Coming out of lockdown stronger!
It became obvious in March that the Covid-19 pandemic would prevent many cyclists across Europe from training outside for several weeks, professional and amateurs alike. March and April are important months for training and there was a very legitimate concern about detraining. How can you realistically train indoors? Training for short, sharp efforts on a turbo is one thing, but what about for endurance events like the Marmotte, the Haute Route or indeed the Tour du Mont Blanc?
We wrote a series of blogs at the end of March describing a training plan for a strict lockdown, all without doing a single ride outside. Lockdowns across Europe are now being progressively relaxed, so it’s time to ask: how did it go? Was our suggestion that one could improve performance in a lockdown completely utopic?
At the time we didn’t know how long the lockdown was going to last. Nor did we have any idea whether the events we had targeted this year would actually take place or not. The most sensible option was to return to a form of base training and work on the fundamentals.
Things are now (a bit) clearer. The lockdown calendar has of course varied from country to country: some have allowed cyclists to continue training outside throughout, others, and in particular France where we live, issued a total ban on recreational cycling for the 8 week period between 17 March and 11 May. There’s similar variation in the rules for events. The Marmotte Valais in Switzerland is still expected to go ahead on August 8, but it’s now looking unlikely that any sportives will take place in France before September, if at all.
So was our proposal completely utopic? Can you really become a stronger cyclist without riding your bike outside? Yes, absolutely!
It is actually quite easy to improve one’s performance on a narrow measure during an 8 week period of targeted training. For example, the right sort of intervals performed twice or three times a week for 8 weeks will almost certainly produce a marked improvement in maximum aerobic power. However, and here’s the key issue concerning limiting yourself to short sessions only on a turbo: this will very likely be at the cost of endurance.
It’s a bit harder to improve performance across a broad range of measures, from one minute maximal power all the way out to endurance markers such as cardiac drift during a 4h effort. But it’s still possible: read on for Marvin’s results, and how he did it.
My objectives in 2020 were the Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB) and the Marmotte. I know the Marmotte well and confidently expect to take around 8h30 (including the untimed descent from the Glandon) for the 175km and 5,000m. I have never ridden the TMB, but expect to take from 15 to 16 hours to finish the 330km and 8,400m. These are two of the toughest one-day events you can find anywhere, and the principal characteristic needed is strong aerobic endurance.
My training plan has therefore been focused largely on aerobic endurance.
During the 11 week base training period from Jan 1st to the start of the lockdown on Mar 15th, I averaged 13h40 per week, of which the great majority was Low Intensity Training (LIT). One of these weeks was a big one, with over 28 hours of cycling at our camp in Tenerife; the following week was a complete break with no cycling at all.
My biggest concern for the lockdown was losing aerobic endurance. It’s easy to do HIT sessions on a turbo: long rides at endurance pace are something else. In the end, the longest rides I did were 4 hours, which is equivalent to about 5 hours on the road because the effort is continuous with no stops and no coasting. Had the lockdown continued another month I would certainly have pushed these long turbo rides out to 5 and even 6 hours.
During the 8 weeks of lockdown I did an average of 7h45 of Low Intensity Training (LIT) per week, plus one HIT session per week averaging 1h15. This was therefore a significant reduction in on-the-bike training, from 13h40 to 9h (-33%), but less of a reduction if we take into account the greater efficiency of turbo training. The ratio of LIT to HIT shifted somewhat in favour of HIT but remained polarised at 86%.
I used my regular road bike set up on a “dumb” direct drive wind trainer, which provides resistance varying with the speed, as determined by the combination of cadence and gear selection. Power was measured by an InfoCrank installed on the bike. This is an extremely accurate and reliable device developed for the exacting specifications of British Cycling and the UCI World Cycling Centre and is considered the new Gold Standard. To pass the time more agreeably I used BigRingVR, one of several apps that allow you to simulate cycling on real climbs with HD video.
I introduced 2-3 sessions of strength & conditioning per week, concentrating on core strength and leg strength, as well as regular walks.
1. POWER TESTS
I conducted 5 sec, 1 min, 5 min and 20 min tests on the road at the end of January, 6 weeks before the lockdown began on March 17th. I repeated the 1 min and 5 min tests on the turbo at the end of March and again 6 weeks later. I repeated the 20 min test on the road on May 12th, during my first ride after lockdown ended, and the 5 sec test on May 20th. All tests were done with the same power meter.
In line with my focus on aerobic endurance, my 20 min power improved the most, by 5% from 276W to 290W. My 5 min power improved by 3% and my 1 min power by just 1.4%. With these new numbers, my estimated critical power (or FTP) improved by 6.5% and is now very close to the level it was last season.
My 5 sec sprint power increased by 6%, from 806W in January to 856W in May, showing the positive effect of my off-the-bike strength training.
2. CARDIAC DRIFT
My cardiac drift was essentially unchanged throughout the lockdown period. It was either negative or very slightly positive (<2%) on 2h rides at a steady power output between 60% and 77% of critical power. In line with Dr Stephen Seiler’s recent findings, it started to increase around the 2h30 mark, and by the end of a 4h ride it was in the range 6-8%. My weight loss on the 4h rides was around 1.5kg so there might be a small dehydration effect here.
3. STRENGTH & CONDITIONING
In normal times I don’t do enough strength and conditioning (S&C) training, so the lockdown was a real opportunity to increase this. Mindful of the risk of making sudden large changes, I added a relatively modest 1h30 of S&C training per week. Two thirds of this time was focused on core strength through various Pilates exercises as well as planks; the remaining third was spent on leg strength, mainly single leg squats and wall sits.
In terms of results, I made good progress on all measures: improving times or the number of repetitions by up to 35%. This impressive improvement is probably more a reflection of my low starting point than anything else, but it’s likely that increased core and leg strength will have contributed to my improved cycling performance.
4. YOU CAN’T WIN THEM ALL…
What about my weight? I had intended to lose 1-2 kg during the lockdown, but in fact I failed to make the necessary effort and 8 weeks later my weight was unchanged. Oh well…
The above data is anecdotic and concerns me only, so let me add another example, from an Italian cyclist whom Silas coaches. This athlete doesn’t have a turbo trainer, but luckily lives on a steep hill. He was only allowed to cycle a maximum of 400m from his house, so Silas had him do a combination of hill reps, standing, sitting, high cadence and big gear as well as some easy and some max efforts. He also did some bodyweight strength exercises (lunges and squats) and some walking with intervals of running mixed in. He’s come out having not lost anything other than possibly a little pure endurance which seems like it’s coming back very quickly.
A few things we learned:
- If we do too much of the same training we stagnate. The lockdown has forced us to be innovative which then forces our bodies to adapt differently. It’s a reminder to do more varied training going forward, especially in non-specific phases, when there is no imminent event.
- It is possible to do 4h+ on a turbo without going nuts, and you don’t need a smart trainer.
- It is better to play the cards you are dealt in life rather than complain that life is unfair.
- Throughout this period, I have often thought how incredibly lucky I am to enjoy good health and comfortable living conditions. I learned that, sometimes, we (I) can be way too obsessive about our sport and a little bit of perspective goes a long way.
If the situation re-occurs, I would follow the same plan again, and I would recommend it to any cyclist interested in maintaining or developing their fitness during an extended lockdown. To recap, here are the main points:
- Stay polarised: at least 80% of rides should be LIT (below 70% of CP/FTP or HRmax)
- Don’t be afraid of long endurance rides on the turbo. 4h is nowhere near as bad as it sounds.
- Design your HIT intervals based on the qualities you most need to develop, try variations.
- Spend 1-2h per week on strength & conditioning, focused on core and leg strength.
- If you don’t have a turbo, think out of the box!
The earliest events are still at least three months away, and remain uncertain. So what to do now? We can see three options, depending on how seriously you want to train:
The first option is to assume your chosen event is going ahead and to train hard for it. This means progressively moving from Base training to Pre-Competition training, in which you make your training rides more and more like the event.
The second option is to set yourself a personal challenge, such as riding a particular long distance route, climbing a certain amount of vertical in one day or improving your 40km time-trial performance. Again, to prepare for this, you would move progressively from Base training to making your training rides more and more like the challenge.
The third option is to rule out any thoughts of performance this year and just to ride for pleasure. There’s nothing wrong with that: better days will come!
ALPINE COLS EVENTS IN 2020
If you are anything like us you must be impatient to ride in the mountains again and enjoy the things we love so much about our sport: sometimes pushing to the limit for that wonderful burn in the legs; sometimes easing off to admire the stunning scenery; the immense satisfaction in cresting the summit of an iconic climb; charming hotels, fantastic food and great company.
At the time I write this (May 23rd) we are still hoping to run a couple of training camps and a road trip at the end of the summer. Whether we are able to do so depends on the evolving situation. It appears certain that the virus will still be with us until well into 2021, and perhaps longer still, so we are all going to have to learn to live with it.
We will only go ahead with our camps under two conditions: firstly if we can do so in full accordance with government guidelines, but more importantly if we are convinced that the risk is at an acceptably low level. Any bookings taken will be fully refunded if we have to cancel the trip or if the authorities prevent travel.