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?
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HRV Flatlining 27th December 2013

Over the past two weeks my HRV readings have plateaued around 50-55. Even when I have exercised and sometimes intensively my HRV has budged very little. So, what is happening? Could it be that my body has not completely recovered from a period of training? Well, in the absence of any other explanation I think this must be the answer. So, what is the solution to raise my HRV? The only thing I can think of doing is to slowly increase volume whilst maintaining low intensity and slowly but surely build my base endurance.

Specific Goals 27/6/14

There are certain areas of my health and fitness that need specific attention as follows:

  1. Improve strength of glutes. 60% of pedalling power emanates from this muscle group
  2. Improve strength of back muscles – many years of sat at a desk have weakened these muscles. Strengthening them will improve my power when cycling but also improve my posture
  3. Strengthen core muscles, especially lower abdomen which is connected to power output when cycling
  4. Strengthen hamstrings – as with above these have been weakened by many years of sitting down
  5. Build strength of shoulders, arms, chest and arms. Not specifically related to cycling but needed to improve overall body shape
  6. Increase overall muscle mass from 63 to 65kg
  7. Reduce total body fat to 5% (3-4kg), target weight 69kg
  8. Do 2 training activity sessions in one day – eg., one cycling session in the morning and weights session in the evening

As far as cycling strengths and weaknesses:

  1. Improve power weight ratio to 4.25 (Gold Standard) or average power output 20 minutes of 310 watts
  2. Improve climbing – achieve top 20 strava position on 5 local climbs
  3. Increase power output – this needs to be established
  4. Increase HR Lactic Threshold to 170 bpm
  5. 10 mile TT’s, first target 25 minutes, second target 22 1/2 minutes
  6. Improve sprint speed – need to establish measure
  7. Endurance – 100 miles @ 18mph riding alone
  8. Endurance – 3 consecutive days x 100 miles

Review of Targets 23/6/14

My targets for June were to ride 600 miles including two 100-milers and get my weight down to 71kg and to do two gym sessions per week. My weight is currently 71.5kg, I have ridden two 100-milers, I have been going to the gym twice a week and I have so far ridden 480 miles with one week left so I am on course to achieve my June targets which is great news.

My target for July is to get my weight down to 70kg and ride 500 miles. I’ll be away for the first couple of weeks of July so it may be better to revise this target down to 300 miles. Looking ahead to Ride London I am now treating it as a training ride as opposed to a challenge. It is 100 miles with just 4,000 feet of climbing. I’m not going for any special times as I am riding with a team of 3 other riders and I am sure they will want to soak up the atmosphere so this year I am going to do the same. Would be good to go for 600 miles in August which works out at about 150 miles per week.

I need to restructure my training:

  1. Maintain longer training rides every weekend but increase the elevation
  2. Build strength and muscle mass – each session to focus on a separate major muscle group alongside a minor muscle group and to use barbells, possibly three times per week (legs & arms, chest & shoulders, back & abs)
  3. Use a power meter for my cycle training and set power targets

Overall, there are three key objectives to my training:

  1. Better physique
  2. Building strength
  3. Improving endurance
  • Better Physique – my aim is to lose excess body fat, build muscle mass on my arms, shoulders, back and legs and have a more upright posture
  • Build strength in my legs by increasing muscle mass. Can be accurately quantified for my legs using a power meter and can be done for other parts of the body by recording maximum weight lifts
  • Improve endurance so that I can cycle for longer and faster

In order to achieve the above I need to split my training:

  1. Lactate threshold training – increase LT from HR 163 to 168
  2. Long endurance rides
  3. Speed & technique
  4. Hill climbing
  5. Weight resistance

My average total training time per week over the past few years is as follows:

  • 2011 – 1 hour per week
  • 2012 – 3 hours per week
  • 2013 – 5 3/4 hours per week
  • 2014 – 8 3/4 hours per week over the past three months

I am recovering more quickly and therefore better able to take on more training. Therefore, based on my planned training laid out above I will need to dedicate the following amount of time to each training area:

  • Long endurance rides: 5-6 hours
  • Weight resistance; three sessions of approx 45 minutes = 2 1/2 hours
  • Lactate threshold training: 1-2 hours per week
  • Other specific training: 1-2 hours per week
  • Total projected training hours per week = 9 1/2 to 12 1/2 hours per week

As consistency is the key with any training programme I prefer to spread the activities across the week limiting rests to one day per week, therefore, the weekly schedule would work out something like this:

  • Monday: rest day
  • Tuesday: weights resistance back & abs
  • Wednesday: bike lactate threshold
  • Thursday: weights legs & arms
  • Friday: bike climbing
  • Saturday: weights chest & shoulders
  • Sunday: long endurance ride

Recovery would be scheduled every third week and this would maintain the weights programme but reduce the intensity of bike work to the recovery zone.

Rest & Recovery 12th November 2013

This morning all the indicators on my HRV reading were ‘red’!! Red readings on daily, weekly and monthly parameters are clear signals to stop training and to take time to rest, recover and recuperate sufficiently. Failing to do this will neutralise any potential gains from the preceding training period. Therefore, it is critical to rest the body so that it can make the necessary and improved adaptations required to deal with the stress load imparted by the training. This period of waiting or R&R can be mentally challenging as one wants to continue training.

Over the past few months I have undertaken some more intensive training characterised by hill climbing and harder efforts on group rides. It has been self-evident that my fitness levels have improved. The issue with training is getting the balance right between training stresses or total training load with rest & recovery. The harder one works the more rest one has to schedule and the less overall training one does. The opposite also applies – the less the total training load then the longer the training can continue without the need for rest. I can make the following observations:

  1. I do not accurately know my total training stress for a given period. I have only recently started to use Training Peaks to get a score on my total training stress. Therefore, I have been training blind in terms of understanding the load I am putting my body under.
  2. I have not been including non-bike sessions and stationary bike sessions in evaluating my total training load
  3. I have been focusing on shorter more intensive training sessions and I appear to have responded well to these
  4. I have averaged 5 1/2 hours on the bike for the past 3 months
  5. I have not been adopting a structured training/R&R programme
  6. I don’t know what training load I should be subjecting my body to for a given period

What can I learn from the preceding training period:

  1. I am stronger and fitter
  2. I don’t know the training load parameters I should be working within and for how long I should be doing this
  3. I don’t know how often I should be scheduling R&R
  4. I don’t know whether to focus on intensive training or to revert to volume training
  5. I need to record my HR on all training sessions

Next Steps

  1. Establish my lower and upper limits for total training stress (Tss)
  2. Decide the training split between volume and intensity (is it 80/20 or something else?)
  3. Determine how often I should schedule recovery weeks
  4. Decide if I am going to follow British Cycling’s training plan or devise my own

I can’t seem to find a way of calculating my Tss limits so I’ll have to work them out from scratch so I’ll use the following approach. Once my HRV shows that I have recovered from the accumulated stress of the previous period of training I will start my new period training as follows:

  1. Allow HRV to reach 65 for three consecutive days and commence training
  2. Training to consist of 3-week cycles over a 9-week period, with each cycle consisting of 2 weeks training and 1 week R&R
  3. Tss to be split as follows: cycle 1: 25%, cycle 2: 45%, cycle 3: 30%
  4. Volume/intensity to be split as follows: cycle 1: 95/5, cycle 2: 85/15, cycle 3: 90/10
  5. Each training cycle to include a minimum of 2 weight training sessions
  6. Interval training on hills or on stationary bike
  7. HRV to be monitored closely – if not increasing sufficiently on rest days then intensity to be reduced and if that doesn’t work then Tss to be reduced
  8. The main tool to be used in identifying upper and lower Tss limits will be HRV
  9. Five training sessions per week which includes 2 gym sessions – this leaves a maximum of 3 bike rides per week
  10. Increase no. of activities to 5 per week and where required reduce intensity to accommodate the increased number of activities
  11. Adjust body to accommodate 5 activities per week and once accomplished then selectively increase intensity

HRV target

  • Average HRV 2012: 58.8
  • Average HRV 2013: 62.1 (5.6% improvement)
  • Target HRV for next training period: 65 (4.67% improvement)

Recovery Week Mon 13th – Fri 17th Oct-13

This week I rested completely from any kind of training mainly because I had a sore throat on Monday and also because I’d accumulated quite a bit of intensity work over the previous weeks. I did what I thought was a recovery ride yesterday keeping my HR below 120 for a 40-mile ride. What lessons have a I learnt:

  1. My recovery ride yesterday was actually an endurance ride, albeit at the low end of my endurance but an endurance ride nevertheless. Lesson number one in to know my HR zones otherwise how can I possibly follow a training plan accurately. It is no surprise that I felt a small amount of fatigue in my legs. The whole point of a recovery ride is to rid the body of any harmful by-products and not add to them. Lesson number two is to use a stationary bike or turbo session for recovery sessions. It would be very difficult to keep my HR below 111 on an actual ride.
  2. I stopped all training for the week – I don’t think this is right. I could have gone out for some gentle walks and I could have continued with trunk strengthening work. It makes no sense to just stop everything, so lesson number three is to keep doing something during rest & recovery periods
  3. I didn’t really watch my diet too closely during the week. I was more interested in making sure my body was properly fuelled to fight any viruses. Lesson number four is that I can give my body a vitamin & mineral boost during R&R
  4. I didn’t monitor my HRV during the week. Lesson number 5 is to use HRV testing to monitor how well I am recovering.

Next Goal for April & May 2013

I have successfully completed my last two goals so I now need to decide what is next? My main focus at the moment is completing my base training period which consists primarily of endurance riding, weight training and losing body fat. Base 2 (3 weeks) and base 3 (6 weeks) will complete my base training mesocycle – the end date for this is 26th May – therefore my next goal should cover April and May.

My base 1 training has been successful in improving my fitness and gettting me to focus on endurance riding, fat loss and weight training although the number of hours I originally planned to fit into each week was far in excess of what I could reasonably achieve based on my ability to recover from the training. Therefore, total hours needs to be revised down. I have completed between 60-75% of my training hours – therefore, I need to adjust down my total annual training hours. What I will do is aim for 75% of my weekly riding hours and 100% of my gym work (ie., 3 hours per week).

Base 2 – total riding 27.5 hours, total gym 9 hours

Week 1 – 19 hours; 16 (10 hrs) hours riding, 3 hours gym

Week 2 – 21 hours; 18 hours (11.5 hrs), 3 hours gym

Week 3 recovery – 10.5 hours; 7.5 hours (6 hrs), 3 hours gym

Base 3 – total riding 58 hours, total gym 18 hours

Week 1 – 20 hours; 17 hours (11.5 hrs), 3 hours gym

Week 2 – 22 hours; 19 hours (11.5 hrs), 3 hours gym

Week 3 recovery – 10.5 hours; 7.5 hours (6 hrs), 3 hours gym

Weeks 4-6 – repeat Base 3 weeks 1-3

Base 2 & Base 3; total riding hours 85.5, total gym hours 27 = total training hours 112.5 hours

Even on the reduced riding hours the total number of training hours I am committing to is double what I did in the last 2 months. This is a big increase and I will therefore need to pay close attention to how quickly I am recovering. it is also absolutely critical that I complete my endurance rides well within my endurance upper HR. If I go too high I could risk blowing my training. The challenge is to do the extra hours on the bike and also do the gym work too.

The other key goal is to reduce my body fat – according to current readings my body fat % is about 11.5-12%. This seems quite low already – having said that I still see fat deposits around my abdomen and my face is still a bit chubby. My overall weight is reducing but not my a massive amount so I can only assume I continue to build muscle mass although this has clearly been on my legs and not my upper body. My gym work will focus on building muscle mass on my chest, arms, lower back, shoulders, abdominals and lower back. How do I translate my fat loss and weight goals into figures. Lets look a the body composition figures:

Weight – approx 76.8kg at beginning of March and end of March approx. 75.5, a loss of 1.3kg. With training volume doubling I can expect a weight loss of around 2kg – my weight at the of base training should be approx 73.5kg (11st 8lb or 162 lbs). I need to pay close attention to my diet and stick to low fat and high protein. I also need to work out my diet precisely each week. After my base training is finished I will not be focussed on weight loss so it is now or never.

Fat loss – according to my readings my body fat has reduced from 14% to 11.7% over the course of March whilst muscle mass has increased from 62.2kg to 63.4kg. If I assume a muscle mass gain of 1kg per month, then I will gain 2kg in 2 months – muscle mass total will be approx 65.5 to 66kg. I’ll assume a 2% body fat reduction in the same period reducing total body fat % to under 10%. There has been no marked increase in muscle size but I now expect to record gains over the next two months as I increase muscle resistance in the gym.

Summary of Goal

For April and May I aim to complete my Base Training period by riding a total of 85.5 hours, by doing 27 hours of gym work. Over this period I aim to reduce my weight by 2kg to 73.5kg and reduce my body fat by 2 points to under 10% of my body mass. I will also commence breathing training using the Powerbreathe for the month of April. I’ll monitor progress using my Garmin, Body Composition Scales, and Measuring Tape. I won’t be using RunKeeper to analyse miles ridden – it is now about endurance hours. I will do a FTHR test at the end of April and May.