Baby Benjamin – Life’s Surprises & Training Adjustments

I guess we all times in our lives when there are events that will inevitably lead to the need to make adjustments to training programmes and I am no exception. I have been training solidly since March earlier this year, however, the much anticipated welcome arrival of our baby boy Benjamin has meant a change to the planned programme. Since he was born last Thursday I have only managed one training session. I’ve needed to be around to look after him whilst Yemi has rested. It has also been wet and cold and the honest truth is I just have fancied doing anything anyway. So, the question arises as to how I should respond to life’s unexpected and expected surprises?

Lessons learnt:

  1. Accept the ‘new’ situation and recognise it’s value – relax and enjoy
  2. Use the new situation to review results and plan ahead – what changes need to be made to adapt to the new situation. Need to build in plan B’s when events take precedence over training. Any effective training programme has to build in back-ups for the unexpected.
  3. Plan a return date to training – get back in gradually, don’t over-stretch
  4. My training is important to me but it is not as important as my family and work, they are the priorities. Get the balance right, not one at the expense of the other
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Recovery – How To Recognise & Respond

I’ve been giving rest & recovery some thought over the past few days and it is an essential and key component of my training programme.  I would argue is critical in terms of making performance progress. The main questions relating to recovery are:

  1. Why is it important
  2. How can it be recognised
  3. How often should it be scheduled and how long should it it last
  4. How can the bodies response to R&R be monitored and measured

The importance of R&R 

During training the body is over-stressed and if this continues without giving the body sufficient R&R then the body’s natural response is to invoke an illness or injury that will stop training in order to prevent any further damage. It is the body’s last resort mechanism to mitigate the damage caused by additional training workload. On the other hand, if appropriate R&R is scheduled, then the body will make adaptations to better manage these stresses the next time it encounters them. My own experience backs up the theory. When I have given sufficient time to R&R I have restarted my training feeling stronger and fresher.

Recognising the signs of overtraining

How do we know when we need to take a rest? – this should be pretty simple so why do we overtrain? I think the answer relates to a mistaken belief that the harder we train the stronger and fitter we get. This belief in turn overrides our own capacity to listen to our bodies for signs of overtraining. The signs are often evident but we simply miss them or ignore them. To make steady performance gains it is absolutely critical that we recognise the value of appropriately timed R&R. This belief must replace any pretensions that continual training overload will lead to performance improvements. Once we hold to this belief, then the becomes incorporating R&R as an essential component of our training programmes. Getting the balance right between overloading the body through training and giving the body time to adapt to training is a key skill. How do employ this skill and identify and recognise the signs of overtraining? As previously referenced we need to elevate our natural ability to read signs from our body as to when we start to encroach from overtraining into overreaching our bodies. The main signs of overtraining are

  • Fatigued – pretty obvious but one we often overlook
  • Irritability and bad mood
  • Skin changes – itchiness or lack of palor
  • Increasing mental fatigue
  • Low morale and motivation
  • Disruptive sleep patterns
  • Headaches and feeling sniffly
  • Elevated resting heart rate and depressed heart rate variability
  • Irregular hunger or thirst patterns
  • Irregular toilet patterns

In addition, to the above signs we can also monitor the body’s response to training by taking resting heart rate and heart rate variability measurements. Changes in the trends of either of these can provide invaluable insights into our bodies response to overtraining. The critical element of these measurements is to have recorded them over a sufficient time period to provide a trend or pattern. One-off measurements can not be relied upon.

How often should R&R be scheduled and how long should it last

Most training programmes provisioned by coaches or training web sites include rest and recovery weeks. Typically, a R&R week follows two or three weeks of training. In addition, rest and recovery days are included within the training weeks especially after demanding or ‘breakthrough’ training sessions. Unfortunately, this is not a precise mechanism and the body doesn’t always follow prescribed timescales. My own experience supports the need to schedule R&R but not to strictly adhere to it. Some flexibility is needed and programmes needed to be adjusted to reflect the body’s need for rest or continued training. Therefore, it is advisable to schedule R&R into a training programme and then to make adjustments were required.

I have been scheduling one week recovery weeks following two or three-week training sessions. During recovery weeks I would maintain frequency of activities but at reduced volume and intensity. Essentially, these activities have allowed the body to ‘tick over’ from a training perspective whilst the lower intensity has allowed the body to recover and adapt to the training stresses applied in the previous weeks. Over recent months, I have become more aware and responsive to signs of physical and mental fatigue. This is a skill that can be developed.

I have been using recovery rides between active training sessions and also during R&R as a means of balancing rest without training adaptations. My own theory is that recovery rides provide slow-twitch muscles with a low-level workout whilst fast-twitch muscle fibres get a complete rest, provided of course it is performed correctly, that is, at power or HR less than 50% of FTP or FTHR. Therefore, recovery rides are great for maintaining training of slow-twitch muscles whilst giving fast-twitch muscles a break. During the last R&R period I also used recovery rides to gauge my body’s recovery. On successive recovery rides I would slightly increase intensity or volume or both and measure my response to the increases. If the response was positive then I would increase it again, if negative then I would maintain the same level. HRV was very useful during this period as it allowed a ‘window’ into my body’s parasympathetic system to gauge how it was responding to rest and recovery. This methodical and objective approach minimises the risk inherent in using subjective cues to determine when to get back to full training.

Performance losses occur at three times the rate of performance gains so it is critical that we don’t spend more time resting and recovering than is required. Therefore, it is equally important that we recognise the signs of when we are ready to start training again in order that we can optimise the gains generated from previous training blocks.

 

 

Body’s Adaptations To Training Stress – My Own Theories

Since 11th September I have been aware of significant positive changes in my cycling performance, namely:

  • The ability to climb without the onset of muscle fatigue
  • A lowering of my heart rate by around 20bpm for the same power output
  • An increase in my ability to cycle at elevated HR for a longer period, well into the 170bpm range
  • A reduction in hunger fluctuations, especially at night time
  • An increased capacity to handle higher training loads – ability to train 6 or 7 times per week and train twice a day where necessary

I have also been aware of positive changes in my physiology, namely:

  • Steady reduction in body fat, down from around 12% a year ago to around 8% today
  • A steady increase in body water from around 62.5% a year ago to 67.5% today
  • A steady decrease in overall body weight from 74kg a year ago to 70kg today

Currently, my main limiter to cycling performance improvement is muscle failure or more specifically the capacity of my fast-twitch muscles to handle bigger workloads.

It is useful to explore what is behind the improvements which I can summarise as follows:

  1. Planning, monitoring and reviewing training
  2. A mixture of the right kind of training sessions combined with appropriately timed rest & recovery
  3. Structured nutrition and hydration to dovetail training programme

Of the three key reasons, it is in the arena of training and R&R where I am least clear about the contribution of each of the different training components to actual physiological improvements so I am going to assess and speculate about which of them has led to the biggest gains. From the assessment I will hope to draw out some conclusions to help better inform and determine future training.

A Review of Training Approach 

The main contributors in my training can be identified as follows:

  • Gradual steady increase in training load – average TSS score of 30 (210/week) one year ago, rising steadily from around 40 (280/week) in March/April to around 70 (490/week) today. Practically, this correlates with an average of 3 activities per week one year ago to 6/7 activities per week today. One year ago, it would simply not have been possible for my body to handle the current workload of 6/7 activities per week. Training load was gradually increased through the year at an increase rate of no more than 5 TSS points per week and 15 TSS points per month
  • Training consistency – there have been no sharp increases in training and more importantly no sharp reductions either, apart from a 2-week holiday in July when only one short activity was completed. An important lesson learnt was that training gains are lost at three times the rate at which they are gained. Therefore, it is absolutely critical to apply training consistently and continue to build on previous gains and not have extended breaks. It is better to train lightly and regularly than to train heavily with big gaps in between.
  • Distinct training phases or periods – training sessions have been organised into two or three week periods followed by one week ‘recovery’ weeks. There have been three key training phases: phase 1 (March-August) – long endurance rides, phase 2 (August-September) – HIIT & power, phase 3 (October-Present) – strength & fast-twitch muscle. Each phase has clearly contributed to performance gains, however, I would argue that the biggest returns have come from the HIIT phase. The question is whether or not it is possible to embark on a HIIT phase of training without first having established a solid endurance base.
  • Appropriately timed rest & recovery and  – one week recovery weeks followed two or three-week training sessions. These recovery weeks maintained frequency of activities but at reduced volume and intensity. Essentially, the activities have allowed the body to ‘tick over’ from a training perspective whilst the lower intensity has allowed the body to recover and adapt to the training stresses applied in the previous weeks. Over recent months, I have become more aware and responsive to signs of physical and mental fatigue. I recognise the value of R&R to allow the body to make positive adaptations to training stresses. On each occasion I have recommenced training following R&R I have felt much stronger. I have used Heart Rate Variability (HRV) to monitor my body’s response during both training and recovery periods.
  • The introduction and use of recovery rides – I have been using recovery rides between active training sessions and also during R&R. Recovery rides provide slow-twitch muscles with a low-level workout whilst fast-twitch muscle fibres get a complete rest, provided of course it is performed correctly, that is, at power or HR less than 50% of FTP or FTHR. Therefore, recovery rides are great for maintaining training of slow-twitch muscles whilst giving fast-twitch muscles a break. During the last R&R period I also used recovery rides to gauge my body’s recovery. On successive recovery rides I would slightly increase intensity or volume or both and measure my response to the increases. If the response was positive then I would increase it again, if negative then I would maintain the same level. HRV was very useful during this period as it allowed a ‘window’ into my body’s parasympathetic system to gauge how it was responding to rest and recovery. This methodical and objective approach minimises the risk inherent in using subjective cues to determine when to get back to full training.
  • Increased duration and distance of aerobic training – the main change in my aerobic training has been the increase in duration and distances. Every week I was completing a 75/80 mile endurance ride, typically with a group of other riders. This was done from April right through to the beginning of August. With the start of the HIT training, the long endurance rides were maintained but at a lower frequency, once every two weeks. With repetition the longer endurance rides became a lot easier so much so that the 50-mile club rides felt short in duration and distance in comparison.
  • Increase in weight resistance training – I have been including two gym sessions per week on average since the beginning of March. To date I have completed 55 hours in the gym which works out at approximately 7 hours or 7 gym sessions per month. I’ve been doing these sessions to help build strength in my arms, chest, back and core and to work my fast-twitch muscle fibres. They are not specifically done to improve my performance on the bike, they are more related to reducing body fat and improving my appearance but I do feel they are making some positive contribution to my cycling, but I am not entirely sure what. I do know that building strength in my core and back does contribute to improvements on the bike.
  • The use of a power meter to design, monitor, and determine the length of training sessions – I started using a power meter 18/7 and it helped immensely in designing an executing HIT sessions, especially in improving VO2 Max and Anaerobic Capacity. My cycling performance went up a couple of levels during my HIT phase and it was instigated by the use of a power meter. The power meter can be used to accurately determine how many watts to use for a given exercise and more importantly to signal when enough exercise or intervals have been done. The avoidance of overtraining is critical to ensure training consistency and gradual gains. An illness will typically rob one
  • The introduction and use of High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) – I have used HIT for VO2 Max and Anaerobic Capacity training sessions. This was prompted by use of a power meter which allowed me to accurately design and adhere to a VO2 Max training session. The power meter also allowed me to know precisely when to stop the session which is invaluable as a means of avoiding overtraining. The gains from the HIT sessions were immediate – improved climbing ability, improved strength, improved aerobic ability and improved anaerobic capability. The results were astounding. If the long endurance training represented the base foundation of a pyramid the HIT sessions truly represented the pinnacle. The sessions involved intervals of between 3, 5 or 10 minutes followed by 5 minutes rest and a warmup and cooldown of 20 minutes. The sessions were usually completed within 90 minutes so very efficient training in terms of benefits realised versus time invested. Normally, I did one session per week and I always followed it with a rest day. Research has revealed (Burgomaster et al. 2005, Gibala et al. 2006, Gibala 2007) big gains from HIIT training. In the Gibala et al. study (2006), one group did 2.5 hours of HIT training (630kj) and another group did 10.5 hours of endurance training (6,500kj). Surprisingly, all training measures improved with both groups to an equal extent. In fact, the power output of the HIT group increased to a higher level than the endurance group. Subsequent studies reinforce the value of HIT and HIIT training. The question I ask myself, is what is happening physiologically to elicit the performance gains? My own view is a combination of: stronger heart, increased concentration of mitochondria in slow-twitch muscles to clear lactate generated by fast-twitch muscles, increased engagement of fast-twitch muscles when climbing through lower cadence, increased stroke volume of heart, increased plasma volume, increased blood capillarization in muscles, increased ability for muscle cells to convert glycogen into energy, hypertrophy of muscle fibres, interconversion of fast-twitch muscle fibres. But, which has a greater impact than another?