Training is a process of riding, recovering and hopefully progressing, or at least reducing the ravages of time.
There are various schools of thought with training methods, each having a different logic and large variations of success or applicability to the individual. You can train randomly and enjoy it, but find that success is limited while reasons to miss sessions are not. But how much are you actually detraining?
At the other end of the spectrum is the obsessive trainer with no variation, often lacking confidence and unable to take a break or change things. Failure here is more due to injury and becoming stale. They can train to great heights of performance only to fall a long way when they pop. Again, detraining will result when this happens. But what is detraining? It is the loss of physical abilities due to the removal of training stimulus for an extended period.
Genetics mean that some of us are more naturally athletic than others, but no one is naturally able to climb Alpe d'Huez at 15mph so untrained is the body's natural state, as is fat... Your body will always try to conserve energy. So you can't eliminate detraining just keep it at bay.
The training utopia lies in the middle ground: a goal-directed but flexible programme. A system of periodisation that responds to real-world events but still remains on a personal goal expedition, even if the goal has to be altered at some stage during the year. Goals can change, often because of work, family and race calendar event changes.
Research into detraining has found that within 10 days of ceasing training, metabolic changes detrimental to cycling performance have hit home. There is one positive piece of news, however: the point at which lactate becomes debilitating in your trained status may drop when you detrain, but it doesn't go back to a untrained person's level.
A short break from riding may have negative effects on certain factors, such as a five to 15-beat rise in your heart rate for the same speed or power output. This is probably due to reduced stroke volume made by each beat of the heart, a result of reduced capacity of the various parts of the heart. Like other muscles, the heart can have anabolic (build up) and atrophy (muscle loss) periods. Heart rate monitor users take note.
Similarly, although it's not bike-specific, many riders use resistance (weight) training to help maintain lean mass, improve strength and help with long-term health. Three years ago, we published data showing spinal bone losses in cyclists. In a study that shadowed a group of 30 women (active and sedentary) over an 18- month period, lumbar spine bone density dropped in sedentary and cycling subjects.
Enter the detraining spectre again with the bad news: detraining from resistance exercise hits older athletes harder. Data from men and women in either 20-30 or 65-75 age groups showed that training losses were almost double in the older age group over a 31-week period. This occurred mostly from the third to seventh months in both groups, although losses were already being seen by the 12th week of missing the gym workouts.
Beginners or old hands?
Data from subjects with very low levels of fitness (VO2max 26-29ml.kg.min) shows that just 12 minutes per week of aerobic exercise for more than 28 weeks improves VO2max by 20 percent. But don't get too excited, this still only meant they achieved a lowly 34ml.kg.min.
The least fit have the most to gain, at first, when they begin a programme. And for that matter, who calls 12 minutes a workout? That's not even a decent warm up! Doing a whopping 20 minutes per week didn't increase it above the 34ml.kg.min level. Surprisingly, to get to super-fit levels (65 to 80ml.kg.min) takes a bit more training, at a guess at least six to 20 hours depending on the individual's background, body composition and trainability. Face it, even now that Lance isn't training properly' he'd still kick 99.9 percent of readers' backsides up L'Alpe d'Huez. And that's without using his left leg.
Riders with more miles and fitness can't rest on their laurels, but it's easier to maintain or retain a level of fitness that you've already gained, or been dealt a better genetic hand to start with, without any training taken into account. OK, it'll seep away if you don't keep it topped up, and too much training will lead to under-performing, but at least you know what it's like to be fit. You'll also know what you'll miss if you don't train. Experience should lead to knowing what works for you, how to use heart rate (or perceived exertion) to train correctly, and who's good to ride with for conversation, motivation, or persecution. You choose.
The memory will be ahead of the metabolism, so move forward slowly. Detraining is the fat, slow person who's always just behind you as you ride. Stop and they'll catch you up. Keep riding, or start today.
Train or detrain?
1. Plan periods when you know that life events will reduce your riding time - don't fight it, go with the flow. The key is to ramp up the volume just beforehand so you go into it well trained, not already on a downward slope.
2. You don't get worse because you fail to ride for one, two or three days. At times, these mini blocks of absorption can remotivate you to want to ride and not be bored of the miles or too tired to do the top-end work.
3. If you're beginning on a riding regime, at any time, you need only ride regularly (three to five days per week) for modest sessions (30-90 minutes at 60-80 per cent HRmax) to make big, enjoyable inroads into a fitter, new you.
4. If disaster strikes, if you fall off or get seriously ill, for example, use that time to make a contract with yourself to ride as soon as you can, and to enjoy every pedal stroke when you do. Don't add stress to the situation by getting angry about what could have been - your time will come. In the meantime, focus on recovering your health.