Intensity workouts are like a prescription medicine. The right medicine in the right amounts improves health. The right medicine taken too frequently, or in the wrong amounts or the wrong medicine doesn’t help you and may hurt you. I’ve written two related columns:
I’m coaching Ernie. In this column I discuss first what we did right and then the mistakes we made.
Here’s what Ernie and I did correctly.
1. Select the right kind of intensity
Ernie is an endurance rider with two goals for 2021:
- Set a PR in a 100K in May
- Complete a mountainous century in June
Both of these require power. Sweet spot intensity workouts are the right prescription.
Sweet spot intensity workouts are the optimal way to increase sustained power. Increasing power results in improved cruising speed and better climbing. Sweet spot workouts can benefit almost every cyclist whether you ride for health and fitness, hammer club rides and everything in between. Sweet spot workouts don’t involve pain. In fact, if you feel pain you’re going too hard. Sweet spot workouts are a little harder than when you ride briskly.
What is the sweet spot?
Effective intensity training is the right combination of intensity workouts and sufficient recovery. The harder the intensity training, the greater the physiological overload and the larger the stimulus to improve. However, the harder the intensity training the more recovery you need before you can do another very hard workout. The sweet spot combines moderate intensity training and recovery to produce the greatest cumulative physiological overload and the most improvement.
I’ve written these two columns, which explain in detail what the sweet spot is and the benefits of sweet spot training:
2. Build your base
Although sweet spot workouts are just a little harder than a brisk endurance ride, if you jump into them too soon you risk injury. Ernie is a bit of an over-achiever – he rode over 2,000 miles from October through January. He built a big endurance base. I’ve written two related columns:
3. Gauge current fitness
I’ve coached Ernie for six years and have a pretty good idea of how fit he is in February. I have each client do a baseline trial at different points of the year to gauge how fit the rider is compared to other years. Ernie’s January time trial was a bit faster than last year and a little slower than two years ago. I have six years of weekly training records for Ernie. Before prescribing specific sweet spot workouts I looked through my records to see what workouts he’d started with in prior years. Then we experimented to see what he could handle this year.
You may not ride a time trial on the same course year after year but you can still benefit from riding progressively harder workouts to see what you can handle.
4. Progression of sweet spot workouts.
Week by week Ernie’s workouts got a little harder.
- Week ending February 7: 3 – 6 reps of [6 min in the sweet spot and 3 min easy recovery between each rep].
- Ernie did all 6 reps.
- February 14: 3 – 6 reps of [7 min SS and 4 min EZ between each rep].
- Ernie did all 6 reps.
- February 21: 3 – 6 reps of [8 min SS and 4 min EZ between each rep].
- Ernie did all 6 reps.
- February 28: 5 – 8 reps of [8 min SS and 4 min EZ between each rep].
- Ernie did all 8 reps.
- March 7 easier week: 2 – 4 reps of [6 min SS and 3 min EZ between each rep].
- Ernie did all 4 reps.
5. Progression of endurance rides
Because Ernie is training for endurance rides in addition to the sweet spot workouts he also rode progressively longer endurance rides starting with a 100K and ramping up to 100 miles.
Here are the mistakes we made
After five weeks of progress Ernie had two bad weeks with a good week in between:
- Week ending March 14: 4 – 8 reps of [8 min SS and 4 min EZ between each rep].
- Ernie only managed 4 reps. He’d done 8 reps two weeks earlier.
- March 21: Ernie had a good week and rode a century in 7:20, typical for this time of year.
- March 28: Ernie repeated his 20-minute baseline time trial.
- Ernie averaged 16.3 mph with an average heart rate of 144 bpm. Last March he averaged 17.5 mph with an average heart rate of 154 bpm.
1. Did ‘t accept a bad day
After the sweet spot workout he labored through the week of March 18 Ernie wrote, “For the first time, I couldn’t finish SS drills! I struggled from the get go. Pushed myself to do four repeats, mostly in lower part of SS zone. Tried a fifth but succumbed to my useless legs and energy.” Everyone has an off day. Ernie had an off day — he “struggled from the get go.” Because he was having an off day he should have stopped the workout and ridden home. Because he was struggling he wasn’t getting much training benefit – he was just fatiguing himself and needed more recovery days.
2. Drained his gas the tank
He also tried to do one more rep. He should always finish any intensity workout feeling like he could have done one more rep. By finishing with a little gas in the tank you’ll recover faster than if you ride until you’re out of gas.
3. Ramping up too much
Ernie was increasing both the amount of sweet spot training and the duration of his long rides. I should have programmed his workouts to ramp up either sweet spot or endurance rides.
In retrospect I also hadn’t included enough recovery. Writhing workouts is finding the balance between not enough so you don’t improve and too much, which tears you down. We overdid it. A better weekly pattern would have been alternating harder and easier weeks.
5. Potential overtraining
After the baseline time trial Ernie wrote, “Not at all good TT today. Not this slow since 2015. I know I can do better than I did. Maybe it was just a bad day. What say you?”
Not riding well occasionally is okay; however, poor performance on two recent hard rides worried me. Two bad days in three weeks wasn’t normal. Poor performance is one of the two indicators of overtraining. The other indicator is attitude – you don’t want to ride – not Ernie’s issue! Because in addition to the poor SS and poor TT, he had good endurance rides, I didn’t think he was overtrained but he was getting close. He needs a week of full recovery.
6. No full recovery week
Ernie had an easier week with less sweet spot and a shorter endurance ride but that hadn’t been enough. This week his program is four easy recovery rides of less than an hour each. It’s much easier to prevent full overtraining than to recover from overtraining. Doing well in the 100K and 100 miler depends on recovering fully so he can train effectively.
After some disappointing workouts you may be tempted to train more and harder. Wrong! You’re under-recovered so ride less.
- Anti-Aging: Benefits of Training with Intensity
- How to Incorporate Sweet Spot Training into your Workouts
- How Cyclists Should Approach Intensity Training for the Maximum Benefit
- 9 Recovery Tips for Older Cyclists
- Recovery Nutrition
My eBook Intensity Training: Using Perceived Exertion, Heart Rate and Power to Maximize Training Effectiveness is written for health and fitness riders, recreational and club riders, endurance riders and racers. I explain in much more detail how training intensities at different intensities brings about different physiological adaptations. I guide you through the process of establishing your own training zones so you can train at the proper intensities for your specific training objectives. I include sample year-round plans so you ride at the correct intensities at different times of the year. I provide over 50 structured and unstructured workouts at different intensities for different training objectives. The 40-page Intensity Training for Cyclists is $4.99.
My eBook Cycling Past 50, 60 and Beyond: Training with Intensity explains what happens to your body as you age, and the physiological benefits of riding with intensity. I give you five progressively harder levels of training and give three to five examples each of structured and unstructured workouts for each level of training, a total of almost 40 workouts. The 27-pageCycling Past 50, 60 and Beyond: Training with Intensity is $4.99.
Coach John Hughes earned coaching certifications from USA Cycling and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. John’s cycling career includes course records in the Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200-km randonnée and the Furnace Creek 508, a Race Across AMerica (RAAM) qualifier. He has ridden solo RAAM twice and is a 5-time finisher of the 1200-km Paris-Brest-Paris. He has written nearly 30 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John’s full bio.