Off-season training: Is there room for intensity?

After resting off the bike to recharge the batteries and reviewing your past season, it's time to start planning the off-season training and priorities. One of the big questions about the off-season is the "need for speed," namely how much intensity or resistance training work is required or beneficial.

There is no off-season

Let's explode the myth of the "off" season. While there's certainly a necessity to take some time off the bike, I much prefer to get away from the term "off-season" and its implication that it's time away from serious training. The obvious cycling example is Armstrong vs. Ullrich.

Ullrich is famous for packing on the weight, with the result that much of his early preparation involves workouts designed to get rid of the weight. In contrast, Lance rarely "relaxes" enough during the winter to gain more than two kilograms or so of weight, allowing him to get back into high-quality training quickly. In turn, this sets him up for improvement year-to-year rather than always just managing to get back to the same level each year.

Looking at other sports, the same pattern of maintaining close-to-peak fitness is consistent. For example, elite swimmers are typically NEVER more than five percent off their peak fitness or their performance times throughout the entire year. Dropping any further simply requires far too much time and effort devoted to rebuilding, with the result that your growth and improvement over the course of the year and year-to-year becomes limited.

LSD, anyone?

During what I prefer to call the "non-competition" season, training may incorporate many of the alternative training modes, such that the actual time on the bike will likely decrease slightly. However, the concept of training specificity dictates that it remains critical to continue logging bike time to maintain muscle memory along with maximizing cardiovascular and metabolic efficiency.

With this in mind, one theory of training suggests that the primary goal of the winter months is to log large volumes of low-intensity (often called "long steady distance" or LSD) training on the bike in order to build a large aerobic capacity for subsequent high-intensity training in the early racing season.

This advice typically includes warnings to avoid high-intensity work on the bike and/or resistance training at almost all costs, as it might somehow ruin the benefits from the aerobic-based training.

Get intense!

Make no mistake -- cycling remains an endurance sport, and a strong aerobic capacity remains the foundation for success in almost all cycling disciplines. However, the latest scientific evidence suggests that there remains a place for high-intensity work even during the winter months. This was highlighted in a review published online in 2004 at the excellent Web site www.sportsci.org.

The authors, Carl Paton and Will Hopkins, surveyed the existing 22 studies in the scientific literature investigating the use of high-intensity and/or resistance training using elite athletes as subjects.1 This is a key approach, as it eliminated a lot of studies using recreational or untrained athletes, where the addition of almost any training manipulation would lead to significant increases in performance.

Furthermore, the high-intensity training studies were further categorized into "sub-maximal," "maximal" and "supra-maximal" studies, while the resistance training was categorized into "explosive sport-specific," "explosive non-sport-specific," "plyometrics" and "usual weights." (See Table 1 below).

Table 1: Summary table of studies investigating influence of high-intensity or resistance training on elite athletes during the non-competitive season. From Paton and Hopkins (2004).

Analyzing the studies

As always, there are caveats to keep in mind when reviewing any scientific data. First and most importantly, we're talking a total of 22 studies over all of these categories, so some of the findings may be skewed by the fact that they come from only one or two studies. However, some general trends appear:

  • Short but maximal-intensity efforts (at power outputs near that at your VO2max) and above seem to be the most beneficial. Paton and Hopkins theorize that this is due to stimulation of the most metabolic pathways (alactic, anaerobic, and aerobic).1
  • Explosive type resistance training, stressing rapid movement of relatively light weights, seems to have the greatest benefit.
Extending the concept of specificity, look at the findings this way -- the effort required to sprint at, for example, 1000 W, is very specific in terms of metabolic and neuromuscular demands. If you spend six months not stimulating and forcing your body to this level of effort, you'll "detrain" from being able to handle this effort and will spend a lot of time and effort building back up to this level.

In contrast, just a small amount of stimulus may be enough to maintain these gains throughout the non-competitive season, allowing you to build and progress year-to-year.

Resistance training in-season?

The other common training dogma is that resistance training should be minimized or eliminated during the competitive season. All 22 studies in this summary had the additional training performed during the non-competitive season, and it can be argued that the benefit observed was simply due to putting high-intensity training where there was none previously.

However, one study by Toussaint and Vervoorn implemented explosive resistance training in elite swimmers during the competitive season on top of the already extensive high-intensity training, and still observed a small but significant improvement in performance.2 While this is only one study, this suggests that explosive resistance training is beneficial throughout the year.

Summary

As mentioned above, the key caveat is that 22 studies is still a relatively low number to draw conclusions from when we're dealing with so many possible training manipulations. In conclusion:

  • By no means is any of this suggesting that you toss out aerobic training and simply do VO2max efforts every ride throughout the non-competition season! The main conclusion from Paton and Hopkins's review should be that there is potential benefit from SMALL amounts of high-intensity efforts supplementing the aerobic training.1
  • References

    1. Paton CD and Hopkins, WG. Effects of high-intensity training on performance and physiology of endurance athletes. Sportscience 8: 25-40, 2004.
    2. Toussaint HM and Vervoorn K. Effects of specific high resistance training in the water on competitive swimmers. Int J Sports Med 11: 228-233, 1990.


    Stephen Cheung, Ph.D., is an associate professor of kinesiology at Dalhousie University, with a research specialty in the effects of thermal stress on human physiology and performance. Stephen's company, Podium Performance, also provides elite sport science and training support to provincial and national-level athletes in a number of sports. He can be reached for comments or coaching inquiries at stephen@pezcyclingnews.com.

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