Performance: the death of the off-season
Winter is no longer a time in which the professional cyclist can vegetate. James Hewitt considers downtime for the modern rider trained to the limit of his potential
Are we witnessing the death of the off-season?
As races continue late into the year and with competition starting earlier, the potential for down-time in a pro cyclist's programme is being squeezed. Many riders are expected to arrive fit and ready to work in January and continue to perform their roles for the rest of the season. But how does performance fluctuate through the year?
In 2004, Lucia et. al. published a research paper analysing the changes in professional cyclists' fitness, recording metabolic and neuromuscular variables. The season was divided into three defined periods: rest, pre-competition and competition. The paper revealed how, during the year, a rider’s body adapts in response to the workload. Speeds which would have left them gasping following the rest and pre-competition periods eventually become more bearable.
The research identifies this using the markers of lower levers of circulating lactate in the blood for a given effort intensity, indicating a reduced reliance on anaerobic (without oxygen) metabolism. We see improvements in the rider’s capacity to recruit (use) the cycling specific muscles in their legs, as recorded by electrodes placed on the skin.
Significantly, researchers have also recorded enhancements in gross cycling efficiency: professional and elite amateur riders may record similar VO2 max values, but the greater efficiency of professional cyclists means that they can generate a higher output for a given VO2. Practically, these adaptations result in a peloton than can ride day after day at speeds and intensities which many amateur riders would be delighted to sustain for a 40km time trial.
Whilst the increased number of races creates more opportunities to win, earn and provide an incentive to stay in shape, it’s impossible to maintain peak-performance year-round. The performance of all professional cyclists fluctuates. We can be deceived into thinking that some riders are able to preserve form through the whole season, particularly the few who can win from spring to autumn. However, this is more likely the result of either carefully designed fluctuations in fitness or a flexibility and initiative which creates the opportunity to secure victories, even if they are not operating at the height of their powers.
Whatever the case, hard won performance gains come at a cost. In 2001, Lucia et. al. published a study in a male professional cycling population revealing the decrease in activity of the pineal gland, adrenal glands, and testis associated with consecutive days of intense, long term exercise. The period of rest and recovery at the end of the season is often cited as an opportunity for the activity of these tissues to improve and for the related hormones to recover to ‘normal’ levels.
In 2008, the late Aldo Sassi, coach to Cadel Evans amongst others, published another study which described how much a pro cyclist’s fitness may decrease during the rest period. His research revealed average reductions in VO2max from 76.7 to 69.4 mL/kg/min between the competition and rest periods and a decreased tolerance time to a set workload.
Despite this, in parallel with the increasing length of the season, there also seems to be a trend towards maintaining fitness. Team Sky are said to adopt this approach with their riders – apparently continuing to carry out intense efforts in training throughout the off-season. This strategy makes sense, particularly when you consider that it’s relatively easier to maintain VO2 max. than ‘regain’ it following a de-training period.
Maintenance of VO2 max. in the off season is probably best described as a quality vs. quantity approach. This was established as far back as 1989 where studies demonstrated that a high VO2max could be maintained with as few as two or three workouts per week, providing the intensity of training is kept high.
The maintenance of intensity in the off-season is likely a key component in the ‘reverse periodisation’ methodology introduced into Team Sky’s arsenal by Head of Athlete Performance, Tim Kerrison.
The traditional approach to developing fitness in endurance athletes was to build an ‘aerobic base’ through long and slow miles before gradually increasing the intensity of efforts as the year progressed. These long, low-intensity efforts are primarily directed at eliciting central adaptations in the cardiovascular system (heart and lungs). In contrast, reverse periodisation begins by training at higher intensities, targeting the specific efforts required to be competitive, resulting in improvements in peak strength and power before moving on to threshold work and tapering leading up to target events.
In practise, rather than spending hours riding around at 250 watts in December and January, training may include efforts at the power outputs required to be competitive in long-climbs or time-trials. The riders may only be able to maintain these intensities for a short time, initially, but the focus is on developing the muscle mass, strength and power to produce the required wattage before layering aerobic endurance conditioning on top, to extend the duration over which this power output can be sustained as the competition season approaches.
But how could a tired team of pro cyclists maintain these intensities in the off-season? The answer is likely two-fold: 1) maintain intensity but increase rest relative to that which is available in the competitive season. Dave Brailsford has been quoted as saying you can’t over-train, but you can under-recover and the brief off-season should hopefully result in less travel and external demands (though not for everyone). 2) Eat more.
Professional cycling’s obsession with power to weight ratio is easy to understand. It’s one of the principle determinants of cycling performance. However, achieving a super-lean physique requires riders to train hard whilst maintaining a caloric deficit for extended periods of time. Whilst the result is high-performance, it is not a sustainable way to live and riders may begin to exhibit symptoms of hormonal disruption. Our endocrine (hormonal) systems are a complex interconnected web, so these effects can be wide-reaching.
For example, long-term calorie restriction can result in reduced metabolic rate, thyroid hormone output, sympathetic nervous system activity, drops in leptin levels, decreased reproductive hormone output and reduced spontaneous physical activity i.e. riders don’t feel like training. These effects are clearly not conducive to health and whilst the calorie restriction may enhance performance for target events, without periods of recovery and increased calorie intake, performance may be negatively impacted in years to come. Whilst many riders hate the idea of gaining weight, it’s essential for health and long-term development.
Consequently, while the off-season may no-longer be a time for long periods off the bike and low intensity, it is a time where the holy grail of power to weight ratio can be set aside. Professional cyclists consistently report eating more and gaining a few kilos once the competition period is over. This will likely help their endocrine systems recover as well as providing a vital window of calorie surplus which can be used to build the strength and muscle required to push over 400 watts for extended periods of time. It’s no surprise that the beginning of structured training for many pros now includes a number of weeks lifting weights in the gym.
Unless a rider has been driven into a deep-state of overtraining by a long season, the principle barriers to maintaining and even building off-season fitness are likely psychological more than physiological, but that’s not to say this makes them any less real.
So whilst the traditional off-season may be coming to an end, there are still variations in fitness, but the ‘rest period’ is no longer a time to vegetate. Winter becomes a time to regenerate physically and mentally as quickly and efficiently as possible, build peak values and reach higher levels than before. For the motivated cyclist in an athletic world where everyone exhibits genetic gifts, trained almost to the limit of their potential, an opportunity to improve by just 0.5 per cent could make a significant difference to performance on the road.
James Hewitt is a performance coach at HINTSA Performance, Geneva