By Chris Carmichael, Founder and Head Coach of CTS
After more than 30 years as a coach and as the founder of the CTS coaching company, I’m very well-acquainted with certain patterns of athlete behavior. For instance, at the beginning of the calendar year there’s a surge of enthusiasm for endurance training and weight loss, and an influx of new athletes starting their first season of structured training. It’s a joyous time, full of hope and energy, but athletes get overzealous and make some mistakes. So that you don’t repeat them, here are some of the early-season mistakes you want to avoid.
MISTAKE #1: GOING TOO BIG TOO SOON
Just because you could ride for four hours on a Saturday doesn’t always mean you should, especially if you are a beginner or haven’t been training regularly. Instead, start out by establishing consistency and riding three to five times a week at an easy or moderate intensity (conversational pace) for 60–90 minutes each ride. If you have more time on the weekends, extend one of your weekend rides to 2 to 2.5 hours—but still at a moderate aerobic pace.
Cyclists who have a long training history have already established consistency and understand the typical weekly training hours they have available. Even so, veteran riders still make the mistake of ramping up training volume too quickly after backing off during November and December. Use the first few weeks of January to gradually ramp back up to your typical weekly training volume.
MISTAKE # 2: CUTTING CALORIES WHILE INCREASING ENERGY OUTPUT
Establishing a caloric deficit is essential for losing weight, and many athletes attack the equation from both sides by reducing the calories they consume at the same time they increase their daily and weekly energy expenditure from training. It may work for a few weeks, but will quickly lead to diminished workout performance, hindered recovery, and poor adaptation to training because you are not consuming enough fuel to support your training.
I encourage athletes to focus on fitness first and eat to support quality workouts and adequate recovery. Start by estimating your basal metabolic rate with an online calculator that uses the Harris-Benedict equation. It’s not going to be perfect, but will give you a good ballpark value. The online calculator should also allow you to choose a multiplier for “activities of daily living,” which is an estimate to take your lifestyle and career into account.
Then, if you have a power meter and have been uploading your training files to Strava or TrainingPeaks, you can calculate your average daily kilojoules or calories by taking your weekly total kilojoules or calories and dividing by 7—even if you only ride three to five times per week. Your body doesn’t have a calorie counter that starts at zero each day. Once you have your ballpark daily expenditure, try to stay within 500 calories of that number for a few weeks while observing how your workout quality and bodyweight respond.
For cyclists who have 5–10 pounds to lose to get back to in-season shape, eating to support training typically results in moderate weight loss without much proactive calorie restriction. Focus on training and don’t overcompensate for energy expenditure by dramatically increasing your energy intake.
MISTAKE # 3: OVERLY AGGRESSIVE TRAINING CALENDAR
Enthusiasm leads some athletes to think they’ll be able to make rides longer or increase the number of days they can train each week, but unless they are able to adjust aspects of their personal and professional schedules, the additions aren’t sustainable. It is essential to create firm boundaries and guard your training time but be realistic about the days and hours you can manage without upending your work and home lives. The same goes for events. There are a ton of appealing events on the calendar, but set your schedule around a handful of events that have the greatest personal value for you. Then, fill in with a conservative schedule of supporting events that prepare you for your goal events.
VETERAN MISTAKE: USING OUTDATED TRAINING
It is common for a moderately fit summer-focused cyclist with several years of training experience to lose about 25 percent of his or her fitness between September and January 1. Cyclists who race cyclocross or extend their season into late October will experience less of a drop. It is essential to start the year with a field test (i.e., a 20-minute FTP test or the 2 x 8-minute CTS field test) to establish current power and/or heart-rate training ranges.
Your lactate threshold power will be lower than it was at the end of the summer, so if you use the training ranges/zones you were using in August in January, you’ll be going too hard. This is particularly problematic for athletes in their 50s and 60s because we are more vulnerable to disruptions in the work-to-recovery balance. We’re less able to absorb the extra workload compared to younger athletes. Check your ego at the door, reset your ranges, and you’ll get those numbers back up where you want them through effective training.
The great thing about training is that nothing is set in stone. You can make mistakes and change course and still reach your goals. The keys are recognizing mistakes as soon as possible and being open to adjustments that will get you back on track.