What does it take to earn a podium spot in the Tour?

A 6-year case study of 2014’s 3rd place finisher

Last week I wrote about the difficulties of accurately measuring training load, and how much training is really needed to improve performance. Although it’s hard to know exactly how much training an individual needs to accomplish his athletic goals, there is one very well-done study that examined this, published last year.

The purpose of the study was to compare the training load progression of a pro cyclist with his power output over six years. In other words, they wanted to know how his training load affected his performance.

To do that, the authors took all the training data from this cyclist between the ages of 18 and 23. The two main outcome measures were power output and internal training load. Power output was easy to measure – pro cyclists only take their power meters off to shower. Training load, however, can be measured two ways: the hard way with lots of math and assumptions, or the easy way based on the athlete’s subjective ratings of his effort and fatigue. The authors, wisely, chose the latter. We like that method too – and if you haven’t read those posts yet, do it.

This dude was born in 1990, he’s about 65 kg (143 lbs), and he’s got a VO2max of 85. Here’s what they found:

  • 2208 exercise sessions (1727 training, 481 competitions) occurred between 2008 – 2013.
  • Training load increased from 160,000 to 290,000 in the six years, an 80% increase (remember, training load = duration x intensity).
  • Average weekly duration went from 10 hours in 2008 to 18 hours in 2013, but average weekly intensity – measured by his subjective ratings – didn’t really change. However, his maximal weekly intensity did increase, from 5.7 to 7.3. That’s important; we’ll come back to it.
  • Power output increased each year in all training zones, over most durations.
  • The rider finished in the top-10 of several top international races, including the Tour de France and Vuelta a Espana.

So how did they do it – how did the coaches get this athlete to improve his performance? It all comes down to the difference between fitness and fatigue. Fitness improved, like it always does with training.

But fatigue stayed the same! While max weekly intensity increased, average weekly intensity did not change significantly in any training year. That means there was enough rest and recovery programmed into the training plan to allow fatigue to remain unchanged. More importantly, changes in performance were best correlated with changes in fatigue.

So what can we learn from this case study?

The main takeaway is that to improve performance, you must limit your fatigue. (That, and if you really want to train a lot and still feel good, you should be in your early 20’s.)

If you increase your fitness, but also increase your average fatigue, your performance won’t change (or may decline), and eventually you’ll overtrain.

And how is fatigue measured? By your own subjective feelings, whether you’re a professional cyclist or an amateur roller-blader. Not a fancy math equation, not your power meter, not your blood chemistry. You. So track that stuff! We’ll help you out.

In case you were wondering, this is the cyclist. He’s pretty good. You’ll have to translate his tweets. We’ll see how he does this year…

Photo credit: Josh Hallett/Wikimedia Commons 
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