For many cyclists, short, high-intensity efforts are fairly comfortable and cause little fatigue. These riders may be tempted to train only with short intervals, even if their goal events require more sustained power. For reasons both physiological and psychological, this isn’t the most beneficial path.
For more information on training and recovery check out Ask a Cycling Coach Ep 254.
Cater to Your Strengths, or Train Your Weaknesses?
No cyclist is equally well-suited to every type of event or effort, and most of us at least occasionally target an event that does not play to our natural strengths. Riders accustomed to the surging tempo of criteriums and road races often find time trials and hill climbs particularly challenging, as these events demand much more sustained efforts. Many cyclists also find short, intense efforts to be less fatiguing and more easily completed than longer intervals.
We all want to reach our target event as fit as possible, and structured training of any duration increases fitness over time. If you are targeting a long event but prefer short efforts, why not focus on completing more short, high-intensity workouts that cause less fatigue? Can the increase in overall fitness these workouts generate negate the need for specific, time-trial focused training? Unfortunately for many of us, the unavoidable answer is no.
Event Demands and How They Guide Training
Unlike the complicated pack dynamics and strategy of a road race or criterium, time trials and long climbs are comparatively straightforward in their actual demand: to go as fast as possible for the entire time. This means it is in a rider’s best interest to ride at the highest average overall power they can sustain over the course of the event. Achieving this through repeated surges might seem possible, but it is far more taxing physiologically than using an even, steady effort. Imagine a runner sprinting and recovering repeatedly over the course of a marathon- it sounds ridiculous and exhausting, doesn’t it?
As cyclists, we become accustomed to varying our pace as we encounter changes in terrain, especially if we frequently ride in groups or races, but this is actually almost never the most efficient way to ride a solo effort. Physics bears this out, as the law of inertia dictates that less energy is expended maintaining momentum (riding steadily) than repeatedly generating it through acceleration (surging).
Since steady pacing and high average power are the most efficient ways to ride the event, training for a time trial or hill climb should be aimed at developing your ability to meet these specific demands- a process that involves both physical and mental conditioning. Physically, riding at a high sustained intensity for a long period relies heavily on a rider’s aerobic capacity, which benefits from development of a higher FTP, better lactate clearance ability, greater efficiency, and improved muscular endurance. These are all characteristics most efficiently trained by intervals at sweet spot or threshold power, and less effectively targeted with very short and intense efforts.
On the mental side, long efforts are especially taxing, and require you to tolerate a gradually increasing and unrelenting level of discomfort. This sustained and slowly-building unpleasant feeling is very different from the acute pain and quick recovery of a short surge, and tolerance to it only develops through experience. Many of us may not be as bad at long efforts as we think, we may just be unaccustomed to them due to the common surging rhythms of our training and group rides.
Long Efforts: Building Ability Through Specialization
The most effective training strategies for long efforts nurture both physical and psychological abilities, and leave you better prepared to execute an effective ride on race day. Base and Build training phases create a foundation of fitness and develop a strong aerobic engine. Closer to the event, the Specialty Phase introduces harder and more specific stresses, aimed less at building fitness and more at training towards actually utilizing fitness towards a specific goal. For a time trial or hill climb, this means not only having good aerobic power, but having the real-world ability to generate that power over long efforts, at a sustained pace. This ability is developed especially well through longer intervals close to FTP. Thankfully, these intervals don’t need to exactly replicate the full duration of your event. By breaking long, steady efforts into shorter and more manageable parts, sweet spot workouts achieve a large amount of highly productive training over the course of a comparatively short ride.
Specialty Phase training such as the 40K TT plan also mentally prepares you to know what a long effort feels like, calibrating an understanding of a sensible pace and how to manage discomfort for long intervals. Training exclusively with short efforts commonly leads to poor pacing, as riders expecting the pain they are used to from shorter surges tend to dramatically over-pace the beginning of their events, burning out prematurely.
Finally, Specialty Phase workouts are also an excellent time to fine-tune variables like riding position, nutrition strategies, and heat management- all significant factors in long events, but dramatically less important in shorter ones. These factors are unlikely to be noticed or addressed when only training with short intervals at VO2 max intensity.
Correcting Weaknesses and Achieving Results
Before an event of any duration, ask yourself if your goals match your strengths. If they do, aim your training at honing those strengths, and if they don’t, target your training at correcting weaknesses. In every case, the goal of training is not only to become the fittest athlete, but to become the fittest athlete able to effectively perform the specific effort the event demands. In many cases, this requires pushing outside of your comfort zone with rides that may feel particularly challenging, but hard work and specific training pay off in the end with real results.
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