'October…and the leaves are stripped bare…' as Bono once sang before he became unbearable. Anyway, I promised a month by month training ‘could do list’ and as we are staring autumn in its ruddy face already, now seems like an appropriate time to do October.
Ride or rest? - Like September the weather can be good enough to make riding outdoors enjoyable but, if you are working a normal pattern, the nights have drawn in to the extent it’s too dark for evening rides in natural light. The transition to mid-week turbo sessions is on the way but I would caution against going too hard, too early. We have got 6 months of this stuff to get through.
If you are motivated to ride, then ride. However, Covid-19 means we have had an unusual season. The vagaries of lockdown means you may have missed rest between periods of intense competition, the family holidays without the bike and, paradoxically, a couple of breaks due to having a cold. I’m not suggesting a cold is a good thing but it does enforce some time away from the bike. Physical and mental rest and recovery is essential so if you are feeling bored or tired, put your feet up for 2 weeks and rekindle your desire to ride – you will need it over a long winter.
Refine your targets – Hopefully, you will have an idea what you are aiming to do in 2021 by now. Nail something specific and measurable down and stick it in the calendar. It is an important part of sports psychology to help you stay on track over the winter.
Training zones – If you are using power measurement, make sure your zones are up to date and, if necessary, do an FTP test. Check your current FTP is consistently reflected in any and all of the systems or apps you use so your training is at the right intensity to be effective.
Longer endurance rides – Probably the right time to start building these in. There is a debate in endurance training about whether the most effective programs are pyramidal (building a base and refining it to a peak) or polarised (80% easy and 20% hard). Truth is, it depends who you are and what your physiology best responds to. If you are a 28 year old pro rider aim to do the Milan San Remo and a grand Tour in 2021 you are going to need a good number of 6-7 hour back to back rides. An older club cyclist will not need this, but building appropriate aerobic endurance is important if you want to be quick over anything that lasts more than a few minutes.
Zone discipline – This is important. If you are going to do a Z2 ride then try and keep it in zone as much as possible. There is a big difference between 2 hours in Z2 using your correct FTP setting and 2 hours with 40 mins in Z2 and the rest drifting in Z1. Try holding a couple of hours riding at Tempo (Z3) – it is pretty tough. Always worth checking your average Normalised Power at the end of a ride, to ensure you are pushing at the right level. If you take only one thing away from this blog, take this.
Rich Smith's turbo trainer is sulking at the back of the garage where it was unceremoniously booted last year. He has coached the Great Britain Transplant Cycling team for 10 years, is a British Cycling qualified Level 3 coach and a mature psychology student. He spent 30 years responding badly to people in authority in senior roles for Barclays, HSBC, British Waterways and National Grid Property before launching RideFast Coaching which is much more fun.
I had an idea to do a monthly article over autumn and winter to suggest some ideas for riders looking to be fit and raring to go for next spring and summer 2021. This is September’s instalment.
Under normal circumstances, September would see the gentle end of the season for riders focused on road racing and time trials. Some would be making the transition to cyclo-cross and track, others would be looking forward to a well earned rest. However, it’s safe to say this year has been anything but normal.
Hopefully, 2020 hasn’t been a complete washout and you found a way to keep entertained on the bike despite the loss of both competitive and non-competitive events. Mid July saw time trialling recommence which was a welcome relief for some of us, others have taken refuge in Zwift competitions and hammering Strava segments – whatever floats ones competitive boat.
Clearly, nobody knows what 2021 will look like but I feel the need to look forward with hope and optimism and I’m encouraging my riders to set their targets based on a normal season (with a few refinements as below). If Covid-19 restrictions play a part again targets can be adjusted in due course, but having clarity of purpose over the winter is important when training gets tough.
So, what could you be doing now to prepare for a sparkling 2021 on the bike?
Ride - The weather can be lovely in September and in the UK at least, what we Brits laughingly refer to as 'summer' has been pretty poor, so ride when you can. Usually early autumn is a time for a lack of structured training, a ‘ride when you feel like it’ period after a season of racing. This year, not so much, but if you are planning on having a structured training program over winter, bear in mind it’s four months just to get us to Christmas. Complying with a plan that will undoubtedly contain some dark nights sweating in the garage for that length of time can be a real challenge. Frankly, it can get boring, so enjoy the riding and maybe leave the rollers, turbos and Zwift alone for a while yet. Autumn is often the time for endurance rather than intensity with good reason.
Race ‘em if you’ve got ’em – There are some autumn season events out there, time trials and a few circuit races with limited number fields. My experience of these is they tend to be low pressure so if there are events you fancy doing, go do them, but maybe don't put any pressure on yourself to 'perform'. Enjoy it.
Start setting your goals for 2021 – You may have unfinished business from 2020 to refresh. As well as setting some output goals (win the Tour in July 2021 etc) it might be sensible to look at some process goals too, specifically ones that are less likely to be affected by events beyond your control. These might be power/FTP targets, segment times, ‘PBs’ on your training routes and the like. They form useful markers to guide progress and can be a good fall back position if external disruption comes in to play.
Review data – Make sure you record your metrics including speed, times, power and HR from any races, events, PBs from this season because they will help inform the levels of your training over winter. If you are using power measurement, and particularly if you’re using Smart turbo trainers and algorithm based training programs, correct FTP settings are vital. If you are trusting the machines to prescribe your training, get your FTP settings wrong and you risk not optimising your efforts or burning yourself out.
Niggles and injuries – get them sorted now and that includes your bikes and equipment. Workshops are really busy, if you have winter bike, now might be the time to do the work on it or book it in for a service.
Remember, you win your medals in the winter, you just go and collect them in the summer.
Rich Smith has coached the Great Britain Transplant Cycling team for 10 years, is a British Cycling qualified Level 3 coach and a mature psychology student. He spent 30 years responding badly to people in authority in senior roles for Barclays, HSBC, British Waterways and National Grid Property.
Last Saturday 8th August, saw the Nova Raiders put on the Shropshire 10 mile TT championship as part of the Shropshire Cycling Clubs Association (SCCA) much abridged summer series. Whilst a little earlier in the year it looked like we faced a season with no racing at all, the local clubs in conjunction with the SCCA have pulled out the stops and got some Covid secure racing happening. Kudos, once again, to the tireless organisers, marshals, time keepers and helpers – as is so often with these things, it’s the same faces putting the work in to allow others (me included) to race. Thanks.
The race was on the flat out and back D10/23r Waters Upton course, once famed as the only time trial course in the country that included a section of Paris-Roubaix style pavè. However, in an act of unbridled genius, the Highway's Authority recently resurfaced it with the blackest, smoothest tarmac you could wish for only to cover it with loose stone chippings.
It was hot and humid by the time the first rider set off a 2pm. In fact, the temperature gauge in my 1600 Ford Wicked registered 30 degrees at one point, and there was a relatively gentle breeze giving the riders a bit of help on the return leg.
With the field limited to 60 riders and preference given to local lads, it was good to see some big names in the time trial game show up, notably Dan Bigham of Ribble Weldtite Pro Cycling who smashed the course record by 1min and 11 seconds, winning the event by recording an 18:27. A truly outstanding time. I had the privilege of witnessing this at first had as I was off 3 minutes in front of him. He caught me at the halfway point and I had a vague idea I might keep him in sight for a few seconds coming off the roundabout to help psychologically pull me along. By the time I got back in to aero position and looked up, he’d gone! For my part, I recorded a middle marking 23:30 which, after a summer of ‘hello trees, hello flowers’ rides was as fast as I could go. Getting in the to the 22s on that course means well-structured training and less visits to the biscuit barrel. Just to prove it was no fluke, young Mr Bigham recorded 17:52 the day after for another 10 at Levens, a faster course sure, but, you know, damn...
It's great when the pros turn up to local events, last year Steve Cummings did a local 25 and blew the course record there by 4 mins too. I think everybody gets a buzz out of it, even when they glide past you like you’re standing still. Whilst these guys are blessed with the right genetics, that can only be levered to it’s full benefit with thoughtful training and attention to aerodynamic detail. Great to witness.
Sadly, no tea and cake at the lovely Ellerdine Village Hall (refurbished toilets though!) due to Covid restrictions but it was a top afternoon out all the same. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again, time trialling is the most accessible form of cycle sport in my view and whilst there will always be people who are faster and slower than you on the day, fundamentally, you are racing against yourself. Whilst the winner on Saturday recorded 18 mins, you can add nearly 20 minutes to that for the time of the last rider. Nobody is inconvenienced, you’re not getting in anybody’s way and, fast or slow, we all get changed under a towel in a field. Maybe give it a go?
Big thanks have to go to the Nova Raiders and the SCCA for flawless, safe organisation again – it’s wonderful to have some racing on. Full results for the Shropshire 10 are here.
Rich Smith has hit the biscuit barrel too hard over lockdown and now regrets his actions. He has coached the Great Britain Transplant Cycling team for 10 years, is a British Cycling qualified Level 3 coach and a mature psychology student. He spent 30 years responding badly to people in authority in senior roles for Barclays, HSBC, British Waterways and National Grid Property.
Yes, UCI stuff like the Strada Bianchi and the Tour of Poland are back and there may even be, say it quietly, a Tour de France in 2020, but more relevantly for us mortals, that stalwart of the British club scene, the time trial is back! In England at least, I have riders in Scotland who are waiting with bated breath to see what Nicola has to say on the subject and we keep our fingers firmly crossed.
Only a few weeks ago it looked like we were facing a season with no grass roots competitive racing at all and, although it’s not of much consolation to my clients who’s focus is on sportives or road racing, it represents a chink of light at the end of the tunnel.
In my patch, we’re fortunate to have a rich cycling club scene and, with Cycling Time Trials lot on the ball, when the announcement was made on Monday 12th July, my club were sufficiently prepared to launch the first ‘10’ on the following Wednesday. There is a detailed risk assessment to ensure Covid safety, the practical upshot of which is pre-registration, social distancing, no held starts and no hanging around at the start of the end of the event. Remembering to bring a pen and being prepared to contort yourself to pin your own number on is a small price to pay. Frankly, I've felt a lot safer at the time trials I've done this year than I have in a supermarket. Although, it's fair to say that might be true with or without Covid-19...
It’s been interesting to see the times for those who’ve followed a training program over lockdown, most of them are flying. Their feedback to me has been the accountability a coach brings to the process means, even in the absence of definite dates in the racing calendar, they’ve been able to keep their training on track. I’ve struggled with that personally – I’ve got 'me' holding 'me' to account and that doesn’t always work so great! It's not that coaches are generally either too tough or too easy on themselves. it's just hard to be objective with your own data. Objective analysis is an absolutely critical part of the coaching process.
I had two principal concerns about the possibility of no racing this season for my riders. First, the prospect of a coming winter with no racing or events under our belts was daunting. Post-Christmas until the start of the season is critical training time, much of it done in a combination of lousy weather and dark nights on the turbo in the UK. Going straight in to that following a blank season would be physiologically and psychologically tough.
Secondly, for some older riders (me included) missing a complete season means missing race level efforts, those ones where you’re turning yourself inside out partly because you’ve got a number on your back and partly because somebody has a stopwatch on you. Often, this is unrepeatable in training. In my mind you need both the effort and the data. The chewing the handlebars stuff is hard won and it’s important to know it’s still there and helps to set some parameters for the next season.
Irrespective of our form or times, I think most of us who time trial are just grateful for something, anything, this year. Even dyed in the wool roadies are showing up - resentfully obviously, but they are showing up. Time trialling remains the most accessible cycle sport so if your club are doing some, get stuck in. You don’t have to be an aero-geek or super fit to get something out of a time trial as ultimately you're racing against yourself, you just need a bike and fiver. Oh, and your own pen.
Rich Smith has hit the biscuit barrel too hard over lockdown and now regrets his actions. He has coached the GB Transplant Cycling team for 10 years, is a British Cycling qualified Level 3 coach and a mature psychology student. He spent 30 years responding badly to people in authority in senior roles for Barclays, HSBC, British Waterways and National Grid Property.
The result of the Jess Varnish employment tribunal appeal prompted me to reflect on an interview I had with British Cycling more than 10 years ago. It was for Program Manager for the 2012 Olympics. I did not get the job and although I was disappointed at the time, it now feels like I may have dodged a high performance bullet.
One memorable question I was asked was ‘what do you think business can bring to sport?’ Coming from a project management type background my answer consisted in part with the standard ‘on budget, on time, to quality’ mantra along with some with process improvement, Six Sigma lean process stuff. I probably even meant it at the time. Asked the same question now I would answer it differently.
Over the last 20 years or so, the application of business ethos to sport has seen it devalued to a numbers game without bringing anything that could be seen as ethical best practice and accountability. Seemingly passionless, much elite sport performance looks like a rather dry box ticking exercise characterised by ‘delivering the plan’. The injection of huge sums of money by either commercial sponsors or lottery funding has not led to sport learning anything from business, it has just become a business. And, if you judge it by results alone, a successful one at that. More medals, more champions, more success, more world records. For National Governing Bodies, your elite runners, players or riders must win at the Olympics or World Championships or funding is withdrawn and the senior management team lose their lucrative salaries. Ostensibly the sport in question will lose its funding too but as little makes its way to the grass roots, how much that matters is questionable.
The fall out in terms of collateral damage to those without a key to the executive bathroom – the administrators, coaches, athletes and even volunteers is significant. Unfortunately, some international and national governing bodies, or more accurately some of the people who occupy positions of influence in them, seem largely unburdened by rules of ethics, professional standards or law that governs behaviour in business. Put large sums of money in to an organisation without adequate accountability but with a clear goal to win - or else - and it is a short step to win at any cost and all that entails.
It’s not just the questionable stuff that organisers of sport at national or international level are involved in – the bungs, ‘gifts’, accusations of abuse, bullying and dubious substances – it’s what is considered to be above board that indicates how dysfunctional these organisation are and raises serious questions about how suitable some people are for the influential roles they hold. For example, in what world is it acceptable to fly members of staff overseas to pick up performance enhancing drugs for a doctor (yes a doctor, a qualified medic employed by the governing body) to inject a runner in a hotel room a day before the London Marathon? If this is considered unremarkable, keeping a few testosterone patches in a cupboard is not much of a stretch.
Other than the embarrassing enrichment of an elite cadre of plausible sounding chancers, the more sinister impact of this ‘businessification’ of sport is the creation a legacy of mentally and physically damaged participants. Sold a dream of a career in sport they become nothing more than a unit of resource that complies with program requirements and hits the KPIs or gets unceremoniously dumped. Or prematurely injured. Or offered inhalers when they do not have asthma. Or burned out in their 20s. Or bullied and abused to the point of mental and physical exhaustion. You can see this unravelling in the media now with gymnastics. It is beginning to look like elite sporting performance can only be delivered with a level of inhumane coercion and control. Surely, this cannot be what sport, at any level, is about?
Fundamentally, sport is an escape from the humdrum of process, interminable meetings and eating the corporate sandwich. it should be fun, exciting, unpredictable and contain moments of joyous surprise. It is a lot more than just another day at the office.
Asked the same question again, I would say sport at an organisation level needs to adopt the accountability, transparency and ethical codes the best businesses aspire to because it must not be allowed to facilitate a structure that licences abuse of any kind. If that comes at the sacrifice of success judged by medals, so be it.
A recent comment from a rider got me thinking. I was reviewing the data from one of her sweetspot sessions and I wrote ‘all in parameters, good shaped HR curve’ in the Post Activity Review box helpfully provided by Training Peaks . ‘Great!’ she said, ‘What does that mean…?’
Fair comment, I’d slipped in to using unhelpful jargon and worse still. I’d slipped in to writing notes in training records as 'feedback' that were more use to me than her. Bad coach, bbbbaaadddd coach. Lesson learned, but it did remind me to check my use of language and force me to explain what the jargon meant to my bemused rider. It also prompted me to reflect on just how much effective use of data has become vital in my coaching practice.
If you’re in the cycling matrix – by which I mean using GPS enabled data recording including power and heart rate measurement - and you regularly upload it to an App (Strava, Garmin Connect, Training Peaks) you’ll be familiar with the colourful blocks, graphs, maps and pictures produced. Whether you bother looking at them or not is another matter, but the the App will collate your data and try to turn it in to digestible performance information. Some of it is useful, some of it less so.
For me as a coach, the most powerful performance metrics are power, heart rate (HR) and time. For our purposes HR can be defined as an input measure (an indicator of how hard you’re trying), power as an output (the product of your efforts) and time is that thing Einstein talked about although we can define it here as three 8 minute efforts with 4 minutes rest in between. Phew.
In the diagram above, the boxes describe the session, the blue line is power and the red line is HR. Every rider is different but here you can see power remains fairly constant for the efforts and HR arcs upwards gently, but progressively more so, for each block. This indicates increasing effort is required to maintain consistent power. A good session completed within the prescribed parameters.
Sweetspot efforts tend to be in multiples of 8, 10, 12 or 20 mins at 88 – 93% of FTP with varying rest in between dependent upon what effect you’re trying to create. They mimic volume riding without all that pesky getting dressed up and going outside for hours on end. Very generally, longer sweetspots tend to work best at the end of a block of training maybe just before an FTP test, shorter less stressful ones are better soon after an FTP increase to see if the power/HR correlation makes sense.
Over a period, the delta between the HR and power curve alters as fitness changes. This is true of all sessions but sweetspots are useful because of the relatively long length or the effort giving time for HR to respond and stabilise. Increases in fitness are often indicated by the HR curve flattening with power remaining constant, or power increases over zone (or both if you’ve left it too long to boost the FTP settings). Steeper HR increases or drops below the power zone indicate the session is maybe too hard if that’s not what was intended. This can indicate an adjustment to the sequence or intensity/duration of training sessions is needed to ensure fitness matches the planned goals.
Over a period of a few weeks, a data trend for a rider develops meaning better targeting and sequencing of sessions during any week to reflect the stress of a previous week and allow for appropriate recovery or aim to peak for a forthcoming event. The evaluation of data at this level allows fine adjustments to sessions to ensure progress is being made without constant FTP testing which is psychologically and physiologically stressful and can be a rather blunt and overused tool.
So what does this mean for you as a rider? Your data is powerful stuff, it is ammunition to make you progressively stronger and faster so...
Used effectively, training data will help protect you from injury and over training and give you empirical evidence your fitness is improving or, if it isn’t, what needs to be changed to bring it on track. Fundamentally, accurate interpretation of your data means productive use of your time to achieve maximum training benefit and bigger improvements in fitness than you could hope to get without it.
With the rise of Big Data and Artificial Intelligence, could you let the matrix do this for you – avoiding inconvenience of finding, and paying, a coach?. Algorithms are learning fast but they don't cut it, yet, although as AI becomes more sophisticated and we upload more human biometric data, it is likely it will become better at interpreting human behaviour and responses over time. I guess how scary this is depends on whether you think of Brave New World as a good idea or not. However, the machines aren't there yet and, as much as it irked me at the time, I was gratified to see my Garmin 520 once telling me I needed 42 hours rest in the middle of a 10 mile TT. Even if the advice was good, I’d seriously question the machines message management technique.
Rich Smith likes machines and is a fan of the first two Terminator films. He thinks the others were, frankly, rubbish. He has coached the GB Transplant Cycling team for 10 years, is a British Cycling qualified Level 3 coach and a mature psychology student. He spent 30 years responding badly to people in authority in senior roles for Barclays, HSBC, British Waterways and National Grid Property and will probably help the robots out when the time comes.
Good news, subject to stringent Covid-19 safe risk assessments it looks like local time trials and some socially distanced club activities can recommence from mid-July in England. It feels like positive progress, right? If your club has both the organisational minerals to comply with the rules and regulations and a bucket of hot and soapy to wash numbers in, it’s time to consider re-engaging.
If you had a good winter’s training but you’ve been poling around on your road bike for the last few months, don’t put too much pressure on yourself to return to race fitness, smash out PBs or bust Strava segments immediately. However, there are a few things you can do both psychologically and physiologically that might help you along the way
Get specific – spend some time, at power, in aero position on the TT bike if you’re going to race time trials. It takes a little time to get comfortable and put power down in aero position and it you’ve been doing 'hello trees, hello flowers' rides for a while, there’s likely to be a period of transition. There are some specific drills you can do in relatively little time that will help – see me after class.
Manage your expectations, but race - don’t stress about hitting last years times or that you’ve put some weight on, just pin a sanitised number on and get stuck in. Very few riders can train as hard as they race and missing a whole season’s worth of racing is going to make next winter interminable and next season harder. Don't worry about the results or times, just focus on the process.
Zwift is different – turbos are a great training aid but don’t expect all your efforts to directly translate to racing or training on the road. Bikes don’t move on turbo trainers whereas resistance tends to be constant (it’s what makes them so great). You might find your power up (maybe all that fresh air?) but your watts/per kg down (because fibbing about your weight has no effect outside of the matrix?).
Gather data – track and record your race or training data even if you wince a bit when looking at your power curve, times or grindy cadence. It will benchmark your current fitness (whatever that might be) and you can use it to guide your training zones. Your first race back will give you a good indication at where your intervals should be set. If you do get stuck in, it would be reasonable to expect some fairly rapid progress from Plateau Covid back towards Mt Fitness. Sitting at home worrying about not being fit enough to race is not going to help.
Comply - have some fun but please comply rigorously with the guidance on how to engage safely with an event. Bear in mind drivers won’t be used to seeing groups of riders or people racing for a while. They are scared and anxious which means they are liable to do more dumb shit than normal. Ride defensively with your head up. Thank the organisers and give them a virtual hug because they will have gone above and beyond to get some racing and/or club activities on this year.
PS. Remember your flashing light and a pen!
Rich Smith has had some weird diseases and doesn't want any more so he washes his hands regularly. He has coached the GB Transplant Cycling team for 10 years, is a British Cycling qualified Level 3 coach and a mature psychology student. He spent 30 years responding badly to people in authority in senior roles for Barclays, HSBC, British Waterways and National Grid Property.
During lockdown, whilst many of us are finding we have spare time, we are also coping with the duel psychological challenges of lockdown and the absence of goals or target events. It’s a perfect, if very unusual, storm and looking at the data coming back from my riders, I’m finding myself telling them to rest more.
Tricky stuff. Advising an endurance athlete to rest when they have spare time is like nailing jelly to the ceiling.
...Recovery is not something you do after training, it is training...
To explain why rest is important, it’s worth briefly referencing the Principles of Conditioning – those fundamental tenets of how training works, the main elements being.
You overload your system by training with a combination of volume and intensity and, with the right amount of recovery, your body adapts to cope with increased demands.
Recovery sits in the middle of these three pillars. It's not something you do after training, it is training.
Recovery can be framed as anything from a few seconds between sprint intervals to 6 weeks off after the Tour or pretty much anything in between, but it’s important to understand that recovery is an integral part of the training process, not an adjunct to it.
But we are in the strangest of strange times right now, as athletes and coaches we have the unprecedented challenge of balancing uniquely peculiar circumstances against the physiological and psychological risks of under-recovery. It’s natural to want ride if we have the time, we’re cyclists, we enjoy riding. Plus, it gets us out of the house in the fresh air and exercise gives us a mental boost – simply, it makes us feel better. So, the sun is shining, we extend our 1 hour session to 2 hours, do a 60 min ‘recovery’ ride a couple of times a week, throw in some ‘hello trees, hello flowers’ rides to control weight. Not unnatural things to do in the circumstances.
All of these are probably necessary, perhaps even essential, in these bizarre times and frankly, none of them are likely to do any harm at all. Staying motivated to ride and maintaining a level of fitness is important, but don’t forget to build in some recovery time as an integral part of your training – it is essential for your physical and psychological well-being.
A few things to think about if you’ve found yourself doing a lot more steady miles recently.
Rich Smith knows loads about resting having recently slept through a three and a half hour showing Robert de Niro's 'The Irishman'. Apparently, a lucky escape on his part. He has coached the GB Transplant Cycling team for 10 years, is a British Cycling qualified Level 3 coach and a very mature psychology student. Before upsetting film buffs, he spent 30 years upsetting people in senior roles for Barclays, HSBC, British Waterways and National Grid Property.
We rely hugely on the power of science to make judgements. We like facts, proven answers, evidence from randomised controlled studies, experiments, peer reviewed research and the like. Further, as cyclists we love data. We have our power meters and heart rate monitors: we measure metrics on cadence, speed, drag coefficients and rolling resistance and share it, ad nauseum, on social media. You’d think by now physiologists, sports doctors and sports scientists would have combined all the data with all the science and come up with a simple answer to the ultimate question: how do I ride faster?
Despite there being no evident shortage of sports scientists, so far, nothing, nada, stony silence. Well, I suppose that’s not entirely true, a few sports doctors have come up with an answer. Some of those guys are now in prison and some more should be because the simple answer is taking performance enhancing drugs. However, the fact remains no single, ubiquitous, optimal and legal training plan, regime or session has been identified whose implementation will make you the best you can be.
The reason for this is the ultimate answer can only be unlocked if the ultimate question is asked. To formulate the question with any hope of getting a cogent answer, you're gonna have to be specific. How fast do you want to ride? How fast are you now? When do you want to ride faster, over what distance and in what environment? How much time have you got to train? How old are you? What do you weigh? How much money have you got? Only when you’ve answered these questions can the truth be revelled!
Assuming you answered these and many other why, how, where, when questions, the ultimate answer is..…wait for it…... It depends! I know you want to punch me in face now but bear with me.
'...punch me right in the face...'
'It depends’ because there are limits to how much faster or fitter you can get. And, in truth, it doesn't matter a jot how much money you've got. So, I figure if sports science can't give us a simple answer, the least it can do is explain why not.
A 1977 study by Bill Hickson took 8 college athletes and trained them over 10 weeks for 6 days per week using a series of 2 minute on, 2 minute off bike intervals at Z5 (VO2 max) and a 40 min flat out run on alternate days. All the subjects showed a huge 44% average linear increase in fitness over the test period.
By way of contrast, a later 1999 study (Bouchard et al) looked at 500 college students and over a period of 20 weeks and prescribed them a moderately intense exercise regime of 3 training sessions per week of 30-50 mins duration of aerobic exercise at 55 -75% of VO2 max. After collating the results, it showed the average increase in fitness was in the order 10-15% measured by a VO2 max test.
So, the first part of the ultimate answer is, by following a structured training plan you could get something between a 10% – 44% increase in fitness depending on how long you’re doing it for and how brutal it is. If you're following a plan, you’re likely to be looking at a 10% improvement. Arguably if you armed yourself with a little knowledge, you could implement this yourself without the help of a coach. If your coach is prescribing you the plan i.e. one tailored to you, then over time, you should be looking to do a good bit better than 10% otherwise you’re probably wasting your money. But there are limits. And the reasons behind the unsatisfyingly vague ‘it depends’ answer about how much you will gain will be affected by...
Your starting point: If you’re already super fit, the right coach might find you that extra fraction and that may be the difference between winning a championship or finishing 4th. With limited ‘headroom’ to improve, you’re not going to find anything like a 44% physiological gain but the difference between winning a medal or just missing the podium may well be down to psychological, technical and tactical improvements. Conversely, if you’re starting from scratch or a low base, you might find more than 50% over time. To put that into context, for a normal sized bloke on an aero bike, a 10% increase in FTP from 240w to 264w could make you a sub 23 mins 10 mile time trialist after previously being in the 25 minute range. A 44% increase to an FTP of 346w would put you in the top 2% of male cyclists, maybe close to the professional ranks.
Your resilience: The Hickson study comes with a massive caveat. The results are much quoted as an example of the effect training can have but, after showing such startling increases in fitness, at the end of program the 8 candidates were asked if they would like to continue. They all said no. The training was physiologically and psychologically unsustainable. So, yeah, maybe we could boost your FTP significantly in 8 weeks but the risk is you’d never get on a bike again. A good training plan has to be sustainable and fit around your life.
'...a good training plan has to be sustainable. Now stop punching me in the face...'
Your biology: Your age, resources in terms of time and equipment, nutrition, sleep, your sporting and injury history etc are all going to have an impact on your response to training. Physiological studies tend to be carried out on young men, often college athletes from a higher socioeconomic group so health and nutrition tend to good. The data for other demographic groups is poor with large scale studies on women being a notable omission. Whilst there is no evidence to suggest training responses are different in percentage increase terms, there isn't any to suggest they are the same either. Every individual is, well, individual and a training plan needs to be tailored to your needs, not those of a well fed 22 year old American student athlete. Unless of course...
Your genetics: The genetic component and heritability of physiology is often overstated but it exists. The Bouchard study was primarily aimed at establishing heritability as it used family groups to see if there was a genetic component to fitness. There is, something in the order of 30-40%. Interestingly, 1% (5 out of the 500) of the group turned out to be what are known as ‘high responders’. These guys showed huge increases in fitness, well over the 44% seen in the Hickson study.
Turning momentarily to this tiny group of the genetically blessed, Louis Passfield, a highly respected physiologist who worked with British Cycling from the 1990s and up to the Beijing Olympics studied the history of the hour record from Merckx up to Boardman. He calculated riders capable of holding the record were 250% fitter than your normal geezer. In short, in order to hold 460w for 60 minutes you must be within the 1% band of genetic outliers Bouchard identified. Without it, even with the best training plan in the world, you’re never going to get anywhere near it. Try it if you like…
Your goals: Riders rarely have a goal of just increasing fitness from x to y. It’s all about getting faster over a certain distance, completing an endurance event, winning a race or just being more comfortable on the bike. This is why a good coach can help you get what you want out of your cycling. This relies on the thoughtful, well judged implementation of physiological knowledge appropriate to you. Physiological knowledge on its own is not enough. Your coach should be the difference between a plan for anybody and the plan for you. The studies referred to use a plan – everybody followed the same exercise prescription. A coach should be helping you to define one that is tailored to you and adjusts dependant on your response to it. And remember, there are at least three other dimensions to your cycling – technical, tactical and psychological. Physiology is not everything, you need to address all these equally critical elements to ride faster.
As a coach, my interest is in helping you get the most out of your cycling irrespective of your age, sex, sporting history or genetics. I hope providing some context around why answering the ultimate question is more difficult than it seems might help when you think about the best way to take your training forwards.
Rich Smith is expecting a lot of shit for writing this from current and aspiring sport scientists. But his shoulders are provenly un-aero. He has coached the GB Transplant Cycling team for 10 years, is a British Cycling qualified Level 3 coach and a very mature psychology student. Before upsetting sports scientists, he spent 30 years upsetting people in senior roles for Barclays, HSBC, British Waterways and National Grid Property.
The ramblings of a cycling coach...