Have you ever wondered how much better you could be if you didn't have a "day job"? Do you think that you could make it to the next level if only there were 2-3 extra hours in the day to train... or to prepare better food for yourself... or maybe just get a little more sleep? If you have you aren't alone. In fact, I would venture to say that every athlete asks these questions from time to time, even those that don't have day jobs. After all, even pros have to pay their bills, go to publicity events, travel, do their laundry and clean their houses (not to mention, spend time with the ones they love).
Training is more than just doing workouts. You may hear that you should try to get 9-10 hours sleep every night, get a massage every week, see a chiropractor, see an acupuncturist, do yoga, do your core work, get an altitude tent, use compression boots before and after every ride, meditate, do your recovery spins, eat natural and healthy fresh foods, take naps and drink a gallon of water every day. I could go on and on with these tips but I'm pretty sure your eyes are already beginning to roll. Whether cycling is your profession or a hobby that you do on the side after working 60 hours a week, you're probably thinking the same thing: "That all sounds good if I only had the time."
Part of scheduling is prioritizing. You must first accept that you can't do it all, which means you have to let some things go. The other side is learning to be more efficient so you can get more done in the same time. To do either of these things, you have to plan. When you look ahead and plan your training schedule, here is a simple list of the most important things to remember:
"We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act but a habit" - Aristotle
1. Be consistent: A question I get asked a lot is "When is the best time to do my workouts?" Most of the time when in the day you train will be determined by either your work schedule or a pre-determined schedule for races and training rides. Those that have the choice, however, usually find that morning, evening and mid-day workouts can all work fine, but it helps to be as consistent as possible. In other words, don't train one day at 5 AM, the next day at 8 PM and then the next day at noon if you can help it. If all of your races are in the morning, do your best to train in the morning when possible. Consistency also applies to volume. Better to train an hour every day than 5 hours twice a week. Better to sleep 7 hours every night rather than 5 hours on weekdays and 12 on weekends. We are creatures of habit and we have a lot better chance of adhering to the plans we make if they become habitual.
2. Plan your meals and snacks: You've probably heard that "if you wait until you are hungry or thirsty it's already too late". If you want to eat a healthy diet with a lot of fresh fruits, vegetables and preservative-free foods, you have to plan because these foods all spoil rather quickly. You won't be able to eat big salads, quinoa and sweet potatoes for dinner or snack on pears, carrot sticks and hummus if you don't plan ahead, go to the grocery store, prepare foods ahead of time and pack them to bring to work, training and races. It also helps to look into the proper storage method for every food to maximize shelf life in your refrigerator or pantry. If you're traveling for extended periods, research restaurants and grocery stores wherever you're going. To use an old saying, "If you fail to plan you plan to fail". Lack of planning will lead to inconsistent energy levels, calls for pizza delivery, trips to the vending machine at work and a lot of stops at gas stations after races.
3. Get your sleep: Though many claim they are "fine with only 6 hours of sleep", it's simply not true, especially for athletes. Ideal sleep is typically 7-9 hours per night for most adults, but the "magic number" varies from person to person. Simply put, it may be 7, 8, or 9 but it's definitely not 5 or 6. Sleep is also the number one factor in recovery, so the less you sleep the less your training volume and intensity have to be. For those that can swing it, a nap may also help speed the recovery process and improve mood, motivation and cognitive function. If you find that even 9 hours a night and a nap is still not enough you may want to consult your doctor, as there may be another underlying problem (e.g. depression, breathing issues).
Perhaps increasing your quantity of sleep isn't really an option though. In this case, think about whether or not anything can be done to improve sleep quality, such as putting up room darkening shades, getting a better mattress or pillow, putting in earplugs or using a sound generator. If you have trouble getting to sleep, consider meditation, listening to relaxing music or taking a sleep aid (note: some sleep aids such as Melatonin, Unisom and Diphenhydramine are available over to counter, a prescription is required for most others such as Ambien and Lunesta). Needless to say, do your research and consult your doctor before popping any pills. Within an hour of bedtime, avoid exercise, eating spicy foods, drinking alcohol, watching TV or thinking about work if possible. At the end of the day (literally) it comes back to... you guessed it... planning. If you plan ahead to get to bed at a given time you will have a much better chance of actually doing it.
4. Make time for active recovery: Although sleep is the number one factor in recovery, there are many forms of active recovery that can help you achieve greater (and faster) benefits from your training. Some examples are easy recovery spins, massage, acupuncture, electric stimulation, yoga and using compression boots. The better you can recover, the better you can train. Even if your training time and intensity are relatively low, other factors in your life such as stress and standing on your feet a lot can impede recovery. Planning active recovery activities can balance out the effects of stress and decrease risk of illness and injury as well as helping to reduce recovery time.
5. Multi-task: Some activities are mutually exclusive. For example, you can't train in your sleep and you probably shouldn't be planning for your next board meeting in the middle of a crit. Luckily though, many activities can be incorporated. For example, you might combine an passive activity (e.g. watching TV, listening to a podcast) with an active one (e.g. indoor trainer workout, core, yoga or stretching). In some cases you can replace a passive activity (e.g. driving to work) with an active one (e.g. riding to work). A recovery ride may be a good way to spend time outdoors with your partner or children. Of course, compression socks or tights can be worn to work or during travel without having to give up much at all (though admittedly those tights can be a bit warm in the summertime).
6. Decrease your transition times: If you've ever raced a triathlon you know how important transitions are. An experienced triathlete can get out of the water, take off their wetsuit and goggles, run to their bike, put on their helmet and sunglasses, then run their bike out of the transition area, hop on, slide their feet into their shoes, cinch down the straps and be at full cruising speed in as little as 30 seconds. This same process could take a newbie more than 2-3 minutes. If you think about how much more power you need to put out to make up the difference, it's clearly worth it to practice those skills.
In our daily grind, most of us don't think much about how much time we lose moving from one activity to another. If you're like many athletes, you might get home from work, have a snack, sit down at your computer to check the weather, maybe answer a couple emails or check Facebook/Twitter/Instagram while you're there. Perhaps you take a quick look at some pictures of animals wrapped like burritos. Finally, you think about what to wear, find the clothes you need (which may be scatted all over the house), put them on, fill your bottles, grab food for your ride, pump up your tires and lube your chain before you head out the door. By the time you actually start riding, that "post-work fatigue" may have set in and you may not even feel like training anymore. If there was a stopwatch running during this "transition time", you might do a few things differently. If you check the weather ahead of time, you should know pretty much what you need to wear and you can lay it out the night before. You can fill your bottles and take care of any necessary bike maintenance ahead of time as well. The best part is, before you start to feel the urge to take a nap, all that exercise induced serotonin is already pumping into your brain.
7. Don't sacrifice your loved ones: When athletes decide to call it quits and give up training and/or competing, one of the most commonly cited reasons is that they want to spend more time with their partner, friends and family. The problem isn't just that they spend so much time training; it's all the other stuff that goes along with it. Athletes have special dietary needs, they need to sleep more, they get moody when they're tired and hungry, and they can't always travel, take a vacation, or even go out to dinner or a movie because of their racing or training schedules. To sum it up, athletes can be a lot like infants. The difference is that parents of infants know their kid will eventually grow out of that phase. If there is no end in sight, living with an athlete can get old. My advice is this: don't make training an all or nothing thing. You're training won't suffer if you take a 3 hour ride instead of a 4 hour ride or if you take every Monday off so you can spend time with your kids. A little bit goes a long way. Those that love us unconditionally should accept that we will be completely and utterly exhausted from time to time, but if we are consistently sacrificing time with our loved ones in order to get another hour of training or another couple more intervals in, it's not worth it. Period.
Colin Sandberg is the owner and head coach of Backbone Performance, LLC. He is a Cat. 1 road racer, a USA Cycling Level II coach and a UCI Director Sportif. He is also head coach at Young Medalists High Performance and race director for Team Young Medalists. If you have questions or comments, feel free to use the comments section or email us. Thanks for reading!