Fitter, funner, faster. (Or how to beat the post-Argus blues)by Marc Wilkinson
So the Argus is over. You’re happy? You’re not happy? Either way (unless it was so bad that you’re hanging up your bike forever), what can you start doing now that will not only keep you hyper motivated for the rest of this year but up your performance radically for next year’s Big One?
Okay, so by now you’ve heard about ‘periodization’: To get stronger, fitter or faster, you must focus on individual goals and work towards their individual achievement. The theory, of course, is that eventually (hopefully next year!) they will all come together in a winning way.
The first thing you need to know is that there is a profusion of periodization possibilities. Many people believe that there is just one way to periodize: the basic wave-like pattern. Using this scheme, athletes first build up their volume (total quantity of training) to a rather lofty level (creating a big 'wave' of miles), while intensity (speed) of training remains fairly modest. This initial period of training is supposed to establish basic strength and endurance. The mileage wave then gradually weakens, replaced by a steadily increasing wave of intensity (mileage is reduced, but average speed rises as the quality of workouts increases). According to convention and tradition, the athlete is ready for major competitions once the intensity wave has peaked. After the competitive season is over, you would rest for a while before catching another mileage wave and beginning a new season of training.
Sure, this basic wavelike pattern is used year after year by millions of athletes all over the world. It does have a certain logic (it seems good to gradually build muscular and connective-tissue strength before subjecting the body to the harsh rigours of high-intensity training). But that's not to say that it's the ideal way to prevent injuries! Among cyclists, for example, most injuries are associated with knees, and these are more likely to occur during high-mileage weeks rather than lower-mileage periods, even though the latter may contain plenty of quality workouts.
The basic wavelike pattern also parallels the classic 'dyad' of 'aerobic' and 'anaerobic' training that still forms the basis of so many training programmes out there. The idea is to gradually build up 'aerobic endurance' by covering lots of moderately paced miles (the mileage wave) and then to 'sharpen' athletes with intense 'anaerobic conditioning', which is supposed to improve speed and heighten surging and kicking ability in races. Viewed from a muscle-fibre rather than aerobic-anaerobic point of view, the notion is to first work on the slow-twitch muscle fibres and then to shift attention to the fast twitchers in time for competition.
Of course, this view of training is ridiculously simple. Some accomplished athletes have been found to have almost no fast-twitch muscle fibres, for example, so how can they work on something they don't have? Also, it's very misleading to categorize an endurance athlete's training as 'anaerobic', since even the high-speed movements carried out by very skilled endurance athletes actually involve a mix of aerobic and anaerobic energy creation, with the former usually predominating. The truth is that the two systems of energy creation work together, even during the most intense, so-called 'anaerobic' part of your training (unless your workouts consist solely of 10-second sprints, separated by long recoveries).
It's stupid to think that speed arises merely from 'anaerobic conditioning'. Instead of worrying about developing raw anaerobic capability, you need to think about gradually increasing your power (your ability to cycle, swim, ski, skate, run, or row more quickly):
- A lot of that boosted power will come not from the development of 'anaerobic capacity' but simply from having a higher VO2max, because more oxygen processed per minute by muscle cells means more energy created per minute, more muscular force exerted per arm or leg movement, and higher movement velocities.
- Some will also come from improved economy, because better economy means being able to move up to higher speeds without incurring greater oxygen 'cost'.
- Some will come from lifting lactate threshold, because higher thresholds allow quality speeds to be sustained for longer periods of time.
- And some will come from better neuromuscular co-ordination - improved reactivity of the nervous system and a heightened ability to utilize available muscular force to drive the body forward, rather than stabilize uncoordinated body parts or waste energy on non-propulsive movements.
- And of course, some will come from pure strength - the ability to stabilize the body and generate large amounts of force.
Additional theories about periodization can be found in Tudor Bompa's well-known book, 'Theory and Methodology of Training', from Kendall-Hunt publishing.
The key is to work on these in a step-by-step fashion. It’s all in the planning. Whether a coach works out a training programme for you, or you study up on periodization yourself, keep a few simple concepts in mind, and it will all fall into logical place:
MICROCYCLE: a number of training sessions that form a recurring unit. Eg: if your training consists of a hard day, an easy day, and then a rest day, followed by the hard-easy-rest pattern again, these three days represent your basic training unit, or microcycle. Or perhaps you have a repetitive weekly pattern; say a hill workout, an interval session on the flat, a long endurance ride, three easy rides and a rest day. Typical length: 5-10 days.
MESOCYCLE: a block of training, consisting of a bunch of microcycles, all geared to a particular goal, eg improving VO2 Max or economy, lifting lactate threshhold, increasing neuro-muscular co-ordination, etc. Typical length: 4-12 weeks.
MACROCYCLE: a long stretch of training over many months aimed at an extremely important overall goal – eg a brilliant time in next year’s Argus or Cape Epic, or your first marathon. Typical length: 10-12 months.
But first things first: rest Whichever plan you use, they all begin in the same way: rest. This is intuitively and logically obvious: the human body simply needs down-time to recover from extended periods of stress. That's the easy part; the difficult part involves answering two key questions: how often should a full recovery take place, and how long should the recovery period last?
Top athletes seem to profit from one month away from training each year. During the recovery period, training should be held to a minimum. To burn calories and calm their appetites for exercise without stressing their muscle cells, cyclists can also run or swim moderately during their recovery mesocycle, but the total quantity of exercise should be greatly reduced. At least one week of total inactivity, followed by three or more weeks with just one to three workouts per week, should optimise recovery in most endurance athletes.
The next phase: strength-building After recovery, what's next? The muscles and connective tissues of the average cyclist are simply not ready to stand up to the stresses of regular training. So, once recovery has been completed, it's definitely time to begin strengthening the whole body - in preparation for the tough training to come. Endurance athletes in other sports should also benefit from the strengthening process.
Research has documented that strength training can lower injury risk in cyclists and other endurance athletes too, so it makes sense to put strength first ('Value of Resistance Training for the Reduction of Sports Injuries,' Sports Medicine, vol. 3, 1986).
It's also clear that the exercises used in this strengthening phase of training should involve all of the major muscle groups in the upper and lower body, including the critically important trunk muscles in the abdomen and low back. Such exercises literally make athletes stronger from their toes to their heads, an overall strengthening process that improves biomechanical stability, heightens economy, and promotes fatigue-resistance.
Now the fun begins. After this strengthening phase, proper periodization depends on your needs as an individual athlete; there is no one right way to do it, but as you add one focussed and goal-orientated ‘mesocycle’ to another throughout the next year, you’ll not only keep boredom at bay, but you'll add some nice details to your performance scorecard - in the form of some solid new PBs.
Marc Wilkinson is a former National Road-Cycling Champion and Springbok Captain. An expert on cycling fitness and nutrition, he still competes in events as a veteran, writes training programmes, and consults to Virgin Active, Powerade, Cape Argus Pick & Pay Cycle Tour and Fast Fuel about developing opportunities in the cycling market. His company, Sportstyle, specializes in sports marketing, sponsorship development and training expertise in the cycling industry, consulting to both individuals and companies on the marketing and various other aspects of cycling as a sport and the nutritional and training requirements associated with it. Contact him on firstname.lastname@example.org.
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