One of the biggest crimes in human performance is the willful loss of the fitness gains made during the course of the season; and it’s about time you stopped the cycle.
Fall should not mean the demise of your hard-earned fitness. There is no need to gain 20 pounds between mid-September and November 1, nor is there any good reason why you have to go from the front of the group ride to struggling at the back for the winter. While you shouldn’t try to maintain your peak race fitness throughout the year, staying in good physical shape year-round is part of leading a balanced, active lifestyle.
In order to make appreciable improvements in your aerobic conditioning and sustainable power from year to year, it is essential to retain at least 75% of your peak summer fitness through the fall and winter. When athletes go into hibernation and allow their aerobic engines to lay dormant for too long, it can take two to three months of training to regain lost fitness. It simply doesn’t make sense to expend three months of energy just to get back to where you’ve already been.
Fortunately, your summer fitness is easier to keep than it was to gain in the first place. If you cut your training volume by about 25%, and eliminate most of the structured interval sessions, you’ll notice your top-end speed and ability to handle repeated accelerations diminish. Let them go. Your goal is to reduce your overall training load (recuperate from the season) while still retaining the majority of your aerobic conditioning (prepare for next year). Your top-end performance will come back more quickly next spring if you don’t have to spend months rebuilding the aerobic engine necessary to support it.
You’re not well suited to being a couch potato anyway, so the end of the summer cycling season should just be an opportunity to use some of the other sporting equipment in your garage. The exact mode of exercise you choose doesn’t really matter, as long as it addresses your needs as an endurance athlete. The best activities for cyclists are weight bearing and require nearly continuous movement, including running, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, cyclocross, racquet sports, basketball, hiking, and soccer.
While cyclists have highly-developed aerobic systems, we run the risk of being very one-dimensional athletes. Weight-bearing exercise is beneficial for the integrity of bones and connective tissues, and since you are almost certainly less efficient as a runner than you are as a cyclist, you can apply a lot of stress to your aerobic system in less time than you normally spend on your bike. Honing your cycling technique has made you very economical on your bike, but that economy of motion disappears when you enter a different sport.
Any discussion of fall and winter training inevitably gets around to the question of strength training. While resistance training, particularly in the form of lifting weights, can improve cycling performance, your decision to renew your gym membership should depend on the time your have available.
As an endurance athlete trying to balance family and work commitments with your pursuit of performance goals, time is a precious commodity. You have to evaluate the potential benefit of strength gained through resistance training against the time it will take away from your aerobic training. For a Category 3 or Master’s cyclist currently devoting less than 10 total hours a week to cycling, resistance training may not be the best use of your time this fall and winter.
A typical resistance training program requires at least three hours a week, and when that comes out of your 10 available hours, you’re diluting the effectiveness of your aerobic training. I’d rather see athletes with limited training time spend more of that time on the bike, and the rest participating in activities that enhance core strength, balance, and overall flexibility. Cycling and your choice of yoga and/or Pilates can be a very effective combination for making aerobic and strength gains in the fall and winter.
If you’re like most cyclists, you’re at your leanest somewhere between June and August, and you’re heaviest somewhere between December and February. It’s normal and healthy to gain a little weight after the summer cycling season; staying at peak competition weight can be stressful on your body and mind. However, gaining “a little weight” doesn’t mean packing on 20-plus pounds for insulation against the cold.
Your nutrition program needs to change as your training load decreases from the height of your competitive season. Many athletes reduce the volume and intensity of their training, but continue to eat as if they were still in the height of the racing season. This leads to a serious discrepancy between energy intake and expenditure, and the pounds accumulate quickly.
Properly fueling your fall training simply requires a few minor adjustments to your nutrition program. By applying the concept of periodization to your nutrition program, the same way you do to your training, you can ensure that your nutrition program supplies the carbohydrate, protein, and fat necessary to support your activity level throughout the year.
At the height of your season, during the Specialization Period, you might be consuming 3.5-4.0 grams of carbohydrate per pound of bodyweight per day (g/lb/d), and 0.8-0.9 g/lb/d of protein. During the fall, these numbers need to come down to reflect the reduction in your training load. I recommend a target of 2.0-2.5 g/lb/d of carbohydrate and 0.6-0.7 g/lb/d of protein during this period of the year. For a 165-lb cyclist, this could mean a reduction from about 620 daily grams of carbohydrate to about 370. That’s about 1000 calories worth of carbohydrate energy alone, but it leaves enough to support your exercise goals during the fall while eliminating the excess that leads to significant weight gain.
Handled correctly, the fall and winter can be the most productive, diverse, and enjoyable portions of your training year. You have worked hard to achieve specific performance and body weight goals this season, and the actions you take over the next eight to twelve weeks will determine how much of that work you’re going to have to redo next spring. This is the year to change the normal cycle of gaining weight and losing fitness; keep what you’ve worked for already and set your sights on ambitious new goals for next season.