Former pro cyclist Chris Baldwin is a two-time US national time trial champion and now a professional coach. His philosophy on training is the product of more than 15 years’ experience in the field. Here he shares how he formed that philosophy, and his nine golden rules for cycling training.
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“My thirst for the science of performance in my career grew as I slowly climbed the ladder of professional cycling,” Baldwin said. “I gathered information came from any literature I could find and, more importantly, through questioning other people. I am sure I rubbed plenty of folks the wrong way by quickly transitioning from small talk to interrogation about the ‘guts’ of their training strategies and experiences. I have been blessed to be coached by many brilliant people and had access to some of the best riders in the world, so I figured I might as well tap into their knowledge.
“Out of this ‘mash’ of information, I tried many types of training, workouts and diets. This got pretty crazy at times,” Baldwin said. “There was the extreme but good: doing unheard of amounts of zone two training in the Borrego desert; standing for entire reps of Magnolia (Boulder’s steepest col); nutrition-packed smoothies for recovery; or using a sauna to adapt to hot climates. There was the bad: motor pacing over yonder and back, up climbs and over roads high above the front range; smashing out TT workouts in a barn while sucking on an oxygen mask at 10,000ft; attempting to maintain output while building blood cells during an altitude camp before a USA Pro Cycling challenge. Then there was the just plain ugly: riding with a plastic raincoat under thermals to prepare for a humid Tour de Georgia, or cutting my post-season break short in order to ‘get ahead’ for the next year.
“Through experience, I kept the winners and discarded the losers, distilling it all into my own training philosophy,” Baldwin said. “By the end of more than 20 years in cycling, I defined some solid personal beliefs about cycling performance. And while each athlete is different and requires a unique approach, hopefully some of these get filtered through your own ‘distillery’, and maybe even make their way into your personal blend!”
Nine golden rules for training
“Performance in cycling is very much an art form,” Baldwin said. “The three overriding components are training, mental/psychological approach and nutrition.”
The absolute most important rule of training in a word: Consistency. You will make incremental progress if you do quality sessions on a regular basis. Pros get better because they are out there day in and day out.
2. Do the work
If you are tired, ease into workouts. Use the first rep or set as a warm up to progress from, but do the work. There was a time when I was bummed when a workout was not perfect. A wise rider asked me, “Did you do the work?” – the answer was yes, and I got stronger from it. It is easy to crush it when you are feeling amazing, but the other days make the difference. Some days are diamonds, some days are stones… but they can both be good training days!
3. Respect your limits
Take what your body gives you that day… if it gives it to you, take it… test limits, but respect them. It is necessary to work near your limits to improve. But these limits fluctuate day to day, so take the watts when they are there.
4. Listen to your body
Algorithms and graphs have revolutionised the way we train, but never let them trump the old school advice of ‘listen to your body‘. If you are really tired, don’t let numbers tell you otherwise.
5. Build your base
Your aerobic engine or ability to do work with oxygen determines success; it’s the water line that your ship sits in. Everything is easier when you are aerobically fit. When the guy next to you is breathing hard and you are not, you will win. While training under Inigo San Milan, a brilliant coach and physiologist, I managed a third place in a seven-minute prologue without training above zone two (a hard but steady endurance pace). This is just an illustration, but you get the idea.
6. Rest completely
Ironically it is easy to build fatigue and hard to unload it. You can easily carry fatigue forward by not riding easy enough. It is like the body has on / off switch, and you need the off position to snap back from hard work. Ride on the bike path… alone. Max Testa, another outstanding coach, would say: “You have great fitness, but your fatigue is masking it right now.”
7. KISS (Keep it simple, stupid)
Weight training and stretching are best kept simple, streamlined and habitual. You are much more likely to stick with these things if they are in a simple format and become part of your routine. I finished training, rolled on a foam roller and stretched for only 5 or 10 minutes. But I did this every day, no exceptions.
8. Don’t fear the repeat
Repetition is a necessary evil for training, accept it. Sure, you can build variety into programs. But it is necessary to stress a system frequently to get adaptation. Get used to those Lactate Threshold repeats!
9. Go big!
Once you have all these concepts working for you, do some ‘massive’ days! If recovery is adequate this can be the difference between good form and great form. During the end of my base building period in sunny Arizona, I would throw in some seven-hour zone two days. I treated these as adventures, picking out a route reaching some far away destination. For a build period, this would mean adding a rep or two to a session of Lactate Threshold (near your maximum sustainable power). Obviously you have to use some common sense here, but if you never test your limits, you will never find them!
Zone 2: Many coaches use a five zone system, with one being the easiest and five being a cross-eyed maximal effort that you can only maintain for a few seconds. Zone two is a steady but very maintainable effort. Training in this zone is designed to work around your aerobic threshold promoting an increase in your output using fat metabolism as the energy source. Learn more about zone two here.
Lactate Threshold: Otherwise known as “Onset of Blood Lactate Accumulation” or “anaerobic threshold”, this is the level at which more lactate is produced in your body than what can be utilized, causing a build-up of lactate. Working beyond this threshold means that the effort will be short-lived. Think of this threshold as being your time trial intensity, the maximum effort that you can sustain for an hour.
Chris Baldwin recently retired from professional racing after 15 years. His results included two national time trial championships, a Pam Am games silver medal and top placings in many stage races. Always a training nut and student of the sport, he now coaches with his friend Ben Day at DayByDay Coaching, sharing his experience and passion for all things cycling.