Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the October 2014 issue of Velo magazine. In it, Trevor Connor talks with Ryan Kohler, coach at the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine and pro cyclist Kiel Reijnen about how to make the most of high-intensity training.
There are a lot of expressions we use in training — for example, “use it or lose it” and “no pain, no gain.” But here’s an important, and rarely asked question: Why do our bodies respond this way? Why do they choose to lose all of that strength we worked so hard to gain once we stop training? Simply put, to produce a training adaptation — to get better or stronger — we need to put a bigger stress on our body than it can handle, an overload. This is because our bodies aren’t going to waste calories building muscle unless our muscles prove inadequate for the task.
Increase work or time
As we adapt, adding time or intensity to our workouts can maintain an overload. For example, Ryan Kohler may increase his athletes’ threshold intervals from 10 to 15 minutes. Or, if they are doing 40-second VO2 efforts and not struggling anymore, “I’d say, ‘Let’s blow out the gates on the [first or last] couple of seconds, and go for peak power every time.’ We wouldn’t necessarily need to change the work time.”
Have a weekly routine
For those of us with jobs and a family, Kohler finds that a routine, such as intervals on Tuesdays and Thursdays and a long ride on Saturdays, can be essential to ensure we find time for the bike. “But, within that, I think the intervals need to adapt to what the body can do,” he said.
Match the overload to the race
If you are targeting a one-hour time trial, then four, 10-minute threshold intervals may not be enough. “You want to build up to at least an hour of work time,” Kohler said. “It’s just meeting the overload training requirement.”
Avoid mental overload
Kiel Reijnen pointed out that the mind could also get overloaded and need recovery. “You can do your intervals, hit the wattage, but your mind is fried,” he said. Reijnen is a believer in finding new ways to train, such as riding a mountain bike later in the year, to provide new mental stimuli and rest.
Time on the bike
While optimizing the overload should be the goal for every rider, sometimes mileage itself is an overload. Kohler has seen riders repeat the same training, but they “are going to improve that efficiency over the years just from the mileage.”
When picking systems to focus on, Kohler reminds us that the specificity principle comes into play and we need to target the key systems for our critical races. “If you’re going to need that top-end or that surge-and-recover effect, spend more time on anaerobic capacity and lactate tolerance,” he said. That could mean short VO2 or Tabata-style intervals.
The right recipe
While targeting all of the systems at once is a recipe for burnout, the season isn’t long enough to train one system at a time. Reijnen and Kohler agree that mixing the right systems is important. Combing VO2 and threshold work can cause too much stress. Likewise, Kohler feels that mixing tempo and threshold work is a recipe for burnout. But some workouts complement one another. Base and some anaerobic-capacity training can be done easily together and can be managed over a long term.
Less time for higher intensity
“I think the base and aerobic systems can be highlighted and touched on year-round,” Kohler said. But the higher-end systems such as threshold, VO2max, and neuromuscular or anaerobic capacity, are different. “The higher you go, the less time you’d need to spend on it to really get an adaptation,” he said.
Reijnen feels that larger variability helps experienced riders produce an overload. “We may vary our rides a lot more in duration and intensity,” he said. Likewise, doing the same routine every week, according to Kohler, leads to “moderately high intensity all the time” that may never produce a super-compensation. Varying the total time and/or intensity each week gives riders more opportunity to get true high intensity, followed by true recovery.