In recent weeks I’ve heard variations on the same question, which boils down to: “Why am I not getting faster anymore?” As the spring is heating up, races and events are ramping up, and cyclists are piling on the miles, you may be noticing that your fitness and performance have stagnated. You’re still training a lot, but you’re not making much progress, or at least not at the rate you were a few months ago. Here are some of the reasons this could be happening, and how to fix it.
Keep in mind that it is likely your progress has stagnated, or let’s say ‘leveled off’ to be more positive about it, for a combination of reasons rather than one glaring problem. All of the factors below can contribute to a scenario that is just not conducive to producing positive training adaptations. Some are easy to fix while others are not. Either way, even after you address the issues that are holding you back, it will take some time before the changes you make will yield meaningful and noticeable results. In other words, you didn’t get to where you are overnight, and you won’t jumpstart your progress overnight either. So please, be patient and be kind to yourself.
Most time-crunched cyclists reach a limit of how much workload they can achieve weekly, based on available training time. The next step to increasing workload, in let’s say 8 hours/week, is to add intense intervals. That works very well, but again, you’ll reach a limit. A lot of athletes look at their Chronic Training Load (CTL) level in TrainingPeaks as their current level of fitness, and the issue with that is it leads an athlete to believe that the only way to improve performance is to keep that blue line ticking upward.
To wring more performance gains out of the same available capacity for training workload, you have to change the focus of your training regularly. For experienced athletes, you’ll recognize this as periodization. And when periodization is done well, performance in individual workouts will start to decline as athletes reach the point of diminishing returns for a given type of training. That’s not a bad sign. It’s a good one! It means you’ve wrung the most training stress you can handle out of that phase of training and it’s time to move on to another (after a period of rest). Just remember, that as the result of those less-than-stellar workouts and the rest period, CTL will go down for a bit, and that’s OK and part of the process.
Sometimes athletes are good about following a periodized training schedule, but not so good about updating their cycling power training zones as they make progress. I wrote about this in detail in a previous post. If you’re using heart rate instead of power, your heart rate ranges will change early on in your training program, but after several months they’ll stay relatively unchanged even as you continue to get stronger. If you’re using both power and heart rate, you’ll notice this because your power outputs at a given heart rate will continue to increase. Both power and heart rate are useful; power as a direct measure of work being performed, and heart rate as context for the body’s response to the work, and then with rating of perceived exertion as additional context on the effort required for the work.
Through the spring, some athletes are able to increase their weekly training hours due to longer days and warmer temperatures. This increase in energy expenditure often happens at the same time they are actively trying to lose weight (or not upset that it’s coming off unintentionally). The problem is, chronic underfeeding isn’t sustainable for an athlete looking to improve performance. When you are in a chronic energy deficit over a period of weeks and months, your body adapts to use energy to cover the bare necessities, which means it’s not making it available for the physiological adaptations you’re targeting with training. Take a look at your weekly energy expenditure and intake (not daily). If expenditure has gone up but intake hasn’t, and you’re not performing as well as you used to, consider bumping up your total energy intake.
If total energy intake is sufficient to support your weekly training workload, and your periodization plan is good, but you just don’t have the ‘umph’ for high-quality workouts, take a look at your carbohydrate intake. You have to look at both your total daily carbohydrate intake as well as your exercise-associated carbohydrate intake (immediately pre-, during-, post-workout). To achieve maximal performance during periods of higher training volumes, particularly with higher volume-of-intensity, you need more carbohydrate than you did during periods of more generalized, moderate-intensity training. On a three-day rolling average, look to consume about 50-60% of calories from carbohydrate, 20-30% from fat, and 20-30% from protein. During workouts longer than 60 minutes, aim for 40-60 grams of carbohydrate per hour (up to 90 g/hr with mixed carbohydrate sources and during higher intensity/longer duration training).
If too little carbohydrate is what’s holding you back, the good news is that you can make the adjustment quickly and notice a difference quickly. You won’t necessarily see a huge fitness jump right away, but you’ll notice you feel and perform a lot better during workouts (particularly later in endurance rides or at the end of hard interval sessions). It will still take a little while for those better workouts to yield meaningful physiological improvements.
As coaches and endurance athletes, we tend to focus a great deal on carbohydrate intake. As you can tell from the previous section, it is important for performance. But the focus on carbohydrate to fuel workouts sometimes overshadows the importance of protein for recovery and for doing the work of physiological adaptation. It’s hard to point to a tell-tale sign you’re not consuming enough protein, but you might feel like you’re not bouncing back from even an extra day of recovery. First look to see if you’re at least getting 1.4-1.8 grams per kilogram of bodyweight per day (1.8-2.0 g/kg/d for athletes over 60). Hint: if you’re eating a lot of carbohydrate and being conservative with total calorie intake at the same time, it’s pretty easy to end up low on protein intake.
You can everything above perfectly dialed and still experience stalled progress if the balance between work and rest is not right. The enthusiasm brought on by longer days and warmer temperatures leads some people to ride more and rest less, and you can’t sustain that very long before there’s a price to pay. If you ramped up the workout side of the equation without adjusting the rest side, flip the balance for two weeks and get more rest than stress. Then return to a more balanced approach so you can train hard, rest appropriately, and reap the rewards.