By Chris Carmichael
CEO/Head Coach of CTS
Life is complicated, but training should not be. I’ve been coaching for nearly 30 years, and these days I spend less time worrying about the specifics of any particular interval set and more time working with athletes to optimize the execution of training. When athletes stagnate in their training, it’s often due to behaviors that chip away at their ability to execute workouts at a high quality level. No matter what type of workouts are in your training plan, taking the steps below will deliver bigger gains for the effort you’re putting in.
Step 1: Get More and Better Sleep
Whenever an athlete’s training performance starts to falter, my first question is about how they’re sleeping. You can’t train well is you’re not sleeping well or if you’re not getting enough sleep. An athlete who doesn’t prioritize sleep is not really prioritizing his or her training. If you’re dealing with work or lifestyle stresses that are causing you to lose sleep or toss and turn, adjust your training accordingly. You can have a good endurance ride, but shift high-intensity intervals to a day when you’ve had a more normal night of sleep – and preferably two or more.
To get to sleep more quickly, avoid alcohol and get off backlit screens at least two hours prior to bedtime, make the room as dark as possible, bring the room temperature down 68 degrees or cooler, and set a consistent bedtime. If you need further help and are looking at sleep aids, try supplements like melatonin, or see if CBD is right for you.
Step 2: Fuel Specifically
Consuming enough total energy is the most important nutritional requirement for training. If you’re not doing that, your food choices won’t make that much of a difference anyway. Assuming you are eating enough to meet the demands of your activity level, and hydrating well, the next step is to fuel specifically for key workouts.
If you are getting set to do a high-intensity interval set, your power output and ability to repeat multiple efforts will improve if you start with high carbohydrate availability. That means eating so that your muscle glycogen stores are full when you start training. It also means you should consume some carbohydrate – or at least not avoid it – in the 60-90 minutes prior to training.
If you want to perform some training with low carbohydrate availability, save it for moderate or long endurance rides, or maybe up to Tempo intensity (high aerobic, below lactate threshold). One of the best ways to do this is to pair a high-intensity, glycogen-depleting evening workout with a long endurance ride the following morning. Following the evening workout, consume a meal rich in protein and fat but relatively low in carbohydrate.
Step 3: Have a Purpose
You’re not aimlessly wandering through life or your workday, and you can’t aimlessly wander through workouts, either. Each training session has to have a known and explicable purpose, even if that purpose is to spend an unstructured hour riding your bike.
If you’re following a training plan – even if you’re working with a hand-built plan from a coach – you should still know why you’re doing today’s workout. As coaches we can tell when you’re just punching the clock on your intervals and when you’re in sync with the purpose of that workout.
Sometimes athletes lose touch with the overall purpose for their training, too. It’s easy to be motivated and eager when a goal is new and fresh. It gets harder when you’re five months into training and the goal is still 6 months away. Sometimes I have athletes create a Goal Sheet and start each week by reading it – out loud.
Step 4: Clear your Mind
This is more important for interval workouts than for long endurance rides. Moderate- and high-intensity intervals require focus, and athletes execute with higher quality and repeatability when they have cleared their minds of everything outside of the workout. Be present. Don’t answer phone calls. No texting. Anything you’re stressed about will still be around when you get done, so take a break from it and focus on your workout. After a great workout, you’re likely to view those stressors in a different light, and you may be in a mindset that is more conducive to creative problem solving.
If you struggle to clear your mind, consider adding a 5- or 10-minute guided meditation to your pre-workout routine.
Step 5: Follow directions!
Seriously. Do the workout as it’s written – whether you’ve designed it, it’s from a static training plan, or it came from your coach. Training is all about accumulating time at intensities that focus stress on a particular part of your physiology. You’re using all energy systems at all intensities levels, just to varying extents. But it’s not just that the 30 minutes at lactate threshold in today’s workout needs to 30 and not 25. It’s that over the course of the week and month and year, those missed opportunities add up.
If you’re like most Time-Crunched Athletes, you have to make the most of the little training time you have. You’ve allocated 60 or 90 minutes for training. Use the full time and execute the intervals to their full durations! Similarly, stick to the recommended recovery periods. The work:rest ratios within interval sets are important to the efficacy of the workout.
You’ll notice, there is no mention of a specific workout in this post. These steps are required for any workout to be highly effective. What you do is often less important than how well you do it and the fact you do it consistently. Your time is valuable, so make the most of it!