cycling · training

Time to go slow?

An orange stripey snail on a bright green mango fruit. Photo by Unsplash.

In a TEDX talk Stephen Seiler explains how “normal people” can train like the world’s best endurance athletes. What’s the lesson? “No pain no gain” is a slick slogan, but a fundamentally flawed approach to getting faster and fitter over time.” Instead, Seiler who has spent years studying the training habits of great endurance athletes explains that high volume training in the “easy zone” is the way to build, speed and endurance.

This article on the biggest mistakes that self-trained cyclists make makes a similar point.

One of the big mistakes is avoiding easy rides. “Most self-trained cyclists assume that only the hard rides matter. But, that’s a wrong assumption.  In fact, easy rides are just as essential as the intense rides. You need to do the easy rides as they help in developing your aerobic system and promote the recovery process.”

The trick is, of course, that you need to spend the time you’re not going easy, going really hard. How much time should you spend in each zone? The worry is that self-trained cyclists, that’s us cyclists without coaches, spend most of our time in the murky middle.

From What Everyone Gets Wrong About Endurance Training: “In 2010, a meta-analysis by Norwegian researchers examined the actual distribution of training intensity used by elite athletes across the full spectrum of endurance sports. The conclusion: The best in the world complete about 80 percent of their training volume at low intensity, 7 to 8 percent at moderate intensity, and about 12 to 13 percent at high intensity.”

Here’s the problem though–time. Professional athletes training for competition have hours each day set aside for training, most of it in the easy or green zone. You and I have jobs. We have families. We might read books or go to the theatre. We aren’t doing this full-time. Cramped for time, we look for short cuts. One short cut that’s often promised is high intensity interval training. But apparently, so cycling coaches tell me, this can’t replace a solid aerobic base. Building that base means a lot of time exercising in a zone so easy it hardly feels like work.

More from What Everyone Gets Wrong About Endurance Training : “Successful training for endurance sports is highly nuanced. Athletes do require some HIIT in their programs, but they need a tiny fraction of what is being proposed by many in the fitness industry. The endurance athlete will use HIIT as a supplement to—not a replacement for—the aerobic base work that makes up the foundation of their fitness.”

Six thoughts:

One, all of this has got me thinking about zooming around in the virtual world of Zwift. I spend a lot of time in Zwift, going hard, racing uphills and competing with past me for sprint PRs. I’m friends on Facebook with a few cycling coaches who complain about the tendency of Zwift to encourage speedy riding rather than base building. I probably should do some more easy paced group rides in Zwift. There are even some good training plans in Zwift. It might be time to stop just playing and make a 2020 plan.

Two, it might be time to unpack my heart rate monitor. Yes, I could use the talk test but I’m kind of attracted to numbers and data and tracking things. See Take it easy: Why train with a heart rate monitor, part 1 and Go hard! : Why train with a heart rate monitor, part 2.

Three, this is all about sports performance not health. For the health benefits, HIIT is just fine.

Four, while I don’t have the hours and hours a day competitive athletes have for base training, I do commute by bike and run errands by bike and all of that is in the easy zone. It counts too.

Five, while I raised the worry about zooming and Zwift that’s true for spin classes too. Spin classes whether on a Peloton bike or in a studio are rarely in the easy-going zone. Again, most of the people in the classes aren’t training for performance. Mostly they’re training for general health and fitness reasons.

Six, thinking about this forces me to think about the kind of cyclist I am. I’m not racing. I’m not training for a competitive cycling season. So can I ignore this advice? The problem is that although I’m not racing, I like to ride with fast people. I want to go out with the local bike club. For a woman rider in her mid fifties, I suspect that means taking my training seriously.

See you in the green zone!

How do you think about training and performance for running/cycling/cross country skiing and other endurance sports? Do you follow the 80% easy rule?

4 thoughts on “Time to go slow?

  1. I became a base-building convert my first year trainer-training with Chris Helwig, AKA Coach Chris, in London, ON. Chris’s plans have us in zones 2-3 (mid-range aerobic AT MOST 1/3 of the time on the trainer, less otherwise) until January, when we slowly add in some interval work. He explained the logic and it made sense to me. That practice has helped me get faster each season since.

    These days I can’t ride with Chris, but at home in Hamilton I use all my trainer rides until the new year to do “easy” only. I keep my heart rate in zone 2 and low zone 3 for 60-80 minutes at a pop. Once or twice a week I do interval training on the escarpment stairs (I wrote about these in fall 2017 on the blog), where it’s a generally hard 2-3 minutes up 300 stairs, followed by some push-ups or stretching and a slow-is descent. I repeat 6-8 times.

    This, plus weight training once a week, and some swim or yoga for cross training, works well for me. So Sam, thoughts re base building for you: turn your at-home trainer time into easy-zone work, and save intervals for the bike shed. Or come climb stairs with me!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No stairs for me! Knee replacement next year. I do all my time trainer at the Bike Shed (I pay a monthly come all the time fee) but have switched to some base-building programming on Zwift. Will aim for a better balance of base-building and wheee-zooming there! I also weight train and do hot yoga and bike commute.

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