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Breaking into levels of training...the abscent silver bullet

The 'next big thing' in training programmes gets touted all too regularly, with their x percent gains in y weeks. Just as often, new methods get dismissed as useless. Why the extremes?

This allows people to portray themselves and their ideas as containing a silver bullet, that in all likelihood doesn’t exist.

And just maybe, could the truth lie in the simple fact that the majority of sessions and intensities, have their place? No complete omissions or bold statements, just fundamental understanding of the physiological impact of working at given intensities and how that impacts how much of the kind of work you do.


Easy means easy!

We compete in a sport where one’s ability to produce a lot of power at the end of a significant period of time, is what will determine the outcome of the event which we compete in. World-renowned exercise physiologist Stephen Selier, in his ‘Hierarchy of Endurance Training Needs’, refers to the Total volume of training as the single most important factor. This makes perfect sense. In very basic terms, in order to be able to produce large amounts of energy after 3+ hours of racing, our aerobic energy system and the associated, fatigue resistant, oxygen using type one muscle fibres will have to be very well trained, sparing the more explosive but fatigue susceptible fibres for when you really need them.

To do this, no amount of super high intensity, forty-five-minute training sessions will be able to compensate. In fact, in research recently published, it was found that all of the adaptations one seeks to gain whenever they are developing this energy system occurs at approximately sixty-eight percent of peak/maximal heart rate.

In other words, if your heart rate maxes out at 180bpm, somewhere around 120-125bpms should be the ceiling of your long slow distance, endurance based rides. Any harder, and you are in essence creating unnecessary fatigue. More autonomic stress, more biomechanical stress, more things which will inhibit you from being able to achieve the higher intensity required for adaptation at the other end of the spectrum both in the short and potentially the long term, without any tangible benefits to justify it. Put simply, go harder on the easy days, and the hard days have no option but to become easier.

Long endurance rides are a typical session where the proliferation of the power meter, without good understanding, have not been as good as they could be. Often, riders tend to, and perhaps are in my opinion wrongly encouraged to ride at a dead set intensity, constantly for the duration of these rides right at the upper end of this range (commonly set at 75% of anaerobic threshold). However, although it won’t seem overly hard, this is a very costly area metabolically, placing you very close to the exponential ride in the increase in autonomic activity associated with intensities in and around the aerobic threshold, as well as on your ligaments and tendons. This is particularly true for more able riders, producing greater amounts of power. 32-33kph endurance rides at 280w will more often than not see a rider struggle rather than succeed if used frequently.

For the time-crunched rider, these rides are still of great value, so it could perhaps be worth sacrificing a race the odd weekend to go out and put the miles in. The use of tempo style intervals is also an option here, being a good way of inducing the cycling of different muscle fibres in a shorter space of time. Do not fall into the trap however of making every endurance based ride a tempo session! There is little substitute for the long, easy rides.


But you have to go hard too… sometimes

However, as I mentioned, in the introduction, there is no magic bullet. Coupled with what was mentioned above, is the fact that the very best way to over train any organism, is to subject it to constant, unmitigated stress. Day in, day out, sledging away at moderate intensities, will see an athlete crumble, and this plays into the hands of varying the intensity of your workouts from day to day, with the hard, high intensity days, playing as much of a role in that as the easy ones.

It is these hard sessions, your three by twenties, four by eights, six by fives, after which you crawl home, that play as much of a role as the easy workouts, stressing glycolytic type 2a and 2b muscle fibres, optimising the maximal rate at which an athlete can synthesise carbohydrate, the primary energy source around and above your anaerobic threshold.

However, they should be used sparingly. Recent research suggests around two days per week at this intensity is optimal; with three seeing no tangible improvement; and four seen as having a regressive effect on the progress of the athlete. In other words, more is not always better.

Included in this can be the very high-intensity, 20 on 10 off style intervals, as Tabata himself used in his initial research. There are limitations to this kind of workout, primarily being the very high degree of parasympathetic activity associated with this, and the resulting inhibitors to adaptation that are produced as a result. In essence, they are very costly! This is not to say that, there are no benefits to be had from this kind of workout, but they must be used infrequently and sparingly, with research indicating that approximately six sessions of this kind should be sufficient to bring about the improvements that can be yielded from this kind of workout.


Watts don’t always equal speed

Pedalling skills and the likes are often things that are overlooked by many. This is rather straightforward. The more efficient you are in pedalling a bicycle, the more power you generate goes towards moving the bicycle forwards. Cadence, hand and seated position will change during a race, as well intensity, so the more adaptable you are, the more energy you will save, as well as also ensuring you are at a lesser predisposition to injury due to biomechanical imbalances. Neuromuscular coordination also come under this banner. For many athletes, it is their sprint technique which holds them back to a much greater extent than the power they have. Practicing this will see your body become more efficient when marrying and harmonising the complex movements of a maximal sprint


The role of intensity in the training programme is important and it is vital that we don’t view it as a purely lung busting or lactate inducing state. We use our entire range of force and cadence; whilst sitting or standing, and in a fatigued or fresh condition to generate power that propels us and our machine forward, so we must, therefore, train at all those levels of intensity. Allied to this is that specific adaptations can only occur well at defined physiological markers but if taken to an extreme will cause maladaptation. How and when we expect those adaptations are just as important as a misunderstanding risks falling deeper into a maladaptive state.

In our next blog, we will expand further into levels of training and how each of them will affect your performance...and how you can raise them. We hope you agree no that there is no silver bullet, only hard but well-guided training and sound knowledge of the physiological outcomes of specific training can better channel our training for long-term development and enjoyment of the sport we love. - Kenny

If you would like our help at Elevation Coaching to formulate a progressive training plan to smash your goals and keep the fun in cycling get in touch at

We offer a range of bespoke plans ranging from £75.

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