Coach: Overcoming extraordinary times by sticking to the basics

Words by Ben Capostagno

The COVID-19 pandemic has provided a new challenge to both professional and recreational cyclists alike. Countries introduced restrictions on outdoor activities, and many have only recently removed or adjusted these policies to allow us to spend time outdoors. The restrictions highlighted a very important aspect of
training; sticking to the basics of exercise prescription. There is nothing wrong with a little bit of creativity, but when it comes to improving your performance on the bike, if you haven’t taken care of the basics, then progression is unlikely to occur. In this article we will cover the basics of training load and how you can apply these to your own training to improve your performance.

Training load is comprised of two separate components; the external training load and the internal training load.

External training load

External training load is the “stress” that is applied to the body. For example, you might head out for a two-hour ride and average 200 Watts for the duration of the ride. The external training load has three components:

  • Frequency – the number of training sessions for a given time period
  • Duration – the length of a training session
  • Intensity – how hard was the training session (power output, heart rate, rating of perceived exertion (RPE))

For a given training session, we can manipulate both the duration and the intensity in order to promote a specific physiological response. Previously, duration or distance was used as a measure of training load, but reporting your weekly training load as 500 km or 14 hours completely neglects the intensity of those
sessions. Similarly, reporting an average power output of 200 Watts or 156 bpm, does not mean much without an associated duration.

The stress imposed, and therefore the physiological responses to riding at 200 Watts for two hours will be vastly different to that of riding at 200 Watts for four hours and this needs to be taken into account when
planning your training programme.

External training load is often prescribed using intensity domains or training zones. These zones should be determined by physiological testing prior to the commencement of a training programme. Although high training loads are required for success in endurance performance, it is important to note that a high training load for one athlete will be different to that of another. It is also critical to remember that there is no dose-response relationship with training load. In other words, simply increasing your training load will not guarantee an improvement in performance. How that training load is organized is an important consideration.

It is very important to monitor how your training intensity is distributed between your different training zones. Many successful endurance athletes have adopted a polarized approach to their training intensity
distribution, which means that 80 % of their training occurs at a VERY low intensity, and the remainder, 20% is completed at a VERY high intensity. They avoid accumulating too much time in the, “somewhat hard” exercise domain, because, while it may cause some fatigue, it does not provide a stress high enough to promote significant adaptations. Spending too much time here may reduce your capacity to hit the target intensities of your harder training sessions, which in turn will reduce the physiological response to
your training.

Internal Training Load

Internal training load is your physiological response to the external training load applied to the body. One of the challenges of using certain platforms to track our training loads is the absence of a valid and reliable measure of internal training load. We can have a very clear picture of how our external load is progressing, but without a measure of the internal training load, we are only seeing half the picture. Heart rate at a given intensity (power output or RPE) is probably the most accessible measure of internal training load.
In fact, the relationship between these three variables can provide some important clues as to how a cyclist is responding to their training. For example, if a cyclist is riding at a 200 Watts and their heart rate is lower than it usually is, this could be a sign of positive adaptation to training. However, if the lower heart rate at a given power output is accompanied by an increased perception of effort (it feels harder to ride at that intensity), then it could be sign of some fatigue and perhaps a lighter session or rest day is needed.

Powermeters have become increasingly affordable and as a result more and more cyclists are using them and ignoring their heart rate monitors. If you have access to both, I would strongly recommend that you use both in order to monitor YOUR responses to your training and make adjustments to your training if required.

Back to Basics

The simplest way to increase your performance is to ensure that your training has been periodized (organized) to allow for progressive periods of overload. In other words, ensure that your training load is increasing over time. If your load does not increase, the stress (external load) applied to the body will not increase and the adaptations to the training will therefore plateau. Depending on the cyclist, their background and their immediate goals, we will typically use a three weeks on, one week off (recovery week) structure to plan their training load. The training load will increase week on week for those first three weeks, but then drop off significantly to allow them to recover before the next training block.

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