So I’ve entered the UK National 24-hour Time Trial Champs in July 2022 – riding as far as I can on open roads in a 24 hour period – oh dear…
As a 44 year old dad working full-time as an ICU doctor, I’m not going to win – but I still want to ride a performance to be proud of. More than that, I want the whole process to feel enriching, with learning and adventures along the way.
Over these six months, I’m finding out more about everything needed to perform in an ultra-distance bike race. By sharing what I learn, I hope to discover more about the sport, myself, and the ingredients of success…or failure.
It’s been a few weeks since I’ve had time to write – appropriate, really, given the topic. This post is all about the balance of training and recovery.
It might feel as if fitness gains are happening while we are actually training but, in fact, the reverse is true.
All training – whether cycling, running, or weight training – creates fatigue that makes us less fit in the short term. It’s only with recovery, nutrition, and adequate sleep that the body can adapt and become fitter.
The basic principle of training is to overload the body with more work than it is used to doing. Without this, the body won’t bother getting any fitter.
This overload needs to be progressive, with increased frequency, intensity, or duration of workouts.
It also needs to be specific for the type of improvements we want, especially as the target event draws near. The body gets better at what it’s made to do.
The underlying physiology of the stimulus is complex, but all training activates one of two main pathways. Aerobic training stimulates a messenger called PGC-1alpha, while strength training increases another, called mTOR.
Interestingly, these pathways interact with each other, so that aerobic stimulus can actually suppress the strength pathway and limit muscle growth. At least this is my excuse for these weedy muscles!
Over time, PGC-1alpha and mTOR trigger an incredible range of physical changes that boost athletic performance.
- Bigger heart with thicker walls to pump more blood with every beat
- Increased capillaries in lungs and muscles to increase blood supply
- Increased enzymes and more, bigger mitochondria (the tiny factories inside cells) to burn more fat and glucose for energy
- Increased plasma volume, to help blood flow more quickly.
- Increased muscle glycogen stores , for bigger energy reserves.
- Faster, more powerful activation of muscles by nerve fibres
- Thicker muscle fibres for stronger contractions
- Thicker, stronger bones and tendons
This all sounds wonderful and it’s tempting to think the more stimulus, the better. Sadly, this is true only to a point. Stimulus only creates improvement when the overall level of fatigue is manageable.
Along with training stimulus, every workout creates fatigue in the body: systems need to be restored and repaired before the next bout of work.
- Micro-tears and inflammation in muscles
- Depleted glycogen energy stores
- Mental fatigue
- Altered hormone balance (eg raised stress hormone, cortisol)
- Suppressed immune function
Without allowing enough time to recover, fatigue keeps rising until we either decide to take a break, or we’re forced to do so by illness or injury.
Everyone has a limit eventually. Persisting with too much fatigue for too long will cause the body’s systems to degrade into overtraining syndrome. At its mildest, the symptoms are subtle: constant tiredness, declining motivation and mediocre performance. At worst, it it can lead to severe chronic fatigue, illness, and long-term hormone imbalances needing years of recovery.
If the only source of fatigue in life was training stress, this wouldn’t be so hard to manage. But there are many other life stresses that create their own fatigue:
- Work pressures
- Emotional stress
- Disrupted sleep
- Poor nutrition
Finding the Balance
The challenge, then, is to maximise training stimulus without creating more fatigue than we can recover from. This means taking into account all sources of stress, whether that’s from training or other life stresses.
A professional athlete might be able to reduce life stresses to a very low level: getting eight hours sleep every night, employing a dedicated chef and nutritionist, and ditching all other responsibilities… but that’s far from realistic for the rest of us.
In the real world, we need to to find the right balance for our own circumstances. But how? It’s tempting to seek a technical answer to this problem and there are, in fact some tools available:
TrainingPeaks – this software analyses heart rate and power from workouts to give each session a Training Stress Score (TSS). It then takes these scores, factors in recovery time and produces a long term graph of TSS and fatigue. This works well to track training load in isolation, but does nothing to account for other life stresses. For example, TrainingPeaks tells me I am super-recovered after working 3 night shifts in a row with no training. In reality, I’m totally knackered.
Heart Rate Tracking – changes in resting heart rate (RHR) and heart rate variability (HRV) might be helpful as early indicators of poor recovery. In practice, I have found RHR actually correlates quite poorly with my recovery. HRV sounds interesting but, so far, there is little published evidence to justify the expense.
Subjective Scoring – simply noting down daily scores for freshness and sensations when training might actually be the most useful indicators of recovery. The difficulty here is trying to be honest with oneself, while differentiating between feeling a bit unmotivated and genuine physical fatigue.
Like many amateurs with a full-time job, I find the balance between training and recovery difficult to strike. What seems manageable on paper can often prove unworkable in practice and, when motivated, it is easy to fall into the trap of a “more is more” mindset.
I find having a coach (the wonderful Toby Leyland) to be hugely helpful. This gives me accountability to make sure the hard workouts get done, but also the necessary perspective allow enough time for recovery.
Life, of course, is unpredictable but I have found some useful rules-of-thumb for what works. Toby and I use TrainingPeaks to track my workouts and, in a typical week, I’ve learned I can average around 80-90 TSS per day (the equivalent of a 2 hour steady ride or an hour of hard intervals).
On a non-boozy holiday with plenty of rest and good nutrition, I can do about a third more than this and still come home feeling awesome. On the other hand, when working a busy week on ICU, after missing a night’s sleep on call, or after enjoying more than a couple of beers, the amount I can handle might be reduced by 50% or more.
Train hard and keep progressing – but balance this with other stresses and commit just as hard to your recovery as your training.
Training Stimulus + Recovery = Performance
The extra nerdy part….
For anyone interested in this level of detail (not many, I suspect!), Here are some specifics of what I’m doing.
42 week programme, from 10 Oct 21 to 23 Jul 22, guided by Toby
First 14 weeks focussed on strength work and winter miles on the road bike.
Middle 14 weeks building more structured sessions on the TT bike, while continuing to progress strength in the gym.
Final 14 weeks (starting now) building ultra-endurance specificity, with long Audax rides (200, 400 & 600km), extended time in the TT position (up to 7 hours per week) and fine-tuning the pacing and nutrition plans.
Key Weekly Sessions
1 x 4 hour endurance ride (65-70% FTP, fuelling at 60g/hr CHO)
2 x 1 hour strength sessions (small group training with free weights at MVFit)
1-2 x 1-2 hour structured intervals on turbo or outside (eg 6×3 min @ 120% FTP, 2×20 min @ 100% FTP, 2×30 min @ 90% FTP)
1-2 x 1 hour steady-state rollers in TT position (active recovery, while practising form in the TT position)
Training Stimulus Targets
Build to, then maintain 80-90 TSS/d
Build TT position time to 7 hours per week
Recovery Targets (often not achieved)
2-3 easy or rest days per week
Minimum 7 hours sleep, 5 days per week
Average 2-3 double espressos per day
Average 1 unit alcohol per day
Neutral energy balance with 2g/kg protein daily
Progress so far
Overall training volume has progressed nicely, with the bulk of weekly load coming from endurance rides, now sustained at 80-90 TSS/d
23 x 4-hour endurance rides and 40 x 1-hour strength sessions completed over 1st 28 weeks.
Time in TT position built to 5 hrs/wk (my 2021 maximum) and on course to reach 7 hrs/wk.
Only managing 7 hours sleep around 4 nights per week.
Variable alcohol and caffeine intake: sometimes held within target range, but frequent 2-3 week periods (eg over Christmas) of higher intake.
So far, I have done a good job with the training stimulus, and a so-so job with the recovery. In the final third of my programme I hope to build the training further, while prioritising better sleep and being more careful with alcohol and caffeine intake.