Low intensity "off" season training - Anyone can benefit
As most of you know, I have been offering a series of “low intensity” rides, intended not only for people who ride like that all the time, but as a specific “off season” training opportunity for stronger riders. In it’s third year, I have found the LI approach to be highly beneficial to my own cycling fitness. Over the last few years, I’ve ridden six to eight weeks each mid winter, keeping the effort at 70% or less of maximum sustainable heart rate. The result has been loss of weight, leaner body mass, and fewer injuries when I start riding harder later in the spring.
The approach is based on the work of long-time ultra distance cyclist John Hughes and Dr. Phil Maffetone (the “Maffetone Method”). They aren’t the only ones. Peter Sagan, the rising star of professional cycling uses a modified version in which he continues to climb and do interval training in the “off” season but at 70% of the effort he would do them at peak training effort. I’ve mixed in some of that this year, with no ill effects.
There are OTHER quite contradictory approaches. If you follow Chris Carpenter or Tom Danielson’s coaching methods, they stay intense year around. You have to decide for yourself what works, but athletes who experience repeated injuries, burnout, or weight gain (especially body fat increase), might benefit greatly from the low-intensity approach. Here’s generally how you do it:
- Determine your maximum sustainable heart rate. There are several methods, but what you can maintain for 20 minutes on a flat road is a good one. Mine’s about 165-170. There are adders and subtractors based on age and fitness level.
- Design and execute all your workouts to keep your heart rate under 70% of that level. This takes some discipline, especially in our geography. Hills are hard to avoid, and midwinter often brings a lot of wind. I found myself riding at less that 5 mph on Greensprings one day uphill into the wind in my lowest gear and I still couldn’t keep my HR below target.
- Some club members use power meters. A simple approach is to take what you “normally” do and keep it down. If you normally ride 150 watts, then keep it to 100.
- You can also use a level of perceived effort method. At the easiest level, you can carry on a normal conversation, using full sentences and completed thoughts. As you go up the scale, it declines to a few phrases, then a word, then an incomprehensible grunt as you try to chase Bob M or Dennis C up a hill. The low intensity approach keeps you chatting away for hours.
- Most of the coaches in this method will tell you 8 weeks of this is the minimum. 12 is better. Then you ramp back up to normal slowly.
- Diet plays a role. Most recommend higher fat/higher protein during this time, but a lot of coaches are going to that approach all the time anyway. The Really Big Thing is NO SUGAR. No cookies, candy, baked goods with added sugar, etc. None. Zero. Zip. Nada. I like to make yogurt based smoothies, but you’d be surprised at how much added sugar is in some yogurts. Read the labels carefully.
- You teach your body – your liver, specifically – to use more fat. At least that’s the theory with some evidence to support it. In fact, if you dig deeper into the approaches recommended, most of them include not eating carbs or not eating at all on any ride under 4 hours. Your body should be able to sustain an all-day effort on fat alone, but you have to stay aerobic and low intensity to do that. You still have to manage electrolytes – I do this with tablets, but you could use pickle juice or something like that with little sugar.
- As a result of that, you’ll get leaner. I typically lose about 1 pound a week off my 180-pound frame during this time. Some of it comes back as I add muscle mass during the climbing season, but overall I’m lighter now than I was three years ago.
- The low intensity approach gives your muscles and connective tissue time to heal from a summer/fall of riding the Lakes Route! At the same time, because you are still riding and still putting in some significant miles, you keep your joints well lubricated and your overall fitness does not really decline. Each year I have done this, I have begun the spring “ramp up” at a higher baseline than the year before.
Another related thing I’ve started incorporating year around is “periodization.” I’ll do another writeup on that, specifically, but Hughes really goes into this. Basically, if you are training for anything – a century, double century, whatever – you train 2-3 weeks “on” and one week “off.” I did this last year with good effect. The “off” week isn’t really that “off” but you typically don’t do any major climbs, hard interval type workouts (like riding with the Wednesday group), or century-distance training rides. It’s kind of like a “mini” low-intensity period – but just one week out of four.
If you’ve missed my Low Intensity riding series, you still have time to take advantage of this approach. You could start, say, first of next month and do it for 8 weeks. Then start ramping up to your regular riding level. It’s also helpful if you have REALLY taken time off – that is, you ate your way through the Holidays and the bike got rusty. Diving right into a heavy riding routine, especially if you are an, ahem, older rider, is a good way to get hurt.
Let me know if you have questions.