The importance of Low-Intensity High-Volume Training

We all love a good high-intensity smash fest, be it on the road or in the Pain Cave on the turbo. And, of course, these high-intensity sessions are vitally important to our training, helping us get fitter and faster through various means. But there is arguably an even greater importance for the inclusion of low-intensity high-volume training, so let’s dive into why this is the case…

We may not have the time available to train like the pros, who will be doing 25+ hours of training a week. But, interestingly enough, we probably do a similar amount of higher-intensity each week as they do at times. So, what do they do differently? The answer is: a lot of low-intensity high-volume training – which is used to facilitate more potential gains from the high-intensity work that they also do. 

As can be seen here, most training time for professional cyclists is spent at lower intensities. From: Van Erp, T., Sanders, D., & De Koning, J. J. (2019). Training characteristics of male and female professional road cyclists: a 4-year retrospective analysis. International journal of sports physiology and performance15(4), 534-540.

We can improve our aerobic power via a few different methods but many of them come down to something called PGC-1α (Peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor gamma coactivator 1-alpha). One of the primary things that PGC-1α does is to increase mitochondrial biogenesis, therefore increasing the number of cells within our muscles that oxidise fat, carbohydrates and lactate to produce ATP (adenosine triphosphate) – which is what our body uses to energise all muscular processes. Another benefit of increased PGC-1α expression is that insulin-stimulated glucose transport is increased (also called increased insulin sensitivity) via GLUT4 (Glucose Transporter Type 4). Essentially, this means that we can deal with carbohydrate loads better without the associated blood sugar highs and lows, as blood sugars remain more stable.

The first method of activating PGC-1α that we’ll discuss occurs due to high-intensity exercise and is achieved via the AMP-K (adenosine monophosphate-activated protein kinase) enzyme. The AMP-K facilitated PGC-1α signalling occurs during high-intensity due to the ratio of AMP:ATP increasing. This is because ATP is being used at a rate faster than it can be generated, such as during very high-intensity exercise that is not sustainable. So, those hard interval sessions being set for you will be contributing towards improving your aerobic function along with other training benefits. 

There’s still an important place for high-intensity sessions in making aerobic endurance gains (among other benefits)

However, low-intensity high-volume training sessions can also cause PGC-1α signalling to occur in a different way. When we contract our muscles, calcium is secreted into the cytoplasm from the sarcoplasmic reticulum. This in turn activates CAMKII (calcium/calmodulin-dependent protein kinase), which is itself a signalling molecule for p38 MAPK (p38 mitogen activated protein kinase). p38 MAPK not only increases PGC-1α after the initial uptake of exercise, but also increases the expression of PGC-1α as exercise continues, thus improving mitochondrial biogenesis, oxidative capacity and aerobic performance. Due to the continuous nature of this signalling pathway, high-volume exercise is more beneficial than shorter in this respect. The only way to conduct this exercise sustainably is to perform it at lower intensities. 

Another benefit of low-intensity high-volume exercise is something called angiogenesis, or muscle capillarisation, which is the creation of new capillaries within the muscle, allowing more oxygen to be transported around the muscle and therefore improving oxidative capacity. This can also be facilitated via PGC-1α signalling to a lesser degree. However, the primary driver for angiogensis is VEGF (vascular endothelial growth factor), which is secreted from the muscle fibres to the muscle interstitium. Additionally, studies have found that, as intensity increases, VEGF activation decreases and angiogenesis is hampered, which is why low-intensity exercise is so important for angiogenesis. These benefits are theorised to occur more in the high-volume exercise due to, again, the continued muscle contractions over far longer time durations than for, say, 60 minutes of high-intensity training.

Winter base miles are a staple in many cyclists training plans. Group rides offer (for most) a more enjoyable way of getting in those low-intensity high-volume training rides

Finally, low-intensity long-duration training helps with improving lactate clearance. Lactate is produced during the breakdown of glucose, primarily in the Fast Twitch Glycolytic muscle fibres, and is then released into the blood and converted to pyruvate in the liver (takes minutes), or can be used directly by Slow Twitch muscle fibres and converted into pyruvate and used to synthesise ATP (far quicker process). Low-intensity high-volume training (and high-intensity training) increases the transporter MCT-4 (Monocarboxylate-4) which helps remove lactate from those Fast Twitch muscle fibres rather than lactate entering the blood stream. This means that the lactate can be used to synthesise additional ATP at a faster rate (improved clearance). Another way in which low-intensity high-volume training improves lactate clearance is by increasing the amount of another transporter called MCT-1 (Monocarboxylate-1) and the enzyme mLDH (mitochondrial lactate dehydrogenase). MCT-1 takes lactate into the Slow Twitch muscle fibres where mLDH converts it into pyruvate in the mitochondria, where it is then used to synthesise ATP. Finally, with low-intensity long-duration training increasing the amount of mitochondrial biogenesis in Slow Twitch Muscle Fibres, there are greater numbers of mitochondria to break down the lactate via mLDH and synthesise it into ATP.

So, what is low-intensity training? Traditionally, it is referred to as Zone 1 or Zone 2 exercise, something that is easily maintainable over long durations while being able to maintain conversations. Physiologically, it is the moderate exercise intensity domain which refers to exercise that is below LT (lactate threshold), where the primary fuel oxidised is fatty acids and lactate production does not increase from base levels. A general rule of thumb for this is exercise performed at less than 70% of Functional Threshold Power, but LT for individuals varies in terms of their percentage of FTP and can also change based on environmental factors such as heat and even fatigue. Additionally, sub-LT is often an intensity that maintains the Heart Rate to Watts ratio without cardiac drift occurring. Cardiac drift, also referred to as aerobic-decoupling, is when HR increases compared to power in a non-linear fashion. So, either power stays the same and HR increases, power drops and HR remains static, or power increases but HR increases at a rate that is exponentially higher than would be expected.

Time spent in power zones over the last 730 days for one of the professional riders that we work with

What does this mean for everyone reading this? Fortunately, you don’t need to be doing 4+ hour rides 5 times a week to reap the benefits of long duration low-intensity training. Getting one or two longer rides at a low-intensity in at the weekend will help you significantly with your aerobic fitness, as well as providing a good base to build upon using high-intensity sessions. So, although suffering and doing high intensity sessions to make the Pain Cave earn its name are important, don’t forget the importance of those long slow endurance rides when you can fit them in.

For further reading on PGC-1α, have a look at this research paper: Jung, S., & Kim, K. (2014). Exercise-induced PGC-1α transcriptional factors in skeletal muscle. Integrative medicine research3(4), 155–160.

For more info on angiogenesis, this is a great read: Gliemann, L. Training for skeletal muscle capillarization: a Janus-faced role of exercise intensity? Eur J Appl Physiol 1161443–1444 (2016).

The end of FTP Tests? – Why you should use Critical Power and Watts Prime instead of Functional Threshold Power

(originally posted on Rule28 Performance Hub 22/4/22)

Coach Any Turner discusses why focusing on FTP tests can result in worse race day performance and what you can do about it.

FTP has been a talking (bragging) point for cyclists since power meters have gained in popularity. Classic café stop talking points are what someone’s FTP is compared to their mate’s or how much your FTP has gone up by since the last test.

Training plans often focus on boosting your FTP, but how useful is this really? For those that don’t know, Functional Threshold Power is often referred to as the maximum amount of power a rider can put out over 60mins. This number can be gathered either by undertaking a 60 min all-out effort or taking 95% of a 20min effort.

FTP is limited in usefulness however. Training for maximum 20 or 60min power has limited utility in race conditions. It’s all well and good having a great 20+ minute power, but if we can’t follow those critical maximal attacks above ‘threshold’ then we’re unlikely to be winning any races. To learn more about our capacity for those sorts of efforts in addition to our threshold, we need to test and train for something different.

“The critical power (CP) is mathematically defined as the power-asymptote of the hyperbolic relationship between power output and time-to-exhaustion. Physiologically, the CP represents the boundary between the steady-state and nonsteady state exercise intensity domains” Vanhatalo et al., 2011. While Watts Prime (W’) has been described as the finite work capacity above CP.

W' and CP Critical Power Rule 28

Figure 1. Shaded blocks equal the W’, all the boxes have the same sized area. The curved line represents the power curve for this rider’s power. The straight line represents CP. Theoretically these lines never touch.

A bit sciencey that explanation, but essentially CP tells us when exercise goes from being sustainable for long durations, to non-sustainable. CP and W’ have become more common testing metrics in recent years for several reasons. They are easier to test than FTP, especially out on the road, and mentally the shorter efforts can be easier to conduct. This form of test also tells you more about your overall power curve as well as your power at non-steady state exercise intensity domains i.e. Full Gas! The test is typically done in one of two ways:

The first way is the 3 minute all out test (Burnley et al., 2006). This means sprinting all out from the gun, with the idea being that the final 30 seconds you will have exhausted your W’ reserve and only be able to ride at your CP. CP is measured as the average power for the final 30 seconds, and W’ is measured as the work done (joules) above CP for the first 2.5 minutes. This test can be difficult to conduct properly as often people leave a little reserve still in the tank and up the power in the final seconds of the effort, skewing the results slightly.

The second method is done by using different lengths of interval with appropriate recovery in-between. The number of efforts and duration varies from tester to tester, with some going for three to four time durations varying typically between 3 and 20 minutes long (Maturana et al., 2018). Typically, accurate results can be achieved by testing for 3 and 12 minutes durations (Simpson & Kordi, 2017) and from those maximal efforts, W’ and CP are derived. It’s not perfect by any means, as day to day variations in power occur as well CP being theoretically holdable forever (it isn’t), but it does offer a better picture of the overall physiological capabilities and limitations of a rider than doing an FTP test.  

Power Sustain Duration Rule 28

Figure 2. Curved line used to determine time at which certain watts can be sustained for. Linear line to determine what power can be sustained for a given time frame.

The results of this test not only give you a supposedly more accurate/attainable sustainable power output over longer durations, but also an ‘anaerobic’ capacity, or battery, that can be drained and recharged depending on the power output. The results can also be used to determine other useful factors, such as maximal power over a certain time duration or for how long they can maintain a certain power output above CP. So for those targeting a hill climb with a target time of 6 minutes, you can use the calculation to determine what power you can maximally maintain for that duration.

To summarise: CP and W’ present a more helpful set of test results than FTP. Give you information about your anaerobic capabilities. Can be used to determine how long you can maintain a certain power for, or what power you can maintain for a certain timeframe.

Find out more about coaching from Andy Turner here

Sources

Jones, A. M., Vanhatalo, A., Burnley, M., Morton, R. H., & Poole, D. C. (2010). Critical power: implications for determination of VO2max and exercise tolerance. Med Sci Sports Exerc42(10), 1876-90.  (Figure 1)

Burnley, M., Doust, J. H., & Vanhatalo, A. (2006). A 3-min all-out test to determine peak oxygen uptake and the maximal steady state. Medicine and science in sports and exercise38(11), 1995-2003.

Maturana, F. M., Fontana, F. Y., Pogliaghi, S., Passfield, L., & Murias, J. M. (2018). Critical power: how different protocols and models affect its determination. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport21(7), 742-747.

Vanhatalo, A., Jones, A. M., & Burnley, M. (2011). Application of critical power in sport. International journal of sports physiology and performance6(1), 128-136. (Figure 2)

Simpson, L. P., & Kordi, M. (2017). Comparison of critical power and W′ derived from 2 or 3 maximal tests. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance12(6), 825-830.

Protein consumption for cycling

Protein is an essential part of all people’s diets. It’s the building block for much of the tissue in our bodies and is essential for our continued function. However, working out how much protein we actually need to consume is where it can become tricky, especially for athletes. 

For everyday consumption for the standard population, guidelines are around 0.8g/kg body mass. When injured, it’s wise to increase this a bit as you often require more protein for the greater turnover and development of particular tissues (road rash for example). 

For athletes, the number is a bit more difficult to determine. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada and the American College of Sports Medicine recommend 1.2-2.0g/kg for athletic populations. This makes sense because, as an athlete, you generally have a greater muscle mass, are recovering from training and rebuilding damaged tissue at a muscular level, or are trying to increase muscle mass, therefore greater protein intake is required. This recommended amount is based primarily on strength athletes, such as rugby players and power lifters – populations who certainly look more muscular than the traditional ‘skinny’ cyclist. 

There are plenty of different sources of protein to fit your dietary requirements, tastes and general needs

Indeed, the recommendation for endurance athletes is at the much lower end of 1.2-1.4g/kg. However, during a study looking into protein consumption of one team of Tour de France competitors, the daily intake was 3.3g/kg, higher even than the Ineos (then Sky) target of 2-2.5g/kg. The reason for this is that, during multi-day events with great physiological stress, the body is constantly either in need of protein for recovering and rebuilding after the damage encountered from the racing. 

There are other reasons behind this though. Each rider burned on average 5415kcal a day, significantly more than the average competitive cyclist will consume a day, even during a hard training block. To reach this energy intake so as to achieve energy balance and high energy availability, the riders eat A LOT! Most of this energy came primarily through carbohydrates (avg 12.5g/kg or 872g/day) so as to fuel the exercise and replenish muscle glycogen. But alongside their bowls of porridge, piles of pasta etc there was most likely yogurt, meats, cheeses and beans etc so as to provide not just protein but also flavour. Another outcome to bear in mind when eating so many carb sources is that a lot of them also contain protein. Rice has 4g for every 100g cooked, oats have 16.9g per 100g raw and pasta has on average 5g per 100g cooked. It’s easy to see how the protein amounts rack up!

Another way protein is consumed is through recovery drinks. It’s quick, it’s easy and, when time is of the essence, this is vital for professional athletes. But do we all need them? They’re not the cheapest things and other homemade options that are easily available can be just as effective. Chocolate milk is a longstanding recommendation for carbs and protein post training. However, the dairy/lactose in this can make it difficult to digest quickly for a lot of people, even those without intolerances, so maybe not the best option if time is of the essence. Scrambled eggs on toast works well, ~6g protein per egg and plenty of carbs in the bread. For a vegan alternative, baked beans or mushy peas have ~20g per tin as well as being packed with carbs. The benefit of eggs and other animal sources of proteins is that they are more complete proteins (containing either more or all of the amino acids required) and are also more bioavailable. Vegetable sources of protein are not as readily absorbed by the body so have to be eaten in greater quantities to get a usable quantity of the macro/micronutrients into the system.

Protein shakes are a quick way to top up protein stores and replenish carbs

Another important consideration is: do you really need added protein? A lot of food sources have good levels of protein in them already and, if you’re a meat eater, the likelihood is that you’re eating more than you need in some sittings. For example, a packet of ready-cooked chicken contains ~40g of protein per pack. As well as that, you’ve maybe had some carb sources, cheese etc already and that adds another 10-20g. It’s better to consume smaller quantities of protein more regularly throughout the day in 20-30g amounts. However for vegetarians and vegans, more protein is often required due to the bioavailability of the protein in those foods and the lack of complete protein food sources (foods that contains all essential amino acids). This essentially means that for say every 20g of protein consumed, not all of that will be processable by the body and used.

Finally, when is the best time to consume the protein? It’s a good idea to include it in your breakfast, which also helps with satiety, but don’t consume too much too close to a training session as protein takes longer to digest and process, so can leave you feeling nauseous. During training, protein isn’t essential and you’d be better off focusing on carb intake. As you train, blood is taken away from the gastrointestinal tract so digestion is compromised. That’s why it’s easier to consume gels than a slice of wholemeal bread when exercising. Focus on protein intake once you’ve finished your training session. A good rule of thumb is 20g within an hour of exercise being completed and then 20g every couple of hours throughout the rest of the day. Before bed is also a good time to consume protein as this gives your body the essential supplies needed for repairing and rebuilding tissue as you sleep. Sleep quality can also be improved if you don’t go to bed feeling hungry. 

Although if you have legs like Chris Hoy you make some Rugby players and Power lifters’ quads look small!

To summarise, for most athletes (not those competing in a Grand Tour!) the daily intake of protein can probably be in the 1.2-2g/kg range, depending on how much you’re training and if you’re doing S&C work as well. Eat little and often throughout the day rather than big bulk sittings, be mindful of how much protein is in the foods you eat, and prioritise protein around training, not during training.

Let’s talk about carbohydrates

Carbohydrates (Carbs/CHO) are one of the main macronutrients that we can utilise via oxidation for fuel, and they have been found to be highly beneficial for sporting performance and a very effective ergonomic aid (Cermak & van Loon, 2013). They’re a big topic of debate in the world of fuelling, nutrition and health so I’m going to delve into them more and hopefully give you plenty of useful information on why carbs should be an essential part of your fuelling regime for sports.

Carbs are a necessity for cyclists

The way we get energy to perform an action, such as riding a bike, is through oxidation of substrates. We get this normally through oxidation (aerobic respiration) of lipids (fat) or carbs via the tricarboxylic acid (TCA) cycle (aka Krebs or citric acid cycle), glycolysis (can occur aerobically or anaerobically) and oxidative phosphorylation. Going into detailed explanations of these processes would require a fair few essays! The main point is that we derive energy from the breakdown of these fuel sources, but there are some key differences between the two. Fats are more energy dense and can be broken down into more ATP (adenosine triphosphate – an organic compound which provides energy to cells) than carbs. ATP complete oxidation of one palmitate molecule (fatty acid containing 16 carbons) generates 129 ATP molecules, whereas for each molecule of glucose that is processed in glycolysis, a net of 36 ATP molecules can be created by aerobic respiration. The caveat here is that fat requires more oxygen to breakdown, which is fine when we have that oxygen available. But what happens when exercise intensity increases and oxygen demands increase? Well, if we’re talking primarily aerobically (since anaerobic processes still occur during low intensity the same way aerobic processes still occur during high intensity), as exercise intensity increases, our capacity to break down fats decreases, and we need to start oxidising more carbs as they require less oxygen to breakdown. However, whereas we can store 5420 – 6670MJ of potential energy in fat stores (Newsholme & Leech, 1994), we can usually only store approximately 10.4MJ potential energy from carbs, while the liver contains approximately 80 g glycogen representing 1.25MJ potential energy (Martin & Klein, 1998). This means that, for long duration high intensity exercise, we need to consume exogenous carbs to fuel our performances, be it training or racing, as our endogenous supplies of carbs are very limited whereas fat stores can last us for days of low intensity exercise.

Even for ultra distance athletes, where intensity is low, carbs are still required

With the focus of this piece being on carbs, let’s consider how much carbohydrate we use during different exercise intensities. This is very difficult to determine as, although there are general rules of thumb (e.g. exercise beyond 70% of Critical Power is often seen as the turn-point for carb metabolism over fats, AKA supposed lactate threshold 1/LT1), there is no ‘one size fits all’ answer. One consideration is training status, as more well-trained athletes have been found to oxidise fat at higher rates even at higher intensities than amateur athletes (Hetlelid, Plews, Herold, Laursen & Seiler, 2015), suggesting that less well-trained athletes use more carbs relatively at lower intensities. But another part of this is that the higher-trained athletes are likely performing at a higher pace relatively so are therefore using more energy. For example, Rider A (amateur) and Rider B (professional) are both riding at their Critical Power. For Rider A that is 200 watts (720 kcal/hour), for Rider B that is 400 watts (1440 kcal/hour). Let’s say that Rider A requires 90% of their energy to come from carbs and Rider B only needs 70%. That’s 648 kcal from carbs for Rider A but a massive 1008 kcal for Rider B, and as carbs are ~4 kcal/gram, that’s 162g compared to 252g, a huge amount of energy required. (This isn’t exactly how it works but it does give a good idea of energy requirements and demands). Then, finally, there’s the variability at the same power levels to consider. It’s been found that in 10 professional riders riding at 300 watts, carb oxidation ranged from ~2.8 – ~4.3 g/min and fat oxidation ranged from ~0.3 – ~0.8 g/min (From James Spragg of Spragg Performance), which shows us that carb usage varies considerably from person to person. We can measure the rate of carb oxidation but it requires specialist equipment. Therefore, what we do is work off ranges of carb intake that we prescribe in training (as part of our nutrition package) and then monitor various metrics and assess if the carb intake needs to be increased or decreased for different kinds of sessions.

Energy drinks are a great way of consuming carbs alongside bars and gels. Especially when many carbs are needed!

Importantly, if you don’t ingest exogenous carbs, you will not be able to maintain a high intensity of exercise and will experience the dreaded ‘bonk’ where performance will drop off a cliff. But how many carbs do we need to consume? This is where things get complicated as this is variable from person to person, as well as being variable within one person themselves. The first things to consider are the duration and the intensity of the exercise that we are doing, as carbs will still be used during low intensity so, if doing long duration, you should still consume exogenous carbs. Another factor is the rate at which you are burning carbs, as a lighter rider will use fewer carbs at a given intensity (or percentage of carbs as contribution to energy production) than a larger rider if both are doing the same W/Kg. Next, we must consider the types of carbs that are consumed, as the type of carbs makes a difference to the amount that you can oxidise and the rate at which this happens. Previous thought was that the maximum oxidation rate of ingested carbs was 1g/min using glucose as the carb source. However, more recent studies have found that 1.75g/min is possible with mixed sources of carbs consumed, often at a ratio of 2:1 glucose to fructose (Jeukendrup, 2013). However other studies have found that the tolerable level of carb intake can be as much as 144g/hour with an oxidation rate of 105g/hour, again a mix of difference carb sources (Jeukendrup, 2007). But this is an extreme amount, and it has been found that not all individuals can tolerate this quantity of carbs being consumed, even with gastrointestinal (GI) training. GI training is an important part of training which is often neglected, as doing so can increase our tolerance to ingested carbohydrates significantly. However, even with GI training, we each have a maximum carb intake that is tolerable for us as individuals that is unlikely to be able to be surpassed without negative impacts on performance. 

Especially in races, the pros can often be seen scoffing down carbs whenever possible

We know that we need carbs for performance, but they are also vital for health. One of the biggest risk factors in sport is when riders want to lose body fat and reduce either their total intake of food or limit their carbohydrate intake. Often, it is carb intake which is limited and fasted rides are performed regularly in order to try and improve the rate of fat oxidation and therefore, reduce body fat. However, this is not a good habit to get into as, when we overtrain our fat oxidation capacity, we lose some of our carb oxidation capacity (glycolytic enzyme reduction), and you’re left with decreased high intensity aerobic capacity which means that, race performance will likely be limited. Additionally, if calorie intake is limited, then recovery is impaired as well as cognitive function. In chronic low energy availability (LEA), which often occurs as a result of not consuming sufficient carbs to properly fuel training and recovery, there are big risks to be aware of including low bone mineral density and serious hormone imbalances (Viner, Harris, Berning, & Meyer, 2015). The impacts of these in the short term can be significantly impaired performance and, in the long term, the early onset of osteopenia or osteoporosis, as well as the possibility of becoming infertile. However, consuming enough carbs in and around training does help reduce the likelihood of these conditions occurring as a result of LEA. Additionally, strength/resistance/impact training can help with maintenance of bone mineral density.

Carb gels are a common sight at many cycling events as they’re easy to consume

To summarise: 

  • Carbs are a vital source of energy for cycling
  • We all burn them at different rates due to a multitude of factors
  • We all need to consume different amounts and can train the gut to tolerate more – to a limit
  • Carbs are vital to help maintain adequate energy availability and maintain health

References

Cermak, N. M., & van Loon, L. J. (2013). The use of carbohydrates during exercise as an ergogenic aid. Sports Medicine43(11), 1139-1155.

Martin, W. H., & Klein, S. (1998). Use of endogenous carbohydrate and fat as fuels during exercise. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society57(1), 49-54.

Hetlelid, K. J., Plews, D. J., Herold, E., Laursen, P. B., & Seiler, S. (2015). Rethinking the role of fat oxidation: substrate utilisation during high-intensity interval training in well-trained and trained runners. BMJ open sport & exercise medicine1(1), e000047.

Jeukendrup, A. E. (2013). Multiple transportable carbohydrates and their benefits. Sports Science Exchange26(108), 1-5.

Jeukendrup, A. (2007). Carbohydrate supplementation during exercise: does it help? How much is too much. Sports Science Exchange20(3), 1-6.

Viner, R. T., Harris, M., Berning, J. R., & Meyer, N. L. (2015). Energy availability and dietary patterns of adult male and female competitive cyclists with lower than expected bone mineral density. International journal of sport nutrition and exercise metabolism25(6), 594-602.

Images from: https://commutter.com/cyclist-diet/, https://tdaglobalcycling.com/2014/05/top-10-foods-for-long-distance-cycling/, https://www.welovecycling.com/wide/2019/07/10/what-do-the-tour-de-france-riders-eat/ and https://www.welovecycling.com/wide/2016/07/07/day-eating-tour-de-france-cyclist/

Under Fuelling has serious consequences

From an article first published in Bicycling Magazine Issue 2 2022

Early days in 2015, winning races at regional level just before trying to cut down body mass

Andy Turner, 26, started riding as a teenager in west-central England. His local road racing group nicknamed him Fat Boy. He hardly lived up to the description at 6’3″ and about 200 pounds, but immediately he internalized the idea that in order to be a proper cyclist, he had to lose weight. Turner’s weight steadily dropped as he became more serious about the sport over the next couple of years. 

“It becomes a sort of obsession with wanting to get lighter and lighter and lighter,” he says. 

When a knee injury side-lined him in 2015 at age 20, he decided that since he couldn’t focus on training, he would get as lean as possible. He restricted his calories to less than 1,200 a day; at one point his weight dipped below 155 pounds, which for his height (190cm/6’3) would be low for a Tour de France climber. His coach wasn’t alarmed by this change when he started riding again that winter. Even suggesting that he didn’t really need to eat during long, low-intensity training rides, because his fat stores would provide the energy he needed. There was no talk about the basics of sports nutrition or the potential dangers of undereating, only about staying as thin as possible. 

Just before the turning point. Under-fuelling led to being lean, but with testosterone down and cortisol up, it was only a matter of time before the negative impact would hit

He started doing seven-hour fasted rides in an effort to get his weight lower. But under-fuelling started to catch up with him in 2017, when he no longer had the energy to keep his power up. It took an emotional toll as well; he was constantly obsessing about food, counting up every calorie in his head and trying to stay below a certain number. Lab tests revealed low testosterone with high cortisol levels, a sign of Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S), a disorder that occurs when someone doesn’t have enough energy available to support their activity level.

2017, the under-fuelling caught up with me. Power was down, weight went up as metabolism dropped

Turner’s college studies eventually helped him recognize that he had a problem. He was pursuing an exercise science degree, and when he read about a questionnaire used to assess whether or not an athlete has an eating disorder, he was alarmed at how much his habits lined up with the criteria. With the help of a sports dietitian,

he slowly increased his calorie intake, but recovery has been a long process.

A first win on the road since 2015 as metabolism was increasing, power was rising, and body composition was healthier

“It’s only recently that I’ve actually stopped counting calories and tried to have a better relationship with food,” he says, adding that he still finds himself subconsciously tracking everything he eats in a day, out of habit. 

Being around other cyclists who are so focused on food and weight makes it even more difficult to leave disordered behaviours behind. When Turner joined a professional UCI Continental team in 2019, one teammate told him he was too big to be a pro rider, even though he hadn’t gained back more than 15 pounds. His team coaches never pushed him to lose weight, although there was still no talk of proper nutrition for training rides and races.

After a few years of upping the intake and having faith in that process, I was a far stronger rider and getting results at top National Level events

This article highlights just some of my personal experiences with disordered eating and under-fuelling in cycling, as well as some of the archaic attitudes towards fuelling. ‘Eating is cheating’ is a mantras commonly used to mock people eating on a ride. If an inexperienced rider hears this, they can take it as meaning they need to reduce food intake as they try to learn from more experienced riders. This highlights why it is so important to not only do your own research, but also have a genuinely knowledgable support network around you who will look after you, your physical health, and your mental health

Eating more, fuelling properly, better body composition, stronger, healthier, and faster

War Stories

‘War Stories’ can be moments in your life that stay in the mind for years to come. They are often centred around an unforgettable experience (which is not always memorable for entirely good reasons) and serve as something to learn valuable lessons from. So, for this thread, we’d love to hear your ‘War Stories’ in cycling. I’ll start with a couple of mine that stick in the mind particularly vividly…

A 160km breakaway at the Volta a Portugal was a tough day, the following Queen Stage was something else!

There are three in particular that stand out for me. The first was a 300km charity ride I did in 2018. I had never ridden that distance before and, 6 hours into the 10 hour ride, realised I had got my pacing and fuelling wrong. I hit the point where I was starving, devoid of energy, yet too full of food to physically eat anything else. So, I resorted to having double espressos with two sugars at every café I passed on the way home as I crawled through the final few hours. This all happened because my route had most of the hills in the first 160km and I went up them too hard (above lactate threshold 1) so used carbs rather than fat. For a ride that distance, it’s impossible to consume enough carbs without a lot of gastrointestinal training – which I hadn’t done. I also ate all my carbs as solids rather than liquids so consumed too great a volume. These were lessons I learned and put into practice for another 320km charity ride I did last year, which was far more successful.

Looking a lot happier after attempt two at a 300+km ride. The lessons learned were very helpful

My second War Story was Stage 2 of the Tour of Bihor in Romania. I underestimated how hot it would be (40 degrees with high humidity). A combination of dehydration and a less than ideal dinner and breakfast beforehand (cheesy pasta, then deep fried cheese and red peppers) led to some dodgy stomach side effects. I nearly missed the start thanks to an unforeseen desperate need to visit the toilet which although left me significantly lighter than before, I also had no energy whatsoever. Fortunately, the stage was only 100km long. Unfortunately, it was a summit finish of about 1200m. Thanks to not keeping food down, I couldn’t push out any power on the climb so finished well down on the stage winner, one Ivan Sosa now riding for Ineos. The lesson learned? Heat adaptation training is extremely beneficial for hot events, as is making sure that you have nutrition that you are used to and that you know works for you.

The top of the summit at the Tour of Bihor, looking very drained and empty

My final outdoors War Story was stage 4 of the Volta a Portugal. Again, it was a very hot day, knocking around 40 degrees again. Fortunately I had got my fuelling and hydration sorted but this time there were a couple of different issues. The day before I had been in the race long 3 man breakaway and came 1.5km from a potential stage win or certainly a podium. The effort itself had been very fatiguing, but additionally my saddle had unknowingly to me slipped backwards 5cm. The result of this meant greater leg extension and hip rocking which had pinched my sciatic nerve slightly (this got worse and worse throughout the race until I had to abandon on Stage 6). But back to stage 4, this was the queen stage and included around 4000m of vertical elevation gain in 180km. It also finished with a monster summit finish at 1800m up. However, a bit before that I’d had an encounter with a team car that had come to a standstill at a roundabout as a rider went around them. I couldn’t stop in time and rear ended them, which led to my nose erupting with blood. It didn’t affect performance much, but the pictures of me riding up the final climb in literal blood and sweat made for an appropriate War Stories picture. Lesson learned from this? Careful when in the convoy (especially near roundabouts), and torque up your bike fully!

Blood and sweat soaked at the top of the biggest climb I’ve ever raced up

The final War Story is a different one as it was indoors and quite recent. After a bit of time off after the Tour of Britain last year, I got back to training 7 weeks later. I decided to go in for a lighter session, only 30 minutes long so how bad could it be? However, I failed to adjust my power zones at all after 7 weeks off and, for a session with a fair bit of MAP/VO2max focus, this was not ideal. VO2max has been shown to drop as much as 7% after just 12 days of inactivity, with a further 9% or so after another month or two off. The first few efforts were fine, but then my heart rate refused to go down during the recoveries. I needed to stop after each of the final 3 efforts and very nearly threw up twice. I spent the rest of the day feeling like a bulldozer had run over my legs and lungs. After a couple of weeks, I felt normal again on the bike, but for the future I will be dropping down my power zones accordingly to a sensible percentage when starting training again after a period of inactivity.

Turbo’s never easy, but some days are harder than others

So, what War Stories do you have to share and what lessons have they taught you? 

Effects of covid vaccination on training

On a recent call with one of my coaching clients, the topic of Covid vaccinations was discussed as well as its impacts on training. I took some time to go and research this in more detail, and wanted to share my results with you all.

First of all, it’s important to note that making an informed decision about getting the Covid-19 vaccine is a good thing – and something that all people should consider – as it appears that the effects of the vaccine are minimal when compared to those of getting Covid-19 itself. However, as with many medications, there can be varying side effects that affect different people in different ways. For those following a training plan, it is useful to be aware of what these side effects could be and how best to plan around them. So, how might you expect the vaccine to affect you and what changes should you make to your training in order to accommodate this?

Impacts of the vaccine:

In a study by Meyer et al., (2021), it was found that the type of vaccine had an impact on the possible side effects. The Vector-based ones (Astra-Zeneca, Johnson & Johnson) had more of an effect after the first dose, whereas mRNA-based (Pfizer and Moderna) had more of an effect after the second dose. Additionally, mRNA-based vaccines seemed to result in more localised pain at the site of the injection, along with headaches and fatigue. Vector-based vaccines resulted in more fever and ‘chill’ symptoms, with some people also experiencing itching.

Based on self-reported effects of the vaccine in a sample size of around 150 people, a common side effect after the vaccine was a sore arm at the sight of the injection, followed by a sensation of being tired for several days to a week or, in the worst cases, flu-like symptoms followed by fatigue for more than a week. Out of those who had previously experienced contracting Covid-19, the reported effects of the vaccine were nowhere near as bad or unpleasant as those of Covid-19 itself.

In a study by Hull et al., (2021), the risk profile of the vaccine in athletes was determined as ‘very low’ but it also concluded that key training sessions should not be done within 2 days before or after the vaccination so as not to suppress the immune system. Pain killers were suggested if symptoms were severe, but not to be taken within 6 hours of the vaccination so as to maintain effectiveness of the vaccine.

How to adjust your training plan:

Reducing the volume and intensity of your riding for the weeks around your vaccinations would be recommended. Although symptoms in most people don’t appear to last for more than a few days, for some it can take longer.

Some time off the bike, or reducing the volume or intensity, will be better in the long run for your continued progression in training. Don’t worry, you’ll be back to smashing your goals and hurting your legs in no time. If you would like some extra guidance for your training, our team of ATP Performance coaches can help make sure your training can be appropriately adjusted to reduce volume and intensity, both in the lead up to the vaccination and after you’ve received it, whilst making sure that the rest of your training beyond the vaccination is set up to make sure you’re still on target to achieve your goals.

For Elite athletes:

A recent paper was published by Hull et al., (2021) on December 10th, looking at the effects of vaccinations on elite athletes in the run-up to the Tokyo Olympics. The finding was that the effects on these athletes was minimal. This study was limited to just the Pfizer Biotech mRNA vaccine and, as has been highlighted previously, different effects are observed between vector and mRNA based vaccines. Additionally, it was done on elite athletes training for the Tokyo Olympics. Elite athletes often have a team analysing and monitoring their health and stats, they may be less likely to come into contact with people who have Covid-19 or other illnesses and, as a population, they are quite unique in comparison to the general population. Therefore non-elite individuals may have different experiences. The key finding from this though does support other literature: that having the vaccine results in potentially limited side effects which are usually much less severe and risky than contracting Covid-19 itself, as well as having a fairly minimal effect on training or long term fitness/performance.

Additional Reading:

Meyer, T., Wolfarth, B., & Gärtner, B. (2021). Recommendations for Athletes to Vaccinate against SARS-CoV-2.

Hull, J. H., Schwellnus, M. P., Pyne, D. B., & Shah, A. (2021). COVID-19 vaccination in athletes: ready, set, go…. The Lancet Respiratory Medicine9(5), 455-456.”

Hull, J. H., Wootten, M., & Ranson, C. (2021). Tolerability and impact of SARS-CoV-2 vaccination in elite athletes. The Lancet Respiratory Medicine.

An uphill battle

Climbing is, for a lot of us, the epitome of what cycling is: from getting a PB up your local climbing segment, to sportives across mountain ranges, to watching the likes of Pogačar dance up them at a sickening pace. There’s something very different about going full gas up a climb to going full gas on the flat; it feels like a different challenge and sometimes quite a bit harder. Is it because of the fact you get less speed for the same effort and the psychological effect that has? Is it the constant force of gravity always putting up a relentless fight? Or are there other factors that contribute to climbing feeling harder than being on the flats? 

Having personally got a Wahoo KICKR climb gradient simulator for training during bad weather, I was curious as, when the gradient was set at a higher level, the same power levels felt harder than when the bike was set to the flats. I decided to do my undergraduate dissertation on investigating the effects of simulated gradients on muscle activation. (Full dissertation study)

6 participants cycled at 75% of MAP for 2 minutes at gradients of 0, 7, 14 and 20% incline. During this test, the EMG (electromyography) levels in a number of leg muscles was measured to determine if certain muscles worked more or less on different gradients. The results showed that there was a statistically significant increase in muscle activity in the gastrocnemius medialis (GM) and bicep femoris (BF), with a significant decrease of activity in the vastus medialis (VM). There were also changes in muscle activity in other muscles that, although were not deemed statistically significant, do present a practical significance given the percentages involved. The reason for these changes could be due to several factors. Firstly, when climbing up steeper gradients, we tend to close our hip angle so as to keep weight distributed evenly over both the front and rear wheels. Additionally, as the gradient increases, saddle angle changes and can require some muscular effort to maintain position. 

So what does this mean for us? Based on the results of this study, it can be suggested that training on gradients regularly could improve performance on them. Although power levels over given periods of time can be improved from training on the flats or on the turbo with no gradient, training on a gradient can help significantly with rate of perceived exertion. There’s a good reason that, even after plenty of time spent on the turbo at higher intensities, going out on the roads and hitting the climbs can feel that bit harder. It’s because we potentially haven’t been using the same muscles in the same way, so introducing that new stress does feel like more.

The takeaway: it looks like there are genuine benefits to training on gradients. You can train on gradients by either riding them outdoors, or using an indoor gradient simulator.

(Full dissertation study)

Introducing our next new coach: Patrick Fotheringham

A big belief of mine with coaching is that shared experience is vital for a better coach:athlete understanding. Although I now have a wealth of knowledge, both practical and theoretical, when it comes to racing and training, I didn’t actually start racing until I was 19 so never experienced the youth or junior ranks. This is why I’m very pleased to bring on Patrick to ATP Performance. Patrick has been racing for many years, from youth level all the way up to senior. Being part of the Halesowen Academy has given him the opportunity to learn from some great figures in cycling, and he now works with their juniors and U23 riders to help guide and mentor them. Here’s what Patrick has to say:

“Having started racing when I was 13, I bring 10 years experience in the sport of cycling to the table, taking me from u14 youth omniums to the Tour of the North and Belgian kermesse scene.

My personal outlook on cycling and racing has always revolved around the reasons we start riding, as well as developing a life long association with the sport.

My role as a mentor for junior riders has further helped me with creating the focus around this. I am currently 2 years into my Sport and Exercise Science degree, giving me the basis to provide quality coaching to athletes of all levels, and I am looking forward to doing a masters in Strength and Conditioning upon completing my undergraduate degree.”

I have known Patrick for many years and he has been a big part of helping me remain grounded and maintaining a focus on enjoying the sport and riding my bike. This has helped improve my own performance and love of the sport and is one of the reasons I wanted Patrick to be a part of this, coaching and mentoring others. I can’t wait to see what he can do as part of the ATP Performance team.

Introducing: Frederik Scheske, our first new coach

When starting ATP Performance, I wanted to ensure that the coaching provided was by both qualified, experienced and compassionate people. I’ve held myself to these standards and am very happy to introduce the first new coach joining ATP Performance, who also represents these values: Frederik Scheske

“I started racing bikes at university when I was 19 and, although coming to the sport quite late, have progressed through the ranks and spent the last 2.5 years racing at UCI Continental level.

I’ve found my strengths in cycling in criterium racing, with podiums and a win at the 2019 Tour Series in my first year at UCI level. I am now riding with the Ribble Weldtite outfit and have an extensive knowledge of improving time trial performance and aerodynamic tips & tricks.

Combining my racing experience with now having completed my Sports and Exercise Health Sciences degree at the University of Exeter, I have an array of knowledge and strategies to improve the performance of both experienced and new cyclists. I want to provide athletes who are planning to compete in their first sportive or racing at international level with the in-depth, one to one service they deserve.

Competing at a UCI level while studying has provided me with a good insight into the challenges of work/training balance, as well as how to overcome the time constraints and other hurdles. Outside of cycling, I used to race single-hand dinghy class sailing boats and flat water marathon kayaking. Additionally, I also completed assistant instructor qualifications in sailing, and volunteer coaching in kayaking. Taking part in other sports also allows me to have an open mind to trying different coaching strategies, not just relying on what cyclists have “always” done.

As a coach, I obviously aim to bring out the best performance possible but also place a large emphasis on enjoying riding and racing bikes. Using theoretical knowledge from my degree with first hand experience of racing at international level puts me in an ideal position to provide the highest standard of coaching. I look forward to working with and watching athletes achieve their full potential.”

I’m very happy to be working with Frederik and can’t wait to see the positive impact he is able to have on the cycling community. He’s an incredibly talented bike rider who is inquisitive, knowledgeable and always striving to perform at his absolute best, be it on the bike or helping others to achieve their goals.