Most of us try to perform at our best in every training session, but training when tired could be the necessary hard slog we need to stimulate adaptation and see improvement.
There’s no better feeling than being fit, rested and at one with the bike, when speed comes effortlessly. Maybe more familiar, though, is the feeling of tiredness, feeling not totally recovered from the previous training, lacking energy and stuck to the road. From an enjoyable point of view, we have every reason to strive for the first scenario every time we set off on a ride. Nevertheless, if you’re trying to break through to a high level of performance, it may be necessary to expect or even plan to experience the second scenario every now and then.
It’s essential to have a clear goal for every training session in order to benefit optimally from your time on the bike. For this reason, you should decide whether that goal is adaptation or performance. If the aim is adaptation, you don’t necessarily have to be at your best (strongest or fastest). Significant improvements can result from sessions completed while tired. If performance is your aim, it’s a better idea to jump on your bike in a well-rested state.
The innovators (and marketers) at the cutting edge of riding science bombard us with methodologies and products designed to boost our performance. However, sometimes these protocols are followed at the expense of adaptation.
TIRED VERSUS FRESH
When we do a demanding training session, we get tired, and the adaptive response of the body is to improve in a way that makes us better equipped to cope with that training session the next time we do it. This is what it’s meant by adaptation.
As a novice cyclist, it’s possible to make adaptations with each ride. A single training session with a bit of recovery is sufficient stimulus to make us to get fitter. However, as we get stronger and more experienced, one training session may not suffice. Instead, we have to string together two or three sessions, or even a week of training to put enough stress on the body to get fitness benefits.
At the elite level, one week may not suffice — moving on from an already high level of fitness might require training sessions lasting several weeks, or even several months, to stimulate the necessary adaptations.
This leads to a dilemma for many athletes. Everybody wants to perform at their best all the time and always feel good on the bike. But sometimes, with the intention to improve, it’s necessary to train while carrying some fatigue — while your form isn’t at its sparkly best. After training for several years, improvements get harder to achieve.
It’s essential to determine the top priority: training load or performance. It’s nothing wrong with feeling tired during some sessions, as long you rest up in time for your event or race. This may be the key to busting through plateaus in fitness that plague every cyclist at some point in their cycling career.
FUELLED VERSUS DEPLETED
Proper fuelling is crucial to performing at your best. The very best teams in the Tour de France come together with nutritionists, chefs and mobile kitchens to make sure they can adequately fulfil the calorie needs for riding at the highest level.
High-intensity training is heavily reliant on carbohydrate metabolism; it’s been proved that consuming carbs during exercise can boost performance. However, research shows that training while in a carb-depleted state may provide a better stimulus for fitness progress and greater reliance on fat as a fuel in place of carbohydrate.
Aware of the conflicting advice in this area, should you consume plenty of carbohydrate or limit your intake? The answer will depend on the priority of your training session — and pivots on our adaptation-versus-performance dilemma.
If adaptation is the primary aim, training with low carbohydrate could be a good idea. However, for newer cyclists, the training session alone is usually sufficient stimulus. When the race day is coming, and certainly on the race day itself, an increase in carb intake is essential to enable you to perform at your best.
Ask yourself: what nutritional strategy will best support the goals of this training session or training block? Training in a depleted state is a fairly advanced method, so if you have any doubts, fuelling your training is generally a good approach to protect the quality of your exercise. A qualified sports nutritionist or experienced coach can help if you’re not sure.
In the last few years, foods and supplements with anti-inflammatory or anti-oxidant qualities to support recovery have become increasingly popular. The body has an inflammatory response to the stress of training, and substances such as cherry juice, vitamin C and ibuprofen have been recommended as means of reducing this inflammation and enabling you to recover quicker and exercise again sooner.
The inflammatory response, however, is now understood to be a vital part in stimulating adaptation. Relieving this inflammation using, for instance, cherry juice may also diminish the trigger for your physique to get fitter or stronger.
On the other hand, when you’re in the final week before an important race, or trying to recover between stages, adaptation is less important than minimizing fatigue — so anti-inflammatory methods should be used. Consider carefully the unintended consequences before you add a new supplement to your regime, or seek professional advice.
IMPORTANCE OF CLEAR GOALS
Another case of confusion with regards to adaptation versus performance is in the case of training specificity. An essential concept in terms of training adaptation is that the fitness improvements you accrue are specific to your training. Five-hour rides won’tmake it easier for you to squat 200kg, and vice versa.
If you follow this principle to its logical conclusion, you may wrongly assume that your training should always be comparable in effort and duration to your racing. Training should be both physiology-specific and event-specific.
To illustrate this concept, recent research has studied the role of very short but very high-intensity training sessions on endurance performance. Research has shown that sprint training sessions can stimulate adaptations, at a cellular level, similar to classic endurance training. Doing 6x30sec as hard as you can with 4-minute rests between each can be just as effective as one hour moderately hard exercise for improving endurance performance.
It may not be immediately obvious that 30-second intervals would be effective for, say, a 10-mile time trial, but the session activates improvement in a relevant facet of your physiology.
Once again, concentrate on the intended improvement and plan a training session that specifically addresses that goal. This implies thinking outside the box.
With all of the many factors and decisions involved in training, how do you know where to begin? On each and every day, it’s not possible to know whether you should rest or train — and which recovery supplements you may need. Even once you’ve decided to do a session, it’s hard to know whether to aim for a steady endurance ride or some high-intensity intervals, and how to fuel that exercise.
Where do you begin? Usually, there’s no firm right and wrong answer. What’s important is that your decisions suit the context; namely, where you are in your training year and the nature of your goals. The only way to make the right decisions on a consistent basis is to make a long-term plan and identify the main priorities at each phase of the year.
For instance, if your goal is to increase your sustainable power in order to ride up Alpe d’Huez or race a 25-mile time trial, you can do a lot worse than organizing your training following these lines:
|TAPER AND RACE
|Concentrate on building training load with low-intensity cycling, OK for a little fatigue with back-to-back rides||High-intensity training sessions to increase maximal aerobic power||10-20min intervals at max sustainable power and 5-10min blocks just above this level||5-10min intervals at max sustainable power, reduced volume but maintain intensity|
|Some fasted rides, increasing in length||All rides fully fuelled with carbohydrates to enable high intensity||Main sessions using carbohydrate, option of additional fasted endurance rides for further stimulus||Anti-inflammatory foods added to improve recovery|
This is in no way a recommendation for how to plan your own riding, but it points out certain key principles. For example, this cyclist would make use of both physiology and event-specific types of training, have periods of the year when some sessions are done when tired, and change their fuelling to best assist the goals of the training.
The only way to keep track of these goals is to spend some time developing a long-term plan:
- Start with the primary goal. Work out what you need to do well in your event and put the most event-specific training in the final weeks main up to the race.
- Determine where your fitness is now and highlight those areas of your physiology that require improvement in order to allow you to complete the specific training at the end of the plan.
- Determine which training will help you achieve the goals you have at each stage.
- Make a plan for the other aspects of your preparation, such as the optimal diet to support the goals of your training at each stage.
- When it comes to deciding when to exercise and what to include in your bike sessions, there are no definitively right or wrong answers. The only way to judge whether your choices are the best for you at that specific time is to write a long-term plan; refer back to the plan whenever you’re in doubts. A bit of planning can make a great difference between a frustrating plateau or continued progress towards your goals.