How elite cyclists break down their bodies, and build them back up even stronger
Though the 2020 road racing season just recently ended, riders are already preparing for next year’s racing. The stress and frenzy of competition, compounded in a pandemic year, may be on standby, but athletes can’t quite hibernate. According to Trek-Segafredo head of performance Josu Larrazabal, “recovery” isn’t as simple as laying up on a couch.
“In this period of the year, training loads are reduced to the minimum, but every step needs to be carefully monitored,” Larrazabal says. “Athletes have to start the new season only when fully recovered from the previous one, otherwise the performance capacity could be reduced and the risk of injury increased.”
After a full season of intense competition, riders go through a de-training process every year. According to Larrazabal, this phase lasts an average of four weeks, and the goal is to remove the stress inflicted on riders’ bodies from so much time in the saddle. As a consequence of de-training, riders get weaker, typically reducing their maximal aerobic capacity by 14 percent, maximal muscular strength by 10 percent and maximal power generation by 14-17 percent.
2020 has been an arduous challenge for the riders, who suffered additional stress to that of the competition ... Now, with TDU cancelled, we will be able to absorb that month of delay without any problem.
- Josu Larrazabal, Trek-Segafredo head of performance
De-training is a necessary side effect of what Larrazabal calls “active recovery.” It’s a delicate process that, like many things, could have been difficult to calibrate after an extraordinary pandemic-affected 2020 season. Not only was the race calendar turned upside down, but training and preparation schedules as well. Coaches had no choice but to change up their planning to fit the global circumstance, but thankfully the upcoming offseason should feel relatively normal. The cancelation of the 2021 Tour Down Under, typically held in January as the first event on the UCI WorldTour calendar, will help riders get back to familiar routines.
“2020 has been an arduous challenge for the riders, who suffered additional stress to that of the competition,” Larrazabal says. “Having to start racing again in January would have been very challenging, and some riders would have a shortened off-season. Now, with TDU cancelled, we will be able to absorb that month of delay without any problem.”
Every de-training phase is different depending on the athlete. Some are better at relaxing than others. Larrazabal encourages Trek-Segafredo riders to take vacations and spend time with friends and family, but many of them still gravitate towards their bikes to blow off steam, even when trainers insist they keep them parked.
Conversely, Larrazabal warns, too little physical activity can be detrimental too, especially during the first week of the offseason.
“It should be taken into account that a sudden stop of training could create some symptoms for some riders, the so-called ‘exercise dependency syndrome,'” Larrazabal says. “It is a sort of abstinence that can happen to highly-trained sportsmen when they have to face an imposed stop, even sudden as in the case of an injury. The signs are insomnia, anxiety, loss of appetite or demotivation.
“The most experienced athletes know themselves and act accordingly; the younger ones need the support of the coaches to find the right balance.”
We ask the riders to avoid physical activity and simply spend time doing what makes them happy and relaxed. And if for someone this means riding a bike, for this period they have to avoid it.
Once each athlete’s offseason parameters have been put in place, their “work” enters full swing. For both men and women, the routine is no different: After progressively reducing activity throughout the first week of the offseason, the second week is dedicated to doing absolutely nothing — or as the Italians call it, dolce far niente.
“It is the real rest,” Larrazabal says. “We ask the riders to avoid physical activity and simply spend time doing what makes them happy and relaxed. And if for someone this means riding a bike, for this period they have to avoid it. They absolutely need to decompress the body after thousands of kilometers in a compressed position in the saddle and keeping their minds stressed.”
Riders are monitored from afar by a metric called Chronic Training Load, or CTL, which is calculated, roughly, as the average stress of every ride over a 42-day period. Larrazabal explains that riders should maintain 40-50 percent of “peak” condition during the offseason. So if a men’s rider reaches 150-180 points of CTL during a Grand Tour, and a women’s rider reaches 130-140 points, they should aim for 70-80 points and 50-60 points during the offseason, respectively.
The athletes return to physical activity around the third week of recovery, but they still don’t touch their bikes. Their goal, instead, is to work on all the muscles that were dormant during a long season, and improve motion and flexibility. Larrazabal encourages low-volume, reduced intensity cross training during the third week, which means activities like gymnastics, circuit training, hiking, swimming, running and roller skating.
Then in the fourth week, riders can add their Émondas and Madones back into their routines, though still at a light level, often as a part of circuit training along with some functional core exercises. And if need be, riders are told to visit with osteopaths and physiotherapists to work on any lingering muscle imbalance or mobility issues.
After roughly four weeks, riders should be able to resume a regular training regimen. However, to determine whether an athlete is truly prepared for in-season training requires more than statistical benchmarks.
The rest of the evaluation comes from the athlete's feeling and the coach's ability to understand it. There are no tests, but observation and knowledge.
“The CTL and other physical values give us a numerical indication of the offseason period, but the rest of the evaluation comes from the athlete’s feeling and the coach’s ability to understand it,” Larrazabal says. “There are no tests, but observation and knowledge. Perceiving the physiological details and psychological nuances allow us to understand if an athlete is recovered and ready to start again.”
Trek-Segafredo’s offseason program may seem rigid, but that’s only because recovery is so vitally important for both team success and athletes’ health and wellbeing. Even if a rider follows every step perfectly, they shouldn’t assume they’re ready to go full force into the new year without consulting with the experts around them.
“As a performance team, together with the team directors, we have the faculty and responsibility to give a green light to the athlete to face a new training phase based on increasing workloads,” Larrazabal says. “Body and mind must be ready for this stress. If a rider needs more time to recover, this is the moment to act. Reducing the margin of error in assessment at this stage is critical for us.”