Training Beliefs: 4 Steps to Training with a Purpose
By Coach and Author Joe Friel
An excerpt from Joe Friel’s new book, The Cyclist’s Training Bible, 5th Edition (VeloPress, 2018).
Training is a research study with one subject: you.
If you read sports science research, as I’ve been doing for the past four decades, you soon learn that while a study may show some measure of performance improvement among the research subjects who have followed a prescribed training method, the study result is merely an arithmetic mean.
By digging a little deeper into the research paper, you will find that not all of the subjects in the study improved by a precise and equal amount. Instead, any gain in the study is an average gain.
Some study subjects obviously improved their outcomes more than the average, some less. There may even have been subjects who had a negative change in performance: Their performance declined by following the protocol. That’s because the subjects were humans, not robots.
Since you are also a human, I can’t promise that you’ll achieve personal greatness solely by following the guidelines laid out here. You should be prepared to make adjustments based on what you learn works for you.
Training for high-performance racing is also an act of faith. There is no promise that just because you follow a certain methodology by doing given types of workouts that you will absolutely reap great performance improvements. You may have faith that you will—we all do—but there are no guarantees. Nevertheless, you must believe that you are going down the right path in preparing to race or all is lost. You need to maintain faith in your program and follow it beginning to end.
There is a fair amount of physiological difference between each of us regardless of what the training methodology may be. For example, we know that some athletes will respond at a snail’s pace when following a certain training method. They are “slow responders.” It may take them months to match the gains of the “fast responders,” who reap the physical benefits in a few weeks or even days while training in exactly the same way. Why is that so? No one knows for sure. It could be largely genetic, but there are lots of variables in a human’s life.
You should be prepared to make adjustments based on what you learn works for you.
Then there are muscle types. Some endurance athletes are blessed with lots of slow-twitch muscles, which have been shown to aid endurance performance. Others, who would like to be good endurance athletes, are instead endowed with plenty of fast-twitch muscles, which primarily benefit performance in power sports such as football.
Since I don’t know where you are on the bell-shaped curve for each of the possible variables, I can’t say with any degree of certainty that you should train in a given way. I can only make suggestions based on what the research suggests and what I’ve found to work for most of the athletes I’ve coached.
You’ll have to make adjustments to these suggestions based largely on personal knowledge in areas that you already know about. You may need to put up with some trial and error to find the best direction for your training.
You must also understand that training is a moving target. What worked for you last season may not produce the same results—or even close to the same results—this season. Your body and mind are always in a state of flux. Things change. Sometimes rapidly.
You must always be prepared to make adjustments to how you work out, which brings us back to your training being a research study with only one subject. And you’re the only one that matters. It doesn’t make any difference how something works for everyone else if it doesn’t work for you.
Four Steps to Training with a Purpose
In sports science, the principle of individuality says that there is no one-size-fits-all way of training. Athletes differ too much for it to be otherwise. But despite the need for individualization, there are also a few general methods that do work for the vast majority of athletes.
One of these is having a focused purpose in your training. If you want to race at a high level, you must know exactly where it is you want to go and precisely how you’ll get there. That’s what purposeful training is all about. It means there is a reason for everything you do in training.
As a coach, I have used a four-step progression for many years that I know works well for most athletes in producing high performance. I highly encourage you to give it a try.
A steady diet of training without a workout purpose ultimately produces mediocre performance.
Step 1: Clear Goal
The starting point for purposeful training is having a well-defined goal. Your goal describes the outcome you are seeking—the reason you train. A vague, poorly defined goal makes the entire process of purposeful training pointless. For the goal to be well-defined, it must meet several criteria, which I’ll cover more in-depth in the book.
It isn’t only the seasonal goal that’s important. There are many subgoals that lead to your seasonal goal. At the most granular level, every workout should also have a goal. I call the workout goal a “purpose” so that the two types of goals don’t become confused.
The workout’s purpose could be something such as, “Do 2 intervals of 20 minutes each at the power sweet spot for muscular endurance with a 5-minute recovery between them” or “Complete a long ride of 3 hours, including 2 hours of steady aerobic endurance.”
Another common workout purpose is “Ride easy in zone 1 for 1 hour for recovery.” So the purpose doesn’t always have to be hard-core training. From time to time, it could even be something such as, “Ride with friends just to have fun.” After all, fun is probably why you started riding in the first place.
The primary reason to set a workout purpose is to avoid haphazard training, which is all too common among self-coached riders. Heading out the door with no idea of what you will do is a sure way to accomplish little and show up at races unprepared. A steady diet of training without a workout purpose ultimately produces mediocre performance.
Before you start any training session, always ask yourself this key question: What is the purpose of this workout? Don’t turn a pedal until you can answer it.
Step 2: Expert Instruction
Your workout purposes, when combined, should ultimately point to your season’s goal. In fact, your goal performance is nothing more than the accumulation of daily purposes achieved over the course of many weeks. Your training purposes should follow a progression that leads from where you are at the start of the season to your eventual goal achievement.
Planning this progression can be complex, as it involves understanding a lot about the science of training. For planning, it helps to engage an expert to give you clear directions on what workouts to do and when to do them. That expert could be a coach, a trusted mentor, or a training partner who can design or suggest a training plan for you. Most riders would improve exponentially by having such a person in their corner.
Without expert instruction your chances for success in achieving your seasonal goal are greatly diminished.
Or, as another option, you could simply purchase a training plan online and follow it. Realize, however, that such generic plans are not designed specifically for you but for a rather large category of athletes who have similar characteristics and desired outcomes. If those characteristics and outcomes happen to match yours, then the purchased training plan may be your “expert.”
The expert could also be you, especially if you’re a student of training. In fact, teaching you the aspects and components of training is the purpose of this book. This isn’t for everyone; many riders don’t have the time or inclination to study sports science the way a good coach does. And it is true that self-coached athletes are prone to making lots of rookie mistakes.
The learning curve is quite steep and often results in a shallow performance-progression curve due to poor decisions and frequent setbacks. But this is not to say you can’t be your own coach. It can be done. I’ve known many good self-coached athletes. That’s why we’re here.
Realistically, however, without expert instruction your chances for success in achieving your seasonal goal are greatly diminished. With this book as a guide to what to look for, you will find that putting an expert in your corner makes you much more likely to succeed. Your expert should have a good understanding of what you want to achieve and then offer specific guidelines for getting there.
The daily guidance you need throughout the season is for such specific questions as how long intervals should be, how to vary the intensities within a workout to develop the various energy systems, how to move to improve skills, when strength workouts should be scheduled relative to on-bike sessions, and on and on.
Of course, if you’re new to the sport almost anything you do will bring rapid improvement. But for experienced riders preparing for high-performance racing, training requires more than simply suffering during group rides.
Who will be your knowledgeable expert for the coming season: you, a generic training plan, a mentor, your training partner, or a coach?
Step 3: Specific Practice
Once you know the workout’s purpose and supporting details provided by the expert (you or your coach) for a given session, everything you do must be specific to both. You must stay focused on doing the workout as planned.
The exception comes on those occasions when you decide to make a session easier because you discover you aren’t ready for it (perhaps you need more recovery time or the timing isn’t right for some other reason). This is something you can do on the fly.
Going the other way—making the workout harder than its intended purpose—requires first consulting with the expert who designed it. There could very well be a reason for its seemingly low level of difficulty.
I tell the athletes I coach that if they feel the need to make the workout easier, they can always make that decision and tell me about it later. But they should not make the session more challenging without talking with me beforehand.
Make it a practice to talk about the purpose of your session before heading onto the road.
It’s important that you know exactly what to do in any given workout. If the workout is fairly complex, write it on a scrap of paper and tape it to your handlebar stem or upload it to your handlebar power device so you can check it from time to time to make sure you’re doing the session as intended.
Perhaps the greatest impairment to purposeful practice is the presence of other athletes during a workout. For most workouts, it’s very difficult to specifically follow the session’s purpose and details if your training partner wants to do something different. In fact, you are better off training on your own if the other athlete is unwilling to follow the plan.
So make it a practice to talk about the purpose of your session before heading onto the road. Compromising the session’s purpose in order to ride together violates the basic premise of purposeful training. The same goes for those times when you happen to encounter other riders on the road while doing your workout.
The inevitable tendency is to turn the workout into a gradually accelerating race. When you sense this happening, the best option is to turn and get away from the other riders so you can do your intended workout exactly as you planned.
The bottom line is that what you do in any given workout must be specific to the intended purpose of that workout if you are to reap the planned benefits.
Step 4: Immediate Feedback
Without doubt, the most effective way to make progress is to have your expert with you while training. That way, you can get immediate feedback if things are not going as they should or you discover a concern about the workout. Feedback even one day later is better than never at all. The same goes for an analysis of how well you performed the planned session.
Workout data reviewed as it happens or right afterward is much more effective than data ignored and unanalyzed for several days. It’s vital for the expert to immediately examine your performance and offer feedback while the workout is still fresh in your mind. The sooner you get the feedback, the better.
The key question you should always seek to answer is, did I accomplish the purpose of the workout?
Unless you are the expert, however, it’s unlikely that your expert will be able to attend all of your workouts. Usually the expert’s feedback will be delayed. But the sooner you can get it, the faster your progression will occur. This feedback can be face to face or via emails or text messages.
Beyond that, a weekly conversation to discuss how training is going is a perfect opportunity to ask questions of the expert to make sure you are achieving the intended workout purposes and to help you see the bigger picture as you work toward your goal.
If you are self-coached, you need to stay mentally engaged with how you feel during workouts. If your mind drifts while working on pedaling skills or doing intervals, it’s just like the coach has left. The self-coached athlete must always be scrutinizing what is happening.
And that continues into the post-workout analysis. You should analyze the data files from whatever devices you are using as soon as possible following each session. The key question you should always seek to answer is, did I accomplish the purpose of the workout? The answer comes from the expert—you.
Once you’ve followed all four steps for the workout, you are ready for the next session and should return to Step 1 again. But before finalizing the purpose for the next workout, you need to assess your progress to date relative to your seasonal goal.
If you’re coming along as planned, continue on to the next workout. But if the long-term trend says otherwise, you may need to reconsider your goal and adjust your training strategy appropriately.
Become more efficient with your cycling mechanics. From a nutrition perspective, being efficient means being able to use more of your fat stores and better preserve your carbohydrate stores.