This week we hear from Eric Orton of TrainWithEric.com.
Eric is an elite-level coach who trains some of the top MTB racers in the U.S.
Eric is the former Director of Fitness at the University of Colorado Health
Sciences Center, a certified Functional Training Specialist, a Certified Sports
Hypnotist, and holds coaching certifications from both USA Triathlon and USA
Question: Now that I am in the meat
of the race season, how do I keep my high-end fitness throughout a long season
This is a tricky question, as I believe an
effective "peak” in fitness first starts with a well thought out training plan
and more importantly, a prioritized race schedule. This all sets the stage for the peak process, making your
cycling fitness as race specific as possible. Peaking is a mysterious art,
especially in cycling. For many
reasons, it is just not easy to achieve one’s highest possible level of performance
on the day of a major goal race or peak part of the season, despite all the
effort and care that goes into planning and training to produce peak results.
I see it all the time, mountain bikers tend
to race very well early in the competitive season and fall flat toward the end
of the season, when they should hit their peak. The reason, I believe, is that they start to do race
specific training too early in the season and do too much cardiovascular conditioning
in preparation for early season races. I have mentioned in previous columns that the development of
endurance is associated with the functional specialization of the skeletal
muscles, particularly the enhancement of their strength and neuromuscular
qualities, rather than the improvement of prolonged cardiovascular
ability. And to experience great
gains in strength and speed endurance, one should aim to eliminate the
disparity between the anaerobic and aerobic abilities of the muscles. If this is not the focus early in the
season and carried out to some extent all season, there is a tendency to do too
much endurance or cardiovascular training and peaking too soon or plateauing,
which many times cause the cyclist to over train. To drive this home, here are some points to ponder:
Why do athletes with equivalent
VO2 max levels perform different results?
Why do VO2 max results in elite
athletes stabilize as results continue to improve?
Why is there a decreasing
correlation between VO2 max and improved times?
This could indicate that VO2 max or cardiovascular
efficiency on its own is no guarantee of an outstanding performance and that a
cyclist’s body can only progressively adapt to race specific training for a few
weeks until a limit is reached. For this reason, I assign about 6 weeks of race
specific training leading up to the athlete’s seasonal peak or race occurs. Once the athlete hits the peak phase,
they are now ready for a reduction in weekly volume of about 50% and also a
heavy dose of hard intervals.
These hard intervals heighten neuromuscular coordination and enhance
economy, in concert with the easier overall weekly volume for recovery. As coordination and efficiency at high
speed improve from these hard intervals, the athlete’s previous race pace is
now faster, because the oxygen cost of riding at that speed has fallen. Thus,
one reaches VO2 max at a higher speed than previously, and might explain why
there is a decreasing correlation between VO2 max results and peak performance.
Merely regulating or limiting the duration of
your race specific or peak phase of training will not guarantee a successful
peak, however. There are a few
tricks you can use to reliably increase the odds of peaking successfully. As mentioned above, your peak phase should
include a reduction in weekly volume and include hard intervals once or twice a
week while all other riding is easy.
If you feel you are peaking too soon or need to extend your peak longer
than a 3-4 week period, integrate some tempo riding to ‘massage’ your form and
prolong it for the duration required.
If you are in your peak time of year, your heart rate should be very
responsive, elevate quickly, and be higher than during your heavy training
phase. If you notice this is not
the case and your heart rate is low and slow to respond, be sure to take 2-4
days of recovery riding or reduce you peak training volume even more. Your legs need the recovery and a lower
heart rate is NOT an indication of peak fitness.
And finally, you should taper not just before
your big races but on a monthly basis. After all, since tapering is such a
great thing, why reserve it for just a couple of times a year? If you taper for
the last five to seven days of each month, you'll find that your fitness will
move upward in sizable jumps, instead of just creeping up a little or - worse
yet - stagnating at the same level.