Lance Armstrong's third-place finish in the Tour de France was impressive considering his three years away from competition and the fact that he had less than a year to prepare. He was time-crunched in that sense, but not in the way the rest of us are.
When Lance retired in 2005, I started working more with everyday athletes who faced different challenges than the seven-time Tour champion did. It soon became clear that a lack of training time was a serious problem for most amateur competitors. Compressed schedules were hindering the on-bike performances of a lot of highly motivated cyclists. But rather than lament that fact, I realized there are ways to take advantage of it. The truth is, spending less time on your bike can actually open up opportunities that high-volume trainers don't have. The greatest of these is the ability to focus almost entirely on high-intensity intervals.
If you don't have much time to ride, you have to increase your intensity in order to achieve significant improvements in power and performance. And if you have, say, only six to eight hours a week to train, there's automatically a lot of recovery time in your week. The reason high-volume trainers can't take advantage of high-intensity intervals in the same way is that much of their weekly workload involves moderate-intensity riding. If they were to add three or four high-intensity interval workouts, they'd wind up with more fatigue than they could recover from.
So how do time-crunched athletes maximize their training time? Four workouts a week, at 60 to 90 minutes each—you can extend the weekend rides to two hours or a bit longer—that are stacked with intervals completed at intensities between lactate threshold and VO 2 max. Obviously you'll need to build a whole program, but it'll be built around weeks that look like the one below.
How It Works
Researchers have studied high-intensity training extensively, and the basic premise is that such efforts lead to many of the same physiological adaptations achieved in traditional endurance-training models. In fact, a 2005 study found that high-intensity interval training doubled an athlete's time to exhaustion on a ride performed at 80 percent of peak VO*. This is appealing to time-crunched athletes because the efforts re- quired are as much as five times shorter than the traditional intervals used to target power at lactate threshold.
Researchers confirmed this finding as much by looking inside the muscles at mitochondria. These intracellular power plants process oxygen, carbohydrate and fat to produce ATP (the molecule that provides the energy for muscular contractions). High-intensity interval workouts have been shown to lead to an increase in the size and number of mitochondria in muscle cells, otherwise known as mitochondrial density. Studies examining the effectiveness of short, high-intensity intervals for improving aerobic performance have also shown an increase in muscles' oxidative capacity (the maximum amount of oxygen a muscle can utilize) and in levels of key enzymes used in the process of aerobic metabolism.
In other words: Your VO2 max system defines the high end of your aerobic fitness, and improving power at that level elevates your performance at all other levels.
When Lance decided to launch his comeback in autumn 2008, the training methods I'd developed for everyday athletes became an integral part of bringing his fitness back to the level required for success in the pro peloton. So what we'd learned from everyday cyclists actually helped enhance Lance's preparation for the 2009 Tour de France, and will factor into his training for the 2010 season as well.
This article is adapted from Carmichael's book, Training for the Time-Crunched Cyclist: Fit, Fast, and Powerful in 6 Hours a Week, which contains comprehensive 11-week training programs.
The Time-Squeezed Week
Monday: Rest day
Tuesday: 60-90 minutes EM with 2 sets of 3x3 min. PI, 3 min. RBI, 8 min. RBS
Wednesday: Rest day
Thursday: 60 -90 min. EM with 2 sets of 3x3 min. PI, 3 min. RBI, 8 min. RBS
Friday: Rest day
Saturday: 90-120 minutes EM with 3x9 min. OU (2U, 1O), 6 min. RBI
Sunday: 90-150 min. EM or group ride
Total Time at LT: 36 min.
Total Time at V02 Max: 40 min.
PI = Power interval. This is a maximum-intensity interval at 90 to 100 rpm.
OU = Over/Under. The "under" portion is at LT power; the "over" is an acceleration above threshold power; for advanced athletes, it's a period at VO2 max. Cadence should be 90+ rpm if the interval is completed on flat or rolling terrain, or 80-90 rpm on a climb.
EM = Endurance miles
RBI = Rest between intervals
RBS = Rest between sets