by Nate Wilson
“Everything in moderation”, I’m willing to wager that is a saying we’ve all heard. Beyond the dining table, and life experiences, that is a saying that is very applicable to everyday training. I repeatedly see athletes that really hone in on one area, and hammer it to death. Sometimes it is because that area, climbing, sprinting, time trialing, whatever, is a strength of theirs; sometimes it is because that area is a weakness of theirs. Whether it is strength or a weakness is irrelevant, but what is imperative is that single-minded training does not breed successful performance. I’ll rephrase that, it may elicit one off, good performances in very specific contexts, but bike racing does not happen in a vacuum. Athletes need to prepare for a multitude of scenarios, to switch between a spectrum of intensities, and at the end of the day to just go fast.
Variety in Training
Reasons for Variety
To optimize performance in this ever changing context training should be highly variable, for two main reasons:
1. Novel Stimuli
To me (and others) it is clear that when training is unchanging, whether it be lacking a change in duration, or intensity, or composition, etc, things become stagnant. Progression is never linear, and when the stimulus starts to become insufficient, progression flattens out.
With the idea of novel stimuli, people often point towards the physiologic response, but the mental one is just as important. Training that is perfect on paper and in a lab, may elicit a really poor response in an athlete if they are bored and unmotivated by it. Personally, I would actually rank the confidence and interest an athlete has in their training as having a bigger bearing on performance than what the actual training is. I don’t mean to devalue the importance of good training, but there is certainly an element of placebo effect.
2. Simulate Real World Scenarios
I already touched on this in the opening paragraph, but bike racing is very different from training, in the way that most people train. 90% of the time that is how training should be. Racing is very stressful and fatiguing, and athletes can’t handle the same volume of it as they can of lower intensity training. That said, I really believe many athletes miss the main point that in a bike race things don’t happen in neat boxes the way most interval workouts are written. Intensities should run together, athletes should be forced to change pace, go into the red, try to recover at an uncomfortable level, etc. This is another big point in the case for having highly variable training, closer meeting the demands of athlete events.
How to Incorporate Variety
Slowly I have been building a case for the idea of “variety in training”, but ok, what’s that look like? Here are a few ways to incorporate variety into your training, and how to use your power meter to help you do it:
1. Go Fast
The ultimate goal in any bike race is getting from point A to point B as fast as possible. Whether it’s a road race, a MTB race, or a TT, that is not always achieved by highest average power across the course. Learn to ride the course. Set up your computer to be showing both power and speed. Take a section of road you know and do multiple efforts on it at the same power, seeing if you can ride the section faster by getting into a more aero position. If by doing 20 more watts you sit up a bit more and slow down half a mile per hour, you’re defeating the purpose of doing more power. This is also a great exercise to do on technical MTB climbs, try to get to the top as fast as possible at the lowest power possible, pick smooth lines!
2. Mix Intensities in Training
Do some “kitchen sink” workouts where you put it all together in a dynamic way. In the same workout, get a dose of sprint/neuromuscular work, some sub-max tempo load to build the fatigue, one or two near max VO2 efforts, some dynamic work like a pace line or an “over/under” interval, and finally a small taste of threshold. The general idea is a smattering of intensity, but the format and specific efforts should be tailored for the events athletes are preparing for. The caveat is that these workouts are taxing, so athletes can’t do them everyday. Do them when fresh and make them count! Below are two examples, one of a 2h workout, and another of a longer 4+ hr workout:
3. Analyze Race Data
Most athletes and coaches have a pretty good handle on the demands of the events they’re preparing for, but we have all these amazing tools of data collection with both power meters and software for analyzing that data, so take out the grey area and know the demands for sure. If a target race has 5 laps, with 5x5min climbs, but the climbs are ridden in a variable power manner because the gradient changes, that is something that can be seen in the power file and prepared for specifically. Don’t guess how to prepare, know.
The caveat to all of this is that every athlete is an individual that needs a slightly different approach to the next guy (or gal). That said, starting to embrace some of these concepts and use them to help formulate training would only help.