I often talk with my Coaches and Athlete Services staff about trends and themes they’re seeing with athletes. At times there’s an interesting convergence of ideas from athletes despite not knowing each other and living all over the world. Sometimes the commonality makes sense: athletes converge on the idea of weight loss in January. Other times, like this week, the commonality is more mysterious but no less interesting. Right now we’re hearing from a lot of 40+ and 50+ riders who used to be competitive, took a few years off or at a lower performance level, and now want to get their speed back! If we’re getting calls about it it’s likely there are even more athletes out there with the same goal, so here are some tips for formerly-fast riders looking to get speedy again.
My coaches and I work with athletes on the comeback trail all the time; only in this case you’re coming back from a period of reduced training time/commitment rather than an injury or prolonged illness. That’s an important distinction because post-injury and post-illness athletes can see a logical reason to accept the fact they are slower than before and need to adjust training goals accordingly. In contrast, the post-career-change or post-had-our-second-child athlete is often tempted to “pick up right where they left off” and jump right back to training volumes and workloads they could sustain 2-4 years ago.
Here’s what many formerly-fast athletes quickly realize:
- You can still go fast, but you have no staying power. Before your prolonged break you could push the pace on climb after climb, or take strong pulls in a rotating paceline for hours. Now you can still hammer out one climb at nearly your old speed, but then you’re toast. Or you can pull as strong and fast as anyone else in the fast group ride, but after a few pulls your power is gone.
- You have great days and really bad days rather consistent performance throughout a week or period of weeks. When you feel good you feel like your old speed and power have returned and you’re flying. But then the next day or two days later you can’t get out of your own way. Your years of experience taught you how to dig deep, and that’s a skill beginners don’t necessarily have. So when you feel good you tap into those skills for digging deep and bury yourself more so than a beginner with similar fitness would. Then you pay for it with diminished performance in subsequent days because you took so much out of yourself.
- Your brain writes checks your body can’t cash. Memory can make you do stupid things, like going out on that 4-hour loop because you used to do it regularly a few years ago. Now it’s a 5.5-hour loop that’ll leave you shattered.
Tips for Getting Your Speed Back!
Set new baselines
Your old training intensities and lactate threshold power values are irrelevant now. Getting back to those levels can be an effective goal, but for right now you have to base your training on the workload you can do now. Do a new field test or get a new lactate threshold test and establish all new ranges. Don’t worry that your current lactate threshold power is equal to your comfortable cruising power a few years ago. Irrelevant. What matters is now and as you start doing interval workouts again you’ll see those numbers rise quickly.
Don’t let your ego outrun your legs
As an experienced athlete you are likely to regain speed and power more rapidly than a novice athlete gaining that speed and power for the first time. That’s one benefit of being a long-term athlete. But you still have to be patient and resist the urge to accelerate the process. Jumping into longer rides and bigger training weeks than you’re ready for will hinder your progress because you also have to regain your ability to recover from significant efforts. You’re not just adapting to being able to produce more work again; you’re also adapting again to recovering quickly from higher workloads.
Dust off your skills
Part of the reason you used to be so fast was that you were so comfortable going fast. You were better at drafting, took cleaner lines through turns, and positioning yourself optimally in the pack was second nature. Some of that will come back quickly, and some of it will take some time to regain. Skills should be a priority. Get back into group rides and races with the specific goal of focusing on skills and comfort in tight spaces, not just speed and power.
NOTE: It’s important to realize that you may also be a different rider than you used to be, and that’s OK. A lot of parents who raced before having children and then return to racing a few years later have a different perspective on risk. Sometimes it’s professionals or artisans who work with their hands who realize they’ve become more risk averse because arm and hand injuries are a serious threat to their livelihoods. You may not be as eager to bang bars fighting for position, ride criteriums in the rain, or huck off three-foot drops on the mountain bike. The key is to be honest with yourself about those feelings and make decisions that enable you to train or compete at a level that’s both satisfying and has an acceptable level of risk.
You know how to go fast but you don’t have the capacity for as many high-power, high-speed efforts right now. Part of the progression back to being all-day fast again is to ride with the fast groups again. Only this time you’ll be suffering more than you used to. Focus on using your skills for drafting and positioning to stay with the group as long as you can. Your goal is to accumulate more time riding at those higher speeds. Remember that making big efforts is going to cost you more than it used to, so ride conservatively and make big efforts only when necessary.
Motorpacing is not for everyone and can be dangerous, but if you know how to motorpace and have a safe place to do it then it can be a great supplement to your training. The best parts of motorpacing are the increased speed you can maintain at a sustainable power output and the specificity of hitting small rolling hills at higher speeds. Sitting in during a race-pace group ride can be a good substitute. If you’re trying to use a group ride for this purpose consider going to a group ride that’s faster than you would normally go to. Let them know you just want to sit in and that you’ll happily work when you get more of your fitness back. If it’s a group or athletes you used to train and race with they’ll probably love seeing you back in the group!
CEO/Head Coach of CTS