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Toolbox: The Competitive Spirit
tt650 Much of our training is done solo – that’s the nature of our busy lives, but also our obsession to “optimize” our training by doing our workouts perfectly. That’s fine up to a point, but are we always giving ourselves the best training by going it alone and ignoring the thrill of informal or formal competition?

I Did It My Way
Cyclists often tend towards the driven, focused, and frankly slightly obsessive Type A personality. We want to be like Frank Sinatra and ride whenever and wherever we want. I know that, coming from a high school basketball all-star benchwarming career, one of the big attractions from discovering cycling was the complete freedom that it gave me. I didn’t have to be restricted to scheduled practice times, and there was no coach to nail me to the bench.

To this day, some of my most enjoyable days on the bike are where it’s just the open road/trail and me, with nobody to talk with or distract me from getting into that awesome state of flow. And sure, I certainly find that it’s easiest to do very specific and focused workouts by myself rather than trying to juggle the multiple aims and desires of a few training partners or a big group ride.

I spent nine years living in Halifax, where a combination of career, new family, narrow windy roads with no shoulders, and a relatively smaller cycling scene meant that I rarely ever got out on a ride with others. So when I moved to the Niagara area, it came as quite the eye-opener how much I really missed the social aspect of group riding. Indeed, my club here has enough rides and training races through the week that you can easily just ride those for your hard race-training and never have to do a solo interval.

Which leads to the question: can you really push yourself as hard solo as you can in a social/group/race environment? Certainly, the trend for Tour de France contenders is to race less and less, trading off race-specific fitness for specific training and buildup.

I Push You – You Push Me?
The answer may seem a bit obvious – humans are competitive by nature, and I think we’ve all experienced rides or races where we all shake our heads afterwards and say: “Man, s/he made me go so much harder than I thought I could!”

Sport psychologists have demonstrated for nearly 100 years the effects of competition on performance, such as its effect on anxiety. And world records are usually broken in competition with others pushing you with their own A game. But surprisingly, almost no research has looked at whether head-to-head competition in cycling really does push you harder than you are able to solo.

One of the hottest topics in sport and exercise science the past few years has been the interconnections between the mind and body in controlling performance, and whether fatigue comes from physiology or from the brain trying to manage the body. In this general realm of study, my friend Martin Barwood from University of Portsmouth has spent the past few years focusing on the effect of sport psychology interventions on physiological capacity. In the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, he helped to look directly at whether competition improved cycling TT performance, and also the physiological mechanisms behind it (Corbett et al. 2012).

Trying to catch your minute man in a time trial – the ultimate incentive?

Corbett et al. 2012
The setup, as often the case with elegant studies, was relatively simple: have cyclists think they’re competing against someone else on a Velotron (CompuTrainer) ergometer, when in fact they’re actually racing against themselves and their best solo TT performance. Do they go faster or slower when going solo or racing themselves?

• 14 regular recreational athletes, although a potential weakness of the paper was that the study did not target recruiting trained or elite cyclists.

• Subjects did, however, perform 3 full familiarization sessions of the test protocol, consisting of a 2,000 m TT on a Velotron ergometer with a flat course.

• For all sessions, subjects were tasked with riding as fast as possible, with no guide toward any pacing strategy. While they could see their avatar on the virtual software, they received no performance feedback (time, wattage, HR, etc.) throughout the test. No verbal encouragement was provided.

• The two actual test sessions involved either doing the TT solo (essentially identical to the familiarization trials), or else head to head (HH).

• For the HH, subjects were told that they would be competing head to head against another subject of similar ability in another room. They could see both avatars and also the distance remaining. In reality, the competitor on the screen was their own best performance during the three familarization trials.

• Oxygen uptake and respiratory exchange ratio (carbon dioxide production divided by oxygen uptake, a general measure of energy source) were measured. Data was mainly “binned” into 8×250 m intervals for analyzing pacing strategy.

Race Results
So when push came to shove, did the subjects compete better solo or head to head? Not surprisingly, competition, even if it was against themselves, brought out the best performance.

• I noted a potential criticism about the non-cycling specific subjects. Good for the authors, they reported that the three familiarization trials were essentially identical in performance time, with a coefficient of variation (a measure of the variability between two repeated trials) of 1.1 and 0.8% between Trials 1&2, and 2&3, respectively. This would suggest that any difference in the solo versus HH wouldn’t be from a learning effect.

• The TT times for the best familiarization, solo, and HH trials were 187.7 +/- 8.2, 188.3 +/- 9.5,and 184.6 +/- 6.2 s, respectively, with the HH trial significantly faster than the best familiarization or solo conditions.

• During the HH trial, 12 out of 14 subjects were able to beat their competitors (best familiarization effort). The two “losers” lost by only 0.06 and 0.01 s, pretty much a tie.

• Blood lactate values at the end of the TT were similar amongst all trials.

• Pacing strategy solo versus HH is difficult to compare due to the presence of a competitor. However, comparing the familiarization to HH, the tendency was that the first 1000 m were similar, but a higher power was maintained from 1000 – 1750 m.

• With energy source, the aerobic contribution were similar, and it appeared that most of the difference was due to a higher anaerobic contribution in HH. This suggests that, when racing, you are better able to tap into a central physiological reserve that we all have, because your brain is willing to let your body work harder.

Racing to Train or Train to Race?
I found this study interesting because it provides solid scientific evidence for something that we intuitively know but haven’t really tested before. You can train to race, but in many ways, racing really is the best form of training because it can typically push you much further than you’re willing to do by yourself. The biggest message to take, therefore, is to NOT be afraid that racing will somehow ruin your “perfect” training plan. Indeed, as long as you plan it properly, it’s the best type of training you can do.

Race to Train
One way of doing intervals is essentially to replicate what was done in this study. Find a like-minded partner and do intervals together in a head-to-head setting, and put something on the line (e.g. who buys the coffee). If your abilities are dissimilar, you can have an over-under time cut and do a handicap race that way.

A team time trial effort, a smoothly rotating paceline with the hammer down, or a group ride where each takes long steady pulls are all good ways of incorporating group efforts with very solid training and minimal mental effort compared to doing it solo.

If you’re actually in a race that you’re using to train, have a clear plan for what you want to accomplish! It can range from getting a long, hard, but steady ride in the pack, working on positioning, pre-planning some crazy attack, or just generally trying to win without caring to win.

Remember that racing is typically going to be a much harder training stress than going solo. Therefore, make sure that you plan your recovery and your periodization around it properly.

Off-Season Competition
I’ve been taking some of this competitive spirit to heart over this off-season. My buddy Rob and I, both about equal in ability as Masters racers, have set up a training cave down in my basement complete with big-screen projectors and all sorts of high-tech toys. We’ve been training together every day, with the advantage that we keep each other accountable and motivated for indoor workouts. And even though our size and FTPs are different, there remains the subtle and not-so-subtle battle of “what wattage did you do that last interval at?” to push each other with.

We’ve also been successfully sprinkling in virtual races in with Tour de Giro to give us that mental carrot of competition without having to think about intervals.

Above all, even if you never intend to enter a competitive event, group rides can be great training and great fun, so join the peloton!

Corbett J, Barwood MJ, Ouzounoglou A, Thelwell R, Dicks M (2012) Influence of Competition on Performance and Pacing during Cycling Exercise. Med Sci Sports Exerc 44: 509-515.

About Stephen:
Stephen Cheung is a Canada Research Chair at Brock University, and has published over 70 scientific articles and book chapters dealing with the effects of thermal and hypoxic stress on human physiology and performance. Stephen’s Cutting-Edge Cycling, a book on the science of cycling, came out April 2012, and he can be reached for comments at .


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