Fast Is a Choice, Part One

Wrong. Or at least not how we typically think of that phrase.

I often tell my sons: “fast is a choice.” If you want to be “fast” (whatever that means to you), hard work is definitely required; but becoming “fast” is more than just working hard. In fact, for many student-athletes, working hard is often the obstacle preventing them from becoming fast.

Anyone who wants to be faster can be faster. Being fast requires some sacrifices, and it requires giving equal weight to each of these three pillars:

  • Training (both fitness and skills)
  • Nutrition (on and off the bike)
  • Recovery

Some athletes have genetic predispositions allowing them to get fit on relatively little training or despite poor nutrition. Chances are that you’re not that athlete, or if you are, that you’re not as fast as you could be if you worked on all three pillars.

Today’s focus is training—I will cover nutrition and recovery in separate posts.

First things first: if you don’t track your training (with a GPS device/phone and heart rate monitor), you should. How can you track progress without knowing where you are now and seeing how things change over time?

Do a “threshold” test, using either your HRM or power meter and set your zones. Use this to set your zones, and then read more about the zones here.

Student-athletes often ask me questions like:

  • How can I make state?
  • How can I improve my placing in races?
  • How should I be training?

In my experience with student athletes, one of two opposing things is typically an obstacle to their improvement:

  • Lack of consistency
  • Training too hard

If you ride only one or two days per week, you will see some improvement—any activity is better than no activity. But your improvement will plateau and you will not see the sort of results you probably want. For these athletes, riding consistently will help.

Unfortunately, when facing that plateau, some student-athletes (and many parents and coaches) pivot to: ride every day, and ride hard. These athletes also plateau; and they additionally face a more challenging risk: burnout.

My former coach repeated to me regularly (you see, I’m hard-headed and require lots of repetition): You have to go slow to go fast.

To become fast, most of your days should be easy, and one or two of them (per week) should be hard. When I say “easy,” I don’t mean “kind of hard.” I mean “easy,” as in “I could ride for hours at this pace” easy. Thinking back to the training zones article I linked to above, focus on Zone 2.

When I say “hard,” I don’t mean “kind of hard.” I mean “turn yourself inside out (for the given duration)” hard. Those of you who have done vo2max intervals with me before know what this means.

If you’re taking your training seriously and you train regularly, but you’re frustrated because you don’t seem to be getting faster, I’m guessing that more training isn’t the answer; more likely, your easy days are too hard, and your hard days aren’t hard enough.

I find it is more common to have to tell student athletes to “ride easy” than it is to “ride hard”—I’ve seen more than one student-athlete give up the sport entirely because they were always trying to “go hard” and became burned out.

Attending your team’s practices twice per week is a great introduction to training—but riding twice per week isn’t enough if you want to become the best rider you can become.

You should aim to train 4-6 days per week. This doesn’t have to be solely on the bike—in fact, I’d prefer it not be on the bike. You might pick a day to run, swim, go for a hike, roller ski, play soccer, etc. The key is to engage in aerobic activity 4-6 days per week, with one off day focused on recovery.

A sample week might look like this:

  • Monday: ride Zone 2 for 2-3 hours
  • Tuesday: ride threshold intervals, 90′ threshold workout
  • Wednesday: go for a hike or an easy run
  • Thursday: ride vo2max intervals, 70′ vo2max workout
  • Friday: ride Zone 2 for 1-2 hours
  • Saturday: longer all zones ride
  • Sunday: off; walk around the neighborhood

Those of you who have attended our intervals sessions have heard me preach the virtues of incorporating skills work into your training sessions. Do it. You will become a faster rider.

  • If you love to train but don’t take time for skills work: It doesn’t matter how big and well-tuned the engine is if it handles like a Suburban
  • If you love the downhill but shun the climb in favor of chairlift or shuttle: It doesn’t matter how well the car handles if it has a lawnmower engine.

Structuring your weeks as shown above (and giving proper attention to skills development) helps you broaden your aerobic base and develop your high-end fitness–both are crucial for racing. Balancing hard days and easy days allows your system to absorb your training and be prepared for the next hard day.

I’ll share more thoughts about recovery in a future post, but for now, know that it is crucial to understand (and accept) that a day off when needed will not set you back—in fact, if you train daily, a day off will help you perform even better. On the other hand, taking too many days off guarantees that you will not develop to your full potential–there is no substitute for consistency.

If you’re anything like my kids, you’re probably unwilling to take my word for it. That’s fine. I’ve read more books and articles; been rebuked more often by my own coach; and have more thoughts on these subjects than I can bear to type. But if you want more information (or to hear from more sources than just me), give this thread a review: ChatGPT Training Principles Verified by Jake. It’s uncanny how succinctly LLMs can explain what I’ve spent 10-15 years studying …