Long Rides, Coaches v Scientists, Sweet Spot AND Polarized
Coach Frank goes on a 14 minute rant about 'internet scientists' and the whole sweet spot versus polarized debate. He espouses how the coaches are ahead on the scientists and bring it all back to the podcast topic: the long ride. Frank describes his three long rides and how you can progress thru each.
In this podcast, Coach Frank covers the benefits of a long ride and goes on a rant about 'internet scientists'.
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How I invented Sweet Spot Training
I am a man of science with a masters degree in physiology and US Patent # 7202067 from my molecular biology biotech days. I’ve spent days, nights in the Bowman Gray medical school library going thru thick 10 pound, 500 page medical journals trying to figure out how to get nerves to grow back on Astrocytes to help spinal cord injury patients. I even presented that work at the annual Neuroscience meetings in La Jolla and have to say - sometimes science doesn’t have all the answers. It’s your experience in the field from trying failure, doing and succeed.
Here’s the story and what I mean: I spent 6 months in a medical school laboratory with an NIH grant trying to figure out how to get spinal cord rat astrocytes to grow in petri dish to study nerve regeneration with an in vitro spinal cord injury model. Say that tongue twister with me again.
6 months culturing hundreds of thousands of astrocytes (cells that make up your spinal cord) day after day. And they weren’t growing. And my boss started to get pissed and I was going to the medical school library every night to find that one nugget of information to figure out how to get these astrocytes to grow in the petri dish. I Experimented with everything the scientific journals listed in their ‘methods and materials’ section of the publication - the growth media, the way we harvested the cells, you name it. Finally one day I reached out to a researcher in the field who’d published a paper on astrocytes from the University of Alabama Birmingham’s medical school of all places. The next day I cold called him and he picked up! Lo and behold he answered on the 2nd ring and we talked for 20 minutes and a week later I flew down to his lab to work with him and his lab tech to see if we could figure out a way to get the spinal cord injury model to work.
Within the first hour of our collaboration the lab tech told me to coat the petri dishes with L-Lysine to give the Astrocytes something to bind too because they didn’t like plastic.
And whammo - that was the golden nugget of information. That was the information that wasn’t in the hundreds of scientific publications I had found on pub med and spent hours making copies of in the medical school library. I asked the lab tech how she figured it out and she just shrugged her shoulders and said another researcher suggested it to her. Aha - insider information…..
Long story short, cells grew, motor neurons were studied, papers were published and more NIH grants were received. I went on to graduate school and got distracted by mountain bike racing… but I digress.
The point I’d like to make is that sometimes the science, the scientists haven’t found what they are looking for. And someone with 20 years of experience has, like the coaches.
Everyone on the internet is quick to point to the science this researcher has published in order to argue their point or to sound smart. And while I read the same studies, there are paper I wish have been published looking at what I’ve noticed in the field from athlete performance and power data.
Sometimes the coaches are ahead of the scientists because they have the ability to perform experiments and gather the power data and see the results from the athletes they coach. Coaches have n = 1000 to the lab studies that had n = 12. And the longer they coach and the more experience they glean, the better able they are to figure out what works and what does not.
By now I have close to 20 years of coaching experience and analyzing the power data of athletes and taking their data set from the whole season and seasons to measure their performance. Good coaches will micro experiment with their athletes: Did they rider faster , win x y z race, FTP improve, endurance stretched. What worked, what did not. Perform develop, grow , achieve.
Many of you have heard my December 2018 podcast “How I Invented Sweet Spot” If not go back and give it a listen, I’ll put it in the show notes too. In there I recant my experience training with the polarized method and then the extraordinary improvement I made when I discovered and developed sweet spot training. I went from P ½ field pack fill to winning P1/2 races. XC MTB races, Time trials and crits all of things which is opposite but I always had a good anaerobic system no doubt developed from all the intervals I did.
I’m not trying to start a polarized v sweet spot debate - I think, we (at FasCat think) you should do both and when you combine them together you’ll ride your fastest. Its taken me/us close to 20 years of training, racing, analyzing to articulate that to you all when everyone else is busy arguing which side they are on. The answer from the coaches is BOOOOOTTTHHHH!!
Polarized training gets you so far just like sweet spot training only gets you so far. But when you combine the two together, when you switch from base to race: whammo - that’s the stuff of peak performances
The big point I want to make is these broad connecting the dots types of perspectives from real world experience, working with athletes day in and day out, takes an open mind and years, decades of experience. I chuckle when the internet cites a study performed over six weeks. And then you dig deeper and the paper was written by a graduate student. Nothing against graduate student, I used to be one myself!
Six weeks is just not enough time nor experience to really determine an athletes performance in a laboratory studying from following a real training plan. Studies like this can answer one single question that is more or less one layer of dozens that coaches factor into performance.
Sometimes these studies answer questions about performance that honestly doesn’t matter too much to coaches because its common cycling sense. Granted they answer specific scientifica questions but many many times the coaches are ahead of the scientists AND the studies haven’t even been conducted to what the coaches have already figured out. Case in point - the whole sweet spot v polarized debate.
Now I like science and I like the research - if these researchers were to go on journey and follow the results then you should perk up and pay attention. But to my knowledge no study has been done looking at sweet spot training to build one’s aerobic endurance in the off and pre-season and then a switch polarised training pre competition and in season.
No study except for the fact that hundreds of my coaching colleagues training athletes with this methodology to help athletes of all abilities from average Joes to World Tour Pros’ ride their bikes faster.
A super digression! I apologize, I was going to talk with you about the Long Ride and I just went on a huge rant pitching scientists against coaches. I think the holy grail is an experienced coach rooted in science (like most of my colleagues) Real world experience with a scientific background. But if I had to choose one or another, I’d choose the experience coached over what the science says every single time. And I’m a scientist!
But the honest truth is that when I went to research the benefits of the long ride I wasn’t satisfied sharing the results of a paper in the Journal of Sports Med citing the increase in mitochondrial density from aerobic endurance training. Rather let me simply share 20 years of professional coaching experience with you - what works and I won’t even mention what does not. And because I’ve gone on a rant let’s skip the review of the week and announcement. Subscribe, leave us a review, engage with us - we want to help you ride your bike faster!
We as Coaches know what works.. Why? Because we’ve done that ourselves and have monitored hundreds of athletes over the years that have benefited from long endurance ride training.
And when I say endurance I’m talking about your aerobic endurance and you are ‘aerobic’ between Zones 2 thru sweet spot. Even Zones 4 & 5 are aerobic just not for long. Therefore I like to have athletes do three type of long rides in a progression.
The first is the zone 2 ride the 2nd is the sweet spot TSS ride and the third is the AmEx TSS ride.
Start with the zone 2 ride then move onto a long sweet spot ride and finally if your training has been going really well move onto the long Amex ride. Save the Amex rides for when your goal event is close. The Zone 2 and sweet spot long rides are off and pre-season and even in season.
Zones 2 is zone 2 - fairly straightforward , steady constant pedalling and avoiding any forays above zone 2 - oftentimes facilitated by choosing to ride on flat terrain.
The Sweet Spot ride is actually zones 2 through Sweet Spot for the sweet spot TSS ride and Zones 2 - zone 5 for the AmEx ride. And we’ll even sprinkle in a little organic zone 6, especially if they are a road, crit, mtb and cyclocrosser.
Backing up we are coming up on the end of winter where everyone needs (this is free coaching advice) to get off their trainer and increase their riding volume. One hour a day is fine 18+ weeks out from their goal event but the progression to your training from increasing the intensity and frequency of intervals only takes one so far. In other words, there’s only so far you can ‘get’ from one hour trainer rides.
The next step is to increase your riding volume. And for most of us weekend warriors that comes from the long ride on the weekend. 2-3 hours at first and then add 30 minutes each successive weekend to work your way to a 5 hour ride.
I think the five hour ride is within all cyclists of all abilities: young, old beginner, advanced. This is why centuries are so popular bc 20mph for 5 hours = a 100 mile century. This is also why the pros do long rides. They just do a lot of long rides to add up to some 20-25+ hour weeks.
So get off your trainer, put on some cold weather riding gear and double the longest ride you’ve done on the trainer this winter. Say that is 1.5 hours indoors so ride 3 hours outdoors. Ride 3.5 hours the next weekend and keep going to 4 > 4.5 and 5 hours each weekend. That is a 5 week progression.
Why 5 hours? 2 reasons:
#1 5 hours is specific to many of the events we are training for like an 80-100 mile road race, a gravel race, fondo, century, etc…
#2 5 hours is a large dose of training (lotta mitochondrial biogenesis) but not so large that we can’t recover from. For example - the first time you do a 5 hour ride you are going to be smashed from it the next day. But the next time you do a 5 hour ride you’ll be less tired the next day and less tired the next time. A 5 hour zone 2 ride will incur a training stress score of roughly 250 or 50 TSS / hour. Experienced cyclist know they can recover from that. Especially when they’ve done 350 - 400 Sweet Spot TSS rides or events and have experience of what that felt like.
The single day long ride progression is to go from not one long 5 hour ride on the weekend but TWO . That’s another 5 week progression after the aforementioned 5 week progression.
For example - so now you are doing regular 5 hour rides every Saturday. On Sunday’s you are going to go from 2.5 hour ride and increase the duration by 30 minutes each successive Sunday on up to 5 hours.
Now you are talking two long rides over the weekend for 10 hours of training + the 3 - 5 you are getting in during the week which adds up to close to are 12-15 hour training week. That’s a lot of mitochondria. And that’s how you build endurance.
FTP gets a lot of hype while endurance is the ugly step sister. Let me tell you without ‘endurance’ your FTP is going to be subject to fatigue during your event. Aka that 300 watt FTP at the beginning of a 4-6 hour event will be 200 watts or less in the final hour.
Scenario: If you have only been riding one hour a day 5-6 days a week for a total of 6-8 hours of weekly training for 6+ weeks and your FTP is over 300 watts that is great. But when you start getting into your Springtime and Summer events that require endurance, that 300 watts FTP will decrease each hour going to 275 and 250 and on down and the miles roll on.
However for the athletes that have put in the time in the saddle training 8 - 12 hours per week their FTP is going to decrease less over the course of a long endurance event. Remember our podcast with Peter Stetina? He finished Unbound with the equivalent of a 170 watt FTP as measured by his normalized power in the final hour. And he finished 3rd! And he has incredible endurance from his training and years as a world tour pro.
That race is truly a test of endurance and FTP much less so. And here’s my coaching experience for ya: you can incur less fatigue and have less FTP decline during an event from doing regular long rides. No scientific paper proves or disproves that - that’s just common cycling knowledge. The cyclists are ahead of the science.
The long ride is the quintessential workout of aerobic endurance training for an aerobic sport. Dr Andy Coggan famously exclaimed way back, ‘its an aerobic sport, damit’ referring to the fact that event pursuitors whose event is less than 5 minutes benefit from endurance training.
Even MvDP and Wout van Aerto go do 20-25 hour weeks in Majorca in December to get ready for 1 hour event in January. Because it is an aerobic endurance sport. And that’s also why they are such good road racers. Side note who do you think will win Strade Bianchi this weekend?
Even Criterium racers and XC mountain bikers with events less than 2 hours do long rides because its an aerobic endurance sport.
Time trialists and hill climbers benefit from long rides because its an aerobic endurance sport. And of course gravel fondo and century riders need and benefit from long rides because its specific to the event! The event is a long ride.
As the expression goes, ‘long live long rides’ because they are fun, can be adventurous and honestly what I’m looking forward to this Spring and Summer. In the mountains of course.
Thanks for listening to my rant and be sure to subscribe because next week we’ll be podcasting about switching from base to race part two - and our regular Ask a FasCat user submitted questions # 17 !
And if one of your buddies or the internet argues with you say in your best Big Lebowski voice ‘mitochondrial biogenesis man’ Do your long rides and remember to “Work Hard, Ride Fast, Have Fun and as always FtFP”
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