“Houshang is dedicated, loyal, loves his work and is the best technical coach out there. He is up to date with the absolute cutting edge of sport science.”
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athletes, cycling, willock, plaxton

When to Say When

Learning to find the balance between too much and too little

by: Trevor Connor - Velo Magazine

October 29, 2015

athletes, cycling, willock, plaxton

Many years ago, one of my athletes and I were preparing for the Mount Hood Cycling Classic together; it would be his second pro race. I was taking him through a fairly advanced overload period with a short taper.  The overload required some artistry, as I had to judge the point where any extra work stopped being a benefit.

When it became clear we needed an easy day, we decided to spin to a local race and watch our friends. But he was addicted — to the efforts, to going harder than he’d ever gone, and to the new strength in his legs. He entered the race. Friends cheered as each lap he tore up the climb, shattering the field. I was screaming, “Pull out!” He won, and didn’t feel good again for weeks. He couldn’t finish Mount Hood.

Often I ask cyclists what happens to their strength as they train harder and more often. I get a variety of answers. But secretly, we all want to believe the same thing: the harder we train, the stronger we get. 

This is a sport of “no pain, no gain,” according to Brent Bookwalter (BMC Racing). “You’re not going to get stronger just by doing easy rides,” he said.  But more time, or more intervals, isn’t everything.

“It does not always translate to more improvement,” said Houshang Amiri, a UCI expert coach and owner of the Pacific Cycling Center in Victoria, British Columbia. Bookwalter agreed.  “There is a point where it goes the other way. It actually starts to hurt you,” he said.

This simple concept, known as the Law of Diminishing Returns, is one of the most important concepts in training. Let’s look at some of the ways in which more is not necessarily better.


According to Amiri, world-class cyclists train between 750 and 1,000 hours per year, or upwards of 30 hours in a week, making it one of the most time-intensive sports in the world.

We all wonder how strong we’d be if we got out of bed a little earlier and found those 750 hours.

But Amiri and Bookwalter both agreed those extra hours might not be for the better. Life has to be balanced, and we can’t always do everything we want, said Amiri. If a rider with a fulltime job tries to do 750 hours, he or she won’t survive very long.

Everyone, even pros, can do all the time in the world, but if it’s at the cost of diet and sleep, if there are problems at work or at home, “you have a natural governor on yourself,” Bookwalter said.


True to the Law of Diminishing Returns, a recent study found that when cyclists trained less than 10 hours per week, an extra hour of riding had noticeable gains. But top cyclists training big volume got nothing out of that additional hour.

“This one,” Bookwalter said, “is much easier to preach than to actually practice.” Most of us started cycling because we love to ride, and pros are no different. “We love the freedom it gives us, we love this endorphin high. We love the fluidity of pedaling and the beautiful places it takes us.”

But Bookwalter admitted that an extra 30 minutes during his rides doesn’t make him stronger. In fact, that 30 minutes can do damage if it means rushing to an appointment or not recovering properly. “Then, right away, I’m at a disadvantage for the coming days,” he said.

In other words, the extra time may be better used elsewhere.

That same study found that when cyclists dedicated the hour to off-the-bike work such as core strength, weights, or stability work, they saw the greatest gains.


Figuring out the ideal number of sets for weight lifters is a big focus in strength training research.  Surprisingly, multiple studies found that just one set of an exercise could produce up to 85 percent of the gains of four sets.

Another study had cyclists do the same number of repetitions of either 15- or 30-second sprints. They produced identical gains.

The same basic principle applies to each of these scenarios — the benefits of extra efforts diminish rapidly.

Bookwalter notes that there is a value, from time to time, in digging deep, going to failure, and pushing through. But it’s not something he does on a weekly basis. The majority of the time, his voice of reason wins out.

But doesn’t doing those extra sets still give you 15 percent more? Yes, if you look at just the one workout. But training isn’t done in a silo; the cumulative effects are what matter most.

“It’s about laying down these really fine layers and getting the accumulated load over and over,” Bookwalter said. Going to failure may feel great, but it’ll be days before you can do anything productive again.

Knowing when to back off will allow you to do quality work multiple days in a row. The net gains are higher. You can always add more time later, but you can never undo an interval.


Anything taken too far quickly loses its benefits. Bookwalter pointed out how cyclists have become obsessed about their time trial gear and aero position. A podium finisher in a Giro time trial, Bookwalter once let a bike fitter put him in a very aggressive position. “I couldn’t hold it to the point that it was actually faster,” Bookwalter said. He went back to something similar to his old setup. “It was a shame to waste that time going past the point of diminishing returns.”


Amiri reminds us that volume has a direct relationship to our lifestyle: working, school, social life. A 40-hour-per-week job is “big volume,” and trying to add 25 hours of training is a dangerous proposition. For Amiri, finding balance for working cyclists means training for 14 to 20 hours per week, at the most.


Sometimes, a productive day means limping in the last two miles of a ride. But normally we’re better served heading home. “[When we can’t] productively do whatever workout, or power number, or heart rate number, or whatever parameter we’re working with,” Bookwalter said, it’s time to call it a day. He recommends analyzing the workout so you can adapt future sessions to the right quality.


In a study of cyclists of all levels, it was found that two hard interval sessions per week were ideal. Three sessions not only produced no extra gains, but also accelerated burnout. Worse, going too hard on recovery days led to burnout within five days.


Amiri said it’s critical for all cyclists to dedicate a certain percent of their time to off-thebike work, such as strength and stability work. Bookwalter dedicates about 20 to 30 percent of his time and recommended even more hours if you are suffering from an issue such as lower back or knee pain.


There are an infinite number of things we can do with that off-thebike time. “Everything from core training to inspiratory muscle training, to stretching, to massage, to physical therapy, to studying your upcoming race profiles,” Bookwalter said. He picks a few at a time and commits to them for four to eight weeks to evaluate whether they work for him.


The one nonnegotiable routine for Bookwalter is the recovery protocol. If you have a choice between an extra 20 minutes of riding or spending that time recovering, do the recovery.


To be effective, Amiri feels that intervals must target certain physiological components. “To improve any energy system or any component, we need a minimum of nine to 10 weeks,” he said. Too many weeks of one workout leads to diminished gains, and not committing to those 10 weeks is just as harmful.


It’s not always practical to wait 10 weeks to see if you’re improving. It’s important to Amiri that athletes “know the gains for the work.” For example, if they are doing threshold intervals, they should see a steady increase in their wattage at their lactate heart rate.


Sometimes you need to go out with your best riding mate and do your staple ride, the one that makes you feel good regardless of the physiological gains. “Confidence is such a huge part of performing in this sport. It’s a really powerful thing to go out on a ride and have it push you, but feel good about it,” Bookwalter said.

Source: Velo Magazine June 2015 Issue - Velo News website

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