Junk the Junk Miles - Cycling Fitness Testing & Training Programme with Sportstest

NOT me!
If you actively train to improve your cycling, then I’m confident this will interest you.  You might even be tempted to buy this book.  

However, if you just ride your bike for fun, with no improvement goal in mind, then it might all seem a bit too serious.  Pop back tomorrow for more cycling stuff.

Since 2007, whether running or cycling, I’ve trained with a Garmin Edge heart rate monitor GPS. But I've struggled to know precisely how to train. 

I have tried many different training 'programmes', from Chris Carmichael’s Time-Crunched Cyclist (which I wrote about here) to programmes which came free in magazines.  They all require you to train in specific heart rate zones to achieve the gains you need to make. 

Great in theory.  In practice there is one huge, massive, overwhelming problem.  One size does not fit all.  Establishing your HR zones and deciding what workouts are right for you is a very personal thing, specific to your body and your goals.  

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I know my maximum heart rate, but where exactly is my anaerobic threshold?  The formulas for establishing the zones can be simple or complicated, but they’re still generic, so how can they be the correct zones for my body? Moreover, how could these standardised training programmes produce the improvement my body needed to help me achieve my personal training goals? After all, racer would spend a completely different amount of time in different zones to an endurance rider.  

These are big doubts to have swirling around your head while you're trying to bang out the miles.  I looked into personal training but considered it too expensive and too ‘serious’ for a recreation cyclist like me.

Photo: Train in Spain
So I tried to stick to the programmes, I honestly did.  But during the many hours in the saddle, those doubts would come sneaking back into my head.  And they were compounded by the visible fact that I did not loose any weight from riding.  My spare tyre refused to budge, even though I rode hundreds of miles a week. Only with dieting could I shed the pounds.

Was I wasting my training time?  Was I riding ‘junk’ miles?

Dr Garry Palmer
Last March I spent a week at a cycle training camp with Train In Spain and wrote about the experience.  

There I met Dr Garry Palmer who runs Sportstest and whose evening lectures I found both fascinating and helpful.  He's alsot he authour of Elite Performance Cycling: Successful Sportives.

We also chatted one-to-one about some of my training issues and Garry’s advice convinced me to book a session.  

He’s based is in the West Midlands, but also takes his testing equipment to sessions at cycle stores in London, Milton Keynes and Harrogate.  

Back in August we met at the Specialized Concept Store inHarrogate where I was one of four clients seen that day.  I was seriously impressed.  here's how it went.

The session lasts between two and two-and-a-half hours and starts with a conversation.  Prior to arrival, I competed a questionnaire into which I put a lot of thought, so Garry had a good idea of my present riding load and also my goals.  I have some specific endurance events in mind for next summer, but essentially it boiled down one thought - ‘I want to cut out the junk miles’. 

In Spain, Garry had taken my skin-fold measurements, as I stood almost naked in front of a room full of sniggering cyclists.  “Wow, I’ve never seen him open the callipers so wide”, was one gag I heard.  At least I think it was a joke.  By then I’d privately decided I’d take this test later in the year and, knowing I’d do a lot of riding this summer, thought it was worth the embarrassment to have a control to see whether I’d improve through the year.

So after the chat, the callipers came out and Garry to to grips with my fat.  He measured at seven sites on my body, with the results to came after the main test.

Time Trailing is called ‘the ride of truth’, whereas I’d call this session ‘the ride of uncomfortable truths’.  There is absolutely nowhere to hide as ability, or lack of it, is unflinchingly revealed through the science of sports testing. 

My own bike was fixed into a static rig, I climbed on and clipped in.  A moulded plastic mask went over my nose and mouth to measure oxygen intake and carbon dioxide output.  I stared at a computer screen, watching two inward pointing arrows and my goal was to keep them in the middle of the screen by varying my pedalling speed.  As the resistance increased, I’d have to use more power to keep the arrows in the middle.

There were two tests.  The first was the ‘Sub-Maximal’ where I was tested at 135 watts and 180 watts, these being determined by my age and general fitness.  A younger and/or more highly trained athlete would be given higher levels, but not for an old cart-horse like me.  

The  second test was the ‘Maximal’ for which I rode like a demented hamster.  

“This is an open ended test”, Garry explained as we started the second test.  

Every three seconds, the power required to keep the arrows in the middle would jump a few watts. 

“Just ride for as long as you can”.  When I finally had to stop pedalling, gasping for breath, I could hardly lift my leg over the bike.

Don’t worry, I know you’re not really interested my results.  After all, they’re specific to me, and you will be different.  That, dear reader, is the whole damn point. 

But listen to this.  I was right about the junk.  Here in the hilly Scottish highlands, where I ride and how I ride, has shaped the way my body responds.  I power up hills and coast back down, so my heart is either pumping hard or taking it easy. I rarely ride a constant tempo and my body has adapted accordingly: I don’t burn fat and my aerobic threshold is too low.

Rather than burning a mix of fat and carbohydrate when riding at lower intensity, my body knows it’ll soon be heading up a hill.  It considers there is no such thing as an ‘easy ride’ so, right from the start, it burns only carbohydrate.  This showed up in the tests as the amount of oxygen I took in compared to the CO2 I put out.

This explains why I need to use sports drinks, bars and gels just to keep going.  It also explains why I struggle to burn off fat.  (Incidentally, not eating the carbs is not an option – the body wouldn’t just burn fat, it would burn protein and damage muscles).

This is what I came for.  I now know my precise heart rate zones, unique to me, and adapted to modify my body’s preference for burning carbs.  I know how many days a week I’ll have to train in which zone and for how long.  To get my body metabolising fat, and to raise my aerobic threshold, I’m going to have to spend much more time riding at a lower heart-rate.  “Can you find flatter roads?” Garry asked, optimistically.  Actually, I think I can.  

And, after a lot of research, I’ve bought buy a static trainer for my, bike, a CycleOps Pro Series Super Magneto Trainer which is quiet and generally excellent.  

Garry gave me an initial programme for six weeks, then a more intense programme to follow which I'm now well into. Endurance training and takes me from August to next March, when I’ll move into a Threshold programme for two months, and there’s still space in the schedule for unstructured ‘fun’ rides where I can blast up hills as much as I like.

All this was not presented on a fancy, colour coded, day-by-day, Training Peaks compatible, spreadsheet (although that would be nice).  In fact, it’s jotted down in pencil underneath a whole load of earlier scribble, but to me it is worth every penny of the £200 fee.  And I paid full price.

In addition I also have:
* A target body weight; an interim goal and a longer term goal, which will hopefully be more achievable if I manage to start burning fat.
* A cadence rate goal; I pedal like a touring cyclist, too slow pushing too big a gear, which might explain the occasional knee pain.
* A set of numbers that can be tested again in six months time to assess my progress.

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It’s important not to loose your way in this blizzard of data.  For me, cycling isn’t a job or even a sport in which I compete against other people.  It’s fun, and I only compete against myself.  I might find this schedule too demanding, we’ll see.  My average speed over longer rides is slowly cllimbing and I was pleased with my performance at the Etape Pennines.

But if you do want to improve your cycling fitness, for whatever reason, then I’d urge you to at least consider Sportstest.  And definitely buy the book.  

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