Can I get faster without getting fitter?
At first, this question might seem like an odd one to ask. Can't we always get fitter? Typically yes, but often no - especially if our goals are focused on optimal health and performance, which they should be. As a coach, I work with a broad spectrum of athletes, many of whom have been successfully honing their craft for quite some time. These experienced athletes, commonly masters, often carry a high chronic training load (CTL) close to the maximum of what's possible. I define what's possible as operating within the constraints of available time, energy, and the ability to recover and improve. When an athlete is already very fit, simply getting 'fitter' is often not the recipe for success. This is where the guidance of a coach can become very valuable, as we are able to dig into all of the available areas of improvement. Let's look at some of the major ones.
The commonly accepted definition of fitness lies in quantifying an athlete's chronic training load (CTL). This is a weighted average of our daily training stress over the past six weeks. For athletes who track this metric, it can be very seductive to keep doing whatever it takes to raise their CTL. However, there is most definitely a point of diminishing returns - not to mention a point where it's not healthy or productive to keep raising CTL. In very general terms, when an amateur athlete starts getting towards a CTL score of 80, continuing to add additional training load very will often be counterproductive. Most athletes who have a job, a family and other responsibilities simply can't devote enough time to recover from a higher training load. In cases of athletes with more significant demands on their time, this decision may need to be made at a CTL closer to 70.
In the chart below, see how the athlete's CTL (blue line) has stopped increasing over the last month. This would often be viewed as a dreaded plateau. He must not be getting faster, right? Wrong. By changing the makeup of this busy working athlete's training and increasing focus on training that will increase real-world speed, we've made him markedly faster without raising his overall training load.
Let's remember that for the vast majority of athletes the desired outcome of training is to get faster. Fitness is important, but it should be a means to the end of performance. This is often where a good coach can makes a difference. When working with an experienced, already-fit athlete, I take an objective look at their natural strengths and weaknesses. We do an honest appraisal of their current limiters. Where do they get beat in races? Where do they struggle in their weekly group ride? For multi-sport athletes, what discipline are they giving away time? Our natural tendency as athletes is to work on our strengths. After all, those are the things we do best and it feels good to do something well. Experienced athletes have typically spent years working on these strengths - often at the expense of neglecting their weaknesses. By identifying and working on limiters, we are able to make significant gains in performance at the same or even lower training load. So while an athlete could even become 'less fit' on paper, they're faster in the real world where it counts.
One of the most common situations I run into with experienced athletes is with people who have highly developed long-duration power. This diesel engine power production is often developed by years of fast group rides and large portions of training time being spent in the tempo and sub-threshold ranges. While this is a good recipe for riding fast in training, most races are not won by going the same medium-fast speed for a long time. Races are typically decided with short bursts, anaerobic attacks, and athletes/ abilities to respond to changes in terrain. In the case of off-road competition, the significant changes in terrain almost always require wide swings in power production - often with the ability to produce short, repeated bursts of power.
Another area often neglected is continued improvement in bike handling skills. This is one of the most important areas to work on, because gains in speed can often be made without having to pedal harder. This 'free speed' should be exploited, and small gains add up over the course of a race. Don't think this is limited to off-road racing either. Whether you're a triathlete, a road racer or you play in the dirt, being able to handle your bike better allows you to go faster for the same or less effort - not to mention increased safety. This is a case where a good coach or skills instructor can be invaluable to break past previous barriers and get rid of bad habits.
Endurance athletes are, by their nature, driven individuals. Nobody's going to put themselves through what it takes to be good without a healthy dose of internal drive. This drive, mixed with a dose of competitiveness, often leads to a feeling of 'she who is the fittest wins the day'. This may be true with newer and less experienced athletes, but once we've reached a high chronic training load we need to be extra smart with the makeup of that training. Rather than continuing to reinforce strengths, we need to take a hard look at the things which will make us go faster. This often means leaving our comfort zone to focus on our limiters. I suggest doing an honest appraisal of your own abilities and thinking about where there are gains to be made.
If you've found this helpful, or your have questions, I'd love to hear from you. Please feel free to contact me.