Everyone gets better when they start riding a bike, but what happens after you’ve been at it for a while?  Why do some riders continue to improve while others plateau or burn out?

Is a lack of progress due to bad genes, or not working hard enough?  In this post we’ll take a closer look at the principles of progressive overload and minimum effective dose to help you make progress on the bike, no matter your training history or lack of genetic potential.

Reality is likely somewhere in the middle

It’s Your Genes

On one end of the spectrum, your potential for athletic performance is hard wired into your genetic code.  The 2013 book, The Sports Gene, details the fascinating search for genetic determinants of elite performance [1].  The book makes a compelling case that while hard work is essential to maximize your genetic potential, genes serve as the primary driver of athletic greatness.

If you find your genes to be lacking, staring at the gene end of the spectrum can sabotage any hope for progress while paving the way for excuses.  “I’m just not very good”.  “That guy is a natural born athlete”.  To what degree genes impact your potential is less important than owning the side of the spectrum you can control: Hard work through deliberate practice.

It’s Deliberate Practice

In his 2016 book, Peak,  researcher Anders Ericsson makes the case that human greatness is driven less by genes, and more by “deliberate practice” over months, years, and decades of training.  Here are several principles of deliberate practice as outlined in Ericsson’s book [2].  Deliberate practice:

  1. Follows skills and training techniques established by “expert performers”.
  2. Takes place outside one’s comfort zone.
  3. Pursues well-defined and specific goals, not “vague improvement”.
  4. Requires full attention and focused effort.
  5. Involves regular feedback and modifications to that feedback.

“I’ve worked really hard before”, you say.  “I’ve even utilized some of the principles of deliberate practice, I just don’t respond to training”.  I’m calling BS.

By following foundational principles of training anyone can get better, period.  In a recent study examining “non responders” to cycling exercise, researchers found they could eliminate “non-response” to training while driving improvements for every participant involved in their study [3].  The key to success?  Overload.

Progressive Overload

The overload principle states that if you want to improve, you’ll have to progressively ride more efficiently,  frequently, intensely, or for longer [4].  Our first order of business is to chose a target.

“Getting better on the bike” isn’t good enough.  We need to choose a specific progressive element to build into our workouts and track throughout our training.  Let’s check out some options below.

Start conservatively, progress slowly

Making Progress

Once you’ve settled on a training element, here’s how to make it work.

  1. Choose a starting point, preferably by testing your current level.  The best option is to choose an effort below where you think you should be.
  2. Keep it simple. Build one element into a progressive sequence of 2 workouts a week over 4-6 weeks.  Looking to improve your time in zone (TIZ) @ VO2max?  Add 2 minutes to your total TIZ each week to improve your maximal aerobic capacity.
  3. Assess your progress and modify your training accordingly.

Minimum Effective Dose (MED)

Work is killing you, your family life is as busy as ever, how do you insert any “progressive overload” into a life that’s already at full capacity?  Be more efficient.

When it comes to training on the bike, I subscribe to the idea that you should do the minimal amount of work that still produces a desired result.  Author Tim Ferriss outlined this approach in his 2010 book, The 4-Hour body, with this great analogy [5].

“To boil water, the minimum effective dose (MED) is 212 degrees Fahrenheit (100 degrees Celsius) at standard air pressure. Boiled is boiled. Higher temperatures will not make it “more boiled.” Higher temperatures just consume more resources that could be used for something else more productive.”

So how does the MED relate to progress on the bike?  For most of us, our biggest responsibilities are work and family.  If you’re going “all-out” in work and family life, going “all-out” on the bike is a recipe for burn-out and failure.

Learning how to train more efficiently by utilizing the MED is the key to long-term progress while maintaining career and family commitments.  No need to sit in the red every week of every month while training.  Identify the MED for different elements of your cycling performance and apply progressive overload to work toward your cycling goals.

Summary

  1. You can’t do anything about your genes.  Focus instead on developing training habits of “deliberate practice”
  2. “Non-responders” to training don’t exist.  If you want to get better on the bike, you can make it happen.
  3. Progressive overload is the core principle of progress on the bike.
  4. Choose a training element then:
    1. Start below the progression level you think you should be at.
    2. Build your element into a series of 2 workouts a week spanning 4-6 weeks.
    3. Assess your progress and modify as needed.
  5. Utilize the concept of Minimum Effective Does (MED).
  6. Identifying the MED is one of the best ways to ensure long-term progress on the bike while giving proper attention to your work and family life.

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Nate Dunn, M.S.
Data Driven Athlete
@ddacoaching

References

1. Epstein, D.J., The sports gene : inside the science of extraordinary athletic performance. 2013, New York: Current. xiv, 338 pages.
2. Ericsson, A. and R. Pool, Peak : secrets from the new science of expertise. 2016, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. xxiii, 307 sider.
3. Montero, D. and C. Lundby, Refuting the myth of non-response to exercise training: ‘non-responders’ do respond to higher dose of training. J Physiol, 2017. 595(11): p. 3377-3387.
4. McArdle, W.D., F.I. Katch, and V.L. Katch, Exercise physiology : nutrition, energy, and human performance. 7th ed. 2010, Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer/Lippincott Williams & Wilkins Health. p.
5. Ferriss, T., The 4-hour body : an uncommon guide to rapid fat-loss, incredible sex, and becoming superhuman. 2010, Crown Archetype,: New York. p. 1 online resource (xiii, 571 pages).

 

Written by Nate Dunn, M.S.

Nate’s entire career has been spent in education and coaching. As a former teacher and now Founder/Head Coach at Data Driven Athlete, he is most excited about helping clients discover more about themselves as they achieve their goals on the bike.