It’s hot, it’s humid, and you’re getting tired. Each August I am reminded that my athletes have been training for eight to nine months now. The typical annual training cycle kicks off in November, and August is usually the final, challenging phase. We all face the challenges of heat, humidity, fatigue, and lower motivation, forcing us to reach deep and finish the season with style.
The challenge? After nine months of both physical and mental focus, we’re tired. Those April feelings of “all I want to do is go fast” have turned into the August “I’m not sure I want to suffer anymore” blues. So how do we combat the combination of physical and mental fatigue? I have one word: change.
For me and my athletes, August is a great time to introduce or experiment with change in order to squeeze in some final performance while improving knowledge. As motivation and fitness begin to fade, we have an excellent opportunity to introduce some change to recharge our late season. At this point in the season, we’re probably as fit as we’re going to be, and our training focus needs to be on speed and performance. Let’s milk the last vestiges of fading fitness in the name of hitting those late-season goals or events.
Change Your Microcycle
You’ve probably been following the same micro cycle pattern for the past eight months now: Monday off, Tuesday hard, Wednesday aerobic, Thursday hard, Friday easy or off, and weekend full of racing or hard group rides. Your body has gotten comfortable with this rhythm and has actually begun to expect it. This is the first area we can introduce some change and elicit some quick results.
What to change? Try a few weeks of block training. Change the rhythm of your training; shock your body out of its norm by introducing a new training pattern. A simple version of block training can be done as three days on (harder training days) followed by two days off/easy, then four days on, then three days off. This creates a twelve-day cycle. Repeat it two times to complete the month. Sure, it might throw off your schedule and make some challenges for longer ride days not falling on the weekend, but don’t worry about it. You really don’t need longer rides this late in the season, and you’ll get more benefit from mixing things up.
By changing up your daily rhythm and requiring your body to first go hard for more days in a row and then rest for more days, you shake things up and push some new adaption by jarring your system back into response mode.
Change Your Training Tactics
Look back over your training for the last ninety days. I bet it will be more patterned than you think. In early spring we start falling into the same workouts, repeating those that best prepare us for racing or the ones that best fit within a heavy race schedule. August is a great time to change our tactics. If you’ve been focusing on threshold-style workouts, complete a full block (as outlined above) of neuromuscular (sprints) and anaerobic capacity-building workouts. If you’ve been pushing a lot of speed work and sprint stuff, go back to some sweet spot work. The goal is to change your intensity and content and shake up the system by changing the tactical focus of your training. Your body is an amazing adaptation machine; it’s used to adapting to the workouts you’ve been doing, so change it up, shock the system, and squeeze out some final improvement.
Change the Way You Race
You’ve been working on your racing strategy and performance all year. August is a great time to test something different. Try mixing it up. If you’re a sprinter, get some early breaks rolling and see if you can make them stick. If you’re a long break rider, sit in and then attack from one kilometer out. Use this time period to experiment with different race tactics while introducing new high-intensity efforts within the race process to shock your system and push some final gains.
Change Your Equipment
August can be a great time to test some changes in equipment. Have you always wondered if you’d be faster on those deep dish wheels versus your light climbers? Try it! Been exploring some minor changes in position? Give them a try and see if they can help you race (just be careful). We can often find some pretty big sales this time of year offers some pretty big sales on different equipment, which can be an excellent opportunity to expand your toy collection.
Change the Measurement
Since I’m the product development leader of WKO4, this might sound sacrilegious, but change the way you train and race with data. August is a great time to introduce some unstructured training and explore racing without data on your handlebars. Here’s a Pez confession: after fifteen-plus years of training with power, I still do not race with power on my head unit. Why not experiment with training and racing by feel?
Turn the dog days of summer into the change days of summer. It’ll refresh you, your training, and your equipment, and you just might up your final performances in the training year!
Lets face it: climbing is hard! And what’s harder than climbing? Epic climbing! Let’s take as an example the Taiwan KOM Challenge, a 100-kilometer ride from sea level to over 3275 meters (that’s nearly 11,000 feet). In and of itself, the climb is challenge enough for most, but the real crusher is in the final 8 kilometers averaging nearly 11% and topping out above 27% for a short period.
Find Your Gear
With over 11,000 feet of climbing and some significant grade on hand, the first piece of advice is to get some lower gears. The ability to sit and spin is key to reducing muscular fatigue and energy for stronger climbing later in the event.
Spinning puts more strain on the aerobic system, so expect your heart rate to be a tad higher, but it puts less stress on your muscular system, which helps you manage your fatigue better. I would, however, recommend that you avoid over-spinning (using a gear so easy to pedal that you hit very high cadences) as a way of dealing with the elevation gain. There are enough gearing options available to us that we can get some amazingly low gear ratios, but it’s possible to go too low. This is a timed event, after all, and doing well means going faster, not just spinning faster.
My advice to clients doing timed ultra-climb events is to test gears well in advance and find a gear that allows a high cadence target (70-80 rpm) at a tempo climbing pace; I call this our tempo gear. Once this gear is established, we set up the bike with one or two gears easier to pedal to allow for cadence of 75-90 rpm on similar climbs; I call this our spinning gear. We start all early climbing in our spinning gear to help reduce the load on the muscles early, but at some point, to enhance time, you do need to use the tempo gear and push more power.
Find Your Rhythm
Ultra climbing success has a lot to do with your ability to find your climbing rhythm. We frequently hear this term but rarely see it defined; I define climbing rhythm as the ability to synchronize your power output, cadence, and breathing into a coordinated pace or rhythm. Most people seem to think only about the cadence; here’s how you balance all three.
Power: If you have a power meter, you can put an actual number to the effort, but in this case, I simply mean how hard you’re climbing. The rhythm might be different during longer climbs to deal with changes in grade, so the effort required drives the target.
Cadence: Cadence gets matched to power/effort. For ultra events I tell all my clients to put cadence on their device screen in big, bold numbers. Once you’re going at the right power, match a cadence you previously tested in your gearing tests and stay there as best you can.
Breathing: This is the part of the equation most often neglected. As you climb and fall into your rhythm, make sure your breathing does the same. Take deep breaths to get the most oxygen possible and exhale deeply to empty your lungs. I recommend inhaling through the nose when possible and use this phrase to help my clients remember it: smell the roses, blow out the candle. A forceful nose inhale opens up the lungs and diaphragm, and a more explosive exhale through the mouth empties the lungs effectively. Thinking about your breathing in your training rides will help you develop a habit of deep breathing before you have to deep breathe to keep enough oxygen flowing in your system. This takes some mental focus, but it can really help.
Find Your Stance
Should you stand or sit more? I get this question a lot. Generally, the larger you are, the more you should sit and spin instead of stand; the more weight you need to support in standing, the higher the stress on the aerobic and cardiovascular systems. However, standing does not necessarily create a decrease in efficiency, just some different demands.
I believe it’s very important to stand sometimes, regardless of size, because it engages different muscles, changes some blood flow, and gives the sit bones a little break. I recommend my clients take a varied approach toward seating and standing, but I want it to be part of the climbing rhythm, so we develop a pattern of sitting and standing. For example, we might sit for two minutes, stand and climb for twenty to thirty seconds, then sit again for two minutes. Developing a practiced rhythm of sitting and standing helps you get the most from each.
One note: when standing, always shift into one harder gear (assuming the grade stays the same). The standing effort will always increase aerobic stress and heart rate, and you can justify the cost by using the weight to push a slightly bigger gear to get a tad more speed.
Find Your “I Won't Quit” Voice
At the end of the day, the battle of ultra climbing is won in the mind based on your ability to control (or at least ignore) that little voice in your head that eventually starts whispering, “This hurts, go slower, please stop, we are done, ouch…” All endurance athletes spend a lot of time hearing this voice, but the difference is whether or not you listen to it.
There’s a great video rolling around the Internet about a Navy study on this inner voice. According to the video, when the average person's mind says, “You’re done,” the body is actually only 40% done. I don’t usually quote Internet “studies” designed to be more motivational than scientific, but this message resonates with me. As a long-time coach, I’ve seen the mentally tougher athletes win out time and time again. I’ve also seen athletes decide to believe in themselves and, as a result, go way beyond what they thought they were capable of.
The negative whispers aren’t likely to stop. Ever. But you can fight them with a strong positive message. I tell my clients to find a message that inspires them and keep it in their mind. It can be a short mantra that represents your goal for the event, something that inspires you to overcome, or something that simply motivates you. Regardless what it is, use it every time your body says, “I’m ready to quit now.” Counter the inner negative voice with a positive message and a desire to achieve. And remember: you are only 40% done!
The ability to achieve ultra climbing challenges boils down to training and desire. A well-prepared athlete equipped with the right equipment, tools, and mindset can thrive and end up with a very rewarding experience.
We are always striving to reach higher levels of cycling performance than we’ve ever achieved before. And we all know this is easier said than done. How can we follow through on this goal? The key is to realize and accept that you’ll need to make some sacrifice and some change. If you're already training smart (or at least reasonably so), you’re ready for three areas of change that will help you smash your fitness and performance plateau.
Increase volume more than 20%
This is the hardest thing for most of us to accomplish because life tends to limit our time to train, but the investment will yield high returns. The key is to increase the volume by enough to really make a difference, and 20% is a great target. It sounds like a lot of time (and it is), but let’s break it down a little. A typical recreational rider, gran fondo participant, or category racer trains about 10-12 hours a week, which means that a 20% increase for these riders means training for roughly 12-14.5 hours a week. Most of us can actually find an extra 2-2.5 hours if we really want to.
It’s important to use the time well. I don’t recommend adding 15 minutes to every workout; to maximize your gains, add an hour to just two workouts each week.
Here are a few tips for making it count:
Increase time at threshold (or just below) by 25%
Threshold power is the single biggest contributor to cycling performance success. Don’t get me wrong; you still need to be able to power climb and surge and sprint to the finish, but building your threshold will give you the biggest possible bang for your buck. It’s also a great focus for the winter season.
Again, lets break down the numbers. Most analytical software programs can show “time in zone” analysis for power or heart rate. Take a look at your time in the zones. If you’re an average recreational cyclist, I bet it’ll be in the 10% range (if you group ride a lot, it may be a tad higher). Using the 10-12-hour total average, you’re probably working in your threshold zone about 1-1.5 hours a week. To increase that percentage by 25%, you’ll need to move your time in that zone up to 1.25-2 hours.
To get the best results, this extra time at threshold needs to be consecutive (accomplished as extended intervals). Here are some ways to get there:
Take a look at the chart below as an example of increasing time in SST zones. This athlete made a significant increase, resulting in a 30-watt improvement in threshold from the same period the year before.
Remember when you were young(er) and you went to practice? In team sports like basketball or football, you go to practices and spend upward of 70-80% of your time focused on improving your skills. Now you train, right? What’s the difference?
One of my observations from my years of coaching is that cyclists approach our sport in a unique way as we balance skills and fitness. Think about it. In team sports like basketball or football, you go to practices and spend upward of 70-80% of your time focused on improving your skills, with the rest of the time spent on building fitness. This is even more evident in skill sports like golf, where skill practice can claim as much as 90% of the focus.
Now think about your cycling training. How much time do you spend on improving skills? Sure, you could say racing a lot is skill building in itself, but that’s like saying Peyton Manning is a great quarterback because he plays in a lot of football games.
So how does a competitive cyclist practice? Well, I’ve been to very few towns that don’t offer Tuesday night racing, Wednesday night worlds, or Thursday night throw-down. The problem is that we tend to use these races as ways to improve our fitness instead of using them as “practice.” If you really want to improve your racing, you need to start practicing in these events and stop focusing on winning. Yes, you read that right: practice at the practice race and accept not trying to win it.
Once you’ve accept that mindset, here are two skills to practice in these races.
Staying Up Front
The Problem: Too many racers do not learn how to ride at the front of the peloton and thus spend a lot of energy and effort being in the wrong spot in the peloton.
The Drill: One of the things everyone new to racing (or looking to improve in racing) needs to learn is how to stay at the front of the peloton. This is both a skill and an art, and it can only be learned in “practice.”
The drill is simple: focus on staying within the first ten to twelve riders in the peloton. Don’t stress breaks and attacks; just totally focus on staying up front in that top-ten range. The best advice here is to pay close attention to position, as it is typically your focus that defeats you and drops you back. Don’t try to win the race; this drill is too much work for that, but it’s a skill that will serve you well once built.
Comments: I’m not saying you should always race at the front of the peloton, but you need the skill to be there when you need to be there.
The Problem: Too many riders execute attacks too hard and quickly find themselves alone, only to be caught in two or three minutes and then struggle to hold the group.
The Drill: This drill is focused on helping you make early, mid, and late race breaks (not necessarily the winning move). It was designed for riders who train with power, but it also translates well to perceived exertion. The goal is to learn to make moves that take a few riders with you (or drop the ones struggling) without burning up your matchbook and leaving you alone off the front. It’s simple to understand. They are laid out in specific target numbers and effort goals, you don’t need to be this exact but try to be close. Here are the steps:
1. Attack. Have a place early in the race where you plan to attack. When you get to your spot, hit it and attack! Punch it hard for 10 seconds, then settle into it and drive it at 70% of your max 1-minute power. To get away at this power, you need to select a good spot to execute.
2. Establish. Once you’ve hit it hard for the first 30 seconds as above, now settle in for 3 minutes at 80% of your max 5-minute power. Use this pace to establish the break. Some (maybe all) will jump over to you. If you can, work with a few riders, but keep this pace; don’t get sucked into going harder.
3. Stick it. Now that you’re established, settle into a pace at 90% of your max 60-minute power till you get caught. Use other riders and try to get them established at this pace. This will move you down the road at a solid pace but not at a full break pace.
Comments: This is tough to do at times, but the point is to learn to attack and run the break. Try talking to those with you and focus on executing the drill. Don’t get too wrapped up in exact numbers; the idea is to just learn to feel the process of the break. As you practice this, you’ll slowly make each step stronger as you learn the pacing and in the end it will look more like an 80/90/100% drill. Repeat this drill multiple times in a race.
Staying up front and the 70/80/90 attack are both crucial in cycling. Learning how to execute them will lead to knowing when to execute them.