The last couple of years for many of us has been a series of trying to make plans, only to have to throw them away in light of changing conditions outside of our control. We have had to learn how to re-shuffle our schedules, adopt new habits and routines, and re-prioritise our goals and behaviours to fit the moving targets of external demands on our time and energy. This goes for demands related to work, daily life, family & friends, as well as etching out a crevice of time somewhere for our own physical and mental training for health, fitness, and/or performance.
My own training priorities have certainly shifted in recent years toward optimising for health & fitness, and gaining an appreciation for words like ‘longevity’, ‘durability’, and ‘resiliency’. Rather than peak competitive performance.
Endurance competition must include a high level of fitness, but a high level of fitness does not need to include competition.
I don’t think Performance and Health are mutually exclusive in terms of exercise training. I think of them as two book-ends along a spectrum of Fitness. In which there is a lot of overlap in training that will improve toward both priorities. However, to some extent optimising for one will necessarily mean de-optimising for the other.
As I’ve been thinking about this spectrum of training for fitness, I’ve tried to establish a consistent training routine for myself that I can use a foundation – a home base that I can return to when the conditions around me suddenly shift and once again I have to throw out my plans and consider how to re-prioritise my future in the short, medium, or long-term.
The foundation for this sustainable training routine should be parsimonious, in that it should be both optimally simple and optimally effective. We can add variety and complexity like hard-start or intermittent (30/15) intervals, over-unders, heat training, cadence drills, and all the rest. But the foundation of the routine should be utterly simple. When in doubt, our home base has a straightforward workout prescription that we can fall back to.
It should be effective toward improving metabolic health and endurance fitness with a long-term focus on compounding adaptations, which can be cycled through to avoid training stagnancy. Specific tapering and race blocks can then be introduced to optimise for short-term peaks in performance if desired.
It should have a consistent periodised structure on a daily (session), weekly (microcycle), monthly (mesocycle), and multi-month (macrocycle) basis to prioritise gradual, compounding adaptations. But it should have the flexibility to shift and accommodate the inevitably competing demands on time and energy that will arise.
Of course, the foundation for this training plan should be informed by the consensus of systematic evidence, but not beholden to only what can be statistically verified. We should appreciate what works for us might not work for a rigorously controlled study group, and vice-versa. Training should be individualised for the individual. Efficacy does not necessarily imply effectiveness. What works in practice may not work in theory.
With those scattered philosophical thoughts in mind, here is a basic template for what I currently consider to be a solid, simple, sustainable training plan that can be individualised, modified, mixed around, and repeated near ad infinitum. This can be used as a foundation for whatever training goals we have, be they focused on performance with a specific peak event/race date in mind, or more about sustaining general health, fitness, longevity, and resiliency.
You’ll find the general structure and advice below in a janky spreadsheet.
I have included a TrainingPeaks training plan which can act as a template with some example training weeks.
Unfortunately the TrainingPeaks plan is not currently available.
Training Plan General Information
(feel free to copy)
Low-intensity Aerobic Training
Let’s talk about low-intensity aerobic training first before getting into the high-intensity workouts, below. This is the most important part. You may notice I haven’t included a strict low-intensity ‘base’ phase. Maybe I should. I certainly think periods of exclusive low intensity are productive and necessary, especially when re-starting systematic exercise after a period away due to illness, travel, or just general life getting in the way. When starting from a lower baseline, the first thing to build is consistency. Everything else is secondary.
See my comment below to this great question about overall periodisation structure for a bit more rationale for how it’s presented here. And please understand, these training blocks can be considered modular, to be done in whatever order is most appropriate to your situation.
Although aerobic/low-intensity training could be brushed off as filler between the key harder workouts, I would suggest our low-intensity training sessions are the foundation upon which an endurance training plan must be based. The simple advice for a sustainable training plan is perform one or two structured high-intensity sessions each week at most, and prioritise the rest of our available time with low-intensity continuous activity according to (1) how much time we have prioritised for training, and (2) – this is important – our capacity to absorb and adapt to a given training volume.
Some of us will be limited by how much time we can train. The reality is that if we only have 6-hrs each week to train, our endurance performance will probably plateau well before we get to our “genetic potential”. But we can certainly maintain a relatively high performance level, as well as progressively enhance our metabolic fitness over the long-term with that amount of structured training.
Others of us will be limited more by how much training stress we can absorb and adapt to, without accumulating/compounding fatigue over the med/long-term. This might be true whether we have 6-hrs or 26-hrs each week to train. A novice to structured training probably won’t be able to tolerate too many back-to-back 26-hr training weeks right away, regardless of time availability for training and recovery. Just like anything else, we should expect to gradually progress how much training volume, stress, or load we dose ourselves with in order to progressively adapt.
The biggest question by far is ‘what is the minimum effective dose’ of low-intensity training duration? Is a 30-minute aerobic session worth it? Or should we increase the intensity? The first answer is that it depends on what our bodies are accustomed to: if we are adapted to tolerate and absorb regular 4-hour aerobic sessions, then a 1-hour session might not give us much adaptive stimulus. It might be a maintenance session at best. On the other hand, if we’re new to training or returning from an injury or time off, then 30-minutes might give us a nice beneficial training stimulus. Regardless, 30-minutes of activity is better than nothing. Even more importantly, more frequent and more consistent short sessions can be just as good, if not better than less frequent/consistent longer sessions.
No, unfortunately we can’t just increase the intensity to make up for less time availability to train. I mean, you can do whatever you enjoy doing and whatever keeps you active! But shorter duration at higher intensity is simply different from, and not a replacement for low-intensity exercise. In general, our bodies can optimise and adapt toward either improved capacity or improved efficiency, but not both simultaneously. If we only ever expose ourselves to intensity-dependent stimuli, we will likely be missing out on an optimal response across both ends of that spectrum. Low-intensity training gives us a dose of durational-dependent stimuli which are necessary for sustaining endurance performance and metabolic health.
As such, more low-intensity activity is generally better. I would suggest this includes lifestyle activity levels just as much as structured training. Metabolic health comes not just from the few hours each week of deliberate structured training, but from our baseline activity levels and energy flux through all our waking hours. Move more. Stand up right now if you can, flex some muscles and move!
The harder the workout, the longer the warm-up should be. The obvious purpose of a warm-up is to prime our physiology to improve both efficiency and capacity at a high relative intensity. Furthermore, our warm-up should be an opportunity to check-in physically and psychologically with how we’re feeling before giving our best effort toward a training session.
I suggest implementing a standardized warm-up protocol before every trainer workout, where we grow familiar with the sensations of each progressive effort. We can monitor how we feel on any given day, within a dynamic physiological range: about normal, worse than normal, better than normal? This should inform how we proceed with our planned training session: are we all signals go? Or does something not quite feel right? Will I be able to get the most out of my effort today? Or would I benefit from reducing my physiological stress today and reschedule the workout for later this week?
When we feel marginal, and we’re not sure which call to make, first just show up: meaning, start the planned session and see how things go. The answer might quickly become obvious, or we might continue to feel marginal. Remember, optimize for the longer-term, not for any one single workout.
I think the key prescriptive advice for a warm-up is start easier than you think. Even easier than that. Try to spin without feeling the pedals and gradually ramp up the cadence and power as the load naturally falls away even further, as things start to… warm up! Keep the load minimal until we feel the first drops of sweat. To me, that’s a good sign of a systemic vasodilation or warm-up hyperemia, and anecdotally this aligns with an increase in muscle oxygenation. Only then, proceed with the progressively higher cadence, higher intensity efforts. And take a nice long ‘warm-down’ period after the higher intensity efforts to shed any fatigue, to ensure we start our intervals with a full tank of energy. Don’t worry, the warm-up hyperemic effect will persist quite a long time.
Warm-up files can be found here
and as .zwo
SIT: Sprint Interval Training
Sprint Interval Training (SIT) consists of a few ALL-OUT, very hard, very short, maximal efforts. All-out means that we aren’t pacing ourselves over a set duration: these are not 4x 30-sec sprints. These are all-out as hard as we can possibly go, pushing every pedal stroke maximally. And given we are going as hard as possible, we try to maintain that maximal effort as long as possible. They might be 10-seconds, they might be 40-seconds. We are prioritising maximal intensity – or maximal energy throughput (power) – for as long as we can sustain that maximal intensity.
Please also consider safety: these should be as maximal as we can safely perform, whether they are out on an empty stretch of road, or on our trainer at home. Please make sure you don’t break your bike, body, or trainer. I have crashed myself trying to perform this workout. I felt very stupid, and was very glad the road was empty for the sake of both my fragile body, and my fragile ego. We’ll get more familiar with these maximal efforts as we go. Start conservative and build your comfort level.
These are really a better outdoor workout than trainer workout. We can perform sprints during a longer low-intensity ride, taking advantage of the occasional familiar, empty road to send a sprint, then spinning around for a longer recovery period. Say, throw in a sprint every 20-30 minutes during a 2-3 hour ride. On the trainer, I recommend performing seated sprints to minimize lateral forces on our equipment. Start from a high resistance and low cadence, and accelerate a big gear up to speed as fast as possible. Careful with wheel-on trainers, we might get rear wheel slip. And basic trainers (magnetic, fluid resistance) may not have enough resistance to go properly all-out for bigger powerhouses. Instead, we can work on our track sprinter technique and focus on a high and stable cadence.
SIT is by far the most time-efficient training method for improving fitness, primarily via adaptations to peripheral working muscle. ie. mitochondrial respiration and function, angiogenesis and capillarisation, and neuromuscular coordination. However, it comes at a potential cost of reduced fatigue resistance and possibly metabolic efficiency (remember that capacity/efficiency trade-off?). SIT is also very fatiguing relative to it’s very small training volume, so we would not be able to just repeat this workout (nor any single workout) forever.
I find SIT is a good protocol to start for the first couple weeks of a training plan. The efforts are very hard, but very short. We don’t need to maintain focus for long. It’s also a good way to psychologically release some energy! And we will very likely see some rapid, obvious improvements to our power output after a few sessions, which is highly motivating.
What if our goals & priorities don’t include sprinting? I would suggest SIT is still important for general fitness. Maximal efforts hit larger motor units and different muscle groups that can be missed with lower intensity training. SIT gives us an incredibly valuable combination of strength, speed, metabolic stimuli, and neuromuscular coordination that are difficult to achieve any other way. These are the very aspects that we lose most rapidly as we age, so I think SIT is important for both performance and health/fitness goals.
HIIT: High Intensity Interval Training
High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is our bread and butter for performance, fitness, and metabolic health. This is our classic ‘VO2max training’. I prefer longer HIIT bouts with intervals greater than 4-minutes. These are hard, at an intensity above our maximum metabolic threshold (FTP, CP, anaerobic threshold, lactate threshold, etc.) but not maximal. As long as we are working within this severe intensity domain, we don’t need to maximise intensity. Instead we should be aiming to extend the duration of each interval/bout. The duration we spend within this intensity domain appears to be most effective to improve both performance and general fitness outcomes. HIIT is the most effective protocol for improving VO2max, which is just one (arguably overrated) physiological parameter.
Furthermore, the rest intervals are brief, at 2:1 work/rest ratio. This means we very likely cannot complete a full workout of (eg.) 4x 5-minutes if our first 5-minute repetition is maximal. We should be aiming to find the highest workload that we can sustain for the full workout duration, without needing to reduce power output, and which doesn’t end up as a maximal effort by the end. Something that leaves us with half a rep left in the tank, so to speak. That we could have gone harder or longer if we absolutely needed to.. but we don’t need to, so save that energy for the next workout!
Remember, we are optimising for consistency across all workouts, not trying to maximise any single workout.
I have programmed a 6-week HIIT block with taper/recovery in weeks 3 and 6, as I feel this is the heart of the training program. But of course, like everything else in this outline, the expectation is that we should change and adapt the specifics to suit our own requirements. Some athletes will reach a plateau in adaptive benefit earlier, some later. Some will need recovery, or de-load, or taper weeks more often, and some less often. Some will progress the workout prescription faster (eg. add 1-min to every work bout each week), and some slower (eg. a full 3-4 week training block performing the same workout protocol).
Riding below and close to our maximum metabolic steady-state threshold (FTP, CP, anaerobic, lactate, ventilatory, deoxygenation, or however else we want to approximate it) is, I think, the most appropriate protocol for building fatigue resistance. However, this comes with a strong caveat that the intensity must actually be below our metabolic threshold, which is not itself a single line or power value, but is a constantly moving, blurry, transitional ‘grey zone’ where the metabolic sustainability of the external workload changes from sustainable steady-state to non-sustainable gradual drift toward task intolerance.
That is to say, it’s better to hedge low, say by 10%, than to overshoot the target by even 2%. This is because above and below this transition, a completely different metabolic milieu, different adaptive stimuli, and different fatigue profile develops.
Threshold training can be performed continuously for long durations (10+ minutes). I recommend a ~10:1 work/rest ratio, more as a brief release of intramuscular tension and a chance to mentally refocus. If we feel like we need longer rests or more often, we are probably working at too high an intensity. We should be aiming to accumulate 40+ minutes of work at a sustainable power output that feels like we could complete the entire workout duration without rest if we had to (but we don’t have to!)
My basic advice is: do strength training of some kind, do it regularly (1+/week), and do it consistently year round. Use whatever tools you have access to and are comfortable with: bodyweight, terrain (eg. box jumps outside), heavy bands, heavy inanimate (or animate!) objects around the house, dumbbells, kettlebells, barbells, strength machines.. whatever. (Links above to some of my super secret curated playlist of home workout options, including some janky videos of my own that were never meant for wider distribution)
Resistance training will make us more durable and resilient to injury. Improved resiliency means greater capacity to absorb training load and more consistent training. More consistent training makes us faster. Therefore resistance/strength training will make us faster. Strength training won’t increase our VO2max. That’s simply the wrong outcome measure to focus on to identify the benefits.
[I will probably add to this outline as I get questions and feedback. I threw this together as people started to ask me about training for 2022… hence the absolute lack of any eye-catching images. Function > form, I guess]
References (Some of the more interesting recent articles that have informed this template)
- Batterson PM, Norton MR, Hetz SE, et al. (2020) Improving biologic predictors of cycling endurance performance with near-infrared spectroscopy derived measures of skeletal muscle respiration: E pluribus unum. Physiol Rep.
- Bishop DJ, Botella J, Granata C. (2019) CrossTalk opposing view: Exercise training volume is more important than training intensity to promote increases in mitochondrial content. The Journal of Physiology.
- Black MI, Jones AM, Blackwell JR, et al. (2017) Muscle metabolic and neuromuscular determinants of fatigue during cycling in different exercise intensity domains. J Appl Physiol.
- Colosio AL, Caen K, Bourgois JG, Boone J, Pogliaghi S. (2020) Bioenergetics of the VO2 slow component between exercise intensity domains. Pflügers Archiv – European Journal of Physiology.
- Hellsten Y, Nyberg M. (2015) Cardiovascular Adaptations to Exercise Training. Compr Physiol.
- Hofmann P, and Tschakert G. (2017) Intensity- and Duration-Based Options to Regulate Endurance Training. Front Physiol
- Kiely J. (2018) Periodization Theory: Confronting an Inconvenient Truth. Sports Med.
- Lundby C, Montero D, Joyner M. (2017) Biology of VO2max: looking under the physiology lamp. Acta Physiol (Oxf).
- Macinnis MJ, Skelly LE, Gibala MJ. (2019) CrossTalk proposal: Exercise training intensity is more important than volume to promote increases in human skeletal muscle mitochondrial content. The Journal of Physiology.
- Mattioni Maturana F, Soares RN, Murias JM, et al. (2021) Responders and non‐responders to aerobic exercise training: beyond the evaluation of VO2max. Physiological Reports.
- Maunder E, Seiler S, Mildenhall MJ, Kilding AE, Plews DJ. (2021) The Importance of ‘Durability’ in the Physiological Profiling of Endurance Athletes. Sports Med.
- Ozkaya O, Balci GA, As H, Cabuk R, & Norouzi M. (2020) Grey Zone: A Gap Between Heavy and Severe Exercise Domain. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research
- Rosenblat MA, Perrotta AS, Thomas SG. (2020) Effect of High-Intensity Interval Training Versus Sprint Interval Training on Time-Trial Performance: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Sports Med.
- Rosenblat MA, Lin E, Da Costa BR, Thomas SG. (2021) Programming Interval Training to Optimize Time-Trial Performance: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Med.
- San-Millan I, Brooks GA. (2018) Assessment of Metabolic Flexibility by Means of Measuring Blood Lactate, Fat, and Carbohydrate Oxidation Responses to Exercise in Professional Endurance Athletes and Less-Fit Individuals. Sports Med.
- van der Zwaard S, Brocherie F, Jaspers RT. (2021) Under the Hood: Skeletal Muscle Determinants of Endurance Performance Mini Review. Frontiers in Sports and Active Living.
32 thoughts on “Sustainable Training”
Outstanding and “thank you”. This is great stuff and, as a 60 yo competitive cyclist, I appreciate the bias towards durability and health.
Question: How would one incorporate WKO5 “Optimized Intervals” with the HIIT & Threshold work?
Thanks for saying so!
WKO optimized intervals can be a great way to individualize your interval prescription. For others who might not be familiar, WKO (TrainingPeaks software) basically models your power-duration curve from your training data, and suggests intervals at specific power outputs and durations, within certain training zones based on your individualized model.
You could simply replace the basic HIIT or Threshold intervals I have included with the WKO optimized intervals in the appropriate training zone, or to the nearest duration. I don’t think they have an analogous sprint interval, but as I suggest, SIT isn’t really prescribed by power. They are simply performed all-out, no pacing or targets needed.
WKO intervals will be premised on slightly different principles and assumptions (eg. maybe different preference for intensity x duration, or work/rest ratio, etc.) but it’s just as good of a place to start, and you will have a built-in method for individualized progression as your power-duration model changes over time.
Many thanks for sharing. That looks like a great plan to start from with plenty of basic aerobic endurance and strength work included.
It appears to be a reverse periodization from what would be a more traditional plan of starting with tempo/threshold before max aerobic and finishing with the sprints. Just interested to understand the rationale behind starting with the sprints and finishing off with threshold work? Do you think there are greater improvements to be made working this way around?
Great question, I was hoping I’d be able to address this question 🙂
This template does look like ‘reverse’ periodisation, in that the intensity of each subsequent training block decreases and duration increases. But I don’t think this order is necessarily better than ‘traditional’ periodisation structure, and the template could work just as well in the traditional order. This is simply a preference given the overall greater focus on sustainable duration rather than intensity in this plan (except for SIT), which I’ll give some rationale for here. I’ve actually updated a couple of the training block descriptions to better reflect this.
First, there is a strong argument for traditional periodisation of low-intensity aerobic base → threshold training → HIIT → SIT. I was honestly 50/50 which direction to program the template until the last minute. Prioritising our low-intensity volume, establishing a consistent routine, and working on continuous fatigue resistance will benefit our ability to sustain the later higher-intensity training. This would allow our body and brains to get accustomed to the routine, before adding the physical and cognitive load from higher-intensity efforts.
If we are training for a specific event, the best approach would be to start general and periodise toward higher specificity. Maybe that would be aerobic base → SIT → Threshold → HIIT for road cycling. Or SIT → HIIT → Threshold for time-trialing/triathlon.
If however, we are training more for general fitness and sustainability over a full- and multiple seasons, then this progressive specificity doesn’t matter as much, since we will be repeating the training blocks with no particular peak or end-date. The training blocks are designed each to elicit a specific adaptive stimulus, then move on to something novel before stagnating. The starting point and initial order matters less than getting into a consistent rotation.
The first logistical and psychological rationale for the order here is, I’m conscious that many people begin a training plan during the winter, when most if not all of our training will be on the turbo trainer. I’ve never been keen on starting with a high-volume low-intensity base phase during November or January, despite how important a low-intensity training block would be. I find SIT is a good balance of predominantly low-volume, with some hard efforts to keep things motivating. The efforts aren’t too mentally fatiguing as short as they are, but they are very, very physically fatiguing to burn off some of that extra energy that comes at the start of a training plan.
Remember, the SIT block has a very low volume of high-intensity, and the sprints can be thrown into an otherwise long, low-intensity ride. Something like 95+% of our time (depending on total training duration) will be low-intensity during this phase. But it’s enough to keep long, cold winter rides, or long boring trainer rides a bit more interesting and motivating. Another point in favour of the psychological benefit is that we’ll likely see rapid improvements during the sprints from re-familiarisation, and especially if we don’t often perform maximal efforts.
I have also found anecdotally that when some athletes start Threshold training with less familiarization of their sensations at higher intensities, they end up working above their maximal metabolic steady state, and the stimulus becomes more of a compromise between ‘threshold-like’ and ‘HIIT-like’. HIIT is pretty robustly established as more effective physiological training than threshold. So I prefer to be intentional about working well above threshold and dialing in those high-intensity sensations. So when we move to proper (sub-)threshold work, we know how to modulate our effort to remain below those sensations and control our effort at an elevated metabolic steady state.
But definitely, please understand the training blocks can be considered modular and moved around to suit your own purposes. Thanks!
Thanks for the detailed answer!
I’m all for making long slow rides more interesting, especially indoors on the trainer, so I might give some sprint intervals a go. I can also see that it makes sense to tailor it to work towards greater specificity depending on goals or events. The way you have structured the blocks makes it easy enough to swap around so its a very useful basic template to work from. Great job!
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I love this. So my understanding of your work is that, given I’m not targeting any particular event but more of a “season” (or years?), the order of the progression doesn’t really matter? Just be sure to hit all the bases?
Yup, I think that’s the case. If we’re training for sustainability over the long-term, the order in which we start doesn’t matter once we’re into a consistent rotation. Nor does the particular sequence in which we repeat the training blocks.
… ↻ SIT ↻ HIIT ↻ Threshold ↻ HIIT ↻ Threshold ↻ Aerobic ↻ SIT ↻ …
The more I think about it, the more I really do need to include advice on when/why to add an explicit aerobic/low-intensity phase…
Awesome content. Thanks! All the best for 2022
Looking forward to your perspective on strength training as you continue to flesh this out.
Yeah, I’ll try to get some advice up soon. But in brief: do strength training of some kind, and do it regularly (1+/wk), and do it year round.
Resistance training will make us more durable and resilient to injury. Improved resiliency means greater capacity to absorb training load and more consistent training. More consistent training makes us faster. Therefore resistance/strength training will make us faster. Strength training won’t increase our VO2max. That’s simply the wrong outcome measure to focus on to identify the benefits.
Thank you, great work. Periodisation is a great topic. Can you sometime in the future comment on block periodisation and two trainings in the same day?
I probably won’t add those details to this post, but could be a topic for the future. I will say in my opinion both block periodisation and two-a-day training are examples of marginal optimisations that have a small but meaningful potential upside benefit, but outsized trade-offs of added complexity (increased upkeep cost and smaller margins for error) and large potential downside risk.
So, could be effective for your situation & priorities, but I don’t believe the costs are worth the potential benefits for most situations. And in all situations, the fundamentals should be prioritised before marginal optimisations (I’m trying to tell that to 2017 Jem, but he won’t return my texts for some reason 😆)
Fantastic post. And super awesome of you to post up such a great free plan template.
I followed your blog for a bit a few years ago. I was revisiting some workouts I did in 2018 (my best season) and coupled with discussions about Hard Start VO2 Max Intervals thought I’d check in here. I did some hard start intervals based on a prescription of yours when your were researching VO2 Max via Ronnestad(sp?). I modified the fit file you provided and put it into TR’s workout creator and gave it a go. Thanks for that.
Over the years my frustration (analysis paralysis) with cycling training led me to your same conclusion. I train for me and my health and so I can feel good and powerful on the bike. I race on occassion when it happens (mostly Thursday Night Worlds) but mostly I feel like riding more often the better my fitness is (and the less I weigh).
I apologize, I have ADD and thoughts sporadically wander. But I do a little bit of stuff Jan and Feb. Sweet Spot, an occassional Threshold (I prefer over/unders) and VO2 when I feel like it. A few weeks ago I noticed I had not done any hard sprint intervals in a long time so I did about 6 X 30 second sprints (it was really 15 sec all out seated with a decreasing 15 sec on the back end).
Anyway I’m personally unable to complete long trainer rides. So I have more intensity in my 5 weekly training hours. Couple of SS, maybe a VO2 and then a couple of 1 hour Z2 rides. The only real progressions I have are slight increases in TSS week to week then less TSS for a recovery week and I try to extend my TTE with SS workouts. Working up to 90 minutes of SS (the length of time it takes me to complete the local HC climb).
So that’s my winter “base”. Then when the weather is nice I commute to work 3 times a week, each way the commute takes me about 65-75 minutes or so. So that’s 6 hours minimum of Zone 2 endurance rides. Reverse periodization, correct? More Z2 when the weather is nice. Am I fast in March…well no I’m not fast ever….but I build after Mar and Apr and by May (with hard efforst thrown in like a Crit or the aforementioned TNT) I have pretty good fitness.
No long Z2 rides on the trainer in the winter for me. I wish I could get on Zwift for a 4 hour spin around the islands. You have to know yourself (which is really the key point in your post too…nothing fits all of us) and unfortunately I’m unable to train like I’m supposed to. I’ve found what allows me to be comfortable on the bike. I hope, lol. Still working on the weight issues.
Again, good to see you posting. Hope all is well with you, take care.
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I keep re-reading this and have more questions:
* HIIT/VO2max volume for 60+ riders: Friel, in his “Fast after 50” piece, states that 15 minutes of total interval time is the most he’d recommend for anyone over 50. What are your thoughts?
Threshold: Have you considered doing these as a single instance/interval? I’ve been using WKO5 to set appropriate duration/intensity goals and have been doing single efforts in the 37 – 42 minute range.
Strength/intensity: I’ve been performing 2/week. I’ve seen recommendations for anything from 9 or 10/10 to 6-7/10 intensity. What are your thoughts?
Yeah, I’d probably agree with that. I have both Fast after 50 and the Haywire Heart (Lennard Zinn) on my reading list but haven’t gotten to them yet. I’d be comfortable saying that HIIT probably becomes less important – or at least offers a declining benefit-to-cost trade-off as we get to that age. Regular low intensity exercise remains critical and places much less stress on our heart. Although of course it depends on the dose: maybe we don’t need to work at as high intensity for 20-min, rather than a near-maximal 15-minutes? I don’t know what the trade offs are between volume and intensity for 50+ athletes. Also, at the same time resistance training might get even more important to maintain lean muscle mass. So maybe I’d move toward more resistance training and less HIIT, while maintaining low-intensity volume?
My preference is to prioritise duration over intensity. As long as we’re working in the intended intensity domain (training zone), how high or low we are within that domain doesn’t matter as much (that actually goes for low-intensity and high-intensity alike). For RPE I usually suggest to perform HIIT at 8/10 RPE. To give that number a description (and I may have already written this in the post, can’t recall..) the effort should feel hard, but controlled. You could keep going for another minute or two, or complete another repetition if you had to. But you don’t have to! You can control your form and technique, and maybe only start getting sloppy (in terms of breathing or biomechanics) near the very end, if at all.
There are times when training for performance that we will have to push the limit and work at an intensity above and beyond what we think we can complete. But for consistency, we can’t do that very often. And if we’re training for general fitness and health, I don’t think we ever need to scrape the absolute bottom of the barrel in any one training session.
The Midlife Cyclist by Philip Cavell is an excellent book on training for the over 50’s that I would really recommend if you want some good background on the issues and research. The main take from it is the importance of good rest and recovery, and to make sure you do something else as well as ride your bike – strength training being the obvious one. There is also a lot of detail on potential heart issues and wht they may (or may not) mean for health, with contributions from elite 50+ track rider and cardiologist Dr Nigel Sephens.
On your question of how much high intensity should you do as you get older, I don’t think there is a simple answer. You certainly need to focus on good recovery more, but it largely depends on training history I think.
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Thanks for your response. I’ve read Cavell’s piece – it’s well done and I prefer Friel’s work to Cavell’s.
Re: Heart issues. I’ve learned the hard way that one can’t train at 60 like they trained in their 30’s. I’ve been diagnosed with nonsustaining SVT and I’ve found that limiting my high intensity workouts to 2/week does the trick.
Absolutely love this article! I’m wondering about the timeline of adaptations, e.g. for SIT – how long do the benefits actually stick around? Probably rather short-lived (quick gain, quick loss)?
It would be so great to have a follow-up article giving a little insight about what each of those intensity zones (SIT, HIIT, threshold, endurance) actually provokes in the body and how long the respective adaptations take to appear and disappear and how they contribute to making us faster in a specific event 🙂 . Perhaps this would also help people to have the basic understanding necessary to make informed decisions about periodization and tailoring the plan for a specific event.
PS: But don’t neglect your studies for this haha 😀
Did you do any kind of SIT/HIIT specific training in your run up to the Olympic race? I’d imagine you as a Time Trialist that your training was more focused on longer duration training at threshold? But do you/did you try to hit any of the other higher zones leading up to your win?
On your awesome attack at the beginning of the race was that a threshold effort or above?
I’ve followed this blog for a number of years and I think Gem get’s going on some topics but for sure is still focusing on his studies based on how infrequently he posts (we don’t mid of course, gotta finish that degree!).
Sure I did quite a lot of work above threshold. I didn’t expect the Olympic road race to turn into an individual time trial after all XD . I did standard VO2max intervals (5×5 etc.), only very occasionally Tabata style (I viewed this more as a race-specific training – pace changes etc. – rather than a VO2max session). I didn’t really train my sprint. I figured I wouldn’t really need it and if I attack, I’d have the surprise/underdog factor on my side (i.e. no big explosive jump needed) and then it’s more a matter of maintaining the power.
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Just wondering Jem, is there any particular reason that the HIIT VO2max intervals don’t use the hard start protocol that you have discussed previously? My understanding is that using such an approach maximises the time spent at or close to VO2max to maximise central adaptations. Do you still think they would be beneficial?
I have also heard suggestions that doing VO2max work at a high cadence is another factor that can help maximise adaptations utilising the muscle pump effect. Would you agree?
They certainly can be part of the training plan if you want them to be!
Both of those strategies might improve effectiveness, but they aren’t necessary, and they will add complexity. The cost of adding complexity might mean reduced effectiveness along other criteria like work bout duration or training consistency, which we know are also (I’d suggest more) important. I see a lot of comments about attempting hard-start intervals and blowing up after the first set, or for example attempting back-to-back high-intensity days and finding training quality suffers, or other added ‘optimizations’ that just end up reducing overall training quality & consistency. That’s not to say it can’t work, it’s just to advise first dial in the 95% before optimising the last 5%.
Also keep in mind, both of those strategies are optimised for accumulating duration near VO2peak, as you say, on the assumption that we always want to maximise that nice, easily measurable outcome measure. There is good correlational (is that a word?) evidence to suggest that is a good outcome measure to maximise if we want to improve VO2max, but that isn’t the same as improving performance, nor other health / fitness outcomes. There is a well established biological trade-off between capacity (ie. VO2max) and efficiency (ie. substrate or catalytic efficiency, mechanical efficiency, etc.), where to some extent the two are interrelated (I get off the couch and start training, both will improve initially), but at some point optimising further toward one must necessarily come at the cost of the other (as on most sport science topics, I defer to Alex Hutchinson to summarise the concept)
For example, performing XC skiing intervals will increase time near VO2peak from added upper + lower body exercise. But will that lead to proportionally improved cycling performance outcomes? Will that lead to proportionally better health outcomes? It’s possible. In the same way, if we pedal at a lower biomechanical efficiency above our natural cadence, or we stand on the pedals to engage upper body for our entire interval, is the added VO2 proportionally as effective at eliciting desired adaptations as the equivalent VO2 at our more efficient pedaling style at a higher power output? Or that lower power output for longer duration? 🤷♂️
Thanks again for the detailed answer and the link to the article. It reminded me of the book Faster by another Hutchinson, the British timetrialler and ex-national TT champ Michael Hutchinson. He goes into detail about why his huge VO2max (I think it was up near 90) was good enough for him to win national TT’s but not to make it to the top world tour level due to poor efficiency.
I’m a big fan of keeping it simple anyway and I do remember trying the hard start thing last year and it was horrible. Trying to hang on for 5 minutes when you’ve gone so far into the red in the first minute is grim.
Wow, you have the women’s Olympic gold medalist commenting on your blog. You’re a star!
Also, How does Ronnestad 30/15 style intervals fit into this? You would consider them VO2 HIIT? I have had great success (purely numerical, not yet race season) combining one steady state VO2 (4×5 min) with one 30/15 workout per week. After performing the 30/15, the 4×5′ feels easier. Perhaps its just enough of a novel stimulus to keep my body adapting.
Yes, broadly Rønnestad / Billat / Tabata style ‘intermittent intervals’ are thought to be most similar to HIIT in terms of physiological stimuli and adaptations. They are really somewhere between ‘traditional’ sustained HIIT and repeated sprint training (RST, which I didn’t include in this template, but I often include for more intermittent athletes, like MTB and crit racers).
One of the key differences is the temporal disassociation between contractile work and O2 uptake in intermittent intervals. To borrow from my colleague Michael Rosenblat’s meta-analysis:
This would put more emphasis on covering the transient mismatches between O2 supply and demand with substrate-level phosphorylation from “anaerobic” or cytosolic glycolysis, buffered by phosphocreatine, which can then be at least partially reconstituted during the brief sub-CP recoveries. So, while VO2 (the flux of O2) is more or less constant and near-maximal for the entire work set, the flux rates of other substrate & contractile processes are variable.
Here’s a super janky diagram to visualise
This is a great breakdown of sessions and a nice highlight of the importance of each system you’re trying to target, certainly going to pinch a few of these.
One question, over summer, I find cycling calendars offer a race each week for 3-5 months on end and its great being able to race each weekend. If you want to race every week and race hard, obviously you’re going to improve, but to do so your training weeks become more about recover than training hard. If you race each week, 1-2h at and above threshold, what sessions would you do each week and when, balanced with recovery to ensure you can race hard each weekend?
Im finding its very easy to overdo it but also want to get a HIIT or SIT session and some strength in the week to keep sharp .. but its a fine line.
Any thoughts would be great.
Thankyou and keep up the blog, one of the best sources of training theory Ive found, recommended to many friends thus far
Good question. Depends on all the usual caveats of our baseline training load, our baseline life load, our ability to recover, absorb, & adapt to training given time & energy constraints.
The literature repeatedly points to 1 high intensity session per week-ish being necessary for improvements, and 1-3 high intensity sessions per week being sufficient, with more than that quickly becoming counterproductive. I personally tend to hedge toward 1-2/wk, including races. With maaaybe the addition of 1/wk strength session if the athlete is already comfortable & consistent in the gym and doesn’t find that DOMS affects training quality for a few days after each session.
(sidebar: that is a vote to start the gym in the off-season and continue year-round. Not to forego strength training because it might acutely impair cycling training. The benefits of strength training to mechanical efficiency, probably fatigue resistance/durability, immune function, tissue resiliency, bone health, etc. are all massively worth it over the long term, and will improve our ability to recover, absorb, & adapt all the training we do)
So knowing nothing else, I’d say weekend race plus one high quality mid-week high-intensity session once you’re fresh would be close to optimal for balancing consistent performance & adaptations. If the goal is to peak for a certain weekend, especially if the target is stage racing and the weekend races don’t really matter, then maybe we sacrifice performance and occasionally turn a weekend into a bonus fatigued training block. With a hard or long session the day before and racing on fatigued legs.
This is great, thankyou. It has been difficult to distil out an appropriate approach based on all the theory, but this will be a starting point I will use. A bit of trial and error no doubt will be key as well.
Well, just got a new power meter, so time to get stuck into your section on power training.
Congrats, enjoy the learning process!
I gotta give the disclaimer that some of the old articles here I probably wouldn’t give now as ‘starting advice’ to someone newly getting into structured training. Like tweaking interval structure & pacing to maximise time near VO2max is fun and can definitely help to learn what matters in interval programming, but it reeeeally doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things.
To be super cliche: “training is a marathon, not a sprint.” What we do consistently over months & years matters so much more than any one bout, session, or week. Which is to say, training in a way that we can sustain without getting sick, injured, fatigued, de-motivated, etc. even if it’s only 90% of what we could theoretically do, is going to be more productive over the longer term than a program that pushes that boundary and optimises every single interval to 99%. It’s too easy to aim for 99% and find out only months later that we were actually at 101% when we get burned out, sick, injured.
So again, enjoy the learning process!
This is why I follow your blog (check daily). Keep one’s focus on the big picture and don’t sweat the details.
Thank you so much.
Really appreciate it, but… checking annually is probably sufficient 😅 For more daily conversation maybe check twitter where I’m more active