As the autumn gives way to winter, and the temperature continues to fall, the temptation is to batten down the hatches and curl up in front of the fire whilst awaiting the return of the longer days. However, for those of us with aspirations of making athletic gains next season, this is actually the perfect time to be taking the first steps towards achieving those gains. Clocking up metres in the pool now, or miles on the road and trail in those final few weeks before Christmas can pay real dividends as the new season rolls around. However, better still, a few moments spent focusing on skill development will not only enhance these early miles, but will enable even greater performance gains early in the season.
The winter time is traditionally a period of general preparation defined as the building of an aerobic base or functional strength base in preparation for next season. Additionally, in this standard training model of a single or double periodised year, the specific training of skill development tends to be incorporated in the latter stages of athlete preparation. Technique specific developmental work is usually combined with the greater intensity, lower volume periods of the specific training period and the pre race training period. However, because the British weather does not encourage long stints out on the bike or running that would fit in with this historic pattern of periodisation of training, why not take advantage of this period by introducing shorter, more specific sessions that not only suit the conditions encountered at this time of year, but may also provide the shortcut to next year’s success. This is therefore an opportunity to focus on two aspects of development that assist athletes in getting ahead of the game.
To get the best bang for your buck out of the time spent training, it is essential to know that the conditioning sessions are targeting the appropriate levels of intensity for their objective. To train in your discipline specific “sweet-spot”, you first have to find where it is. Establishing discipline specific training zones is therefore paramount, and this is why we encourage all athletes to at least carry out regular threshold tests as part of their training. This can be self-managed, of course, but, particularly with running, can be quite hard to self-administer. Swimming is fairly easy to accomplish using the CSS (critical swim speed) process, provided that you have an uninterrupted lane to swim in. Creating a functional threshold level for cycling is equally easy to achieve, particularly on a turbo trainer, however there are significant disadvantages to using the traditional 20-minute protocol. Not least of these is that those with either a high level of ability to buffer lactate and/or a high level of psychological robustness can skew the numbers significantly thereby reducing the effectiveness of the resultant data.
This is, of course, why we continue invest heavily in the latest equipment to conduct our own bike lactate testing sessions and one of the main reasons we have set up our new clinic here at Weedon Bec. The accuracy provided by the Tacx Neo is well within +/- 1% ensuring reliability and validity of the power data and academic papers have confirmed the Lactate Pro blood analyser as comparable to laboratory equipment (r=0.99). We have been delighted therefore to have hosted 10 athletes specifically for bike lactate testing this month and are now busy analysing the data to create the necessary personalised training zones with explanations for immediate use in their training.
In each case, the topic of cycling cadence has formed both part of the discussion as well as the feedback to the athletes. A cycling cadence of 90 rpm is considered to be the most mechanically efficient cadence for cycling which also suits our purpose as multisport athletes particularly well with our desire for a running cadence of 180 steps per minute. However, in searching for the most suitable cadence for triathletes to race at, it is becoming evident that cycling with a cadence of 90 during the bike section is resulting in a slower running performance off the bike. A lack of available substrate has been identified as the cause. This is currently leading the researchers to determine that the optimum cadence for mechanical efficiency is not necessarily the optimum cadence for racing. For us at Applied Tri, however, this is the wrong approach to take.
A lack of available substrate suggests that the athletes are racing above their optimum pace and probably physiologically optimum cadence also. We hear a lot of discussion about athletes cycling at their natural cadence, however cycling cadence is a learnt behavior and, with possibly some deviation for personal biomechanics, is thus not natural. In light of our above comments about considering a reversed periodisation plan, this is also therefore the perfect time for athletes to focus on form. We talk constantly about the need to develop running form – and have been working with several athletes this month alone to try to further enhance this skill through the winter – but all too often we have to encourage athletes to incorporate cycling specific drills in their training. Additionally, the term speed is nearly always associated with athlete velocity in terms of distance over time and not speed of limb movement. Utilising appropriate drills, including gradually increasing cycling (& swim and run) cadence, is the perfect way to introduce speed of movement into these otherwise dull, dark winter days and thereby contribute to improved form and optimised cadence ready for next season.
Therefore, this really is a good time to take a long, hard look at your training programme and see if you can make your training more effective this winter. Although we don’t advocate ignoring your aerobic needs, developing form and threshold now will enable you to hit the ground running in the spring and then utilise the brighter, longer days for enhancing your aerobic base further.
It has been fantastic to host some of you at the Royal Ordnance Depot clinic already and we look forward to seeing more of you soon.