Q: I’m 43 and riding 250-300 km (155-186 miles) per week, which is a bit of a challenge in the wet winter we’re having here in Adelaide. This distance is broken into one 100-km (62-mile) ride plus 2 or 3 rides of 50-80 km (31-50 miles). Some are in a bunch, some solo.
As I get fitter, I find I can ride at a higher intensity each time I go out. And riding with a stronger bunch forces this as well.
Is it OK to do what I’m doing—ride hard on every ride, then treat the 3 or 4 non-riding days as rest? — Matt O.
Coach Fred Matheny Replies: This is a great question, Matt, especially now that more coaches and authors are extolling the virtues of training at high intensity. Their thinking is that if you can’t ride more than a couple of hours 3 or 4 times a week, you can make up for the lack of miles by training really hard.
There certainly are advantages to this approach. We know that intensity is the best producer of fitness. And if you don’t go hard in training, you won’t be able to go hard for long on those group rides (or races) when someone puts the hammer down.
But riding hard all the time has some serious drawbacks too.
One is that, paradoxically, hard training doesn’t make you stronger. It is merely the catalyst for improvement.
Rest is what makes you stronger because it’s while you are resting that your body rebuilds from the tearing down process of intervals, hard climbing and trying to stick with a fast group. So if you ride hard too often, your body won’t adapt and you’ll get worse instead of better.
Also, riding hard each time you get on the bike can get old in a hurry, especially if you obey a tightly structured training program.
Sometimes it’s a lot more fun to cruise along scenic roads rather than watch your heart monitor and suffer through more intervals. It isn’t a question of physically toughing it out. It takes considerable mental energy to train hard and we all have a limited supply. Exhaust it now during the Australian winter and you’ll be flat and stale come spring.
Finally, while hard riding can bring you to a peak of fitness rapidly, you won’t be able to stay there. Continued hard riding will overtax your adaptive systems and you’ll lose your peak quickly. This is why most coaches limit hard, structured training to blocks of 4 to 12 weeks. Then they recommend easy-to-moderate riding for at least one month before the next block of high intensity.
So what should you do?
- If you ride hard 3 times a week, you can probably continue for several months before you peak and risk burnout. This depends on your aerobic base and the number of years you’ve been riding. The greater your base, the longer you can go hard.
- If you try to ride hard 4 times a week, your performance will almost certainly begin to decline in 8-10 weeks, forcing you into a rest period.
- If you want to build gradually and steadily through the Aussie winter so you’re strong, fresh and enthused in the spring, I suggest that you limit yourself to 2 hard rides each week for the next 2 months. One can be the 100-km group ride and another a shorter interval session.
- After 2 months, try adding another midweek hard ride. Go easy on any non-interval days. Take 2 rest days each week off the bike.
Constantly gauge your feelings of freshness and check your performance. Is it gradually improving or is it deteriorating? If the latter, back off.
During more than 30 years in cycling journalism, Fred Matheny has written hundreds of fitness & training articles for top bike magazines and websites. Many of his best eBooks and eArticles are on sale in the RBR eBookstore. As a rider, he has raced to medals in state and national championships, plus a senior world record in the Team Race Across America. As a coach, he has worked with hundreds of riders at PAC Tour Training Camps, Carpenter/Phinney Bike Camps, and Dirt Camp.