The Minimal Fitness Hypothesis
Cycling training schedules are frequently built on the premise of peaking. The idea is that you choose one or more important races and try to time your “peak” fitness for these events. Right here, right now, I am calling rubbish on that idea. Actually, I’m calling rubbish on 95% of that idea. Hear me out.
I have cooked up what I call the “minimal fitness” hypothesis. It applies to cycling only and, I believe, holds true for a majority of racers. The premise has three parts:
- If you do not have the fitness to stay in a race (not get dropped), you do not reap the training benefits from that race.
- Racing is the greatest source of fitness gain during the racing season. The greatest gain comes at the end of most races, when the muscles are sufficiently fatigued.
- The first race is then a bifurcation point (if I may abuse the term) in the fitness phase plane. In English: if you cannot stay in the first race, you fall behind and will not be able to “peak” with respect to the pack.
The following plot will help me illustrate:
The dotted line shows the minimal fitness as a function of time. I define minimal fitness as the fitness needed to not get dropped by the pack. The last person to finish with the pack has the minimal fitness.
Theorem: As the season progresses, the minimal fitness of the pack increases. This is the cumulative effect of racing. Racing leads to training stress leads to fitness.
I’ve plotted three “fitness” trajectories of hypothetical riders in different colors. Let’s look at each:
- Blue: The blue rider is below the minimal fitness at the first race. Since he is unable to finish the race, he does not reap the training benefits the pack gets. For the rest of the season he swims against the current, always improving but unable to factor in a race. In nonlinear systems parlance, we would say he lives in a repulsive basin. Note that the rate at which the blue rider improves is largely inconsequential, since he starts too low to catch the pack.
- Green: The green rider has the minimal fitness at the start of the racing season. Sadly, he lives on an unstable trajectory. Suppose he misses a race, or recovers more slowly than his peers. He then falls off the fitness train and finds himself unable to catch up.
- Yellow: The yellow rider is above minimal fitness at the start of the season. Since he is able to finish races and be competitive, he remains above the minimal fitness. Barring mishaps, his trajectory is stable.
I hope it’s evident by now why I think peaking is a poor plan for most riders. There’s too much riding on the first race(s) and it’s really, really hard to simulate the training stress of a race while training. Everybody wants to peak for the big championship race. By putting off your training in order to peak, you risk entering the race calendar in the danger zone. The riders who get dropped early are doomed to repeat. It’s cycling’s very own version of the rich getting richer.
I’d like to point out that the minimal fitness hypothesis also explains why the better riders tend to be more consistent. It’s not that consistency leads to better results, but that maintaining a fitness level above minimum keeps good riders in the stable part of our manifold. If an elite rider misses a race or bumps a knee, their drop in fitness is not sufficient to push them below the dotted line. As a result, they stay in the races and are there to contest the sprint at mile 100.
I think the minimal fitness hypothesis is most applicable to less experienced racers. For the more experienced, Joe Friel discusses “racing into shape” in his well-known Training Bible. More experienced riders have a few tricks up the sleeve (and years of physiological adaptation) to hop on the fitness train after its left the station (everyone in cycling seems to know a 20+ year racer who is seldom seen training but always there at the end of a race). These are the 5% of riders for whom my idea is not so relevant.
If you race bikes, I’d love to hear your feedback on this idea.