It Doesn’t Take Much


The other day one of our more experienced riders commented that it didn't take a big change in cadence, at the same power output, to make a big change in heart rate and perceived effort. At the time it seemed like a pretty simple observation. The more I thought about it the more profound I realized it was. In effect he was summarizing not only the process of building fitness & performance capacity but also making a statement about our fundamental physiology.

Our bodies are amazing. With the application of varied training stimulus they will adapt to be able to handle these new work loads. At the same time our bodies are also looking for efficiencies at every turn. These two characteristics are often at odds with each other.

Ever seen those late night TV infomercials for P90X or Insanity?  The entire systems are based on keeping the body guessing. And you know what they do work. Just like Aerobics, Jazzercise & Tae Bo before them. They work short term because they "shock" peoples’ bodies into adaptation mode. But eventually if the stimulus doesn't continue to change the dreaded plateau sets in.

Avoiding plateaus is exactly why it so important to keep changing things up. We can't just ride an hour every day on the same challenging course. While such a regime will be helpful from a general health standpoint it won't get you stronger and faster for your goal event this year. You will just get really efficient at the specific course you are riding.

As a training principle, applying ever changing training stimuli goes back all the way to Greek Mythology. Milo of Croton was said to have lifted a calf every day, from birth until it was full grown. Thereby becoming the strongest man on earth through continually changing the training stress he was putting on his body. The first mainstream proponent of this was the visionary and legendary Jack Lalanne[1]. Until the day he died, in his 90s, he believed in "daily violent and vigorous exercise to the point of failure"

As you have noticed our training sessions are never exactly the same. In particular the last few sessions have been quite different.  The purpose is to keep our bodies "off balance" so that we are constantly adapting to the different demands we placed on our cardio systems, our connective tissue, our muscles and our nervous system. Our bodies’ response to training stimulus is the adaption side of the equation.

The other side of the coin is our bodies’ constant search for efficiencies.   As a species we evolved in a hypo caloric environment (that's a fancy way of saying by and large there wasn't enough food readily available).  For the vast majority of human history our biggest survival challenge was simply not starving to death. As a result our bodies evolved to be very efficient.  We hoard calories and readily store fat, a big part of the reason it's so hard to lose weight.

As a result if we simply start doing the same workouts over and over (read same duration, same intensity, same rest periods, same cadence etc.) our bodies not only stop adapting they actively move to become as efficient as possible.  As in what is the least amount of energy we need to expend to get the job done and at all costs save calories.

While we continue to evolve socially and technologically, we have ancient bodies that are still hardwired to avoid starvation at all costs. So unless we keep our bodies off balance we won't continue to improve.

Sadly the same mechanism causes us to crave foods that pack the biggest caloric punch (read sweet and or fat). And the multinational food companies have figured this out in a big way, but again another topic for another day!

So embrace the changes, the wrinkles, and the unusual they will all serve you well. Try different things move in unusual ways. Having said that be careful as you build a more powerful engine, you may also be setting yourself up a mechanism that can lead to an injury when you least expect it.   

That will be the topic of the next post. Happy training!




[1] in case you have never heard of this bad ass check out a few of his notable achievements