With the world in and out of lockdown there’s arguably never been a more difficult time to plan and implement a training program. Restrictions have meant group rides are often off the cards and a favourite long distance training loop might be replaced by a few laps of the block. So how can we improvise, adapt and overcome the barriers to effective training? And what does a wheelbarrow have to do with it?
Exercise Physiology can often be seriously overcomplicated with endothelium-derived hyperpolarisation and vasoconstrictor protaglandins but, from a basic principles perspective, training is far from rocket science. Training is the intervention where the muscle is damaged; recovery is where the repair and adaptation occurs (explained in this post). This damage can be incurred through different methods depending on the training implemented and each methods will result in slightly different adaptations. In this way a four hour aerobic endurance ride can cause a similar amount of damage to the muscle (training load) as a one hour sprint session.
The wheelbarrow of training
Think of your training for the week as a wheelbarrow with each training session as a shovel load. The wheelbarrow can be filled with a bunch of big shovels full of dirt, long slow aerobic rides. These aren’t dense but they’ll fill the wheelbarrow and eventually get the load high enough to gain some good fitness. The other extreme is throwing in a few gold nuggets, sprint/HIIT (high intensity interval training) sessions, instead. This will fill up a lot less space in your wheelbarrow (time in your week) for the same load.
But why not fill the wheelbarrow with gold nuggets? This would be the equivalent of doing a 30 hour training week filled with entirely high intensity sessions. Your wheelbarrow will be too heavy to lift and none of the load will reach the destination. You’ll be overtrained and that muscle damage will be too great for the body to repair. The reality in a standard training week is a mixture of shovels full of dirt and gold nuggets so that the wheelbarrow isn’t full but still heavy enough to get a good load to the destination.
Using a small shovel
Many aren’t blessed with a big shovel and find themselves with a little spade. Work/family commitments often mean there’s no time for long endurance rides and lockdown restrictions have stopped many now from venturing more than a few kilometres from the house. This means some improvisation is required to get the same load in your wheelbarrow. You can either put hundreds of spades full of dirt in to fill the wheelbarrow (smaller low intensity rides when you can squeeze them in or hundreds of laps of the block) or you can put in a few gold nuggets instead.
Shifting the Goalposts
You may save a lot of time with this increased training density but the physiological effects will differ and your goals may have to shift accordingly. If you’re currently in a period where you’re using all gold and no dirt you’ll likely shift to become very anaerobic-dependent. Instead of worrying about your FTP during this period (dependent on lactate inflection point which is manipulated by aerobic training) focus instead on developing your lactate tolerance. This can be targeted through those high intensity and sprint intervals, basically anything that generates that sticky feeling in your mouth and profound contemplation of life choices post interval.
Go for Gold
This summary only scratches the surface of the underlying physiological mechanisms behind the different training methods but if we scratch it with Occam’s razor we’ll find once again that the simplest solution is most likely the best one. There’s been promising recent research suggesting that HIIT can enhance endurance performance even more so than high-volume training. If we’re calling a spade a spade then this year is hardly making it easy to see improvements on the bike but when in doubt, dig deep and go for gold.
I recently spent months in Ireland limited to riding within 2km (for 40 days) and then 5km (for 30days) of the household. This obviously ruled out long endurance loops so I decided to self-experiment with the break from racing by piling on the spades full of dirt and doing 100km around the house every single day. This was great for the endurance and I now feel like I could ride all day every day but it certainly didn’t make me any faster. With domestic racing returning in Ireland in the last month I felt like I had no acceleration or top end speed, the two most important aspects of the short sharp racing here. I’ve since backed off the volume and started doing some shorter ‘gold nugget’ sessions and I’m hoping this combined with the long base period will have me firing on all cylinders for the UCI season restart here in Europe.
Think that was just a load of shit? Read on: