Like you, many of my athletes don’t have a lot of time to train. Cycling is an extremely time consuming sport. The reason is obvious – its events are extremely long. Most cyclists would think twice before going out on a ride shorter than 1 hour, assuming that it’s not even worth the effort. Therefore, when I plan my athletes workouts, I want to make sure that they have the most impact on their fitness. You should do the same.
Creating the Right Mix
I know a lot of people who go out and kill themselves every time they go out for a ride. Their logic is that they don’t have much time riding so they better work as hard as they can during the time they have. Intuitively it makes sense – “no pain no gain” right? If you don’t hurt yourself then you are not really working out. Well… In practice, that’s the worst way to train. It feels good, but it’s a waste of time.
The problem with always smashing yourself is twofold:
- You are not putting your body under high enough stress
- You are not enjoying the benefits of low intensity training (and yes, low intensity training has a huge impact on your body).
Hour of Pain? Waste of Time
When you go out for an hour and ride hard through all of it, you are not reaching those really high-end energy systems. There is a limit to how long you can go above your threshold. Think of a 5 minutes hill versus a 30 minutes climb. There is no chance in the world that you can climb for 30 minutes at the same speed you climb the short hill right?
That’s why they invented intervals training. While you cannot go as hard as you can for 30 minutes straight, you can break those 30 minutes down to six different 5 minutes intervals and go all out in each of them. 6 intervals of 5 minutes have a much bigger impact on your fitness than going hard for 30 minutes. The easiest way to feel it is by doing it. After 6 intervals you’ll feel more exhausted than you’ve ever felt before. Try it and see for yourself.
During the intervals your body has to clear huge amounts of hydrogens (which many mistakenly refer to as lactic acid). These are generated by your high power energy system – the anaerobic lactate system. Those hydrogens create a very loud signal for your body – Get stronger! A much louder signal than the one created during an hour of hard riding. As for “No Pain No Gain”, trust me that you’ll encounter enough pain during those intervals.
While those workouts are painful you don’t need to do them too often. Once or twice a week is enough. These workouts have a very severe impact on your body. You may not even feel it, but it could take days for your body systems to recover from such a training session. Doing a second session before your body is recovered could affect you badly, making you more likely to get ill and ultimately decrease your fitness. Hence, it’s always better to err on the light side – doing less is better than doing too much.
What About the Rest of The Time?
When you are not going hard, the best thing to do is to go easy. Yes! Easy! Not a little hard, not at moderate intensity. Easy.
In one research1 (out of many) they took a group of 30 Spanish runners and divided them in three groups: low intensity, medium intensity and polarised (either light sessions or very hard sessions, like the one I suggested above). What they found was that the group training polarized improved their 10K running times by much more than the two other groups.
A similar study2 was done on cyclists and it showed the same results – athletes who trained 80% of their sessions at low intensities and 20% at high intensities had improved much more than ones who trained at medium intensities all the time.
I know that riding easy may sound a bit boring. True, going around at low heart rates could get a bit dull. But there are plenty of important drills that you should integrate into your low intensity workouts. High cadence drills, legs strength drills, short sprints, technique drills and many other similar exercises are key elements in improving your abilities.
We all wish that there were 25 hours a day instead of 24 and maybe even 30. What would we do with those extra hours? Probably ride our bikes 🙂 But as we have only 24 hours a day, we should make the most out of every hour we spend on the bike. In other words, every hour should lead to the maximum fitness gain possible.
The training system that has shown that best results is polarized training. A system in which you do 80% of your training sessions at low intensity and 20% at really high intensity. This means integrating 1-2 sessions a week which include hard intervals (preferably of about 5-8 minutes) and the rest of the time going easy. Try it… I promise you that you’ll be surprised of the results.
1 – Does Polarized Training Improve Performance in Recreational Runners? – Iker Muñoz, Stephen Seiler, Javier Bautista, Javier España, Eneko Larumbe, and Jonathan Esteve-Lanao
2- Six weeks of a polarized training-intensity distribution leads to greater physiological and performance adaptations than a threshold model in trained cyclists– Craig M. Neal, Angus M. Hunter, Lorraine Brennan, Aifric O’Sullivan, D. Lee Hamilton, Giuseppe DeVito, Stuart D. R. Galloway
3 – AlgoTrain – helps you become a better athlete by truly understanding how you train. By knowing your personal physiology, it helps you improve your fitness and become stronger.