By Martin Sigrist
Takeaway: Stacking is the first new universal approach towards bike training since power based training and endurance training since the advent of HR monitors. Its principles apply also to other sports. This article presents an example of a stacking template, a practical example of how to apply it in practice to cycling. Stacking is a structured way to accomplish a paradigm shift in terms of the purpose of a training session or workout.
Improving physiology remains at a workout’s heart but extra elements are stacked on top of it so that intent changes from just one primary focus to a 360 degree complete approach aiming to improve all aspects related to end goal performance. Elements like perishable skills, mindset, efficiency, nutrition and more. These aspects are improved but as important is that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
For example, stacking helps bring about the self-belief essential to realizing ambition by encouraging practice of various things, some of which may work, others not and rehearsal. The elements act as force multipliers that provide a positive feedback loop to what remains at the center: improving physiology. Thus, stacking can help interval sessions to be done at higher intensity with higher quality and endurance workouts for longer duration at higher power.
Stacking is, as far as I am aware at least, the first new universal approach to cycle training since power based training. (“Universal” because other new approaches tend to be linked to a specific vendor, or device, or app or only applies at the level of an individual. Stacking can be done, indeed it should be done by everyone who is training for reasons of specific end goal or general fitness reasons.)
The most important aspect of stacking is its intent.
Stacking’s aim is to cause a change in mindset, a paradigm shift in terms of the purpose of training sessions or workouts.
Usually, workouts are first and foremost and all about improving physiology. In cycling that means changes to the power duration curve, increasing the watts for a given time period and/or increasing the time that a given amount of watts can be maintained. There is more depth and detail than this of course but still most training plans spend most of their time dealing with how to change the metabolism of muscle cells. Other aspects needed to achieve an ambition are not ignored but they tend to be secondary in terms of importance, sometimes tacked on as extras, sometimes treated as something done on an easy day, sometimes taken out of a training context altogether and done in a silo in an environment utterly different from riding a bike.
There is, typically, little structure to these extra elements. Quality and improvements are not tracked with anything close to the level of detail that power is. Some elements can even be seen as non-essential or even as a negative distraction from the all important goal of changing a body’s biochemistry.
Stacking is different. Improving physiology remains, it is the essential element that sits at the center of each workout, determining the timing of when workouts happen and their nature when they are done.
But it doesn’t stop there. The principle of stacking adds layers to this in structured manner — layers that address all aspects of performance, such as skills, preparing for the mental challenges that lie ahead and ensuring that the essential nuts and bolts that have to be right on the day are right on the day.
Through this process everything required for optimal performance is within scope and a target for improvement. Training intent changes from a narrow focus to a 360 degree view. This is not an optional extra. It should happen each and every time you get on a bike for the reason of trying to become better.
In a workout you can improve 10 things that will make you better instead of 1. So productivity improves. But so does quality, because through stacking the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts. The extra layers act as force multipliers, improving your efficiency for example means that nutrition demands are reduced. Reinforcing perishable skills such as posture and pedaling improves efficiency and so, in turn, reduce nutrition demands.
There is a force multiplying effect that will have a positive feedback effect on the core workout goal: improving physiology. Improved efficiency can reduce fatigue so power can be sustained for longer. A mind hack that increases the tolerance of pain will result in higher power at high intensities which can directly result in improvements of key physiological indicators such as FTP and VO2max.
Perhaps most importantly what this approach provides is self-belief. Because the intent is focused, it is targeted at whatever stands in the way between your current state and realizing an ambition. Workouts change from being a necessary chore in order to accomplish a goal to becoming part of the goal themselves. They are used as an opportunity to rehearse, to try out things to see what works for you as an individual and what doesn’t, they are used to build good habits so that they become automatic, helping you get through when times get tough. Mishaps and misadventures are avoided through practice and repetition when training.
Training, hopefully, becomes more enjoyable because it is not just about staring at a watts number and a timer but also more focussed because the end reason for your hard work is always in sight. As a result workout targets can be easier to achieve and so you end up building fitness, belief and a valuable toolbox of skills that will help ensure things go well and be available when in times of bad fortune or otherwise when you need to dig deep.
While at first sight what follows might appear to be a long checklist of stuff to do, please do not think this or be put off. In practice and with practice it becomes second nature. Introductions and theory can often be off putting. Once done though the next couple of articles will give some examples of how the stacking template works in practice which should make the idea clearer.
Also while it may seem like overkill and overhead it is neither. Most pro cyclists will be stacking their workouts, partly because that is what makes them pros in the first place (so they have the innate mental skills for example) , partly because they have the luxury of training in terms of location and hours available that naturally lends itself to rehearsal and reinforcing perishable skills.
However even pros fail and when they do it is often due to them missing essential elements that stacking ensures are done and done properly. Three examples that have scuppered the hopes of even would be GC contenders are the failure to eat and drink regularly, poor efficiency on a TT bike and poor road handling skills. For an amateur rider, without the time, knowledge and support network of a pro stacking is even more essential.
So it’s not overkill. And it’s not an overhead. To the contrary it is a very effective and efficient investment in term of time. It only takes a couple of minutes of forethought and as a payback you get far more done during a workout and there is far less chance of a years effort and expense being wasted due to lack of preparedness.
I have used this approach all my training life. Now the idea of not using it would fill me with dread. Training would just be so boring and purposeless. I love training and look forward to every session, even the hard ones. It’s a learning process that keeps me coming back for more and keeps me getting better not worse with each passing year.
Stacking works hand in hand with the process of “Informed Planning” which should provide you with an understanding of the demands that the challenges you plan to tackle and your strengths and weaknesses in terms of your capacity to deal with them. Stacking offers the opportunity to consolidate your strengths and try to improve your weaknesses every time you train. It’s especially important to be honest with yourself about those weaknesses and spend focussed time on them. Stacking helps with this by allowing you to try various approaches and improve little by little over time.
Listed below, then, are the elements that every training session should, at least, consider with a view to working on in some way or other. They are ordered with some view of priority but only in the sense that one may lead naturally to give ideas as to the next.
Each will then be described in a little detail. As already mentioned, future articles will go into more depth and give some real life examples of how they work and what they might be able to do for you.
- Boost Physiology
- Rehearse Reality
- Inspire Combativity
- Improve Efficiency
- Tackle Imaginary Enemies
- Test Mind Hacks
- Reinforce Perishable Skills
- Maintain Awareness
- Build Positive Habits
- Ingrain Nutrition/Hydration
- Practice Event Specifics
1. Boost Physiology
This is your wattage or other physiology related target for the workout. This comes first because the backbone of a training plan is built around boosting physiology so that it adapts to meet the requirements of the challenges that will fulfil an ambition.
Stacking doesn’t change this. However, while most training plans end here this is just the beginning. Stacking adds value to every training session by aspiring to do more than just use them to make you more physically fit.
One thing the stacking mindset adds to this step is knowing exactly why you are doing the workout. A training plan should not be followed blindly just doing a VO2max or LSD (long slow distance) workout because a book or app told you to. It really is worth spending a bit of time understanding what effect a workout will have on your body. It seems counterintuitive for example that riding slowly for hours will help you ride faster when you need to. But it will. If you understand why you may well be more motivated to do what can be a “boring” ride and do it with a level of quality that will make each minute in the saddle far more worthwhile.
2. Rehearse Reality
This element adds purpose to a workout. All that is required is to put the physiological objective in the context of a real world challenge. So instead of doing intervals to hit watts targets imagine you are doing intervals to get to the top of a short hill first, establish a breakaway or win a long uphill sprint. Long sustained efforts may be an upcoming time trial or mountain climb.
Of all the mental techniques known to improve performance visualisation is recognised as one of the most effective. This step reminds you to do it and practicing it may not make you perfect but it will most likely make you better.
3. Inspire Combativity
Competition brings out the best in most of us. This element aims to take something from rehearsing reality and focus on it to try to raise performance levels. You may not get to 100% of what you will do in the real thing but if you can improve just 1% from what you would otherwise have done by just training it will make a significant difference.
This is also an opportunity for self awareness and understanding what exactly makes you perform at your best. It will also help determine what training environment works best for you as an individual.
So if you thrive on beating others head to head try to train with others and beat them . If you can’t do this then visualize beating them or try to beat a virtual partner instead. If fear of failure is what drives you then try setting your watts display so it reads low (it really works!). If you like to be in control and follow a plan try using the many aids that help with pacing to set Strava or similar personal bests.
4. Improve Efficiency
Improved physiology is only part of what is needed to become better. It simply allows more energy production. Efficiency is all about using energy to the best advantage.
There are two types, physical and metabolic.
Physical efficiency is about reducing waste that may result due to air resistance and poor motor skills.
Metabolic efficiency is all about reducing the amount of carbohydrates that are required for fuel.
How important each of these is depends on your ambition. This will in turn determine how exactly you aim to improve your efficiency while training.
However one thing is for sure. If you fail to address this important determinant of success you will never reach your potential. So it must be part of any truly comprehensive training plan and ideally part of every workout in some form or other.
5. Tackle Imaginary Enemies
Pain, fatigue, monotony, discomfort, malnutrition, fear, bad luck and hopelessness, as discussed previously, are the real enemies that most will have to conquer even if they exist only in our imaginations.
Their relative scale and importance will depend on you and the nature of the challenges you face.
Every workout should aim to practice beating at least one of these. Which exactly will depend on the details of the previous steps. This element involves making this choice.
6. Test Mind Hacks
Imaginary enemies exist in the mind so need to be fought in the mind. Mind hacks come in many shapes and sizes, they can be one of the most effective ways to come out on top in the battle with yourself.
Workouts provide an invaluable opportunity to test these and find out what suits you best. There is overlap here with combativity and like combativity if it works for you that’s fine. Some find just smiling all the time can get through almost anything, others prefer to cuss and swear. Experiment when training, don’t get to the big day and have nothing in your toolkit.
7. Reinforce Perishable Skills
Perishable skills are those which need constant reinforcement and attention. Otherwise they will degrade.
Cycling has four of these: pedaling, breathing, posture and road skills.
Every training session should aim to focus on one of these and ensure it is being done correctly with good form.
Perishable skills also serve another purpose. One of the most effective mind hacks is to concentrate attention on them to the exclusion of all else. This by itself can see off many imaginary enemies and also ensure that efficiency is maintained over the full course of an event.
8. Maintain Awareness
Awareness could be the fifth perishable skill. However it is so important that it needs to be kept separate and be an intrinsic part of every ride.
Awareness — or mindfulness — is a combination of two things.
First it is about being in the moment. Riding a bike is among the simplest of sports. All that ever really matters most of the time is that you turn a pedal through half a revolution as hard as is appropriate for the situation, and then repeat. If you can do this successfully for as long as you need to then, provided you have decent road skills, are efficient, don’t mess things up and are not unlucky, then you will be successful. The challenge is that even in a short event there are an awful lot of pedal strokes so maintaining focus is, just by itself, a challenge. Being in the moment is a way to sustain quality over time.
Second, awareness is like a modern car’s engine management systems. There should constant systems checks that ensure everything is functioning correctly. It’s about prevention and early intervention rather than letting a small problem become a showstopper. This is a skill that needs practice. With practice this awareness can become a background task so you do all the important things as second nature and when something goes awry you notice almost without thinking.
9. Build Positive Habits
This element is more of an outcome of those before it. The idea is that during training you build a set of habits that mean many of the essentials to success become automatic, done without thinking, with mind hacks and other ways to beat the various imaginary enemies built in.
An example might be keeping a consistent effort going up a long climb. A climbing habit could include the perishable skills of maintaining good pedaling form and breathing act like a metronome to keep a steady tempo while in a posture that is easy to maintain, comfortable and efficient. Also intuitively keeping power in a spot that feels the ideal balance between hard enough to make good progress but not so hard that it can’t be maintained. You eat up the miles by making a one hour digestible by turning it into a 12 five minute efforts each with a small self reward at the end to keep spirits high.
So when you hit the bottom of an epic climb its actually nothing special. Your climbing habit switches in and you know you will have no problems getting to the top.
10. Ingrain Nutrition/Hydration
Nutrition and hydration are so important that they need a special place in terms of positive habits. Even world class pros can get this wrong and when they or anyone forgets to eat or drink the results can be catastrophic.
Also your digestive system is no different from other parts of the body that adapt through training. If a key determinant of success is how many grams of carbohydrate you can comfortably digest in an hour then it training plan should include a method to first baseline then increase this value. This by itself may be the difference between success and failure.
It is good practice to use every training session to ingrain good nutrition and hydration habits. This doesn’t mean overeating. In fact training can be used as a way to find out just how much food you as an individual need to hold a given effort level.
But the end outcome must be the self knowledge of what will sustain you through a challenge and the disciplined habits that ensure that in the heat of an event you don’t run short on fuel or get thirsty.
11. Practice Event Specifics
Last but by no means least is preparing for event specific demands. These can be hugely varied from environment factors like weather, through specialised equipment, through the need to get up in the middle of the night for a race that starts at dawn.
The first rule of training is specificity and it applies more than ever here. I’ve taken part in many events and it never ceases to surprise me how many people will spend a year preparing and a small fortune to take part then set off with a saddle they are not used to or gears that are suited for the roads at home but not for those where the race is actually taking place.
This element also loops back to the second, “Rehearsing Reality.” It’s more likely that you will push yourself hard during training if you imagine you are riding in your target event and feel the purpose of your hard work is to make success more likely. It’s also a lot more fun imagining you are riding in the sun instead of feeling put off by the reality of a cold, wet day or a long indoor turbo session.
That’s the end of the list. It is not meant to be necessarily exhaustive or set in stone. People vary and so this template might just be a starting point on which to build something that works for you.
I am convinced, though, that any stacking approach is better than no stacking. It’s just common sense that if you can get more stuff done, especially if pressed for time, during a workout then just do it. Especially if it makes training more fun, means your get fitter faster and means you look forward to a challenge with belief because you know you are well prepared.
Now among the world’s fittest sexagenarians Martin Sigrist started riding on doctor’s orders in 2005 and had to push his bike up his first hill. Next year he soloed the Tour de France. He has since experienced every form of road cycling from criterium to ultra endurance. His ongoing mission is to use the latest in science and technology to fight a, so far successful, battle against Father Time.