By Chris Carmichael, Founder and Head Coach of CTS
From a coaching perspective the fall is perhaps the most important time of year. Sure, we can help athletes make big improvements in performance during the spring and summer, but the fall is where you can continue making progress, maintain what you have, or lose almost everything you gained. With COVID cancelling most 2020 summer endurance events, athletes have had time to focus on consistent blocks of purposeful training without worrying about staying sharp for a race, cycling trip, or gran fondo. Many athletes have made more progress than they have in years, and now it’s time to make sure you leverage that progress for a successful season in 2021!
Put Miles in the Bank
I’m not a big proponent of high-volume, low-intensity base training (as Jim Rutberg explains fully in this article) because it is difficult for time-crunched athletes to devote enough time to make it effective. However, during the fall I think it’s important for cyclists to ride as much as they can before the weather gets nasty. Think of it as an insurance policy against all the days you won’t be able to get out for a ride once the time changes and there’s a lot less daylight. For riders who are struggling to focus on structured interval workouts after a summer full of them, think of the fall as an extended endurance block. Aim to accumulate hours on the bike. Even if you can just add 15-20 minutes on to each ride, that will give you an extra hour or more each week and that will give you a head start going into the colder months.
Test out different indoor options
There are more indoor cycling options available now than ever before, and each app has its strengths and weaknesses. This is a good time to sign up for free trials of various apps and find your favorite. For instance, if eracing and virtual group rides provide the motivation to get on the bike, then Zwift might be your best option. If riding to first-person video footage on famous climbs and race routes is appealing, you might prefer Rouvy. RGT Cycling combines the ability to ride real-world climbs and race courses with the immersive virtual environment and group ride/eracing of Zwift. And Sufferfest enables you to download structured workout videos so you’re not dependent on a stable internet connection to complete your ride. The best indoor option for you is the one that will help you get on the bike more frequently when the weather is bad or your motivation is lagging.
The height of the season is a bad time to tinker with your riding position, but now is the best time. Book an appointment with a bike fit professional and examine whether a change in your position could increase your power output, make you more aerodynamic, or provide you with greater comfort.
All bike fits must balance these three elements and your ability to optimize one or more of these aspects of bike fit changes as your fitness, experience, and flexibility evolve. If you end up making changes to your position it will take time and patience to adapt to the new position. In the short term you may even see your power output diminish slightly as you get used to the new position.
Since your major goals are now far in the future you can take the time to adapt to the new position without feeling pressure to maintain a high training workload.
Similarly, this is the best time of year to try new equipment. Don’t wait until next spring to go looking for a new bike, saddle, handlebars, new shoes, or a new pedal system. Some people wait because they don’t want to put wear and tear on new purchases during the harsher winter months, but over and over again I see athletes struggle with equipment transitions during periods of the year when they can’t afford the disruption caused by messing around with new bike parts. Now is when your training can accommodate the time to swap bars, get your cleat position right, adjust saddle position, etc.
Try New Foods
Athletes are creatures of habit, and that is normally very good for performance. You have your routines that work for you and you stick with them. Hydration and nutrition strategies are like that, too. Once you figure out what works you keep eating and drinking the same things, at the same times before, during, and after your workouts and events. During the season it is difficult to experiment with new strategies because you don’t want experimentation to potentially derail an important training session or hinder your performance in an event. Now is a good time to experiment. If you have been relying on one type of food source for your on-the-bike calories, like you only eat gels or only eat bars, now is a good time to try expanding the range of foods you consume during training sessions.
The reason it is so difficult to address weaknesses during the season is that you have to devote a lot of consistent effort to them in order to see improvement. And for time-crunched athletes who can’t add more training time for that purpose, addressing weaknesses would take time away from optimizing strengths and achieving the most you can with what you have. The fall is a great time to shift the focus to addressing weaknesses.
The first step is identifying your weaknesses. Look back through your training data or think back to notable experiences from the season. Where did you struggle? What were the circumstances that led you to get dropped, or fail to make the breakaway, or miss your goal time? Were you the strongest rider on the flats but left behind when the group hit a hill? Were you good on short climbs but unable to keep the pace on longer climbs? Could you make it to the finale of the event but lacked the kick to reach the finish line first? Did your back give out partway through your longer rides, leaving you with pain and diminished power for the rest of the day? Did you get sidelined by GI distress or cramps time and again throughout the season?
After you’ve identified your weaknesses, pick one or two to focus on. There may be a lot of things you can improve, but focusing on one or two will yield a greater impact than trying the shotgun approach and trying to improve them all at once. Then structure your training so you can devote at least 4 weeks to the problem. That will be enough time to see if the increased focus is having a positive effect, and then you can bring your overall program back into balance while continuing to incorporate work specific to the problem you’re trying to solve.
Don’t let fall opportunities go to waste! I know some people hate to see the summer fade away (I’m one of them), but I can’t stress enough how valuable this time of year is for endurance athletes. Don’t hang up your wheels and sink into the couch for football season. Don’t resign yourself to gaining 15 pounds between now and New Year’s. You can hit January 1 armed with the tools and fitness to have an incredible spring and summer next year – you can achieve more than you did this year – but to do that you have to lay the foundations for success this fall.