A winning formula: what REALLY makes performance?

There are some downsides to winning, not that anyone ever gets much sympathy about them. Perhaps the most frustrating is knowing that whatever you did this time in terms of preparation is no more than a starting point for how you prepare next time. You might have delivered the performance of your career, but you still need to start again next time. Even worse, you’ll almost certainly have to do it differently next time too.

The first problem, and possibly the least obvious, is that you can’t rely on the same training twice. A few years ago a friend of mine had his funding cut by his national governing body, including the funding for his personal coach. When he protested about this, the reply was “Well, he coached you all of last year and you had the best season you’ve ever had. Just do all that again, day by day.”

In this case it was especially absurd, because the previous season he’d started by having to recover from an injury that he’d acquired by crashing into a cow on a foggy training ride, something he’d avoided in year two. But even if you didn’t have that sort of thing to contend with, a bigger issue is that any training reduces in effectiveness as you repeat it.

Most athletes are pretty familiar with the way training shifts through the year. The traditional approach was invariably to start with an endurance base over the winter, moving onto shorter harder efforts as the racing season started and progressed. The simplest way to time the transition is just to wait till the stimulus from the long rides began to fade, and the gains start to tail off. That was the moment for something new.

More recently there have been many athletes who’ve had success with “reverse-periodisation” – the simplest version of which just reverses the elements. You do the short, hard stuff first, and the long stuff second. Or some long stuff, some short stuff, some long stuff again… . The natural tendency is to repeat the pattern on an annual basis, while trying to cope with curveballs like illness, injury, or the dates of target events shifting.

But sticking to an annual cycle isn’t necessarily a great idea. If you’re an Olympic-focussed athlete, it’s not hard to work on a four-year pattern, although it’s a luxury really only available to someone who’s very confident of keeping their place on the team during the seasons where their focus isn’t on short-term results. But if you can, it means you can take a long view with a recovery year, then three years to work towards a single target.

What’s more of a leap is seeing that even if your targets come around every year, you’ll get better results, even in the shorter-term, by changing what you do from season to season. A year’s training will diminish in effectiveness if you repeat it over and over, just the same as a day or a week or a month’s training does. You need to press new physiological buttons to keep making progress.

A factor you can’t untangle from this is that the athlete changes. You’re never the same bike rider at the start of one year as you were at the start of the previous one. Riders carry their training history with them. The most clear-cut example is the “retirement” season, where a rider has spectacular form the year after they retire, despite having stopped any sort of structured training. (One or two riders have had the nerve to take advantage of this by backing right off the training for their final year.)

The same trend means that a rider who’s been training for six or seven seasons is very different from who they were after one or two. So it’s likely that the optimum programme is also going to be different. And that’s before we get onto the issue of the changes age itself brings, in terms of increased efficiency and reduced recovery.

The other reason you’d change training, and probably change it even more dramatically, would be if the racing targets changed. There have been several time trial specialists in recent years who’ve branched out, switching their focus to the Classics or to transitional stages in Grand Tours, like hour record holder Victor Campanaerts.

He built on several years that were tightly-based on aerobic power and the core strength to deliver it in a very aerodynamic position. He put a new emphasis on higher peak power numbers for attacking and on the ability to sustain high three or four minute power (like a pursuiter) for a few minutes to make an attack stick.

Sometimes the changes of direction are bigger. Bradly Wiggins transitioned from Tour de France winner to Olympic Champion team pursuiter in four years. He was more than 10kg heavier when he reached the Rio Olympics than he’d been three years previously at his last Grand Tour outing. While putting on 10kg is a dream scenario for many racing cyclists, and one or two of them manage to achieve it in the off-season, putting weight on productively is a lot harder.

For Wiggins, it was achieved with a big increase in gym work, and a commensurate reduction in on-bike volume and altitude training. Aerobic power-to-weight for long climbs was no longer a focus. Instead he had to put more emphasis on the anaerobic and on absolute power across relatively short durations, and on building muscle to hit those big numbers, since on the track bodyweight is much less critical than on the road. It was like a more dramatic version of what riders like Campenaerts have tried to do.

While different training was never going to turn him into a track sprinter, it produced a dramatically changed athlete. He was probably a better team pursuit rider in Rio in 2016 than he had been earlier in his career, in Beijing 2008.

He planned to go on to change training again and go to a subsequent Olympics as a rower – something that didn’t happen despite a lot of publicity about it. While Wiggins’s height and aerobic capacity were two of the building blocks any rowing coach would go looking for, switching from cycling to the more technique-heavy sport of rowing was altogether too much to ask of a change of training, at least in the space of four years.

Other than the physical effects, changing training does also provides a bit of relief mentally. It’s hard to do the same sessions over and over, year in year out. You don’t have to train very seriously for long before you realise that more often than not you do a session best on the first or second attempt. After that you often don’t manage to commit in quite the same way – you know where the hard bits are and you’re a bit too ready for them. If you can get the same stimulus a different way, it’s an easy way to maintain the training load.