June seems to have come out of nowhere. Warmer weather and longer days bring a thrill to riders the world over as we arc into summer and those fast approaching goals you set.
If you are like most of us you’ve been doing some form of structured training for months now. It could be on the open road, if you’re lucky enough to live in a warmer climate, or you could have hour-upon-hour of focused trainer time. Either way you have been building fitness and improving your numbers across the season so far. Unfortunately, you may be walking a perilous line, so I like to put my “full season” athletes into a bit of a summer reset around now, if their schedule allows it. Typically this takes the form of either an aerobic endurance phase or a peak and taper approach, so let’s look at both options.
Option C as demonstrated by Chris Froome, relaxing by the pool. Let’s check out Matt’s two options first though…
This approach is typically employed for those who have been training and racing consistently since March or April (or earlier), and who have season goals in July and August. Coming off of a racing block is not a requirement for an aerobic reset, but it does give you a nice pivot point around which to build your training, and provides an often needed mental break from the rigors of high intensity training. Don’t confuse a reset with a return to easy miles – you’ve worked too hard to get that fitness and we are not looking to throw it away and rebuild.
Instead we are looking to shift the focus of your training for a few weeks back to enjoyment of riding with friends and the freedom NOT to attack every hill or group ride with abandon! The goal of a “summer reset” is to reacquire some of the base physiological adaptations that may wane under the weight of race intensity intervals. I like to have my riders do a 2 – 3 week block of force, muscle endurance, and absolute endurance rides during this time, with intermittent bouts of HIT work to keep that top end edge.
From a power based perspective, we are looking for a decrease in Intensity Factor (IF), which is a reflection of how hard the effort was relative to your Functional Threshold Power (FTP), which typically gets an IF score of 1.0 for any intervals. If you look back at your training over the previous 6 weeks or so and you see lots of rides that are above 0.85 IF, you might be a candidate for a reset. This is certainly the case for those on limited training time, who often suffer feelings of playing perpetual catch-up.
Instead of tackling yet another round of 5 minute VO2max efforts (the efficacy of which is dubious anyway), dial back your effort and focus on a small block of force work on a local climb or longer tempo and muscle endurance efforts to rebuild the oxygen transport system at a basic level. From a weekly training perspective you may see an increase in Acute and Chronic Training Load (ATL/CTL) as your “per hour” training stress scores will be a bit higher than during an interval-recover-interval training block. Your per ride IF, however, should be lower allowing you to refresh, recover and reload for the remaining months.
Another training option is to approach your training from a “Peak and Taper” perspective. This is ideally suited for those with a high priority event in the next few weeks, but the approach can work for riders seeking a bit of a refresh to the day-to-day monotony. For me, the point is to keep the workouts interesting and effective so the athlete is motivated to do them and so they tackle a specific fitness requirement.
First let’s give “tapering” a quick definition to avoid confusion. Tapering is not taking a few days easy before your big race. Instead it is defined by Dr Inigo Mujika as ““A progressive, nonlinear, reduction of training load during a variable period of time, in an attempt to reduce the physiological and psychological stress of daily training, and to enhance the physiological adaptations to optimize performance.”
Mujika goes on to postulate that a true taper has a reduction in training volume of between 40-60% from peak training in the weeks before you begin to taper, and that the taper is preceded by a block of hard training. So if you’ve been doing 10 hour weeks of 400 TSS/wk, you may not have the necessary overload to maximally benefit from this training adjustment.
Often the coach and athlete will create an over-volume training program in the last week(s) before the taper is set to begin. The goal of the over-volume training is to stress the system by over-reaching, nearly to the breaking point, and then recovering. It is often said that the line between over-reaching, which is a recoverable state in the short term, and over-training, which requires a much longer recovery cycle (like 4-6 months!) is a very fine one.
When done appropriately this stress-recovery cycle creates a meaningful training effect known as ‘super-compensation.” Simply put your body super-compensates for the stress imposed thereby increasing your fitness. An ‘overload’ block could be as high as a 20% increase in training for a period of up to four weeks. Take note that the amount of overload, the duration, and the impact will vary greatly from athlete to athlete. If you are a category 4 road racer it is probably unwise to bump your training load by 20% for 4-weeks! Two weeks might be a better starting point. Again, the line between over-reaching and over-training is narrow and hard to master so don’t blow it the first time you try it.
Once you have your overload block, and subsequent reduction, we must add two other elements – frequency and intensity. Research has shown that reducing training volume is key, but frequency and intensity of the workouts on offer should not dramatically change. This is to say if you’ve been riding five days a week, you’ll still ride five days a week. If you’ve been doing 90 minutes of HIT work each week, you will continue to do circa 90 minutes of HIT work each week.
It is here – this junction of volume, frequency and intensity – that science and art meet. Every athlete is an individual, responds differently to training stimuli, and must develop their program individually. What works for Taylor Phinney may not work for you! Keep this in mind as you look to peak your fitness. Some athletes respond well to back-to-back days of very hard work, others require a day of rest between such bouts. It is learning how YOU respond that is key.
I tend to offer a fairly conservative approach to intensity. I don’t believe that week after week of unending HIT work is the secret to success. Instead I look for targeted workouts over a couple of micro-blocks each week, with ample rest and recovery between. This rest and recovery is not typically done on the bike as endurance rides – recall we are trying to cut training volume – but rather as an easy and short recovery ride between micro blocks.
The next consideration is to try and match event demands in your training. If the race is a circuit with a hard 3 minute climb each lap, then just doing one minute anaerobic efforts is not going to get you over the top after awhile. Similarly, if you are doing a 40km time trial, you need to tap those systems instead of your non-aerobic energy systems (anaerobic is a misnomer).
Once again the art of the taper comes into focus as we look to the frequency/intensity balance. You can’t do a 40Km time trial every day, or even every other day, in the run up to districts. Instead you have to come up with the right mix of longer “race simulation” efforts and shorter, harder efforts, that might serve to pull-up your fitness in those last weeks before the event. Getting the mix right requires trial and error, so embrace the idea and practice!
And just how do you know if you are a candidate to do a taper?
The Balance Point
In looking over previous research and resources for this article I came across a conversation I had with Alex Simmons, a well known coach and resource for power based training. The discussion was on the use of training zones, but applies to the idea of tapering as well. Alex said:
“Those with very low CTL (<<50 TSS/day) simply need to ride more (or more frequently) in order to improve. A CTL of 80-110 TSS/day is a sweet spot for many riders with “normal” lives and at these loads the composition of training matters a lot more. For riders that have never reached these training loads before, I regularly see “breakthrough” performances. A rider may reach a “CTL ceiling” (capacity for sustaining a training load) at which point they are overreaching and not improving performance. If consistent, this ceiling can be lifted a little each year, along with performance. For the dedicated, full time or professional athlete, then the loads needed to meet race demands are significantly higher, with substantial periods >120 TSS/day, and at times approaching 140+ TSS/day. The recovery demands are consequently higher as well.”
While this is not related to tapering per se, it does present an interesting postulate of who might benefit most from tapering. If you’ve been training consistently, enjoy a fairly high Chronic Training Load (CTL) and have either a key event coming up, or are feeling a bit stagnant in your training, then a taper approach might just provide the necessary stimulus to keep you moving forward. If your CTL is under 50, then using a taper approach may not give you the return you seek, and you are best off building fitness through consistency.
This year is nearly half over and for many the month of June is a pivotal one. Fitness may stagnate, motivation may be circumspect and desire to push new boundaries every week may be hard to find. To this milieu I offer a couple of approaches to training designed to re-start, or refine, your fitness markers and allow you to maintain, nee improve, performance over the remainder of the summer. Perhaps you will benefit from a classic “reset” of your fitness by refocusing on the longer sub-threshold efforts that create your physiological base, or perhaps you are sufficiently trained that a true “taper” period may help push you to new heights?
For the reset crew, look to bring total training intensity down over a period of 2-3 weeks, allowing your body to re-establish the physiological systems necessary for HIT efforts to be successful. If you don’t allow for a reset, you risk walking the line into over-training, largely due to psychological demands.
Conversely, if your fitness is at a high level and you want to shake up the mix a little…building a taper program into your training can provide substantial gains in top end speed and performance while enjoying a lower total volume – and thereby avoiding burnout come July or August.
• “Peaking & Tapering” – Dr Inigo Mujika, USAC Webinar and Published Research
• Training & Racing With A Power Meter – Hunter Allen, Andy Coggan
• Five Golden Rules of Tapering – Guy Thibault PhD, Performance Conditioning for Cycling, Volume 10, #7
About Matt McNamara: Matt is a USA Cycling Level 1 coach with over 20 years of racing, coaching and team management experience. He is the founder and president of Sterling Sports Group. If you have any questions or comments please feel free to contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can learn more by visiting his website at www.sterlingwins.com.