You head out the road to do a session consisting of 6 x 4 minutes efforts on a local hill.
Effort 1 – the power is down or you get up there a bit slower than you had previously planned.
You say to yourself the first effort is always the same – I’ll go well in the second one.
Effort 2 – Slower than the first and the power has dropped a little more.
Effort 3 – You give it socks, yet again you’re slower than planned and you’re just shy of the numbers set in the previous effort.
What the hell should I do at this point?
(A) Should you finish the workout as best you’re able?
(B) Switch to a different workout?
(C) Cut it short and tip home early?
In cycling and sports science in general one of the most frequently used phrases is unfortunately,
And again it applies when you feel you’re session is going to the dogs.
Here are some points I’ve put together to help you make your decision and not feel guilty about it.
Knowing exactly what you’re trying to achieve with your sessions is critical in your training and simply going out to “go hard” can be a waste of time if it’s not building towards a related outcome.
Are you trying to accumulate a certain volume or duration of work at a given effort level, such as VO2 max sweet spot or lactate threshold?
If you can clearly state what the desired adaptation should be from the day’s session, then you have a starting point for deciding what to do if the session is going to shit.
Example A –
You’re doing the session mentioned above again and let’s say you’re doing a clearly defined session with the goal of the session being pacing practice – i.e. covering the same distance in the same amount of time – in this instance a drop off in each interval, despite your greatest efforts should instantly result in the end of the session.
Simple – the goal of the session wasn’t been met.
Example B –
Same session but this time on a local climb as vo2 max efforts at 100 rpm.
The session goal is aerobic capacity – essentially breathing like fuck!
In this case it is ok if efforts drop off a bit… it’s actually quite normal partly due to most riders going too hard to early!
But regardless a drop off here is normally ok once you perceive the effort to be just as hard each time!
An old coach of mine used to state the following in the description box under a Vo2 session – “go until you see Jesus”
I saw him every Wednesday.
Sometimes the numbers aren’t there folks – and while I love stating ‘listen to your body’ – it’s listening to your body, not listen to your mind!
If it’s a Vo2 session your brain is definitely telling you to bail and go home for a cup of scald.
It’s a defence mechanism to stop you beating the shit out of yourself!
So if the goal is a set zone – perceived exertion can be a great aid, particularly for nasty efforts.
Sometimes after the first couple of efforts once you’ve noted the point you reach on the climb, put the Garmin in your pocket and do some good old ‘honest perceived efforts’.
Is the session goal realistic?
You might be ready to do a good workout, but you might sabotage that possibility because of overly ambitious expectations.
Goals should be tough but attainable.
When you’re struggling to hit session averages you think you should be able to hit, generally it is because the power or some variable is unrealistic.
If a time trialist is doing race pace efforts of 10 minutes a piece and he knows his peak race pace is 350 watts – its unrealistic to think he can always produce these kind of numbers on a day where he’s not fresh and hasn’t yet peaked to do so.
Even if you have produced it very recently you shouldn’t expect to be able to produce at it will in all workouts, and when you don’t – don’t beat yourself up about it, it’s normal!
Unfortunately these race day numbers are often compared to midweek values when the body is in a completely different state.
Ok to break the efforts into smaller chunks?
I was asked this question on the members group a couple of days ago.
Sometimes I have riders try to hold the desired wattage for shorter repeats, such as 12, or even 10 minutes instead of 20 minutes at sweet spot.
This slight adjustment allows you to get a good session in that day and avoids that feeling of failure and disappointment over not completing a session.
This is also a, “It depends” situation though!
For example you can’t shorten VO2 max repeats too much, because it can take the first minute or longer of a repeat at that effort level to reach the desired intensity level.
If you couldn’t hold the wattage for 4 minutes and switch to 2 or 3 minutes, then you’re only hitting the VO2 max stimulus for the last little bit of each effort before you recover.
That old wives tale about the effort only starting when it begins to hurt holds true in this case!
Breaking a tempo or zone 3 session that isn’t going well into shorter chunks such as 10 minutes with a 2- or 3-minute recoveries between is cool though.
Can you switch to a different session?
If your initial session targets are too ambitious, or you just go out too hard, you might struggle to hit the right effort level for the rest of your planed workout.
Take a prolonged period of recovery and try again or sometimes instead of canning the session have a back up!
In this case I always have a ‘back up effort’ and mine is 20 minutes Sweet spot on the way home.
That way I finish off the session on a positive note.
If you didn’t start the workout too hard but are still having a hard time reaching the desired intensity, you’re probably not ready to provide a proper training stimulus.
Instead of going home you may be able to train something else or a different system depending how it fits your current programme.
I find it helps to do a session or some form of effort I enjoy in this situation to give the morale a bit of a boost.
If you switch to a different type of hard session and find that you’re still struggling, then you’re tired, and it’s time to end the workout.
Are outside factors affecting your sessions?
One consideration here is weather.
It shouldn’t stop you getting a session done but if you have very hard efforts to do and because of the weather you are struggling to focus or dial into the effort perhaps its better to hop on the turbo or switch a session – more times than not it’s a case of harden the hell up though!
However other outside factors can also mean things from your non-cycling life, such as poor sleep, a family or work crisis, or a dodgy curry.
Be realistic about how such things affect you – particularly the curry.
These are all stressors and will effect a hard session so take it into account.
Another possibility is that you’re in the early stages of illness.
If you suspect the body is fighting something, bail bail bail!
No question – the potential negatives from getting ill far outweigh the positives you’ll receive from completing the session.
Regardless of whether you finished the original workout, altered it, or cut it short, a sub-par session is a sign you need to be cautious in the following days so you don’t gig a deeper hole for yourself.
Resist the urge to try to make up for lost time by rushing back out to smash the session the following day.
You might need a rest day – You can’t just pretend it didn’t happen particularly if it’s a tiredness issue.
If your workout went south because of unrealistic targets, or if you switched to a different type of workout, just move on with the rest of the week as planned.
Pattern of overtraining?
We all have shit sessions on occasion.
Whether your most recent one is cause for concern depends significantly on how your training has been going in general.
Over seven consecutive days of being unable to meet your training goals when you’re not ill could potentially mean overtraining syndrome.
This is generally a combination of training and life/work stressors and I’ve been there – it ain’t pretty!
All stress comes from the same proverbial well and into the same bucket as I’ve mentioned before.
So even if you feel you should be able to handle the training load based on past training experience i.e. the whole “Sure I can do that” kind of attitude.
Look at the other stressors in your life and if need be make some alterations to your training.
Am I developing the ability of being soft?
One outstanding reason we all finish bad workouts is that we’re afraid it will be easier to give up in subsequent workouts, or even races.
Unless you know you simply gave up and wimped out of a session don’t get flustered by having to change or abandon a hard session.
The Pros adjust workouts all the time!
I would hope most bike riders know the difference between wimping out on a session and when the body/mind/conditions just aren’t conducive to the goal of the session and its completion.
I’ve rarely regretted cutting a workout short, but there are many times I’ve fucked things up by finishing a workout I shouldn’t have.