, a certain recipe for an over-training disaster.
There is no doubt that the most common mistake made in respect of training dose and the balance between aerobic / anaerobic load is an over-emphasis on anaerobic work. The notion of "go til you blow" will work for short periods, but has no future, in terms of building reliable, consistent form. The key is knowing your training zones and understanding that the most important attribute in developing good form (apart from being genetically blessed) is patience and control.
Get tested and don't just rely on predicting your zones through an FTP conversion, this error is the main reason that similar training plans produce vastly different outcomes for cyclists. Build power through understanding your body and it's capacity for adaptation.
Enjoy the Ride
The ScyclePro Team
A smart training model that produces big gains
Recently I was struck by the title of a Strava ride completed by a friend of mine, which went something like this; "same hard effort, same slow time........". Now the title is relevant for two reasons;
The move towards greater polarisation of training has been gaining momentum in sports science for almost a decade and there is now no denying the evidence. Less than 15% of your total training load (TTL) should be performed within your threshold zone. The rest is distributed in the zones either side of threshold. The key for all athletes is to identify their true effective training zones (ETZ) through comprehensive assessment. Only then can one know how and when the training loads should be allocated within the training plan.
Finally, not all athletes with the same threshold have the same ETZ, so where FTP can be a useful gauge of progress, it is ineffective for determining training dose and timing, only a comprehensive assessment of your physiological profile can do that.
So if you truly want to make progress with your riding, please try to avoid ego-based groups where the only goal seems to be "go til you you blow" and get yourself a qualified assessment. There is an old adage in distance running that goes like this; "you don't train for a marathon by running marathons". The same goes for cycling, you simply cannot boost your threshold by continuously training at (or near) threshold.
It's time to employ some smart athlete thinking and get on a plan that is built around he science and ensures you get a positive result from all the time, effort and money you invest.
How to maximise the effectiveness of this wonderful tool, build motivation and lift performance.
More and more cyclists, of all levels, are making the significant financial outlay and purchasing a power meter. In my experience, most of these expensive gadgets are reduced to nothing more than something (else) to stare at whilst riding. So how can cyclists of all levels make the most of their power meters and begin see some real performance gains in their riding?
Broadly speaking, a power meter is used in two ways:
Power meters produce both the "raw" power numbers and analysis metrics that allow you to work at improving your mechanical efficiency on the bike. Pedal smoothness and torque effectiveness are indicators of how efficiently a rider applies force through the full pedal stroke and setting up a screen that shows these numbers can be a great way to receive instant feedback when doing technical or drill sessions on the bike. This sort of data can also be used to identify a "cadence sweet spot" for a cyclist. This is the cadence zone where efficiency data remains close to historical peaks, almost all riders have an obvious point (as cadence increases) where these numbers begin to plummet.
Another area where power data can be extremely helpful is with a trend comparison between raw power (let's say average power) and normalised power for longer rides or segments. Generally speaking, low NP in comparison to average power means a cyclist is dosing energy in an inconsistent or "surging" pattern (on VERY hilly courses this may not be so). This can be a great cost (energetically) to the rider and negatively impact on endurance.
Using a power meter to both identify these inefficiencies and then provide instant (in ride) feedback is one of the most powerful applications available to cyclists in decades.
Cycling fans have become used to seeing riders from Team Sky sit calmly pacing themselves, watching their power meters whilst rider after rider attacks impulsively. Nine times out of ten, the rider will be brought to heel by the steady tempo set by the men in black (and blue). This is a fine example of how a power meter allows every cyclist to pace themselves, dose their energy evenly and avoid prolonged excursions into the red zone (which is an endurance killer). Ultimately ALL riders will climb a hill/mountain faster if they are aware of their most efficient climbing intensity and a power meter is the only way to monitor this.
The final and most powerful application of the power meter is in the defining and setting of the power targets in training sessions to ensure that loads are well matched to rider's level, physiological characteristics and training goals. A test can define all of these things and once the structure is in place, the power meter becomes the ultimate weapon in the smart cyclists arsenal. The key is to have a well-structured and robust test, without it, your power meter is once again reduced to an expensive toy.
I can hear the words as clearly today as when they were first spoken in 1985 (yes I am that old); "if you don't test the athlete prior to building the training progressions, you are wasting both your time and that of the athlete". I was in my first year of an Exercise Science degree and those wise words were delivered by the wonderful Professor Frank Pyke. Dr Pyke was an imposing character and carried a reputation in our field like few others. That strongly-delivered message from 32 years ago has been validated many times and shaped my approach to coaching ever since.
It may be stating the bleating obvious, but all of us humans are different and in so many ways. One of the "ways" is physiology and the response we are likely to have to any form of training. The fact is that no two cyclists respond in the same way (or at the same rate) to a block of training, this is the case even if both riders have exactly the same FTP. It is equally true that the ONLY way to even get close to predicting how a rider will respond to training and what type / amount of training to which he/she is best suited is to TEST. Which brings us back to Dr Pyke.
Testing is the cornerstone of any effective training plan and without testing, training sessions are based on a guess (an algorithm is just a fancy way to make an educated guess). Lack of testing is the main reason that some cyclists do well with certain types of training and others do not. Sports scientists test athletes before implementing training in order to both set a reference level for performance and to identify key elements of physiology on which the training is based. Different results yield different plans.
To get the most out of your training you (or your coach) will need:
Without these elements your training is based on a guess, no matter how educated that guess may feel.
Consider whether one, or more applies to you:
As the wonderful Professor Pyke (rest his soul) once said, "if you don't test, you are wasting both yours and the athlete's time".
Get tested now, be smart and stop trying to buy, or short cut, improvements in your riding performance.
Enjoy your ride