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Sunday, 17 January 2021

Training without training - what I learned during the pandemic.


Here are a couple of questions for our times: 

1. What is the best way to train when there's nothing to train for ?    

2. How much fitness do you loose if you don't any any 'proper' training for nine months ? 

On the 18th of January last year I was in an optimistic mood and super motivated so I had decided to get my season underway early at the Croft Motor Racing circuit and I was pinning a number on for the first round of the Velo 29 Winter Series. After four months of well structured training, including a lot of race specific high intensity efforts I was feeling good and 2020 felt like it had the potential to be a great season.   

On top of having trained well I was moving in to a new age group and was going to be racing as an over 65 in the E category. Not that the 'E' age group is any less competitive than 'D' but because of a rule change I was moving into the category a year earlier and effectively a year younger than I otherwise would have. British Masters Cycle Racing had decided on a rule change to align with other organisations and effectively class every ones birthday as the 1st of January and as my birthday is at the end of November I would be one of those to potentially benefit most from the change. So this was definitely going to be the best chance I would ever have to get some good results in age group races something that I haven't really managed to do so far. 

There isn't any sort of training that you can do that's as hard as racing, especially when you're a 3rd Cat racing in an E/1/2/3/4 on a wide open circuit and the wind is gusting at 50 mph - you know what they say about what doesn't kill you ?

On the wheel of one of my best mates and former regular training partner Darren Moody. As we waited on the start line Darren and I (combined age 115 years) were speculating on the average age of the field, we decided it was about 23 and resigned ourselves to a tough day out.

January 25th and another hard day at Croft but thankfully when the going gets tough you can absolutely rely on the British Army.

After five 'training races' at Croft on March 8th my season proper started at a different motor racing circuit, this time it was Darley Moor in Derbyshire the first round of the BMCR National Series for over 60's and what turned out to be my final race of 2020. 

Despite missing the race winning move and not picking up any series points I came away from Darley Moor thinking that I was definitely going to be competitive and feeling pretty positive for the rest of the season ... you know the rest, by the end of March it was pretty clear that their wasn't going be a 2020 season for me or anyone else. 
So what next ? racing is important to me and I definitely wanted to race in 2021 but I didn't think it was possible for me to maintain my race fitness for a full year without a race season. The reality of 2020 soon became clear and riding solo almost exclusively, which I rarely did before Covid, quickly became the norm. I decided to keep it simple, no plan, no structure, just ride every day and sprinkle a bit of quality/intensity into the mix every now and again.

Although I have a power meter I don't generally train to power, partly because I ride a few different bikes and I only have a power meter on one of them, but also after getting a power meter I quickly came to the conclusion that at my age (65) training with it is really just a way of monitoring my inevitable decline, which I don't find particularly motivating. So I train to heart rate but the power meter is still very useful for fitness testing. My riding since March has been approximately 80% low intensity and 20% of mixed duration high intensity intervals done on a very irregular basis without any sort of structure. The 80/20 Principle So how much fitness do you loose if you don't do any 'proper' training for nine months ? The answer to the question in my case is surprisingly not very much at all, in fact I got a little bit faster which came as something of a surprise.

When I got the power meter in 2018 I did some baseline testing to establish my power zones and FTP and I hadn't repeated the tests since then. I wrote a series of three blog posts on training and racing with power at the time (you can read them here Power #1 Power #2 Power #3 ) So two years older and after nine months of very little training but plenty of low intensity riding I decided to repeat the tests, on the same bike at the same time of the year, in exactly the same location and in very similar weather conditions. The tests were done on three consecutive days, the same as in 2018 and each time after a thorough warm up. Day one was 3 x 5 minute efforts with 30 minutes recovery in between. Day two was 1 x 20 minute and day three was 3 x 1 minute. 
                                      
This stretch of road I use for testing is close to home and is ideal as there's not too much traffic, it has a decent surface and an even incline with a roundabout at the end, all good reasons for using it but mainly it's because it's only five minutes from one of my favourite cafes - Caffe Italissimo 

So how did the results compare ? how much less fit was I ? and had my race form completely disappeared ? Well no, actually it hadn't, in fact on two of three tests I found that I had actually improved. To be more accurate I had lost a bit of power but I was quicker, on the five minute efforts my average power for the three tests was down by 3% BUT and it's a fairly significant but, I was quicker over each of the efforts.

On the twenty minute effort I was down by 2.8%  on power compared to 2018 but again I was quicker. In November 2018 I covered a distance of 6.66 miles in the twenty minutes in November 2020 I achieved a distance of 6.83 miles in the time (2.5% further) in the same neutral wind conditions on an out and back course on the same stretch of road.

                                                                    Same bike, same road, same weather ...same pain.

The one minute efforts however told a slightly different story, overall I was 8% down on power from 2018, initially I wasn't sure if this just because of poor test technique (gear selection and pacing) so a few days later I repeated the tests and the results were virtually the same. After thinking about it the loss of 8% was probably about right and was most likely explained by the fact that for several months most of my efforts had been a a longer than a minute and not at maximum. The ability to do these short efforts well has a lot to do with pain tolerance, which is trainable at any age, I decided that the most likely reason was that I was just not used to doing them, psychologically as well as physically so I decided to do a training experiment.  

For the next four weeks during my daily rides I did two or three sessions a week of max effort one minute intervals, starting with 5 x 1 min and building up to 10 x 1 min. Then I re-tested, well rested, in similar conditions, same road etc. After four weeks of structured one minute intervals I had re-gained 7% of the 8% I had lost. This came as another surprise as optimistically I was hoping to get about half of the loss back, so to get to within 1% of what I consider to be good form was a nice bonus. So it turns out very short, very high intensity interval training works ... who would have guessed ?

                                         In need of caffeine after 10 x 1 min max efforts on a gravel bike.

The test dates were: 2018: November 2nd, 3rd and 4th and in 2020: November 5th, 6th and 7th. They are all on  My Strava and some extra analysis was done from the data available on Training Peaks. 

A few things to note:

  • The 2018 tests were done after a full season, I may have been fatigued ? but on the other hand I may have had really good form from regular racing.
  • These results may be personal to me and not valid for everyone, I have 37 consecutive years of training and racing behind me so my fitness base is solid, but even so they may not be sustainable in the longer term. 
  • I am 65 and recent research points to a small amount of high intensity training being the best approach for those of my advancing years. The loss of power may have just been due to being two years older, I refer you back to my reason for not using the power meter. 
  • I also made some dietary changes during 2020. I have not been eating breakfast and I have had no alcohol at all, both have without doubt helped me to maintain my 'racing weight' and the latter has probably helped with motivation too. 
  • The other thing worth noting is that I did a lot of riding off road on gravel bikes and probably about a third of the 10,000+ miles I did last year were on surfaces other than smooth tarmac. As someone who knows about these things once said to me "you get nothing for free on a gravel bike" which is very true, particularly on the type of trails and bridleways that I ride, not much in the way of hills but not much descending either, so always pressing on the pedals albeit at low intensity.
                                            There seems to be a training benefit for me just from rolling on fat tyres 

Overall and based on the one minute training experiment and re-test I would say that I am currently 4- 6 weeks away from being ready to race. So if we get the nod to start again this year, which unfortunately at the time of writing is sadly starting to look doubtful again, I will definitely be ready. 

The final take home message has to be that consistency is key and it absolutely trumps everything else. The most beneficial thing that you can do to maintain fitness is a lot of low intensity riding, which is why I rode every single day of last year 366/366. Obviously not many people are lucky enough to do this but consistency can be just three rides a week if that's all you can fit in, as long as it's EVERY week. Most days I was just riding and not training but I went hard some of the time, probably around 20% of my ride time. I have learned that this percentage seems to be about right for me at the moment, but it will probably reduce as I get older, you may need more ... or less?  

Thanks for reading - stay safe. 





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