simple training

5 Simple Training Strategies That Beat Complex Ones


By Chris Carmichael,
Founder and Head Coach of CTS

If I were to summarize recent articles, conversations, and podcasts that have caught my attention it would be to say, “Keep it simple, stupid.” I think there is a natural draw to make things more complicated or to place greater value on products or methods that seem more complex. The idea that the simplest answer is almost always the best has been around for hundreds of years (Occam’s razor, anyone…), and when it comes to training there are some very specific examples that can make improving your performance a lot less complicated.

Training Camp vs Altitude Camp

I’ve written previously about altitude training and performing at altitude, and the subject came up recently in an Outside Online article by Alex Hutchinson. We’ve been using altitude training protocols – long stays at altitude, live high train low, live high and train with supplemental oxygen, simulated altitude tents – with elite athletes for a long time. These protocols are trickier for amateur athletes because they are expensive, time consuming, and the amount of benefit an athlete gets is highly variable.

I believe in altitude training if you can integrate it into your lifestyle and training schedule, especially if you have an event at altitude, like SBT GRVL or the Pikes Peak Apex mountain bike in Colorado Springs, then an altitude camp can be useful for learning how it will impact your performance, perceived exertion, and pace.

If your goal for attending a training camp is to improve fitness, you live at lower altitudes, and you can only do one or the other, choose a training camp below 6,000 feet. The second-order benefits of a training camp – concentrated training stress, increased support on the bike (which encourages improved hydration and nutrition habits), reduction of daily lifestyle stress, and better food – happen at low or high altitude and lead to improved performance for everyone. Altitude adds complication because it can diminish recovery between workouts, disturb sleep, and contribute to dehydration. And that’s on top of the fact that you have to reduce power output and cumulative training load as you go higher.

Do less for recovery instead of more

Christie Aschwanden was the guest on this week’s TrainRight Podcast with Coach Adam Pulford, and the discussion focused on her book about recovery, called “Good to Go”. One of Christie’s points that struck a chord for me was that the fitness industry has turned ‘recovery’ from a synonym of ‘rest’ to a verb that implies you have do something in order to be ‘recovering’.

At CTS Camps and Bucket List events we use Normatec pneumatic compression boots and provide daily massages. These things help our athletes feel better the following day, and a significant reason for that is because the boots and massages make people stay still for at least 30 minutes and often set the tone for the rest of the afternoon so they continue to take it easy. That’s not to say that boots and massages are not beneficial if you have access to them, but it means that when you’re not at camp (which is the vast majority of time) you can still reap significant recovery benefits from simply doing less.

Eat enough calories vs. Any particular foods

The best thing you can do for either training performance or recovery is to eat enough total energy. Athletes and coaches sometimes spend inordinate time and effort manipulating macronutrient and micronutrient intakes, or nutrient timing, in search of a magical formula that will be a game changer for performance. But none of that matters if an athlete is underfed. Until you meet the basic requirement of providing your body with adequate calories to fuel training, recovery, and activities of daily living, you will not reap the potential benefits from dietary manipulation.

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To reference the podcast with Christie Aschwanden again, she talks a little bit about post workout recovery shakes. After particularly long or difficult days at CTS Camps and Bucket List events, we have Fluid Recovery drinks waiting for athletes when they get off the bike. As I’ve written about here and here, recovery drinks that are rich in carbohydrate and provide some protein are important for enhancing recovery when you have double days or consecutive long days on the bike, or if you won’t be able to eat a significant meal for more than an hour after finishing your workout or race. But as Christie points out, a massive amount of protein in a recovery shake isn’t necessary, and if you have 24 hours or more between workouts the most important things you can do are consume enough total energy and consume protein throughout the day.

Train More vs. A Perfect Training Schedule

Unless you are already training at a very high workload and volume, one of the simplest ways to improve performance will be simply adding training by being more consistent. Coaches and sports scientists spend a lot of time debating the nuances between different periodization plans, from how to arrange workouts within a week to how to plan out a year. The way we plan and schedule training makes a big difference in preparing athletes for specific demands of goal competitions at predetermined times of the year. But before we get to any of that, the total amount of training you do determines the fitness baseline you have to work with.

If you can increase your weekly training hours, that would be great. But even if you’re time crunched and can’t schedule more time, you can increase your monthly and annual training hours by missing fewer rides. Your training doesn’t need to be perfect in order to be effective, and the more stress and anxiety you have from trying to be perfect, the worse your results will be. The first and most important step is to train, then we can focus on the specifics of what you’re doing.

Simple vs. Complex Interval Sets

Along the same lines as the section above, complex interval workouts are more about keeping you engaged and busy than they are about creating a specific stimulus. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, particularly if the complexity means an athlete is more likely to complete the session rather than skip it or stop early. But time-at-intensity is the name of the game for making training progress, and athletes are far better at executing interval sets that are simple to remember, because they can focus on doing the work instead of keeping up with the choreography.

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Comments 5

  1. Thanks for this post, I find simple beats complex in many things :-).

    One question I have a hard time with is how many calories to eat and this is very much related to what ‘should’ my weight be? I had been targeting a low body weight and achieved that weight, but I was described as gaunt, I was hungry all the time, and I have some bone density issues I am working through. And I was still not an elite climber.

    I have switched my focus to ultra endurance events and still wonder how do I determine a ‘good’ body weight?

  2. Any comment on the video “Game Changer” with regard to faster recovery times (leading to more quality training sessions) associated with plant based eating? I’m testing and it seems to be working.

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