Training is a time to work on our weaknesses, increase our strengths, and really test our limits of performance in a low-risk environment. The inevitable desire to make every single session a PR gradually creeps into your mind as you progress with training and begin to see fitness gains. Soon enough you find yourself pressing a bit too hard every session, regardless if it is an easy spin, warm-up, or cool down. You get really good at one pace and that’s it. Almost as if you’re stuck in this limbo of a “slightly hard” effort at all times. But that’s not what you really want, is it? You want to be able to hang with the pack and then launch a vicious attack 1k from the finish and find yourself on top of the podium, correct? Then learning how to go slow to be fast will be your best-kept training secret.
What does this even mean: going slow to be fast? Saying it out loud, the words contradict themselves, but when applied to training they make sense.
If you have 3 key sessions on the bike each week that really test your mettle, you’d want to be well prepared to bring your all to these, right? What are you doing on the days in between these sessions? Are you allocating enough time for recovery fitness training? Are you riding at your recovery zones? Let’s ask that again, are you really riding at your recovery zones? Are you performing your warm-up properly, or do you feel strained before you even get to the main session? When you get to the main session are you struggling to hit your high power numbers, but feel you can hold 85% of your FTP all day long?
If you find yourself nodding your head in agreement with any of these above scenarios then it may be time to pump the brakes, literally. Unless you are a domestique for a World Tour team and your job is to sit on the front of a peloton hammering out 85-95% of your FTP for hours upon end, then you shouldn’t be training for that.
Often, we find ourselves getting sucked into this Sweet Spot rut. One where we can go moderately hard for long periods of time, but when it comes time to kick it up a notch, we simply cannot. Does this mean we are not strong enough or incapable of hitting higher power numbers? Not at all, but you also have not conditioned your body for these types of efforts. When we ride or even run moderately hard all of the time we become moderately good at moderate efforts. Doing this type of training does not allow your body to fully recover from hard efforts enough to be able to hit hard efforts again and again. Eventually, you lose the ability to hit peak power/run paces due to accumulated fatigue.
What can we do about this? Slow the heck down! Save your energy and motivation to destroy yourself on the days when it is being asked of you! It will be hard in the beginning to break these habits, but it will be worth it.
When To Go Slow
We can view recovery fitness training as the days after hard workouts when we would prescribe a dose of “easy spinning.” This easy spinning is not to “flush the lactic acid” since we know that our bodies can use lactate as fuel and all lactate will be “flushed out” within an hour or so of rest after activity! If this is not the reason, then what is?
- Keep blood flowing
- Low-intensity exercise will stimulate the blood vessels in working muscles to dilate = increased blood flow
- Feed your muscles
- Increased blood flow allows more nutrients into tired and sore muscles
- Hard workouts can damage your muscles. Light exercise will increase the blood flow to those muscles while decreasing inflammation.
- Light exercise opens up channels in the muscle cells that allow nutrients to enter the cells. The faster we can get these nutrients back to the muscles, the faster they can repair themselves = sooner you can stress the body again.
Keep in mind: easy means very easy. It is all too common to see riders/athletes performing their active recovery days at intensities well above what they should.
Recovery ride power should be generally less than 50% of your FTP. Yes, that easy. The whole time. Resist the temptation to go harder or faster.
For recovery runs, you should aim for an aerobic run at an easy pace. You want to focus on keeping your turnover up but don’t push hard. Your goal is to maintain Heart Rate in Zones 1-2.
“You should feel embarrassed to be seen riding so easy.”
Neal Henderson, Head of Wahoo Sports Science
General Endurance Riding and Running
Another common training session that is typically performed too hard….general endurance or base sessions. General Endurance pace should be as follows:
Cycling: The goal is to stay fully aerobic throughout the entire ride, being able to maintain a conversation pace. Your heart rate should stay within Zone 2 mainly and will be best if performed on flatter/rolling terrain to avoid spikes in both power and heart rate. If using power, your power should remain between 55-75% of your Lactate Threshold (LT) power.
Running: The goal is to maintain a steady aerobic pace. You want to keep your heart rate in Zone 2 for the entire run. Your pace for these types of runs is going to generally be 20-40% slower than your threshold pace.
This being said, if you find yourself performing a recovery or general endurance sessions with a group of people and the pace is too hot, it may be time to do these sessions solo for a bit. That is a lot easier said than done as most of us look forward to our time with our friends, teammates, and training partners. If these group sessions are jeopardizing your own training it may not be the best option. This is dependent upon your goals for your sessions. If you are looking to get the most out of yourself and to knock your workouts out of the park, making small sacrifices to your days in between can help pay dividends in the end.
Jeff Hoobler is an elite strength and endurance coach with over 30 years of experience coaching athletes of all levels, from beginners to world champions in a variety of sports. He has a degree in Sports Psychology and Exercise Science from the University of Kansas and is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist through the National Strength and Conditioning Association. He is a USAC Cycling coach, MAT (Muscle Activation Techniques) therapist, professional bike fitter, and Foundations Training Instructor. In addition to coaching, Jeff is a competitive racer on the road, mountain bike, and cyclocross.