Scenario #1: You spent hours on the trainer this winter working on your aerobic base. April comes around and you take every opportunity to get out and ride. Long rides, big climbs, intervals, short sprints, etc. whenever you get the chance. You start racing in late April/early May and do great. When the calendar turns to June your race results plummet. You train more and ride harder because you are obviously not in good enough shape and your race results get even worse. By mid-July you?ve put the bike in the garage and won?t even look at it until cyclocross season?
Scenario #2: You didn?t get much riding in over the winter (the skiing was too good, the Holidays were too busy, you hate the trainer, etc.). When the weather turns nice you put in some solid riding. The nicer the day, the longer you ride. You start doing some intervals and some harder rides. Your race results aren?t great in the early season races, so you train more and harder. You skip your recovery weeks to train more. Your results get even worse. You take time off in August out of frustration.
Both of the above scenarios are very common amongst cyclists, particularly cyclists who aren?t cyclists for a living. Both scenarios can be avoided with a few small training adjustments. The biggest mistake most cyclists make is training at too high an intensity on easy days. The bulk of your training should be done at an easy aerobic base level. There are many ways to determine your specific base intensity (in terms of heart rate, power, or perceived effort). Often your true base intensity will feel ?too easy.? Base aerobic riding should be done at a conversational intensity. You should be able to speak freely without gasping for air. You should be able to recite the Pledge of Allegiance or sing the chorus from your favorite song without difficulty while riding. If you can?t, you are likely training too hard for it to truly be an easy workout.
Training too hard, too often is the biggest cause of mid-season burnout. The danger with ?medium? intensity rides is that they have similar (but not greater) aerobic benefits to easier rides, but come at a greater cost. As you increase your training volume, repeated ?medium? rides will deplete your energy. It takes longer to recover from 2 hours of medium than it does to recover from 2 hours of easy, but there is no additional benefit to going medium. Repeated medium intensity rides lead to fatigue and an inability to go any faster during races or interval workouts.
Imagine 2 gas stations across the street from each other. Gas station A sells gas at $3 per gallon, gas station B sells gas at $4 per gallon. Where do you buy your gas? A gallon of gas from either station will power your car for the same number of miles, but one station?s gas will deplete your bank account faster. When you train too hard on your easy days you decrease the volume of training your body can adapt to. Often you are unable to do interval workouts at appropriate intensities due to fatigue. The longer you continue pushing yourself too hard too frequently, the more fatigued you become. HTFU rides do not work. If you are fatigued, smashing yourself with a long hard ride will not miraculously cure your fatigue, it will only push you further into the red.
It is well established that you get faster by polarizing your training. Making your easy days truly easy and doing intervals at an appropriately hard intensity and avoiding too much ?medium? intensity riding. Why then, do so many riders fall into the trap of training ?medium? all the time? For most cyclists, it comes down to ego. For most cyclists, true base/easy training doesn?t ?feel like a workout.? You aren?t out of breath, you aren?t working hard. You may get passed by other riders. Often group rides end up being medium intensity for all but the fittest. In some cases your riding terrain is dictated by your fitness. If your base occurs at 1-1.5 W/kg, you may not be able to do steep hills at the correct intensity unless you have a triple. You may be limited to flat terrain for the bulk of your riding. Elite cyclists can do hilly rides at base intensity because their base intensity may be 3-3.5 W/kg.
When race season lasts from April-September it?s nearly impossible to be at your best for every race. Often, the people who are riding fast in April are not the same people who are riding fast in August. Racing is stressful on the body, frequent racing requires frequent recovery. It is difficult to both recover from racing and train to maintain fitness, let alone improve fitness. Remember that the stress of training and racing is added to other life stresses, family or work obligations, social commitments, schoolwork, etc. all affect how well your body can recover from and adapt to workouts. If you do yardwork or housework all day on your rest day, did you truly rest? The cyclist must balance all of this stress. It?s not worth riding 12 hours per week, if your body can only adapt to 8 hours and those extra 4 hours just increase your level of stress and fatigue. The goal of training is to accomplish the maximum benefit with the minimum stress.
The best way to prevent a mid-season burnout is to start the season with a well developed aerobic base and to gradually add in higher intensity workouts once that base is developed. The better your base fitness, the faster you?ll recover from races and high intensity workouts, and the more training you?ll be able to adapt to. Unfortunately, there are no short-cuts to base fitness. Base aerobic endurance is the product of putting in time on the bike at an appropriately easy intensity. To some extent, more is better when it comes to base training, so long as your base training is sufficiently easy. This may mean time on the trainer in the darkness of winter, re-arranging your work schedule to get out for an hour or two mid-day, or spending your weekends putting in some solid miles. Commuting to/from work may be a great way to increase your base miles within the confines of your work schedule, but may require some pre-planning. 1-3 times per week doing some short sprints or alactate work can be very beneficial during base training to improve the efficiency of your pedal stroke and the ability of your legs to produce force on the pedals. Strength training, when done appropriately, can also increase your force generating capacity during base training. In fact some studies have shown that strength training for 30 minutes and riding for 9.5 hours per week for 4 weeks will yield better improvements than riding for 10 hours per week. Many riders will also do some interval training during the base building time of year. An interval workout 1-2 times per week in addition to sufficient base volume can help you build a strong fitness base prior to spring. Doing high intensity intervals regularly will lead to short term gains in fitness, but without adequate base riding, those gains will be short lived.
Once spring arrives most riders increase their volume too drastically. Often this increase in volume is accompanied by an increase in the overall intensity of riding. This combination leads to fatigue. If not corrected for with adequate recovery, this fatigue leads to the dreaded mid-season burnout.
To avoid mid-season burnout, I recommend 4 things:
Don?t go medium. Train at an appropriate intensity, easy on your easy days and hard on your hard days. You can use laboratory or field testing methods to determine what is easy and what is hard.
Know what your appropriate training zones are and utilize 1 or more methods to ensure you are training in the right range. (Heart rate, power, and perceived effort are the 3 most common)
Schedule and abide by recovery days and weeks. ?Recovery? doesn?t necessarily mean ?Off.? While a day off every week or two is often adequate, other days may be extra easy. A super easy recovery activity can improve your adaptation to training. Recovery activities may be active (riding, running, swimming, yoga, etc.) or passive (a nap, a massage, etc.) Keep your active recovery modalities to less than an hour and ensure they are exceptionally easy, easier than even base training intensity. Utilize passive recovery modalities to accelerate your adaptation to training. Recovery weeks are regularly scheduled low volume and low intensity weeks. Depending on non-training stressors they should be scheduled as often as every other week up. For most two training weeks followed by a recovery week works well. Those with low levels of non-training stress may be able to succeed with 3 training weeks followed by a recovery week. Generally I use the 3 training week:1 recovery week only with athletes who have adequate time to devote to recovery i.e. professionals! Most non-professional riders are more successful with a 2:1 or 1:1 training week to rest week ratio.
Incorporate strength work and sprint work in your base phase to increase the quality of your base rides. You can improve more by working on the little things than you can by ?just riding along.?
-Jason Amrich, BCSM