If you want to be someone you’ve never been, you have to do things you’ve never done

Tim Speciale - February 18, 2020

Time is a premium luxury that many working athletes don't have an an abundance of. The risk of not changing my approach far outweighs the risk of doing nothing.


The overwhelming fear of change

The life of an amature cyclist can be baffling to outsiders. I work anywhere between 40-60 hours a week and then somehow manage to fit in another 8-15 hours of training per week and try and fit in a social life and ensure that I am spending quality time with my wife. Time is a premium luxury that many working athletes don’t have an an abundance of.

Without an abundance of time, training becomes an exercise in efficiency. And training is more than riding the bike. It is the diet, the rest, the sleep, the maintenance work – weight lifting and stretching (not to mention the maintenance of the bike itself). All of these very important activities make withdrawals on our account of available time.

This is compounded by the fact the season itself is barreling down upon you like a freight train. We fight the sands of time on a micro level – training, sleeping, stretching, and we fight it in the larger picture of an entire season. The next season looms and there is nothing in our control to buy more time.

This all leads to fear over modifying too much too fast about our plan. If I want to change how I train in my base period (roughly December through April), that’s all well and fine, but if the experiment fails it is very likely that my season is also compromised. And that is the root cause of the fear I believe (at least for me). I know what works – at least this is what I tell myself – so I will limit the variables I experiment with. Small experimentation mitigates the size of the risk, unfortunately it typically reduces the the size of the reward as well.

Stagnation

When I was racing in the lower categories, I often won races by sprinting. Generally speaking, I had one of the best sprints in the Cat 5 and Cat 4 fields, and I was a dangerous sprinter in the cat 3 fields. In a P/1/2 race, however, where real sprinters have congregated (by measurable metrics, top sprinters at this level are at least 20% stronger than me) I stand very little chance of winning in a heads-up sprint. To succeed in these races my entire approach to racing had to be modified. Subsequently, my entire approach to training had to change as well. In short, what worked for me 7 years ago might have nothing to do with what will work for me today. This doesn’t make it any easier to massively experiment with the approach.

What should light a fire under anyone’s ass is stagnation. I believe that 2016 was probably the strongest I’ve been on a bike (at least in the last 5 years). I was single, living by myself, and worked 100% remotely from my home office. Today I commute at least an hour a day, I have a wife and I share a home. I simply do not have the same amount of time to throw at training. It’s has taken me a few seasons of failure to realize this. As I enter what will realistically be my last season in which I throw my full weight into racing, I do not have time to merely hope. The risk of not changing my approach far outweighs the risk of doing nothing.

The program

In the last 3 seasons, working on my single biggest weakness – my threshold power – has become an obsession of mine. While the benefit of higher threshold power has been there, I believe it has come at the expense of more race-specific aspects of my fitness. The ability to go hard over and over as you do in a crit.

For the early season I am incorporating Sufferfest workouts to my routine during the week. These workouts are generally shorter and more intense than what I have been doing in recent years which addresses two issues I’ve identified:

  1. I do not have the same amount of time to put into training as I use to
  2. I feel like I’ve lacked enough intensity early enough in the season

Additionally, I’m finding the workouts themselves to be highly engaging both due to the race footage that accompanies most videos and the highly variable output required in most efforts. Instead of 20 minutes locked in at 88% of my FTP, I am constantly asked to adjust the output throughout an entire 20 minute interval. The result is a more dynamic (and perhaps more realistic) set of work in addition to – quite honestly – a distraction from the fact that I’m riding a trainer in my dank garage after a full tiring day of work.

As in years past, I am still incorporating large-volume weekends as well as LT intervals at least once a week. I try to do these without any distractions (including music) so as to stress the mind as well.

The key is compliance

Many of us have seen the post win interview in which an athlete says “I transformed my entire training routine this season”, often citing a new coach or trainer. I think it’s common for us to assume that they have uncovered some sort of physiological breakthrough. Increasingly, I’m beginning to think that the single most important aspect to any training program is compliance.

From this point of view, I find it critical to build a program that both stretches my strengths and works on my weaknesses and also, critically, is enjoyable enough for me to execute that I will actually execute it to the fullest. The introduction of these workouts from Sufferfest appears to be accomplishing all of this.

Recovery – Whoop

In spite of the typically American viewpoint that “more is better”, the truth more like “more of the right things” is better. I think the single easiest thing as an athlete to neglect is recovery. Again this has “micro” implications – how much sleep are you getting every night – as well as more macro implications – how many weeks in a row can your body handle intensive work?

There are several inputs to monitor with this. The first starts with a well-thought out plan. If a rest week is in the plan, it’s there for a reason. This is easy. Resting heart rate is another easily obtained metric that can help pinpoint fatigue levels. Additionally, every athletes should be in-tune enough with their body to know when you’re in need of rest: Is it easy to get out of bed? Does the day drag on? Are you irritable with family and co-workers? Are you able to actually do the workouts? Is your Training Stress Balance too low?

I was fatigued today. I could tell because easy stuff felt hard. I stopped trying to do easy stuff [and did some yoga instead].

– Axel

Heart Rate Variability

Heart Rate Variability is another metric that has exploded in popularity over the past few years. I won’t dive into the weeds on it but the Whoop does an excellent job tracking and monitoring this for you (albeit at what I believe to be an absurd price).

I knew several people that used it so I asked around, one piece of feedback has been my guiding light so far this training season:

It works really well if you listen to it.

– Dani

If you listen to it, it’ll work. This is hard for some people, myself specifically. I can log into TrainingPeaks and see that my TSB is low (this shouldn’t ever come as a surprise as it’s predictable and component of your plan). I can wake up and feel groggy and cranky. I can even look at my resting heart rate and notice that’s a little higher. At any given point in time these metrics may not align. You get mixed signals at times. And then there is the psychology behind it all.

There is no time for rest. While you’re inside not doing work, everyone else is outside getting better. Don’t be a wimp. Fight through the suck. You’ll be better for it, ya wimp.

– Brain

In years past, if a trainer workout started going south I would convince myself that it’s merely my attitude. I would fight through the workout, sometimes successfully, many times not. This year, I start my day by looking at the Whoop. If it says I’m not recovered well, I take note. If I get on the trainer that night and the legs feel dead, I listen to it.

Since November, I have bailed on a total of 5 workouts in some capacity. At this point in the season the last few years, this number has been substantially higher. When I think about why that is, I believe it to be because I am listening to all of the signals closer this year*. By not overextending myself, I believe, I am allowing myself to recover better. All of the former inputs are still valid, but Whoop adds another (apparently highly-scientific) set of metrics. By allowing for proper recovery, I’m actually allowing myself to do more work. Not less.

*I’m enjoying the sufferfest videos too. All of this is a sum of many parts.

The Bike

I am far from limber, to say the least. I also have a horrendous spine, a result of bad genetics and bad habits (I had surgery to repair two massively extruded discs in my lower back in 2012). While these issues plague nearly everyone in my family, cycling certainly has not helped the cause.

A side effect of this constant pain is a very stupid habit to ignore such pain. One of the ways this manifests is in ill-fitting bikes. It may not be all that dramatic (though my pedal stroke is horribly ugly due to severely neglected and tight hips), there have been entire seasons where I dealt with ill-fitting shoes that cause minor discomforts. In the past I’ve brushed these aches and pains off as:

  1. Too small to matter.
  2. Or, subconsciously, an inevitable part of being me.

It’s embarrassing to admit that it’s taken me a decade to fully buy into the fact that those two thoughts are ass backwards. To the first point, a single minor pain may seem like a small deal. But when this is compounded by the naturally painful aspects of endurance athletics, and by the fact that 10 small pains in your body might as well add up to a single large one, the fact of the matter is that by ignoring these things adds a massive and unproductive distraction to my mindset in races and training.

When you can barely breath because the race is fast, adding a sore foot to the mix is far from helpful. Which leads to the 2nd point…it’s not inevitable and so to not address it is frankly stupid.

I have spent more hours this year dialing in my bike and pedals (switched to speedplay for the added/easier adjustment) then I probably have in the last 3 years combined. The results so far are promising: I’m able to go out for hours and only notice soreness or pains at hours 4 or 5 rather than minutes 45. Also, more Yoga. Always more Yoga.

Will any of this matter?

We’ll see. It doesn’t matter at this point. The plan is in place. The plan is being executed and currently I’m enjoying the ride.

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