• Boris Clark

Creating opportunity through adversity

Obviously with the current world situation things are changing fast. Of course there are bigger issues in the world than training right now, but while we need to be sensible, we must continue to live and enjoy, and think long term. Despite having a degree in health science, I am not in a position to give advice about the current outbreak, but here at MPS what we can do is give advice about training, and how to get the most out of it at this time, so that’s what we are going to do.

It's no secret that many races and events have been cancelled. Some are at a loss as to what they are training for. I have some clients whose big goal event may now be as far as 12 months away. What do you do in the case what you had been training for is now uncertain. I’m going to talk through one potential mistake I’ve already seen several people making, and what your options are over the coming months.

Chris Froome didn't know what his racing season would look like, and battled through early difficulties to win the Giro

A mistake I’m seeing

Already I’ve seen all over social media how athletes are now ‘avoiding intense training’. This could be a mistake in my opinion.

Traditionalists will tell you that if you train too hard too soon then you will peak too early and be cooked by race day. This is true in many ways.

If you have 12 weeks until your goal event, decide to do a 4 week block of max aerobic VO2 work, then this will likely ring true. As a basic rule of thumb, the longer and lower intensity training is, the more time it will take us to see the gains from it, while the shorter and more intense training is, the quicker we will respond to it.

So given that piece of information, if you start a maximal block of VO2 work 12 weeks out from your event you’ll have a problem. If we keep giving our body the same stimulus over and over we quickly stop adapting to it. As a rule of thumb it can take 2-3 weeks to get the biggest gains from a new type of training, and 2-3 more weeks to get that level of super-compensation that makes those gains ‘semi-permanent’, of course this is the time you spend doing the type of training, not the time frame in which you will see all of the adaptive response.

When we are in the lead up to an event, we want the training to be progressive. This might be increasing the time in a certain zone, increasing intensity, reducing recovery time between efforts. These are all ways of progressing training. But it is near impossible to progress intense training any further. You can of course make some power gains over these short intense efforts, but this won’t keep progressing week upon week forever, and we can’t extend the time of these efforts, or the intensity is no longer where we require the effort to be to achieve what we want it to achieve.

After this block you have 8 weeks until the goal event. You have pretty much maxed out what you can achieve from a max aerobic point of view from this block, so your only option is to move to even more intense training (i.e. anaerobic and sprinting), but it’s still far too early to focus on this too much, or focus on longer lower intensity intervals or endurance work, but it is too close to race day to get most of the adaptive benefits of these sessions.

So how is that a mistake? You just outlined why not to do intense training?

All of which I’ve written above was in the lead up to a race. That is not the situation we find ourselves in now. You may of heard the phrase ‘bike riders are made in the winter’ indicating that how good a rider will be for a season is determined by the base foundations they lay in the winter. This could never be more true at this time (even if it’s not winter).

Why are bike riders (or other athletes) made in the winter/offseason? Because this is when there is no racing. There is not the constant need to manage fatigue with training load, specific training with training that thinks longer term. Over periods when there is no racing you can think long term with interruptions.

So where does this leave us with high intensity training?

To clarify here, when talking about high intensity, I’m primarily talking about work above threshold, and closer to VO2max. We know that VO2max is our aerobic ceiling that sets the ‘potential’ we have as an endurance athlete. As we mentioned, when leading up to a race it’s easy to stuff up the timing of this work and do it too soon for peak performance, or too late and not get the benefits.

Much of this is to do with the adaptations we are looking for at certain times. Many of the adaptations we get in the short term to this training are ‘chemical’ adaptations. Things like changes in blood volume or enzyme activity which come and go as quick as we do this training and stop doing it. These are the things that really get us to that ‘peak’.

But when there is no racing and we are building that fitness foundation we are looking for ‘structural adaptations’. These are things like stroke volume (how much blood the hear can pump with each beat), mitochondrial density, capillary formation, structural/physical changes which will last a long long time, even if we stop training for a while.

In this situation we aren’t concerned about timing adaptations for peak performance. It’s impossible to peak too soon if you have no racing! We just want to improve a certain aspect of our physiology by doing this training.

If you need to increase max aerobic capacity, then high intensity work is for you, need to increase endurance, long training if for you, need to improve fatigue resistance, then long rides, efforts at the end of ride, and long intervals are for you, need to lower anaerobic capacity, then lots of tempo is for you, need to improve your sprint, then gym work and sprint efforts are for you. Can you see where this is going?

In a normal build to a race training intensity must be planned to be progressive and really build us into peak form for the race. With no racing we are free to improve the areas of our physiology that need work, and we can create long lasting affects in these areas.

This doesn’t mean you need to rush into intensity, that may not be what you as an individual need. But don’t fear intensity because you have been told you will peak too soon, or that it is bad for you so far out form an event.

Finding opportunity

There is another point to be made in training during times like this. This time can be used to try types of training you may have considered, but have not risked testing in season. For example you may see how you respond to high volume, or a block or anaerobic work, or gym sessions. I have one athlete who is using this time to really hone their TT ability and spend lots of time in the time trial position. Perhaps you want to see if you are a responder to low carbohydrate training, or maybe try higher carb and see if you have more energy and recover faster. During this time you have the chance to experiment a little. You may just find something that realty works for you, or if it crashes and burns, you haven’t ruined your race season, there is plenty of time to put it right and get back on track.

If you are resigned to the turbo, a little intensity won't hurt

Motivation through this time

One final word to sum up. I know as much as anyone it can be hard to keep motivation through a time like this with no racing or events. But just remember, racing and events will return. How long that will be we are all currently unsure. But just know, that if you keep focused, keep your mind on creating that structural change through good consistent training, then you will come out the other side of all this fitter and stronger than ever.