Periodization

I’ve been told that I can come across sanctimonious from time to time. Sorry if I’ve come across that way to you. It’s a bad habit and one I’m trying to break. Nonetheless, I’m going to probably come across sanctimonious here again. Hope you can forgive me.

So I have this friend who races a particular one-day, 206-mile race every single year. I don’t know how you see 206 miles, but from where I’m sitting, that’s a long race. He’s a strong rider in the springtime, but when the race rolls around in the fall, something always seems to happen that leaves him with a less-than-savory time. Knowing how strong he is on flat roads (and how much he spent on that carbon-fiber jewel of a bike he rides), I’m annually left wondering what happened that left him so far below what I think his potential is.

But I don’t really have to wonder. I get my answer every spring. You see, in spring, he’s already cranking out intervals like nobody’s business. He’s hammering to win every training ride. He’s time trialing his way up the steepest climb in the neighborhood and leaving everyone else in his wake. And then he’s getting schooled when it matters.

Truth is, I can relate to the guy. I used to do the same thing—ride hard every time I rode. I’d drill myself into the ground on the bike believing that doing intervals was the more efficient way to achieve peak performance.

A few years ago, I went to my first time trial. I finished WAY behind the fast guys, somewhere around 28 minutes for 10 miles. I knew it was a lame time, but I didn’t know what to do to improve. Later that summer, a friend gave me a free pair of aero bars. That winter, I fit them to my bike and then loaded the bike on the trainer for the snowy months.

I did something else that winter: I read a book by Brad Kearns called Breakthrough Triathlon Training. Truth be known, I really just enjoy Brad’s writing style. He has a lot of narratives (stories) and keeps the didactic stuff pretty conversational, so they don’t feel so didactic. I highly recommend the book.

After reading Brad’s book, I did something I’d never done before: I built a base. Instead of doing intervals on the trainer, I used a heart rate monitor and rode a steady aerobic pace three times a week from February to April. Then I added a handful of steady threshold workouts—nothing too serious.

That spring, I returned to the same time trial I’d raced the year before, on the very same course and in very similar conditions. I finished in 24:37, an average speed of 24.37 mph. (That’s three and a half minutes faster, I should mention.) Yes, I’m sure the aerobars were responsible for some of that, but I don’t think they get all of the credit.

That fall, I went to the same 5k I race every Thanksgiving and set a new personal best by about two minutes. I think that’s when it really sunk in: building a base had made me quite a bit faster.

Since then, I’ve learned a few more things about developing one’s aerobic system. I’ve learned there’s a difference between one’s aerobic glycolytic system (think one-hour energy) and one’s aerobic lipolytic system (think eight-hour energy). I’ve learned that intervals are a necessary part of a good periodization strategy … but their benefits last only six weeks. I learned about the proper progression of periodization, and I even picked up a favorite adage about periodization: “Good training and bad training look exactly the same on paper.” Brilliant.

Now, fast or not, building a base didn’t make me a superhero at the hillclimbs. Having an efficient aerobic system is absolutely one of the components of being a good climber, but I’ve learned that, by itself, it isn’t enough.

And while I’ve learned the principles involved, I’m still limited to four and a half hours or less of training each week. But at least now I have a better ideas of how to use those four and a half hours as effectively as possible.

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