Training Stress, Training Stimulus

by Colin Gibson

I’m going to give away the secret to getting fast right up front: quit your day job, ride your bike a ton, and recover even more.  The basic idea is simple: professional cyclists who can take that advice have the liberty of increasing their training stimulus and decreasing the  physical and mental stresses that keep them from responding to that stimulus.  The rest of us may not be able to dedicate ourselves to training to the same degree, but fortunately we can apply the same rule at any level of time commitment: maximize stimulus, minimize stress.

The most common limiter that we encounter in athletes we work with is time.  Demanding jobs, family, and travel all carve out their space, leaving four, six, eight hours a week available for training.  So the question is: what should you fill those few hours with? Two four-hour group rides? Seven hour-long maximal efforts?  The answer lies in what our body responds to when we ride hard.  I’ll use two power files from very different rides to explain.  The first is from a road race:

Tour de Delta Road Race

This is pretty typical of road race power files viewed overall: they’re spiky. What if we look at a 20-minute segment?  Computer: enhance!

Tour de Delta Road Race

The close-up is similar: periods of coasting followed by short, intense accelerations. Continue for three hours.  The training benefit of a ride like this is to make us stronger at this style of riding: relatively high speeds, many short bursts of power.  Burning thousands of calories over several hours also trains our bodies to store more fuel in the future.  So that’s one end of the spectrum: racing as training for racing.  The downside of this approach is that, while it is as event-specific as you can get, it also has a high ratio of stress to stimulus.  It would be hard to perform a ride like this more than twice a week because of the combination of duration, intensity, and high average power.

That brings us to the other end of our spectrum.  This is a segment of a power file from a workout performed on the Wahoo KICKR earlier this month.


VO2 micro intervals

Rides like this are sometimes easier to perform on the trainer than outdoors because of the lack of traffic, intersections, and extra warm-up and cool-down time.  The KICKR also has a power control mode, which holds the rider to a target power, minimizing fluctuations.

As you can see, this is very different from our first example.  This workout features a series of short high-intensity intervals with shorter ‘rest’ intervals at moderate pace.  The purpose of a workout like this is to train the body to spend prolonged periods of time at full aerobic capacity while responding to frequent changes in intensity. Those objectives are relevant because they are very common demands, both in racing and in many group rides.  This workout had a clear goal and didn’t beat around the bush:  short warm-up, blast of training stimulus, cool down.   Because all of the ‘fat’ has been trimmed off of this ride, the whole workout lasted only 40 minutes.

To step back for a moment, I’m not arguing that 40-minute workouts are ideal preparation for long road races.  Ideal preparation would combine interval workouts like this with rides that more closely resemble target events in duration and energy expenditure.  However, when time is your limiting factor, this kind of training can often be the most effective approach–lots of signal, very little noise.  That means more frequency, which can be just as important as intensity and total ride time in making you stronger.

The takeaway for riders trying to make the most of limited training time is to  begin each ride with a target in mind.  Just as football players don’t spend every practice scrimmaging, neither should cyclists aim for every power file to look like the event they’re preparing for.  Interval training like this targets the relevant physiological limiters as directly as possible with minimum fatigue.  So don’t worry if you can’t log 25 hours a week in the saddle.  If you can’t ride long, ride hard!