All of my clients are middle age or older, have families, jobs and other interests besides cycling. Some just want to stay fit, while others race or train for specific organized events and tours. In other words, they’re typical roadies. They hire me because they want to be better roadies and want to be smart about how to become better. They don’t have time to spare and they don’t want to make mistakes that will set them back, or even worse, ruin a season.
Every one of my clients trains by intensity! Some use perceived exertion, some use heart rate and some use power. Each approach works!
The human body’s power system that moves the bike down the road is complicated — that’s part of why coaching is interesting. The body burns two different fuels: fat and glucose. It can burn the glucose two different ways: with enough oxygen for complete combustion and without enough oxygen. The body also has three different types of muscle fibers: slow-twitch, fast-twitch IIa and fast-twitch IIb.
Given the complexity of the body, varying the intensity is the optimal way to train!
My client Bill just turned the big 5-0, and wants to ride his first metric century (62.5 mi.). Barb raced in her 20s and after raising a family wants to ride more challenging weekend club rides. They can each train about eight hours a week. I’ll use each to illustrate the numerous benefits of training with varying intensities:
Target training more effectively. Bill and Barb have very different goals. I give them different workouts at different intensities from each other to make optimal use of their available time.
Build endurance more effectively. Bill initially emailed me about riding 100 km and included a list of how fast he could do shorter rides. He was riding too fast to build the most endurance! Slowing down to the right zone will yield more improvement in his eight hours a week than riding more time at a too-fast pace.
Improve power faster. Barb regularly reads the RBR newsletter and knows that training hard is necessary to improve her power. She though that if training hard produces results, then more hard training is even better. Whoa! I got her to cut back to just two workouts a week of mixed intensity of hard riding and recovery. She does two workouts with 20 – 40 minutes each of mixed intensity plus warmingup and cooling down. I also had her dial back her level of intensity by about 10% and only train six hours a week so she’d have more recovery. And her performance improved!
Train the right energy system. Riding a 100 km most of Bill’s energy will come from burning fat. Fat is metabolized in a part of the muscle cell called the mitochondria using specific enzymes. By training at the right intensity Bill can increase the number of mitochondria and enzymes so that he can burn more fat to power him through 100 km.
Spare precious glycogen. Barb’s goal is to go hard for 50 to 60 miles. She rides well up to about 40 miles and then she fades. Going hard she’s burning a lot of glucose in addition to fat. But her body can only store enough glucose (as glycogen) for several hours of hard riding. In addition to her two hard days, she rides the rest of the time at a much slower pace than before. Riding at that endurance pace, like Bill, she’s training her body to use more fat for energy and spare glucose so she’ll have enough to ride hard for the full 60 miles. By training at a moderate intensity she will increase her glycogen storage by 20 to 50%.
Avoiding lactic acid. Barb has learned that once her legs start to burn she can’t ride that hard for very long. Part of Barb’s hard workouts is riding at the specific intensity that trains her body to go harder without producing lactic acid.
Optimal overload. The club 100 km this fall has about 4,000 feet of climbing and Bill is worried about the hills. He tried doing intervals that left him trashed – and hated them! A couple of days a week he rides hilly routes home from work, which takes him about 60 to 90 minutes each. He pushes on the hills harder than is comfortable, but not so hard that he feels trashed. He won’t climb this hard on his century, but pushing himself a just a little harder is the best way to improve his climbing.
Optimal recovery. Fitness improves while you are not training hard. Barb does two intensity workouts a week, totaling about an hour of mixed intensity plus warm-up and cool-down. Bill also does two intensity workouts a week, with the rolling hills totaling about 90 minutes a week plus warm-up and cool-down. Barb’s intensity workouts are shorter than Bill’s, but a lot harder, so I give her two days of easy riding in between her hard days. Because his intensity rides aren’t as hard, Bill only needs one day of recovery. Both Bill and Barb also take two days a week off the bike.
Sprinting helps! Barb likes sprinting so she includes several sprints in her warm-ups. Bill grumbled when I told him to include a few sprints in his after-work rides. I explained to both of them that their legs are composed of individual motor units (bundles of muscle fibers) and that sprinting improves the coordination of the firing of those motor units. It’s like dialing in the timing of a car. The result is more power for the same amount of oxygen and fuel!
Real recovery. Barb trains by heart rate and for each workout reports her average heart rate. The first few weeks that we worked together her heart rate for her shorter recovery rides was as high – and sometimes higher – than for her endurance rides. I told her that riding that fast she wasn’t really recovering. Bill trains by perceived exertion and wanted to know how hard he should ride on a recovery ride. When he’s riding to work in the morning he should almost be embarrassed to be riding that slowly!
My eArticle explains which training intensities bring about different physiological adaptations, provides training zones by perceived exertion, heart rate and power. The article provides sample workouts and describes which workouts are best for health and fitness riders, recreational club riders, and performance riders.
Intensity Training 2016: Using Perceived Exertion, a Heart Rate Monitor or Power Meter to Maximize Training Effectiveness is 38 pages packed with information, available for only $4.99 ($4.24 for Premium Members after their 15% discount).
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.