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Battling the slump: Adding intensity back into your training to speed up summer rides

A lack of intensity training - specifically in the middle of a summer ride with mates - is easy to spot

Mark Cohen
9 Aug 2019

Broadly speaking, intensity means working at or just above lactate threshold, most easily defined by functional threshold power or FTP. Measure yours and you’ve found the theoretical limit for how long you can push a big gear. Come summer, 'at your limit' isn’t always in the diary, especially on trips, descending mountain passes or just out enjoying the heat. Sometimes turning the pedals is enough.

But a lack of intensity training, say researchers and the industry, can definitely impact your ability to keep up.

'Someone who has the ability to pull the peloton along has a very high aerobic capacity and can tolerate a higher workload - those are are products of intensity,' explains Dr. Steve Faulkner, a lecturer in the Department of Sports Engineering at Nottingham Trent University.

'A rider like Tony Martin is a good example of the benefits of structured intensity - someone who can push big gears for long periods with relative ease thanks to structured effort.'

Moving into autumn, if the desire is to continue riding hard, adding intensity back into your summer schedule might just be what your physiology needs.

Combatting the 'Yates Effect'

On a trip to Spain in May, I found myself riding with four mates from a flat part of Canada and the US. Coming from mountainous central Europe, I thought I had them dialled for the Mallorcan hills. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Consistently dropped and struggling to reconcile my form, I looked at their average training ride (hard, intense, in a group and for periods of an hour to two on flat roads) compared to mine. I climbed a lot more, but rode alone and did little to no hard efforts. The gap was obvious.

'If you look at it from a purely physiological point of view, your mates from Toronto are used to working with a bigger gear on flatter roads and have developed more sustainable power - their muscles and physiology can tolerate a higher workload,' Faulkner explained.

'Someone like yourself who is more of a climber based on where you ride has developed the physiology for spinning gears quickly, but with numbers that perhaps aren’t as sustainable.'

My performance on Mallorca (or lack thereof) took me back to comments from Simon Yates at this year’s Giro d'Italia. His General Classification result was caused by a lack of intense rides, he said. Too many days just sitting in the peloton.

While no one (but him) knows what efforts he put in before the Giro, without some intensity added into his tapper, he said he just didn’t have the legs. I could relate, on a far lesser scale, and wondered if adding intensity back into my summer rides would help me with mine.

But who really wants to do structured training when the weather’s nice?

The case for turbo trainers in summer months

Colin Eustace, VP Global Marketing for Wahoo Fitness, and Faulkner share one thing in common: they both maintain that indoor training sessions have evolved from being something athletes should be doing only as a substitute for outdoor miles to a year-round performance enhancer.

Many of the athletes with whom Faulkner works lead normal, active, adult lives. Their preference for the trainer is often circumstantial. Many rely on it to economise time and get intensity work done - even when the roads are dry and the weather is warm.

Call it an occupational hazard, but Eustace sees the benefits of intensity work, too, and says it’s time to look at turbo trainers in a different light.

'It’s time to change your mindset about indoor trainers. For too long they have been relegated to the position of “The Alternative.”

'In the pursuit of your fitness and performance goals – regardless of the weather or road conditions – an indoor trainer is an essential year-round training tool because they maximise limited training time and allow for highly-targeted and specific intervals,' he says.

With that in mind, I got my hands on a set of Quick Motion rollers from Elite to put this thinking to work. The jury is still out on the impact. Honestly, I’m still mastering staying upright for longer than 20 minutes. The logic, however, appears sound.

Working with intensity

A lot of athletes look at high intensity training as a magic bullet, structuring in several sessions a week - outside or indoors - to gain better form.

While effective, there is risk in this approach, says Faulkner, in that many won’t be able to recover from those efforts quickly enough, leading to fatigued, sluggish legs.

'Most athletes will benefit from two sessions a week, where they are doing real structured intervals at an eight or nine perceived maximal effort, but 80 to 90 percent of training should still be made up of volume and easy steady training,' adds Faulkner.

'To be effective, those sessions will be race-pace kind of efforts.'

For this reason, turbo trainers offer an easy solution for intensity training which is why more and more people are using them - even in summer.

The sensation of riding at 320 watts over a sustained period can also be simulated on real roads, riding in chain gains, mapping out roads where five to 10 minutes can be done uninterrupted. But the point is simply not to leave it out of a regular riding schedule, no matter the season.

'Without that tolerance to anaerobic metabolites, you’re trying to put that effort in but you won’t be able to sustain it,' Faulkner says.

Sage advice for every season. Now I just have to develop my skills on the rollers - or make a better effort to catch club rides or chase road furniture - and I’ll be set.

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