The Time-Crunched Racer

Posted by on May 9, 2011 in Bike | 4 Comments

There is a fantastic possibility that you are sitting at a desk in an office reading this. Which means that you are at work. And if so, means you are short on training time. Especially if—like me—you have kids who play soccer and baseball and have dance lessons and cub scouts and all sorts of other things that demand your attention and time. Which is to say, that unless your job is racing a bike, time for training comes at a premium. Even (and especially) in the winter. As much as I love seeing the sun rise above the Wasatch mountains, getting up at 4:30 in the morning for a ski tour is an act of necessity. Ski early, or not at all.

Thankfully, the summer months are filled with long, bright days. And that means more time to ride. More time to train. It means that even hacks like you and me (well, me anyway) have a fighting chance on race day against the single 20-something kids who work part-time at the bike shop. Note: “fighting chance” is open to interpretation. However, one advantage that you and I do have is our brains. That is, we are smarter than your average bike racing goon. In fact, if I were The New York Times, I’d simply claim that your presence here alone is inherent evidence of your intellectual superiority. But I’m not The New York Times. However, if you are in an office, and have kids, and race your bike, then you’ve figured out how to do at least that much. Plus, part of being smart, is listening to other smart people.

People like Lynda Wallenfels and Joe Friel.

Joe Friel—author, coach, and so on—recently wrote a post on his blog called Never Miss a Workout. He writes, as part of answering questions about how quickly we lose fitness during downtime that:

Reducing the number of aerobic workouts from 5 days per week to 2 causes a loss of significant amounts of fitness. And reducing the intensity of your aerobic training below 70% of VO2max has been shown to also cause a loss of aerobic fitness with a decrease in aerobic capacity, time to exhaustion and heart size.

You mean, even while “training” I can lose fitness? Ouch.

I was a little dejected after reading the post. I try to ride, or ski, or run, or… something, as often as I can. I’m happy with 4-5 training days in a week. 7-10 hours. Maybe a little more during the peak months of summer. I’m not exactly a genetic hercules. I have to scrimp for every bit of fitness that I have. But that’s part of the fun. I enjoy it. Nevertheless, looking at data that shows 3 weeks of downtime can lead to an 8% loss of VO2 max or a 7% loss in lactate threshold was distinctly depressing. Even for an amateur hobbyist like myself. No wonder ProTour riders are saturated in illicit drugs.

But there is hope. And that’s where our brains come into play.

That is, training smarter is better than training longer.

In an article at Outside Online, titled Shorter. Harder. Smarter. Lynda Wallenfels* says that “most people can spend 50 percent less time working out and still get 80 percent of the benefits.” The article also states that:

Research shows that short, well-targeted, high-intensity workouts can get you as fit as much longer sessions. According to a 2008 study in the American Journal of Physiology, one and a half hours a week of high-intensity interval training will improve arterial structure and function just as much as five hours a week of lower-intensity workouts.

*Lynda is a friend of mine, and a fantastic coach. I’ve worked with her since 2006. She is very generous with her knowledge, and wants nothing more than to see her athletes succeed. No ego. And she’s not one of those sideline coaches, as her many accolades prove. If you are looking for a coach, or for pre-built training plans, look no further.

We’ve all heard it: Train smarter.

But how?

Joe Friel, after bearing the bad news about fitness depreciation, has since posted advice on how to be a smarter bike racer, and how to maximize the time we do have for bike riding. He writes:

In the Build period, weeks 3 to 12 before your race, you should be focused only on workouts – and making them racelike. What your weekly volume (hours, miles, kilometers) is has little importance. Race success will be determined not by what you did in general on a weekly basis at this time in the season, but what you did specifically in a few key workouts each week. These workouts must be as racelike as you can make them. Think “workouts,” not “volume.”

In other words, “on” days should hurt. “Off days” should not hurt.

…not every workout should be racelike. If you tried to do that you’d soon be toast. You also need recovery days. These are easy days when physical adaptation takes place. Without adequate recovery the intensity of your racelike training sessions will diminish over time due to fatigue.

It seems self-evident: train like you race. But it’s harder in practice than on paper. But without time to ride 5 hours a day, the best alternative is to intensify workouts into shorter, more targeted sessions. So while that 20-something rival is logging 300 miles a week, we are aiming our efforts at very specific results, and maximizing our fitness gains in the shorter time available to us. Which leaves more time for the honey-do list. Who’s the hack now?

Lynda has designed 3 12-week training plans that are based on the smarter not longer theory: The Time Crunched Cat 2 (sport) Cross Country Racer, The Time Crunched Cat 1 (expert) Base, and the Time Crunched Cat 1 Build, Peak and Race plans. I’m currently going through the Cat 1 Build, Peak and Race plan. It works. I’m finding rhythm and consistency in my fitness—something that I’ve lacked all winter—and I’m spending more time in the pain cave, than I normally have when riding longer hours. Hard days hurt. But the rest days don’t. Instead of just riding along, I’m training. And that feels great.

Joe makes one more very interesting observation:

There is a strong link between fitness and fatigue. If you are fatigued from training then you stressed the body adequately enough to create the potential for fitness. If the workout did not cause any fatigue at all then it also did not produce the potential for fitness. So, when fatigue is rising you can expect the same thing from fitness. The opposite is also true.

Work hard. Rest hard. It really is that easy.


  1. Miles
    May 9, 2011

    Nice post. I enjoyed it. Now, if it could stop raining.

  2. bart
    May 9, 2011

    So your saying if I have been off for 12 weeks and counting I might be in trouble???

    • Grizzly Adam
      May 9, 2011

      Bart, I think you will find your way back. You have a way of doing that. JF expressed some frustration at his blog after having been off for several weeks after a crash. Hang in there, you’ll be rippin’ the singletrack again soon.

  3. Dave
    May 10, 2011

    “You mean, even while “training” I can lose fitness? Ouch.” I thought the exact same thing when I read this. Great post Adam.

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