Are you training TOO hard?

A lot of riders that come to me cycle coaching are training wrong… all wrong.   Not only are they not reaching their potential due to this improper training, but they can even be hampering any meaningful progress at all.  This is because they train too hard.  Does any of this sound like you?

  • Typically you chose to ride a distance for training and then ride that distance as fast as you can.

  • You rely more heavily on high intensity intervals than on low intensity, long sustained efforts.

  • Very little if any of your training is done at such a casual pace that you could easily hold a conversation while training.  This would be at a much lower intensity than your race pace.

  • You do not use any effort measuring device or scale to guide your training.

If any of that describes you, then you are training wrong. 

Much to my surprise and perhaps yours as well, elite endurance athletes be it running, biking, swimming, rowing, cross country skiing, speed skating, etc spend the majority of time training at very low intensity levels that you probably wouldn’t even consider doing in your own training.  Most people will say it doesn’t even feel like they are working out.  It works though. Don’t believe me?  Feel free to watch this 35 minute lecture by Dr Stephen Seiler who went out and studied this very thing while also working with Olympic caliber athletes in Norway’s Olympic program.  In this lecture, he presents his findings from looking at the training methods of elite endurance athletes around the world.  By elite, I mean sub-2:11 marathoners, Olympic gold medalist rowers and skiers, top Kenyan runners, elite cyclists, and so on.

Don’t have 30 minutes to watch a video?  Let me summarise.  Elite athletes spend 80-90% of their total training time at a very easy pace that does not even approach a speed they’d consider even a moderately hard effort.  I’ll go onto the how’s and why’s in a moment, but I want to address a few typical complaints first.

But I’ve read how high intensity intervals are as good and even better at building endurance and things like VO2Max and lactate threshold! Long, slow efforts are old school and scientifically unsound!

That, my friend, is just wrong. We are indoctrinated into believing things like this by people looking to sell us something – typically a faster way to get results.   There are no shortcuts to fitness in endurance sports.  High intensity intervals are an absolutely essential part of training, but they only make up 5-10% of total training volume.

Training comprised mainly of high intensity intervals is the old school approach.  Ever hear of Emil Zatopek? He was a gold medalist distance runner and coach from the 40’s and 50’s.  His training was famously interval based (try 400m repeats for a marathon distance).  The Germans tried that approach for their endurance athletes back in the 50’s  and 60’s, and what they found was that fitness could be raised to a high level, but there was no year over year progress.  Finally a coach named Arthur Lydiard hit the scene.  He trained his guys in a long “base period” where they did miles and miles of slow, sustained effort work and that was followed by only a few weeks of sharpening for competition.  Even his gold medal winning 800m sprinter put in weeks of nearly 100 slow miles.  His guys TROUNCED the interval trained athletes.  Eventually other national coaches adopted his methods as it was either adopt or fade into obscurity.  It’s been a long enough time that people have forgotten the lessons and training mistakes of the past, so now the easier and less time consuming intervals are becoming en vogue again.

But Joe Bloggs trains mainly intervals and fast runs, and he kills John Smith in competitions! He’s probably faster than you too, slow poke!

This is totally possible especially in events with a shallow talent pool. Think of regional racing or local time trials. There will be a rider that performs well at a local level and have impressive resumes, but they aren’t elite cyclists.  Somebody with a lot of natural talent and ability can be successful without optimal training. When you look at sports with large talent pools from all over the world, all the athletes at the top have very similar talent levels.  There are razor thin differences separating somebody that podiums and somebody that is in the middle of the pack.  Less than optimal training will magnify these differences, which is why you see most of the people training the same way.  So Joe Bloggs may certainly be a beast… locally… or in small competitions…  Joe Bloggs may destroy me in a competition too.  Would he get trounced by the World Champ in a race of that distance?  Yes, and this is how that world champ trains.