Training Center: How to find late-season form

Extending your season is about maintaining form and preventing fatigue.

Photo: Casey B. Gibson

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For some of us, the end of the racing season is the best part of the year. Late-season events are a just reward for the many months of hard work and grinding intervals.

“I just feel more relaxed,” says two-time U.S. national time trial champion Joey Rosskopf (BMC Racing). “You know where your fitness is at. It might not be good, but at least you know.”

For others, though, the end of the year couldn’t come sooner. The excitement of early-season races is a distant memory, and so is the enthusiasm. Even if there is a reason to keep racing, tired legs make another month or two seem daunting.

Thankfully, reviving your form for one last push late in the season is not about trudging through more intervals. In fact, those intense workouts may be what led to a dip in form in the first place.

Successfully extending your season is, rather, about two things: adding a little more fun to your training and carefully managing fatigue, according to Houshang Amiri, head coach of the Pacific Cycling Centre and an expert coach at the UCI’s World Cycling Center. Our bodies simply can’t tolerate what they could in March, he says.

First, it’s helpful to understand that there are several forms of fatigue. Acute fatigue takes place after a hard training block or late night of partying. It’s easy to resolve. A more chronic form of fatigue can build over time and potentially lead to burnout. Finally, at the end of a race season, you are particularly susceptible to monotony and a loss of enthusiasm.

“Usually if you see those signs of fatigue, they come from unmotivated athletes,” Amiri says. “Keep the motivation level up and everything is going to work.”

Nowadays, there are several ways to monitor fatigue. Many forms of training software track the balance between training stress and recovery. Amiri has found these metrics to be surprisingly effective and easy for athletes to follow.

Beyond that, Amiri looks for a noticeable drop in 30-second all-out power (compared to an athlete’s data when fresh) for signs of neuromuscular fatigue. Similarly, a depressed heart rate — one that seems sluggish and doesn’t hit normal values while training — can indicate fatigue.

Resting heart rate and heart rate variability are also popular measures of fatigue. Recent research, however, is finding these indicators are not as definitive as we thought. A 2016 review of over-training measures in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found a low correlation with fatigue. The main finding of the review was that subjective measures — particularly mood disturbance, perceived stress, and perceived recovery — were better indicators than objective measures like heart rate, for both acute and chronic overtraining.

The question remains how to differentiate debilitating chronic fatigue from the beneficial acute form. The subjective symptoms of each type are very similar. New research suggests a drop in performance or power numbers in over-reached athletes may be the best indicator.

In a 2014 study published in Medicine & Science in Sports and Exercise, acutely fatigued athletes and over-reached, underperforming athletes performed a taper. The former group experienced a large peak in form after two weeks, indicating significant training adaptations had occurred after the taper. The over-reached group had minor improvements, which may have had less to do with adaptation and more with getting needed rest. At all points in the taper, the over-reached athletes performed worse than even control athletes.

Therefore, if your performance is waning at the end of the season, training harder may not be the solution. It may just dig you deeper into a hole.

Both Amiri and Rosskopf see the late season as a time to focus on maintaining form. According to Amiri, preserving 90 to 95 percent is fairly easy to do. A 2001 study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine showed just how little it takes. Trained cyclists reduced both their volume and intensity 50 percent for 21 days and experienced no decline in their sub-maximal and maximal performance.

Rosskopf emphasizes that a lot of people won’t recognize if they are tired in August, and will try to train harder. “But, you can only do yourself a benefit by riding easy,” he says. “I just coast it out. Usually I come really good again. I just let all the racing soak in.”

Finding late-season form

Monitoring fatigue, reducing training load, and having fun are the best ways to get a bit more out of the legs.

Test yourself
Research has found that questionnaires are quite effective at assessing subjective fatigue. Two validated scoring systems are the Profile of Moods State (POMS) and Recovery-Stress Questionnaire for Athletes (RESTQ). Free versions are available online. Taking either one weekly can help you track both chronic and acute fatigue.

The right rest
If you’re tired from the weekend race or a night out on the town, a couple nights of good sleep may be all you need, according to Rosskopf. If you’re fatigued from a long season of training and racing, however, then you need to stop digging a hole. Hard training is the reason you’re tired. A couple weeks of easy riding may be appropriate before continuing with your season.

Watch for a drop
Remember, by themselves subjective signs of fatigue don’t mean you’re over-reached. However, if you’re exhibiting them along with a drop in performance or neuromuscular power, you may need a bigger rest.

Plan ahead
There’s only so much you can do when reacting to end-of-season fatigue. The best way to address it, Amiri says, is to plan for it from the start. When you’re building your yearly training plan, incorporate a late-season active rest period of a week (or longer), followed by a rebuild period.

Regularly adjust
“Your yearly training plan is a live plan,” Amiri says. Even if your entire season is mapped out, you should constantly adjust workloads based on your fatigue state. This makes monitoring your objective and subjective measures of fatigue essential.

Build motivation
Performing well late in the season has a lot to do with overcoming monotony and staleness. “You usually don’t see athletes complaining about fatigue if they are motivated,” Amiri says. Setting and believing in goals, such as an end-of-season race or PR, is internally motivating.

Change it up
By August, few cyclists can even think about another set of Tabata intervals. Changing the routine is sometimes all you need. A new training environment can work wonders, according to Amiri. Try new roads or training partners.

Train with races
Races give you intensity without the monotony of intervals. Rosskopf enjoys them because he only needs to ride easy for an hour or two the rest of the week. “I feel like I’m benefiting my performance if I’m doing a coffee-shop ride every day that I’m not racing,” he says.

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.