For the past few months I’ve been talking with cycling and triathlon clubs in the US and UK virtually about training during the pandemic. With what appears to be another surge starting, I’ve tried to help these athletes not only cope but also, hopefully, take advantage of this strange time to prepare for when things finally get back to something like normal.
Two Common Questions: What to Do and Why?
Basically, there are two questions I’ve tried to answer: What should athletes do for training now? And why should they even do it? Let’s start with the second question, as it’s the more important.
Why Train Without Races?
Races, as we’ve known them, do not exist right now. Yes, there are virtual races, but they aren’t what we’ve called “racing” in the past. So I’m sure that there are many who have thought, “What’s the point? Why train right now? Why not just take the time off, rest, and wait to get started again when head-to-head racing returns?” I do not suggest taking that route. A great deal of fitness will be lost, as the pandemic could last several more months to perhaps even another year. Who knows? We may not be back to what we’ve thought of as normal racing until mid- to late 2021. That’s a long time. Several months to a year without training could have devastating consequences for some athletes. They may never come back to the sport. Even if they manage to keep their motivation, trying to re-establish the fitness that took years to build won’t happen in several weeks or even a few months. They may never get back to where they were earlier this year. And the older the athlete, the greater the cost of inactivity. In other words, it could take another year or more to achieve one’s 2020 fitness level.
Besides that, I’d suggest that the situation we’re in now presents a great opportunity. I’ll explain.
Most athletes never establish enough base fitness. I see this all the time. The most basic part of fitness is what we are most likely to shortchange in training. We are often overly anxious to get into the high intensity, race-like training of the build period and so, all too often, shortchange our base periods—if we get into that period at all. But now, with no racing, it is a great time to fully develop base fitness and, eventually, race better than ever. How so? Think of training as being like a triangle with the race on the top point. The old saying goes, the broader the base of that triangle, the higher its peak. In other words, a lot of base training now will provide a great starting point for when it’s finally time to actually prepare to race. General fitness, as in the base period, must precede the specific fitness of the build period to perform at your highest level. I know a lot of athletes don’t believe this, but it’s true. And besides, there is no reason to be focused on race-like training now when there are no races. Using this time to fully develop base fitness will lead to achieving a higher level of peak fitness when racing resumes. I can guarantee that.
What Kind of Training Should Athletes Do?
So what does this mean? What could you be doing now to develop your base fitness? I’ve been telling the clubs I’ve spoken with that there are three things I’d recommend.
First, I’ve suggested that they make 5 days each week easy days. What does “easy” mean? (It’s weird that I have to explain this, but I’m afraid most athletes really don’t know.) Let’s say easy means training in zones 1 and 2. And, in fact, most of the training time in these 5 days should be in zone 1. That’s what I’d call easy. Also, if you take a day off every week, which is not a bad idea, that’s one of the easy days. Now there are 4 left. Here’s the important part: Avoid zone 3 on these easy days. This is hard for most athletes. If training on these 5 days with other athletes, it’s a near certainty that the workouts will be too hard. It’s better to train alone then. But even when training solo there’s a feeling that we’re not really accomplishing anything in zones 1 and 2. And, as with Goldilocks, zone 3 feels just right. It’s not. It has negative consequences for training, which I’ll explain next.
Second, I’ve told the club members to make 2 days each week hard. What does “hard” mean? I’d define that as zones 4 and 5—just below and above the anaerobic threshold (or lactate threshold or functional threshold)—when moderate to heavy breathing begins. One need only do a small amount of such workouts during this pandemic base period. For these I’d suggest doing 2 types of workouts. The first is very high intensity but done with very short intervals. I’d suggest something such as 10 x 30 seconds at high intensity with 30-second recoveries. How high is the intensity? Heart rate doesn’t work for this type of workout and not all endurance sports have good ways of measuring brief, high intensity efforts. So let’s use the 1–10 rating of perceived exertion (RPE) scale with 10 being an all-out effort. I’d suggest doing such short intervals at an 8 or 9 on this scale. That’s very hard, but they are also very short. The entire high-intensity portion of the workout lasts 10 minutes including recoveries. With a warm-up of whatever duration works best for you and your sport, and a similar cool down (both of these are “easy,” as per above), this workout could last 30 to 90 minutes, or even more. So that’s one of the two hard days.
The second hard day calls for doing longer intervals at a slightly lower intensity, yet still on the hard side with moderate to heavy breathing. Something such as a total of 15 to 20 minutes in zone 4 should do it here. Using the 1–10 RPE scale, that’s about a 6 or 7. It’s usually best to break these down into intervals also. I’d suggest anything that’s at least 5 minutes long and up to 20 minutes non-stop. If doing intervals, they could be 3 x 5 minutes up to 2 x 10 minutes. The key piece here is the recoveries between the high-intensity (RPE 6-7) intervals. Make them about one-fourth as long as the preceding work interval. For example, if doing something such as 3 x 6 minutes hard, make the recoveries about 1.5 minutes (90 seconds). If the recoveries are made much longer, as athletes are inclined to do, the benefits are compromised. With warm-up and cool down (again, both done in zones 1 and 2), such a session could last anywhere from 40 minutes to 2 hours, depending on your capacity for work and your sport (for example, cycling workouts typically last longer than running workouts).
Note that these two “hard” workouts are not really all that hard. Most serious athletes do far harder sessions when they are in serious race-like training during the specific-preparation/build period. But they are hard enough for this pandemic period to maintain—or even boost—the higher levels of fitness.
Be sure to separate these 2 hard days by at least 72 hours, so something such as Tuesday/Friday or Wednesday/Saturday works well. That will give you time to adequately recover.
The key here is to make sure the easy days are truly easy so that the hard days are truly hard. If the easy days are mostly zone 3 sessions, then you are likely to come to the hard days with just a little bit too much fatigue. That means those 2 sessions are also likely to devolve into zone 3. If everything becomes zone 3, you’re sunk. You’ve largely wasted your training time.
That brings us to my last weekly workout suggestion for the pandemic.
Third, I’ve told club members to do short strength sessions 2 or 3 times a week. But what if you don’t have a gym? Lots of places are closed because of Covid. Get creative. And give it some thought. Athletes in sports such as running, cycling, and rowing need to develop hip-knee-ankle-extension force. One of the best exercises for this is squats (others are leg press, lunges, and step-ups). One-legged squats can be done by holding onto the back of a chair for balance with the non-exercising foot to the rear on another chair. Or do two-legged, bent-over squats while holding a chair for balance, with your kids sitting on your back. They’d love it. (I used to do these when traveling with my wife sitting on my hips. But she didn’t like that she was just being used as a weight, so I started doing one-leggers instead.) For swimmers I’d recommend getting a heavy-duty stretch cord and, while bent over at the waist with one end of the cord anchored, work on the catch with fingers pointed at the floor while pulling straight back from the elbow and shoulder (for a visual see page 234 in The Triathlete’s Training Bible, 4th edition). Whatever your sport there is certainly one or more strength exercises you could do that would at least maintain the critical muscular force. And it could probably be done at home without fancy equipment.
That’s it. Three categories of workouts to do until life gets back to something like normal again. By the time you’re at that magical point and ready for a build period before the first race of the new season, you should have a huge base and be ready to build to a very high peak of fitness.