What are the “little things” you could do off the bike to chase marginal gains? Alex Hutchinson answers an e-mail from a young elite cyclist who was looking to break through to the next level.
This post is based on an article called Advice to a Young Athlete by Alex Hutchinson.
The athlete claimed that he needs just “an extra percent or two to be competitive with the athletes from the top professional teams”. The athlete’s main question – What were the “little things” he could do off the bike to chase those marginal gains?
Alex’s first response was this:
“Good training and talent are essential; so are mental toughness and self-belief. And that last element, self-belief, is where I believe a lot of the marginal gains come from. Whether it’s belief in your coach, or belief in the training you’ve designed for yourself, or belief in the new nutrition or recovery technique you’ve just adopted, having a reason to believe that you can do today what you were incapable of doing yesterday is an incredibly powerful force.”
This is the most important piece of advice offered by Alex:
“whatever you’re doing now, make sure you’re 100 percent committed and believe in it. If you have doubts, identify them and make changes to address them.”
We all have opportunities, it may not be at the elite level but if you are fit and healthy you have an opportunity to take your body further than ever before. If you have the luxury of time to ride, you have an opportunity to make every minute count. I’m not going to get too far into this and get my preachy preachy on but I will back up Alex’s first point by writing it again:
“make sure you’re 100 percent committed and believe in it. If you have doubts, identify them and make changes to address them”.
In the article, Alex moves onto sports physiology. Saying that while the margins are small and individual results vary (which means you should never assume something works for you without testing it), there are techniques that provide real performance gains.
Alex’s lists some that he considers having enough evidence to be worth trying:
This is something we just touched on in episode 136. My mind is slowly coming around to supplements as a genuine performance enhancer and this confirms some of my thoughts on which supplements have a body of science to back up their early claims.
Alex’s list includes:
Caffeine, beta-alanine, nitrates, and creatine.
Listen to episode 136 for more info on these.
The principle Alex suggests here is using the “minimum effective dose” that allows you to achieve your training goals in the next workout. Use enhanced recovery because you need it, but if your body can recover on its own, let it. When you get closer to big races (and certainly between stages of a multi-day race, for example), use as much recovery as you can get.
He goes on to say that there’s very little solid evidence about what works best for recovery, so use what’s easily available and don’t stress about what’s not.
My thoughts are the same here. I have spoken before about how hard it is to conduct studies with compression garment placeboes. Same goes for most recovery aids, like
- Ice baths. No solid supporting evidence but easy to do at home. A good recipe is ~10 minute at ~15 C. More and/or colder isn’t necessarily better.
- Medical-grade compression tights/socks for about an hour immediately after a hard workout may help.
- Massage is nice if you can get it.
He does say though that sleep is probably the best thing you can do. There’s some individual variation, but as a generalization, if you’re training at an elite level and not spending nine hours a night with the lights off, you’re not doing everything you can to get better.
This is something a lot of athlete’s struggle with. I cannot emphasise the importance of sleep. And sleeping straight through. If you are getting up in the middle of the night for a piss – you need to stop drinking at some point during the day. Deep sleep is where the magic happens in bed – and you want to avoid getting up at all costs.
Depending on your daily schedule, a nap may help too. But one way or another, you need sleep. It may take time (and discipline) to develop a good sleep routine where you don’t lie awake and get to bed at a regular time, but it’s worth it.
His first bit of advice here is “whatever the amount of vegetable and fruit you’re eating, increase it. High quantity and as much variety as possible. Emphasize leafy greens and berries, but it’s not about one magic food, it’s about balance and variety.”
He mentions one advanced nutritional technique that he would consider is “train low” sessions. This is where overall carb intake remains high, but certain sessions are performed with low carbohydrate stores, either by training before breakfast or deliberately depleting carb stores. This can be risky, as it will compromise workout performance and raise injury risk, so it needs to be approached cautiously and gradually.
You can apply similar logic to dehydration, though in this case, it’s not a question of deliberately dehydrating yourself – rather, you allow yourself to become dehydrated during some training sessions (which will generally happen naturally if you just drink to thirst). There’s some evidence that dehydration is a trigger that induces increases in plasma volume, which in turn boosts endurance performance.
Training low is a bit of a shot in the dark. It’s really only useful at certain times of the year and in certain types of training. You don’t want to increase intensity above Zone 2 when out training. Also, you may not need to go out and train while trying to be “low” as in any hard training schedule you will find yourself depleted from time to time. This is a much better way to fit it in my mind.
So even if you are doing an afternoon ride for example – if it’s a low intensity or endurance ride see how you go without eating for certain time periods, extending each time you go out. Remember though always take some food with you in case you are feeling off or can’t hold the power. Not staying in your training zone is a bigger deal than completing the ride without eating.
Sports psychology – mental imagery, self-talk, etc. – make be a relatively blunt instrument, but Alex thinks it’s probably the best tool we’ve got at the moment.
This is pretty standard advice – or so you would think. Except Alex sights some pretty interesting studies on brain endurance training by Samuele Marcora of the University of Kent.
Alex is not recommending this just yet though saying “I think it’s both fascinating and tremendously promising, but it’s not ready for prime time yet. I’d wait until there has been at least one study with well-trained athletes.”
So anything you can to keep life simple and unstressful in the days leading up to a competition. That doesn’t mean just lying on the hotel bed thinking about the race – find ways to distract yourself. But don’t do your taxes the day before a big race just because you have some extra free time.
Another aspect of this is training while under stress. In another article on Endurance, Brain Training Alex mentions training in various states.
“Until recently, coaches and sports scientists believed runners should be as fresh as possible for workouts—well fueled and fully hydrated with rested legs. Now elite athletes sometimes do the opposite: train on empty stomachs and tired legs to stimulate the adaptations that help them cope with the rigors of racing. We’re due for the same shift when it comes to the brain, Marcora believes: Fresher isn’t always better. The military excels in training soldiers to function despite mental fatigue—forcing them to perform grueling marches when they’re already sleep deprived, for example. But it doesn’t have to be that crazy. If your brain is fried after a stressful day at work or a sleepless night with a sick kid, don’t follow the usual advice and reschedule the hard workout you had planned. Instead, embrace the mental fog and hammer the run. Yes, your times will be slower than usual, and the adenosine levels in your brain will be sky-high. You will hate running, and life in general, and Sam Marcora in particular. But if a few months later, those please-stop-now runs translate into a PR, you’ll forgive him.”
This is the same as life TSS. And not just for big competitions but also big days on the bike. Episode #82 deals with the concept of a stress budget – https://semiprocycling.com/stress. I wouldn’t make a habit of doing training days like this – but know that getting through the hell days when you’re on the bike and it just sucks – is doing you some good.
Alex focuses on “Two things to get right here. Your taper and your warm-up.
“The general rule for taper is gradually dropping volume starting two weeks before the race, with about 50 percent of normal volume in the last week, while maintaining intensity (so you don’t lose fitness). There’s lots individualsual (and event-to-event) variation, though, so experiment. In particular, one idea I like is planning the taper minimum three or four days before the race, then doing a medium hard workout a couple of days before the race.”
I go into my updated take on tapering in an episode at: https://semiprocycling.com/taper
RE: warm ups. “There’s even more variation in the right warm-up, with very little needed before long events. For shorter efforts where you need to be ready to put out a good effort right from the gun, there’s increasing evidence that a relatively hard “priming” effort can help make sure your VO2 is firing on all cylinders right from the start. A common protocol in cycling is a moderately hard six-minute effort finishing 10 minutes before starting. Again I’ve gone into this at: https://semiprocycling.com/race-day-warm-up-framework
The final bit of advice Alex imparts is about heat training.
Saying “It’s fairly standard for athletes preparing for a race in a warm climate to spend a week or two acclimating to heat prior to the race. More recently, there’s been evidence that heat acclimation training can also boost performance even in cool conditions. It may be related to dehydration-induced increases in blood plasma volume, though there may be additional factors at work. You can get a decent effect in 5 to 7 days, doing sessions in 25 to 35 C heat – it’s something you might do a few weeks before a race.
That seems like a strategy that could easily backfire if you’re not doing it under close supervision. A more reasonable option might be the emerging evidence that taking a sauna after workouts can achieve similar plasma boosts. There have been a few studies of this effect; the most recent found a large increase in plasma volume after just four sauna sessions of 30 minutes at ~30 C (87 F). If you try this, make sure to rehydrate and recover immediately after the saunas.”
I’m getting a bit of conflicting information on using a heat acclimatization protocol before cool events. It is risky – I haven’t ruled it out – and neither should you. It is worth a try especially because it is easy to do – well not up and relocating but at least finding a sauna.
Alright so there is a solid list there – nothing sensational but worth the effort all the same. Alex advises to pick and choose some ideas that seem to fit best with your current situation and goals and perhaps address current weaknesses. Make changes to your routine one at a time, and monitor how your body (and mind) react. And remember that all of this stuff just is the cherry on top of the icing on top of the cake – it won’t get you far if there’s no cake underneath. Bad analogy – but you know what he means.
Get the basics down then work on adding in the 1%ers.
- Chloe Hosking
- Advice to a Young Athlete
- Risk perception influences athletic pacing strategy
- Eric Thomas
- Sports Coach Radio Interview with Samuele Marcora
- The most important power meter Pro Tip you will ever hear
Photo Credit: ottokristensen on Flickr
Music Credit: “Not Much” by Podington Bear (http://podingtonbear.com/) Thanks for listening to the show.