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:
- Planning, monitoring and reviewing training
- A mixture of the right kind of training sessions combined with appropriately timed rest & recovery
- 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?