training: LSD vs. High Intensity Training – a viable shortcut?

crankpunk learned early on, as a fresh-faced (some would say angelic) 15 year old, that if you ask 10 different cyclists a question about training you’ll get about 14 different answers. as a beginner or even intermediate cyclist – and indeed, in some cases, even for pro riders – the sheer volume of different training regimes and routines out there can seem overwhelming. one good performance will have us swearing by our training schedule, yet a bad one the next week will just have us swearing. some will tell you to ride 500km a week, others 200, or to climb 38 flights of stairs on a Monday, whilst some swear by gym work and others say it’s a hindrance.

there’s even one WorldTour team now whose management has its riders running twice a week, whereas the vast majority of pros i know haven’t run for anything other than the front of the line at the buffet table in their whole lives.

and then there is the advice you will hear from supposedly ʻexpertʼ club cyclists, many of whom seem to talk the talk but have never walked the walk. if they know so much why are they 30kg overweight? and why are they 3rd cats? i don’t mean to sound bitchy but there’s a lesson to be learned here – open your ears but also your eyes, and keep your wits about you. cycling is a little like a religion, with Lord Eddy on the throne and the saints Bernard and Jacques, Fausto and Gino by his side – but just as you wouldn’t wander into a religious convention and follow the preachings of every charlatan you meet, that same approach is needed with training routines.

pick and choose. try stuff, see if it works, if it doesn’t, discard it, if it does, tweak it so it fits you, and not vise versa. this is something i come across often. you see a guy who races twice a month in short crit-style events, no more than 50km, trying to do 400km a week, without any interval training. or a young Asian kid who is lucky enough to race the UCI Asia Tour doing long, even-paced rides of up to 300km on a daily basis. or i meet a guy who tells me he is a terrible climber and hates the hills as a result – so in training he avoids climbs like the plague, then complains when he’s dropped on every group ride that goes uphill. these guys are bending themselves to fit the training, whereas it should be the other way around. it just makes no sense.

your training should be event-specific, concentrating on your weak points, and be realistic in terms of what you can handle, both in regards to your body and your time schedule.

are traditional training methods best? nope. just because something has been around for a long time doesnʼt mean it’s right. like racism. or poverty. or Ferrero Rocher. or Fixie kids in cycling caps and jeans.

many years ago cyclists believed that smoking actually opened up the lungs, so they would often have a cigarette just before the race – or even during. it was only in the late 50s that interval training became popular (there is a great moment in this Jacques Anquetil documentary where a domestique talks about his coach telling him to sprint for every other telegraph pole on the way home – despite being sceptical, he did, and won the next race – suddenly, he says, everyone was doing it). until then, no one really understood the benefits of sprint and threshold training.

nowadays, and especially in autumn, you will hear many a rider people talking about Long, Slow Distance – otherwise known as LSD.

LSD is something you are supposed to do in the winter months, to build stamina and to alter the body and the way it uses your fat and glycogen stores so that you can race more economically in the race season. LSD training was originally developed for running, but it has been adapted to cycling and has, since around the mid-1950s, formed the cornerstone of any ‘serious’ cyclist’s base training. the idea is to attain a good base of stamina from long slow rides, then to gradually decrease distance and increase intensity as the season approaches. many cyclists swear by LSD as the perfect method to increase stamina as well as the body’s ability to more efficiently burn energy.

rides of 3, 4 or 5 hours are traditionally recommended, but new research suggests that any LSD ride less than 6 hours will not actually increase the body’s ability to store glycogen nor increase stamina any more than a 2 hour ride would. the research suggests that the body can gain just as much benefit from shorter, more intense rides (such as the Hour of Power [HOP] and High Intensity Interval Training [HIIT]).

let’s save that debate for a moment and look at what LSD really entails.

the accepted wisdom says that your MHR (Maximum Heart Rate) should be at around 65-80%, and you should not be out of breath when riding. your cadence should be at around 90-105 rpm. the ride should ideally be between 6 and 8 hours long. it has been shown that LSD training of sufficient duration improves your peripheral adaptations. in not-really-layman’s terms, this means an increase in capillary density, more myoglobin, more mitochondria, and an increased ability to use free fatty acids as fuel and an increase in glycogen stores.

what does that really mean? you may well ask. myoglobin is an oxygen-binding protein and an increase in this leads to more oxygen being stored in the muscles.

myoglobin

greater capillary density leads to more oxygen being supplied to the muscle and decreases levels of lactate acid (the stuff that makes your legs feel dead or ‘soft’).

capialliaries

mitochondria are our aerobic engines and having a lot of these mean that our body uses less glycogen stores – therefore we can exercise for longer.

looks like a complicated peanut, but is in fact mitochondria

glycogen is a fuel derived as glucose (sugar) from carbohydrate and stored in the muscles and liver. it’s the primary energy source for high-intensity cycling. reserves are normally depleted after about two-and-a-half hours of riding. if you do your LSD properly though you can increase the body’s ability to store glycogen, so, you increase your stamina through increasing the body’s glycogen store.

glycogen

and that, in a nutshell, is LSD. many professional riders who do not work any other job use this in the winter months and have found it to lead to success. but, i will reiterate, these adaptations can only be achieved from riding 6-8 hours or more, regularly.

quite obviously, however, very few of us have the luxury of being able to ride so long every day. going out and doing 4 hours isn’t going to cut it, even though that is still a long ride.

some though feel that LSD has its drawbacks. one facet of the argument is that the more the body does something, the more efficient it becomes at just that thing. for instance, if you ride 180km at 20km/h every day, your body gets used to that. i have seen direct evidence of this, with a young rider who rode 100km every day at near to 28km/h, then wondered why he got dropped in a 50km race where the winner came in at 42km/h average. LSD has its place, if you have the time, but must be part of a structured plan that adapts as the season approaches.

another aspect is that the science of cycling and of the human body has improved greatly since the 1950s. new studies have shown that tremendous increases in muscle mass, VO2 max and stamina can be made from high intensity interval training (HIIT). recent research has suggested that intervals at below the maximum output could be just as beneficial as those carried out at maximum power – perfect for winter training when maximum-intensity intervals may be too demanding on the body.

one published scientific study took a close look at interval training optimization in endurance-trained cyclists. in this investigation 20 endurance cyclists were split into five groups, each performing a different high-intensity interval workout twice a week for three consecutive weeks.

surprisingly, this research revealed that sub-maximal intervals (8 x 4 minutes per workout at 85% of peak power output, with 90-second recoveries) produced the same improvement in 40k time-trial performance as a greater number of shorter but much more intense ‘supra-maximal’ intervals (12 x 30 seconds per workout at 175% of peak power output, with 4.5-minute recoveries). it was unclear why these sub-maximal, ‘aerobic’ intervals with longer duration, lower intensity and shorter recovery, improved endurance performance as much – in an event lasting about an hour – as traditional ‘anaerobic’ intervals.

however, the result was increased performance, that much was clear. what is also interesting here is that, if you are a seasoned cyclist, high volume training alone won’t lead to continued increases in mitochondrial density. several studies suggest that for well-trained cyclist and triathletes, high-intensity interval training is necessary for achieving increased mitochondrial density—no matter how much time you have available for training. what does this mean for us as cyclists? it means that you can achieve similar results with high intensity effort as with very long, slow distance riding, and at as fraction of the time.

i personally utilise the indoor trainer for my winter training, doing a mix of intervals with 30 minute and one hour TT style efforts at on or just below threshold efforts also thrown in, 2-3 times a week. this usually means 2 hours on the trainer, sometimes 3, and, in extreme cases such as when i broke my hand just before the Tour of Qatar in February, 4 hours. whilst that is crazy (and very mentally taxing), 1 and a half to two hours on the trainer will suffice. i also throw in 3-4 hour rides twice a week, with recovery days completing the week. i never ride more than 5 hours, yet my results through the season strongly suggest that the HIIT type training in winter brings similar benefits to LSD – at least for me.

in my personal experience I know some riders who ride up to 35 hours a week in winter and have achieved great results, whilst the same is true of those riding only 18 hours a week. length of event, duration of season and personal goals all play a role in deciding exactly what kind of winter base training are suitable for each individual rider. if you do go for the shorter duration training this winter, be prepared to suffer. HIIT training and riding for a solid hour at threshold indoors does little more than hurt, and hurt bad!

ultimately, the best way to train is to listen to all the advice then go out (or in) and try it for yourself. never underestimate the power of that muscle in your head.

 

17 comments

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    Interesting article, cheers. Could you tell me – with the turbo training sessions is each session around 2 hours or is this the total time for the week? (i.e. for example 3 turbos, one for an hour and two sessions half an hour each). Presume you mean each session (total for week on turbo around 6 hours) but please clarify. Any help much appreciated – thanks.

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