At higher elevations around Colorado Springs, the aspens turning yellow, which means there’s no denying winter is rapidly approaching. Many cyclists and triathletes are wrapping up their event seasons, which means we’re having a lot of discussions about short- and medium-term goals. One of the top goals: maintain climbing power.
As great as it would be for performance to improve linearly forever, the reality of training is that athletes can only maintain peak conditioning for a relatively short period of time. You pick your season and you then get even more granular and pick the few weeks you really want to be at your absolute best.
And when your competitive or peak time is over you have to let some of that highly sport-specific and event-specific fitness fade. That’s perfectly normal and healthy, but during this crucial time of year you have to decide what components of your fitness you’re going to focus on retaining, and what you’re going to let slip.
When asked, a high percentage of cyclists and triathletes wanted to retain climbing speed and power, so let’s look at how you can accomplish that:
Let the Super High-End Go
While I love short VO2 max efforts for their positive impact on all energy systems, from aerobic to glycolytic and VO2 max, this is a time of year when time-crunched athletes who have been doing a ton of VO2 max work throughout the summer can back away from the max efforts (unless you’re going to race cyclocross…).
You’re going to lose some of your top-end speed, but remember that something has to go, and better your top end speed than the aerobic and lactate threshold foundations it’s built on.
Reduce Weekly Hours by 25%
To avoid significant detraining, only reduce your weekly training hours by about 25%. As the days get shorter and the mornings get chillier, those pre- and post-work training sessions tend to get shorter and less frequent. That’s fine, and it’s also fine to reduce the amount of structure in your workouts, but try not cut back on training volume more than 25%.
That means if you were training 8 hours per week in the summer, try to maintain at least 6 hours through the Fall. Similarly, if you’ve been training 4-5 days per week and you need/want to reduce the frequency, try not to go below 3 training days per week.
Avoid the “Tempo Trap”
Some athletes hear the phrase “it’s OK to reduce structure” and think it means “go one moderate cruising speed at all times”. It doesn’t. I call it the “Tempo Trap” because people get stuck at Tempo pace and have this idea that going hard is suddenly bad for them. It’s not.
Reducing structure just means you don’t need a prescribed set of intervals every day. For many time-crunched athletes who are used to highly-regimented training, this often means cutting back to just 1-2 structured workouts per week. Continuing to incorporate hard and sustained (5+ minutes) efforts – on any terrain – is critically important to maintaining your climbing power through the fall.
Focus on Short, Hard Climbs
Taking all of the above into consideration, the best thing you can do to specifically keep your climbing power is to focus on short, challenging climbs. They can range from short 90-second steep climbs to 5-8-minute sustained climbs, but the key is to go up the longer ones at your lactate threshold pace, and the shorter ones above-threshold pace. This is training stimulus that tells your body to hold onto the positive adaptations you made earlier in the year, rather than letting them slip away.
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Bonus Tip: Don’t Gain Too Much Weight
When people say they want to retain climbing power, sometimes what they really mean is that they want to continue going uphill fast. But even if you retain your power, you’ll still go significantly slower if you gain a bunch of weight.
Gaining some weight following your peak season is normal and healthy. But you don’t need to gain 15 pounds. If you can keep your weight fluctuations to about 5-7 pounds over the course of the year, it makes reaching peak-season goal weights much easier and it enables you to focus more on training for fitness rather than training to burn calories for weight management purposes.
However, if you are going to spend any portion of the year training specifically for weight management purposes, do it in the fall so you stay lean and don’t have to focus on weight loss after January 1.