A few days back, I had a marathon weekend racing Duathlon Nationals and Seafair. The next day (Monday), I was curled up in a fetal position on the couch and occasionally making cow-like sounds (memo to self: take such days as vacation or sick days). I felt only slightly better on Tuesday. A moderately hard (but failed) workout on Wednesday and an easy day on Thursday… maybe finally I’m ready to hit a hard workout. And so that workout would be 2 x 30min at FTP or higher with 5min recovery. I rode this one with my friend Mary. Time escaped us and I was only able to get one effort in, but it was both comfortable and 10 watts higher than it should have been. If I raced with this much energy on the weekend, I would have been unstoppable. Obviously, at least for that day, anaerobic threshold (AT) was not my limiter.
So what’s going on here? Simple, it’s just basic training effects and supercompensation. According to Pete Pfitzinger, there are some basic rules to the timing of training effects. The bottom line is:
- It takes 8-10 days to get benefits from any workout
- It takes 8-10 days to recover from a maxVO2 workout
- It takes 4 days to recover from lactate threshold and tempo workouts
- Recovering from long runs takes the longest time
These guidelines are for running workouts. Because cycling involves a bit less physical impact the timelines for cycling workouts are a bit shorter. As I’ve been doing a ton of racing and tempo work on the bike this year, the supercompensation effect is also kicking in.
Basically, whenever you do a hard workout, there’s an immediate hit on performance. Over the next few day, as your body recovers, you come back to baseline and then show an improvement. The trick to all of this is that you want your next stimulus to be after you have at least reached your performance baseline or are on the positive side of the curve. If you do this, then the curves build on each other and you have a nice net positive improvement in performance.
If you consistently shortchange your recovery, then things start looking ugly. Then performance starts to consistently decline because you’re just digging yourself into a hole.
(in reality, things are quite as bleak as the last graph above suggests, of course, because that last workout will usually be followed by the mother of all supercompensation curves upwards). Real life doesn’t follow the theoretical precision of these curves for a number of reasons. First, in general, the body does a miserable job of differentiating types of stress. A fight with your boss or a bad night of sleep bends these curves around by making the negative impact longer and deeper and reducing the upside. Coaches like Matt Dixon emphasize this aspect of a lot– and it plays a huge role for age group athletes who juggle so many competing sources of stress in their lives. Second, and much more interesting to me, different types of workouts have entirely different types of supercompensation curves. I was floored when I first read about this– and when I locate my original source, I’ll update this post to reflect it– but the basic idea is that endurance workouts yield tangible benefits much more quickly than harder, faster efforts.
This diagram also isn’t to scale and the original is much more exaggerated– the difference between the highest point in positive effects was actually about 7 days (for endurance workouts) versus 28 days (for speed workouts). Yes, yes, I know that this seems to contradict the fourth bullet above from my summary of Pete Pfitzinger’s article but you can meld these seemingly contradictory ideas as (1) exceptional long runs take a long time to recover from on a physical level (because of the amount of muscular damage) but (2) you’ll see a big bang for your buck from any endurance workout (after you have fully recovered from it) sooner than you will see the benefits from a speed workout.
Obviously, this complicates workout planning if you’re using theoretical models like this because you’re body will be experiencing a whole landslide of different compensation models at the same time. Rather than focus on the theoretical, what are the real implications of all of this for your training?
- Sprinkle a Little Speedwork in All the Time. The last curve (and accompanying discussion) suggest that the classic Lydiard model might not make sense for certain athletes to optimize their performance. In the classic model, the early season begins with lots of long steady endurance work for a very long period of time. Then, as the competitive season draws near, speed work and highly-specific training gets introduced. But if speed work takes the longest time to yield positive adaptations, shouldn’t some speed work be introduced earlier and kept all year round? This is one of the ideas driving some of the newer coaching methodologies advocated by Renato Canova, Brad Hudson, and Steve Magness.
- Ultra-Endurance Races May be Easier than You Think. Adding to the points in the last paragraph, endurance adaptations may develop more quickly than most people realize. For me, this was certainly the case last year preparing for Powerman Zofingen. Within 4 weeks of beginning my long endurance training, my body was hitting all the benchmarks I set for race day (still many months away)– after that, it was just downhill and misery. This suggests that the basic training you need for an ultra-distance event may not be quite so daunting as you may think if you’re an olympic distance athlete with a really good foundation. This is subject to a few caveats, however. First, longer running events do take a longer time to adapt to because of all of the impact stress on the body. Second, this also assumes that you have a pretty good base to begin with; you can’t just pop into a hard long cycling event, for instance, without a decent base.
- Make Sure You’re Adequately Recovered Between Hard Efforts. This is probably the biggest point that Matt Dixon makes in his book, The Well-Built Triathlete. I agree wholeheartedly with Matt’s assessment that the majority of multisport athletes work out far too much without adequate recovery.
- Supercompensation Curves Won’t Predict Recovery Times for Most Athletes. If you were a lab rat doing just one type of exercise, the curves would probably work great. But you don’t live in a lab. You also have competing stresses that monkey with the curves. Plus, you have a bunch of different energy systems each recovering at their own rates.
- Recovery isn’t Necessarily Predictable and Relies on Subjective Factors. While there are certainly a number of powerful tools that you can use (and that I will review eventually) for assessing your state of recovery, the best one is probably to go by how you feel. If you’re not too sore and feel great at the beginning of your workout, you’re probably recovered. If you’re just not coming up to your numbers, that means that you’re not adequately recovered and should call it a day. Really. Don’t be afraid to ditch a workout early because (as the diagrams above show) negative compensation is a very bad thing.
- Mammoth Efforts Can Yield Mammoth Results With Enough Recovery. I attribute my (easy) extra 10 watts on my ride that started this post to my relentless AT training, but also to my mammoth back-to-back race weekend. Anyone who done an extended effort over a short time (e.g. back-to-back race weekend, week long winter training camp, etc) knows exactly what I’m talking about. When stimuli and compressed over a short time period, all the curves seem to morph into one gigantic curve– which is why you feel like you’ve been hit by a truck when you get back (bottom side of curve) but feel hugely strong a week later (positive side of the curve).