• Coaches Corner: The California Winter Question

    by  • January 13, 2014 • trainin and tactics

    Nate DunneAbout Coach Nate Dunn: Nate Dunn has always been passionate about understanding human performance.  What started as a fascination with heart rate monitors in high school led to the completion of his Masters Degree in Kinesiology/Exercise Science from CSUS and the founding of his cycling coaching business Data Driven Athlete.  He can typically be found reading exercise physiology research, talking excitedly about athletic performance with clients, or backpacking around the NorCal wilderness with his wife and young daughter.

    You’re riding too hard; it’s only January…really?

    You’re riding along in the group when some all-star at the front launches a blistering attack forcing the group to surge in response.  Your buddy next to you pants in disgust, saying something about how dumb it is that guys are riding so hard in January.  He goes on to explain that January is a month that should be dedicated to long and slow miles, nothing above zone 2, and that the launching of blistering attacks in January will surely come to haunt the all-star off the front when he attempts to achieve peak fitness for the Little City Stage Race on June 21.  He concludes with “honestly, that’s how it works…”

    In this article we’ll take a closer look at the debate over how hard to ride during the off-season while examining the scientific basis for such a claim.  I’ll make an attempt to offer up some practical advice that might be helpful as you muddle through the unforgiving NorCal winter.

    The idea to refrain from riding “too hard” during the off-season originates from the concept of training periodization[1].  We touched on training periodization briefly in the last article about designing the perfect training plan.  In short, periodization theory is predicated on the belief that peak performance is obtained by working on specific fitness attributes in a “sequential hierarchy” [2].  In other words, it is imperative to “build a base” of long slow miles before adding higher intensity training.  If you fail to follow the low to high intensity sequence of training, you could potentially stunt your growth as a cyclist and never reach the highest peak of fitness you are capable of.

    This advice sounds logical but is there any evidence that following a sequential progression of cycling intensity is the best way to achieve peak fitness?  The short answer seems to be no [2].  In fact, in a recent study comparing sprint interval training (4-6 X 30 seconds all out with 4m rest periods) with more traditional “endurance training” (90-120 minutes of continuous low intensity riding) similar endurance improvements were observed in both groups [3].  In other words, sprint training (which totaled roughly 90% less total training volume than the traditional endurance group) produced similar endurance adaptations (as measured by two separate laboratory time trials) to traditional “base” training.

    But I thought in order to improve your “endurance” it was essential to do “endurance” level riding?  That traditional wisdom doesn’t seem to be backed by science.  For the majority of cyclists, riding “too hard” in January is probably the least of their concerns when it comes to optimizing their fitness level throughout the season.  Each athlete is different, but here are several questions that might address whether or not you’re riding to hard after your office Christmas party.

    Should I be riding hard in January?

    • Q:  How much time do you have to train per week?
    • A:  8 hours.
      • Advice: Ride hard
    • Q:  What is your past history of long term training motivation?
    • A:  I usually burn out by May.
      • Advice:  Don’t ride hard; better yet don’t ride at all, unless you enjoy colder, wetter, and generally more miserable riding conditions.
    • Q:  Is riding hard an important stress relief?
    • A:  Yes, the affirmation I receive from making others miserable on the bike is an important component of my overall mental health.
      • Advice: Ride hard.
    • Q:  Is it difficult for you to enjoy riding or racing when you’re several notches below your typical peak fitness level?
    • A:  Being out of shape on the bike typically leads to a downward spiral of negative self-talk and depression.
      • Advice: Ride hard
    • Q:  Would you prefer to ride hard or complain about others riding too hard?
    • A:  I prefer complaining about others riding too hard.
      • Advice:  Save “riding hard” for the window of time during the summer that allows you to maximize your motivation and overall training intensity.  A podium finish at the Little City Stage race on June 21 will await you.

    Hopefully the takeaway is that there is no “rule” for riding hard in January.  Perhaps one of the only rules of importance is that acquiring cycling specific fitness doesn’t seem to follow an organized and structured hierarchy of “ideal” training zones and fitness blocks.  Your best “base” training might be hammering every weekend ride possible while doing all-out sprint training on the indoor-trainer or it might involve abstaining from consecutive high-intensity rides in order to conserve the energy needed to achieve your weekly training volume target of 25 hours.

    Nate Dunn, M.S.
    Data Driven Athlete


    1. Matveev, L.P., Fundamentals of sports training. 1981, Moscow: Progress Publishers. 309 p.

    2. Kiely, J., Periodization paradigms in the 21st century: evidence-led or tradition-driven? Int J Sports Physiol Perform, 2012. 7(3): p. 242-50.

    3. Gibala, M.J., et al., Short-term sprint interval versus traditional endurance training: similar initial adaptations in human skeletal muscle and exercise performance. The Journal of Physiology, 2006. 575(3): p. 901-911.





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