With the advent of power meters, one of the age old questions asked by many can finally be answered. How much training should I do before I rest? When should I take my rest week? As coaches and athletes, we have never really been able to determine the best time for an athlete’s rest week other than going by the standard 3:1 work/rest ratio(which is very good btw) or listening to your body (also a good thing). However, these can be somewhat arbitrary and subjective. Some riders can go longer than 3 weeks before needing a break, and others need a rest after only a week of focused training, while others might be able to go for 6 weeks before needing a true rest week. Discovering your ideal work/rest formula is just as exciting as discovering your threshold improvement formula. This is one of the many changes that have occurred in training for cycling since the introduction of power meters and cutting edge software. Now, that we can quantify training load and the corresponding response to that training load, finding your ideal work/rest formula is only a matter of time and data analysis.
What is your work/rest formula?
Let’s examine an athlete that I have coached for five years in order to better illustrate the principles behind this concept. The rider is Gilbert Ducournau, a young rider, 22 years old and a Category 1 that was striving to turn professional at the end of 2015. He has been racing seriously since he was 17 years old, and each year has progressed up the ladder in both categories and FTP. As he has progressed and matured as an athlete, his ability to recover has also improved and over the years we have had to update his work/rest formula. In year 1(figure 1) of his training, he was barely able to train hard for two weeks before he needed a rest week. Gilbert was new to endurance sports and really struggled with the initial training and frequently needed breaks in order to recover in the first four months of training. After the fourth month, he was able to handle nearly 6 weeks without a rest week. However at the end of the 6th week, he did get sick and had to rest for two weeks. Therefore in retrospect, he still wasn’t ready for that long of a block of training.
Know your goals
As we jump forward to year 4 of his training, where Gilbert achieved a Category 2 ranking, and he was able to sustain a very hard two weeks of training, followed by 3-4 days of rest and then train hard again in the early season. As Spring approaches, he was able to consistently increase his training load for 8 weeks with short micro rests, so that his TSB(Training Stress Balance) never dipped too low, hovering around -24 and -12. In the middle of this phase, he went to a training camp which significantly upped his training load and now his TSB dropped to -50 and this created the needed rest week. During the summer, he was able to consistently train hard for two weeks with one week of rest. This was an interesting year and one that will be important for you to understand and look for the pattern in your own workouts.
The pattern here was:
1) He was able to train very hard for two weeks, but then needed a rest week.
2) He could train relatively hard, and then only take 2 to 3 days easy and continue on this schedule for 8 weeks.
This brings about the questions, which was better for him? Which is better for you? Will a 2 week very intense block of training be better than 8 weeks of steady hard work? The answer to this question depends on the goals of the athlete. If you are in the beginning of the season and need to improve your FTP quickly with some hard focused weeks of training then that will be a good choice. Another scenario to use the 2:1 formula, is if you are in the middle of racing season and/or need to get a quick bump of fitness, then do the 2 week intense block. If you are building to a peak of fitness and your “A” goal, then stick with the longer, and steadier progression. The take home here with Gilbert is that I was now seeing a nice pattern of improvement based on two different work/rest formulas. This could now be used in future seasons.
In Year 5, we finally saw his true sustainable training ability come to fruition. His season was up and down, as he had a great spring, but unfortunately crashed and fractured his hand in 3 places which required surgery, and then a month later, a second surgery. These two events dramatically slowed down the middle of his season, however, if we looked at his season as two separate parts, we saw a very different rider in this 5th year of hard training. The first half of the season, he was incrementally building his CTL up to the middle of February and then pushed very hard for 4 weeks driving his CTL to a career high of 96. This was a new pattern, but made sense in that his previous year he was able to train hard for 2 weeks and not quite as hard for 8 weeks, so was now splitting the difference with a hard 4 weeks of training. At the end of that 4th week, he didn’t need a big rest period(more than a week) like previous years, but a solid 7 days of easy riding brought his TSB positive and then he now maintained between 90-98 CTL for the entire month of April and kept his TSB just barely positive for good results on the weekends. While, I had predicted that he could hold a solid 4 weeks of training, it wasn’t obvious that he could do this from his data, so I had to rely on his previous year 4 data to see that the expected outcome would be 4 weeks splitting between 2 and 8 weeks.
The “holy grail” of training
The middle of the year was a bust with recovery from his broken hand. But, the fall and winter have been very good for Gilbert as he has been training for the Vuelta a Tachira in middle of January . Looking at Figure 4 below, he has been able to maintain an incredibly steady and incremental ramp rate of 5-8 TSS/week as an increase in CTL that peaks at 137CTL at the end of 2014. This has been his longest, continuous block of training and his highest CTL ever. This long ramp of training load increase has been sustainable because of two things: 1) Ability to handle this type of training. 2) Short rests within the build period that allow for some recovery. These short rests are critical to keep fatigue at a level which still allows for hard training and focused efforts.
Hard training does not always require absolute freshness and the mark of a successful cyclist is one that can train hard while tired and still gain a tremendous training response from it. If you have made it this far in the article, note that you have now gotten to the magic of using a power meter. Pay attention closely! By using a power meter, and watching your Performance Manager Chart to modulate the exact amount of fatigue(negative Training Stress Balance) and freshness (positive Training Stress Balance), you can continue training while fatigued for a very long period of time. Let’s examine Gilbert’s PMC with a higher level of detail (Figure 4), so you can easily understand this concept and how to use it in your own training. The most important detail in this Figure 4 is that the blue CTL line continues its steady march upward with short bumps of hard training followed by short rests. This allows Gilbert to continue to train hard and rest just enough in order to train hard again. He continues to increase his CTL to the peak of 137, without a single day of positive TSB in the entire 12 weeks of training! Practically speaking, what does this mean from day to day, week to week training? I planned his training so that he would do 3-4 days of hard training, followed by 2-3 days of easy riding.
This can also be viewed as “block” training, where the athlete trains in a “block” of days, and then rests until he is ready to resume training. In this case, I did not allow him to have full recovery and forced him to return to training with some fatigue in his legs. The combination of work/rest changed radically from the two weeks on and one week off, or just steady hard training. Now, he has been able to achieve the holy grail of training, the ability to train very hard to near exhaustion in 3-4 days and then recover quickly in 2-3 days, ready for another block. These micro-rests are critical in the equation as it’s that small recovery that allow the TSB to move toward a positive number (not become a positive number though!). It is critical in your own training that you watch your Performance Manager Chart closely so that you don’t become too fresh. I would recommend allowing your TSB to get to -10, but not any closer to 0, in order to maintain the constant ramp rate.
Training has always contained a bit of “Art” along with the science of exercise physiology, however there are 3 strategies that you can use in your own training. First, try the strategy of two weeks hard and one week easy (also try the 3:1 ratio as well), especially if you are relatively new to the sport. Secondly, try to extend the length of your harder weeks, so that you can do up to 4 weeks without a full rest week. This period will contain the micro-rests, and the first time you embark on this journey, I recommend you reduce your overall intensity just a little and by that I mean reducing the number of intense days, not reducing the percentages in your training zones. This will be the toughest transition for you, but if you can do it and keep your CTL ramp rate between 5-8 TSS/week, then you will be on the right track. At the end of the four week block, take a mandatory rest week no matter if you feel tired or not. This will guarantee that you don’t over-reach too much. The third strategy is to employ the full blown “block” training method for a period of 8-12 weeks. After you have been successful in strategy number 2, and you have enough time leading up to your priority “A” event, then employ this strategy.
Remember, on your hard training days, you have to ride hard or long, it can’t be a medium intensity workout, and you have to do this for a minimum of 3 days in a row, followed by days off and easy days. Your rest days are a minimum of 2 days where you ride easy or completely rest. Do not take more than 4 rest days though, as that will raise your TSB too much. Constantly watch your Performance Manager Chart to see your TSB numbers making sure that you continue to stay in negative territory (from -10 to -70). What you have successfully accomplished now is determining exactly when you need to rest! This is obviously a more advanced concept, but anyone with a power meter and TrainingPeaks WKO software can easily understand the data behind all the training.
Hunter Allen is a USA Cycling Level 1 coach and former Professional Cyclist. He is the co-author of “Training and Racing with a Power Meter, co-developer of TrainingPeaks Software, and is the CEO and Founder of the Peaks Coaching Group. This has been the 24th year that he has conducted training camps in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains.
Where did the time go? We don’t know, but it’s time for you to come to a camp! www.PeaksCoachingGroup.com/camps