Chapter 7The Perils of Going Too Hard, Too Soon

They say confession is good for the soul. This post was supposed to outline the beginning of my Build One, where workouts become specifically like the needs of my first “A” race. Instead, it's a confession that even coaches can get caught up in their own emotions, especially when coaching themselves.

Mea Culpa

At the end of last week one of my coached athletes left me a message saying, “I don't know what was wrong with me, but I just couldn't finish this morning's work out, coach.” I telephoned later to ask for more details about their experience:

“My legs just felt so heavy, so tired. I was struggling to maintain sweet spot, much less lactate threshold. I knew it was going to be a tough workout because I woke up feeling tired.”

This athlete is currently at the end of their Base Two; their primary strength, sprint power. Primary weakness, the ability to surge while climbing. The workout they were attempting to do included four seven-minute intervals at lactate threshold, shifting every minute to different cadences while attempting to hold their threshold wattage.

I wondered if this rider was perhaps fighting off some sort of bug. Or if their stress at work was affecting their sleep.

This cyclist — like many across the world — recently participated in a fundraiser for The Davis Phinney Foundation known as the Tour of Sufferlandria.

When I heard about this athlete’s desire to participate, I was not amused. Such a long and intense series of workouts did not fit appropriately with this cyclist’s race calendar, whose first “A” race isn’t until the very end of May.

But I acquiesced, realizing I would be able to learn how quickly and intensely this athlete would be able to handle ramps of stress. It would be great data gathering.

Their nine day “tour” was quite successful. Their ramp rate (the amount of Training Stress they were accumulating day upon day) never got above 6 1/2. Their training stress balance (another way of saying “fatigue”) went just below -30 (which is the absolute lowest I would want this person to ever go) however, throughout it all, they let me know, “I felt great,” “I felt really strong today,” and other positive remarks. I was amazed, and felt a little gratified that the previous, even weeks of Base training had served her well.

“Pride goeth before a…” You know the rest.

Then, several days later during a workout that this cyclist previously nailed, the “I couldn't finish it" call came.

Then, like all good coaches, I took their feedback and compared it to the hard numbers. The data revealed a simple truth:

I was working them far too hard, especially for a Base Period. I gave them a week of days off and light spinning following their nine day festival of pain to recover, but then brought them right back to what I thought was appropriate intensity.

And then it hit me

I myself was working on one of the same limiters: attempting to lay a training foundation for surging up climbs. I knew that my CTL or “fitness" numbers were higher than my tired athlete, but I felt compelled to do a complete and thorough review of my own base numbers. I was not currently feeling any fatigue, but before this happened, neither was my athlete.

What I learned was sobering: I was driving myself into the same hole.

Here are the pictures and the data to prove it, and the retrospective answer as to why.

Fixating on One Weakness

The trouble started many weeks back, during my own self-assessment. While looking at my 2015 numbers I realized that my one minute power was abysmal. According to a global database, it fell below that of an untrained cyclist. It was worse than a “recreational” rider.

That “worse than an untrained rider” label for my abysmal 1-minute power got under my skin.

I knew, as someone who was not physiologically gifted with a sprinters build despite living in a relative flatland, where races are consistently decided in sprints, that I would have to learn how to make successful breakaways. And in order to do that (as well as how to search while claiming strong uphills) I would need to develop intense short-term power to launch myself out of the pack or to push myself up a hill when the pace was already high.

My strengths and weaknesses chart showed a terrible dip in one minute power. I knew that I would have to start working on that. (The chart above shows my current Strengths & Weaknesses assessment. A month ago, the 1-minute dip was far more pronounced.)

The right thing to do during a Base Period when you are attempting to craft a foundation for this type of speed is to work on strength. Primarily this consists of low cadence and big gears. I fed myself a steady diet of this during the first and second base periods, but in the third base. I started digging directly in two anaerobic work! In other words, I started working on strength and speed simultaneously. What's more, I began peppering my workouts consistently throughout all three base periods with these types of efforts.

Training Stress should be built in 3 or 4 week cycles, followed by a true recovery week. As you can see from this trend, I simply never gave myself appropriate recovery week-upon-week.

Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked

The chart above reveals the damaging trend. The 5th bar from the left is Christmas week. Travel and family did to me what it does to most of us; takes us off our bikes and out of the gym. The next week, BOOM, here we go, boys n’ girls…

Count over 3 bars from the Christmas week bar. That should be a rest week. Nope. It's got more Training Stress than the previous week. What's more, so does the next one. 

Let's take a look at how much time I was spending in each of the traditional Training Zones during these weeks. During all three Base Periods, Zones 1 and 2 should powerfully dominate. 3 should come in second, with maybe 15–20% of the time spent at Threshold. But look at what I did, ma! Look at me! Me strong like bull, smart like tractor…

It's not that you SHOULD’NT have intensity during your base period workouts; it’s that you shouldn't have an ABUNDANCE of it. Zones 1 and 2 should dominate; 3 should fall into second place. But Threshold and VO2 have far too much prominence.

The results of riding like this will indeed show a rise in fitness: on the far left, you'll see this week exactly one year ago, and on the far right, this week, as of this writing. I've placed horizontal lines so you can see the lift:

Last year at this time, I wasn't as fit. But the speed with which I've gained this year’s fitness level has been too rapid. It’s not sustainable.

Now lets zoom in on that ramp, and dig a little bit further:

Here, we zoom in on my ramp rate. Notice how it's one unbroken ascent? Where are the recoveries? There should be at least 3 pronounced dips. There aren't.

I look at this ramp (which, by the way, never went higher than 6.8 for me using WKO4) and all I can say now is, “gotta...raise...that...one...minute...power...no..matter...what...”

I swear. Testosterone has to be a mental illness. 

So what have we learned?

Ignore Recovery at Your Own Peril

  • TrainingPeaks and WKO4 will calculate your “ramp rate” for accumulating Training Stress. Every rider has their own “danger zone.” My previous athlete’s is around 7.5. Ignore this, and you’ll slam into a fatigue wall. No joke. 
  • Thinking you can “power through” will only eventually cause you to slow down — or worse, get injured or sick.
  • Generally speaking, athletes under 35 years of age can do 3 increasing weeks of TSS, followed by one week of recovery. Over 35, it's 2 increasing weeks, followed by one of recovery. Build this pattern, and hold to it, increasing stress only as adaptation is shown.
  • Recovery weeks can and should have some intensity, but the volume should be small.
  • My Build One or “race-like” period DOES need to have Threshold and VO2 time to work on 1-minute and VO2 power, but it must NOT dominate the time spent training. Here's a recent blog from Friel regarding the distribution of intensity throughout a training plan.

      Sam Lowe

      I've been a road cyclist with a penchant for speed ever since my first-ever paycheck holiday. I blew the whole wad on a turquoise Schwinn Tempo with then-new Shimano 105 indexed shifting way back in 1985. I've been a voracious consumer of racing-oriented information ever since. Training, nutrition, bike fit, racing techniques, and all manner of "kit." Between nearly 30 years of riding, racing, and reading about racing, I'm ready to help you get ready to race.