PainWhile the concept of responsive training is by no means new to endurance athletes, it isn’t often practiced to the degree that best benefits us. Whether you’re a Cat 4 criterium racer, an aspiring Ironman triathlete or an accomplished 24-hour MTB competitor, ignoring your body’s subtle and not so subtle cries for relief is common ground most of us have tread upon. And chances are good that at one point or another you’ve paid a hefty price for stuffing the discomfort, the nagging but not yet severe pain, and even the more obvious indications that something is wrong into whatever mental compartment that’ll accommodate these nuisances, knowing all the while that it’s only a matter of time before matters escalate to a point where “stuffing” these annoyances will no longer be an option.

Nutshell version of what follows:

  • Training plans are excellent guides but they aren’t set in stone.
  • When appropriate (i.e. not during taper & peak weeks), take advantage of days when you feel great by adding some extra work efforts.
  • On days you’re not quite up to the prescribed workout, tone down the intensity or consider an active rest day.
  • Postpone your training a day, even two, when it’s clear you won’t be able to come close to your target output for the prescribed workout.
  • Listen closely when your body sends clear messages. Training through high levels of fatigue & any level of muscle/joint damage is often dangerous & pointless.
  • Use another form of endurance exercise to maintain fitness during a period of injury rehab/recovery.

Why is it that we’re so prone to ignore our own bodies yet the slightest creak in a bottom bracket or rip in some dirty bar tape gets addressed in a hurry? Perhaps it’s our shared disdain for weakness that leads us to rationalize forging on in the face of pain. Possibly, it’s the fact that pain is such a natural component of training & racing that we occasionally find it hard to distinguish between good pain and bad. Maybe we just accept that injury, to varying degrees, is simply a necessary evil in our pursuit of greater fitness & faster times. Or more likely, we just like to believe that if we ignore our budding injuries they’ll magically disappear – all good explanations for our self-imposed damage, but not a good reason amongst the lot.

But responsive training has more applications than simply avoiding injury. By training responsively, in tune with our bodies’ ever-changing needs & capabilities, we can actually ascend to a higher level of performance and enjoyment that, sadly, many less conscious athletes will ever attain. But there’s hope for even the most stubborn athletes and it only takes a subtle shift in our attitudes toward pain & fatigue and a more decided response in how we address them.

The goal of any workout is improvement of some form, so we fly in the face of logic and our objectives when we forge through a workout even though we’re simply not prepared, psychologically or physiologically, to perform the work necessary to achieve the sought after training benefit(s). On the flip side of this same coin, it makes little sense to restrain ourselves on those days we feel exceptionally motivated, rested & powerful. Clearly, it’s not wise to bury ourselves during a taper week or every day of peak training phase, but on those days where a lessor workout is on tap yet we feel capable of going above and beyond, well…as the saying goes, make hay while the sun is shining, right?

These diversions from a sensibly structured training plan probably aren’t going to happen frequently (and if they do, perhaps it’s time to restructure your plan accordingly) and the up-modifications are likely to be subtle in many cases, e.g. a couple extra intervals, higher-than-prescribed watts, slightly longer intervals, etc., while the downward tweaks might simply mean swapping a lower-intensity workout with one that’s temporarily out of reach or taking an additional rest day, active or completely off. Regardless, developing a sense of when to push and when to back off will only serve to make you a stronger rider as you become more adept at making these occasional judgement calls and modifying the day’s plan appropriately.

As an example, I recently progressed my own training a little faster than my body was prepared to handle. And while I could have pushed through the fatigue and completed a few additional workouts, probably at target power to boot, I had to consider the expense of this obstinacy. A brief diversion in my training plan sent me outdoors for a few days of easy, scenic, low-structure training where I simply rode until I didn’t feel like riding anymore. As a result, I’m back on track – my power is where I left it, but my motivation is high again, my perceived exertion is more in line with the reality of a well-recovered body, and I now stand a better chance of improving my fitness over the weeks ahead rather than suffering a demoralizing, gradual decline or, arguably worse, stagnation.

It’s also worth mentioning that a shift in training modes can carry you through periods of injury. For example, an injured cyclist, or even one bordering on full-blown overuse injury, can maintain a fairly high level of aerobic fitness by spending some time in the pool and I’ve seen a great number of runners rehab their more impact-oriented injuries by spending time on the bike – many of these runners often return to running with a measurable edge over their former fitness attributed to their lower-impact yet equally or higher intensity cycling workouts. And who hasn’t known (or been) a rider with a fairly severe injury which prohibits outdoor riding but allows indoor training, e.g. broken collarbone.

By maximizing our workouts on those days we feel up to the challenge, more so on those days we feel capable of surpassing even the more rigorous workout protocols, and then cutting back on the days where we simply can’t generate our target watts or muster the effort necessary to perform the designated number of repeats, we become more attune to our personal training responses, more aware of our strengths & limitations, and we learn to train smarter, more productively, more responsively, and all the while, we drastically reduce the likelihood of illness & injury.

Train smart, ride hard, have fun.