By Chris Carmichael, Founder and Head Coach of CTS
I’ve been a coach for more than 30 years and I’ve seen many innovations and technologies come and go in that time. And in the past several years there has been a surge in the number of devices, products, apps, and supplements promising to improve the effectiveness or convenience of training. Some are useful tools and others are not, and my coaches and I spend a lot of time evaluating which new technologies and products to use or recommend to athletes. Coaches and athletes have to be careful, however, not to lose sight of the truths we have learned about effective training and coaching over the decades. Here are my 10 truest statements about cycling training.
This is certainly not an exhaustive list, and in the comments I’d love to know what you’d add to it from your experience as an athlete or coach.
No individual workout is more effective than working out consistently
Athletes are always after the “perfect workout”, the one training session that is going to be a game changer or break the barrier to reaching new heights. The truth is, no individual workout is more important than the aggregate impact of your training history. Fitness and performance start to decay almost immediately without added stimulus. That’s acceptable and necessary in order to recover and adapt, but inconsistent training allows for more decay than necessary, often to the point that training progress is hindered.
Intensity must have purpose
I’ve always said that making an athlete tired is the easiest thing a coach can do. Intensity – in the form of intervals and hard training sessions – is very effective for improving fitness, but it is easy to overdo it. You need less time at high intensity than you think, and that time-at-intensity must have a purpose. More than that, you need to know what that purpose and objective is – not just your coach or the person who wrote the training plan. For the same interval workout, let’s say 6 x 3-minute max efforts, the objective could be to accumulate as much time as possible at the highest average power across the 18 minutes of time-at-intensity. Or, it could be to repeat the highest-possible peak power outputs at the beginning of each of those efforts, knowing that the power output will decline by the end of each effort.
The harder the effort, the more you need to understand why and specifically how to execute it.
Adaptation takes time
Stop looking for hacks and shortcuts and stop falling for BS pumped out in 30-second soundbites on social media. Training is a long and ongoing process and it takes weeks – at minimum – for measurable physiological adaptations to manifest. Yes, you can improve short-term performance with stimulants (caffeine), better hydration habits, better sleep, etc. That will improve the quality of your workouts and the conditions for potential adaptations, but the adaptations still take time. When athletes are impatient they change training, recovery, and nutrition habits too quickly and shortchange adaptations that are already in process.
Only sweat the small stuff after you’ve sweat the big stuff
Don’t step over opportunities for 20% improvements to chase 2% improvements. The fundamentals of endurance training aren’t the most exciting workouts, individually, and they must be repeated over and over again to yield results. But the gains are worth the commitment, in part because they are a sure thing. We know that consistent focus on aerobic endurance and power at lactate threshold will make you faster. The extra credit stuff, like altitude exposure and low-carbohydrate availability training, works in certain conditions for certain people and carries higher risks of displacing time and energy that would be better spent on fundamental training.
Fitness matters more than bodyweight
At the extremes – being either excessively lean or overweight – there are both health and performance motivations to moving toward the middle. For the majority of cyclists who are in the middle of the bell curve, I’d rather see you focus on training for fitness and eating to support your level of activity. Particularly for Masters (40-55yrs), Gran Masters (56-70yrs), and Senior (70+) athletes, the bigger battles are maintaining the consistency and intensity to overcome the increasing challenges to building and retaining fitness.
If you want to get better on the bike, ride your bike
I am a big advocate for strength training, yoga, and diverse weight bearing activities for cyclists, but there is no escaping the fact that riding your bike is the best way to get faster, stronger, and more comfortable on your bike. The challenge for older cyclists – myself included – is that the importance and benefit of off-bike activities for overall resilience and durability increase as we age. From a coaching perspective, this is why we spend so much time talking about goals and priorities. It is fine to focus primarily on cycling for a period of time when you are preparing for a specific goal, but we also have to keep the bigger picture in mind and plan for times when athletes will address more generalized aspects of fitness and physical resilience.
Cyclists spend too much time at moderate intensity
All training intensities have value, whether that’s an easy EnduranceMiles (Zone 2) effort, a challenging aerobic intensity like Tempo or Sweetspot, work at lactate threshold, or high-intensity sprints or VO2 max work. Where cyclists run into trouble is with the distribution of time spent in various intensities. What we see most often is that cyclists without structured training plans spend too much time in the middle, going too hard when they should be riding easier and not hard enough when it’s time to go hard. The result is a cyclist who performs in the middle: fast enough to avoid getting dropped but not strong enough to ride at the front.
The best time to train is whenever fits in your schedule
Every reputable sports scientist I have ever worked with has viewed research into “the best time of day for training” the same way: the benefits of training consistently, fueling properly, sleeping well, and following an appropriately structured training plan are way more important than any potential benefit of exercising at a particular time of day or night. That said, the research studies are still valuable. They provide insights into how the body responds to stimuli and how circadian rhythms and daily hormone fluctuations interact with exercise and nutrition. It provides valuable context but is not as useful for guiding exercise prescription.
Eating enough matters more than what you eat
There are limits to this statement. What you eat matters if you’re eating junk food or trying to maintain an excessively restrictive nutrition strategy. However, the bigger risk for most athletes is failing to meet the total daily energy requirements to support your level of training. Even before you reach the detrimental state of Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S), failing to consume adequate total energy keeps you from achieving your training goals. It keeps you from moving forward and making progress. Before you focus too much on the macronutrient composition of your daily food choices, do the math to make sure you’re meeting your energy needs.
No matter how good or bad you feel, it won’t last long
Whether it’s in an individual workout, a block of training, or during an event, you will experience times when you feel great and times when you are struggling to keep going at all. Neither feeling will last. This is the nature of endurance sports and something athletes need to embrace. When training is going great or you’re race day performance is on fire, enjoy it and take advantage of it – and expect it to end. Likewise, when everything is going wrong, your performance is terrible, and you feel like quitting, trust that the low point will pass as well. In both cases, you need to be smart and proactive–keep working the problem when things are rough and take steps to extend the duration of the good times–and trust that neither the best of times nor worst of times will last forever.