Q&A on Training Zones, Cyclocross, Weekly Planning, and Beer, with Alec Donahue

Coach Alec Donahue of Cycle-Smart helps us answer questions about training zones, cyclocross, weekly planning, and alcohol.

Cyclocross racing

With the help of Alec Donahue, the senior coach at Cycle-Smart who has worked with some of the best American cyclocross racers, including Jeremy Powers, Stephen Hyde, and Ellen Noble, we dive into questions on training zones and whether we’re being duped by them; beer and bike culture and its effect on recovery and performance; effective methods for transitioning to cyclocross season; ‘cross skills; and weekly planning for time-crunched athletes.

Duped by zones?

This question comes from Brian Adkins. He writes:

“Given that there are three primary energy systems— 1) ATP-PC, for very short efforts; 2) anaerobic glycolysis; and 3) aerobic—and that we now know that all three are typically being utilized, just in varying proportions, I’m wondering if we (cyclists) have been underserved with this seven-zone Coggan model of:

  1. Active Recovery
  2. Endurance
  3. Tempo
  4. Lactate Threshold
  5. VO2max
  6. Anaerobic Capacity
  7. Neuromuscular

It seems to me that Neuromuscular makes sense as a proxy for “ATP-PC” but it seems that as we progress from zone 1 through zone 6, we’re just increasing the proportion of anaerobic glycolysis in more of a “fader” manner as opposed to a “light switch” manner.

The polarized training idea resonates well with me, and I enjoy that type of training. So I’m trying to think through the ramifications of various interval durations for power that are above threshold. The distinction between zones 5 & 6 seems a little silly—aren’t both emphasizing anaerobic glycolysis quite a bit, with more emphasis from higher wattage?

Are the actual adaptations resulting from a 4×8-min @ 108% FTP really that different from a 3x4x1.5-min @ 125% FTP? I haven’t found much science on it.

It seems reasonable that central adaptations may relate to durations of a certain heart rate (e.g. 8-minute intervals averaging 90% HRmax seem important from Seiler), but what about the muscular adaptations, and how they vary in these higher zones?”

Beers and bikes

This question comes from Eric in Somerville, Mass. He writes:

“Given the ‘beer and bike’ culture, I would be very interested in knowing if there are any performance or recovery effects of alcohol use.”

Transition to cyclocross

This question comes from Colin in Colorado. He writes:

“I have been racing marathon MTB and 100-mile gravel races this year with large volume and significant work around Lactate Balance Point or Sweet Spot Training to create high CTL numbers—for me that’s around 95.

What strategies should I employ to transition summer fitness to cyclocross specificity? Should I continue high volume in a polarized fashion while the weather is nice while focusing on VO2max and anaerobic capacity work during intervals? Is there value in still hitting SST or FTP in my lead up?”

Cyclocross skills training

This question comes from Megan in Westport, Ireland. She writes:

“I have heard Katie Compton discuss how she trains certain ‘cross skills by repeating the same skill over and over again, at a faster and faster pace, until she is ultimately going faster than race pace.

Is this a sound approach for amateurs? What other pro tips do you have for mastering ‘cross skills, particularly ones that involve quickness at race speeds?”

Mapping out a week

This question comes from Robert. He writes:

“I typically have 10 hours/week to train. I try to spend 1-2 of those hours doing some strength routine work for maintenance. I tend towards a ‘polarized’ model. I’ve been riding regularly for eight years so there’s not a lot of ‘unknowns’ in my overall capabilities.

Like a lot of people, I am time crunched, especially when it comes to getting in a ride/workout of longer than 1.5 hours. That said, I can probably get 2-3 hours of training in a day a couple of times a week if I workout before and after work.

So, within a week I try to get in the following:

  • 2 hours maintenance/weights
  • 6 hours Seiler Z1 <75% max HR
  • 2 hours Seiler Z3 (let’s say 4 or 5 x 8-min per hour) Within this kind of time frame
  • 1 day off a week
  • 1 day 3 hours (2/day)
  • 2 days 2 hours (2/day)
  • 3 days 1 hour

What’s the best way to plan this for maximal adaptive response? And how do two-a-days affect adaptive response with different kinds of stimuli?”

Episode Transcript

Intro  00:12

Hey everyone, welcome to another episode of Fast Talk, I’m your host Chris Case, and this is your source for the science of endurance performance.


Chris Case  00:20

Today’s guest coach is Alec Donohue, welcome to the program, Alec.


Alec Donohue  00:25

Thank you very much.


Introduction Q&A With Alec Donohue

Chris Case  00:27

Correct me if I’m wrong, but you are a longtime coach, you specialized in cyclocross, you’ve coached some prominent names, Jeremy Powers, Stephen Hyde, Ellen Noble, probably the list goes on. Do I have that right?


Alec Donohue  00:40

Correct, yes.


Chris Case  00:42

As a coach, I know you’ve been working as a coach, as a race promoter, like many things but give us a sense of your coaching philosophy and methodology if you would.


Coaching Philosophy and Methodology

Alec Donohue  00:54

So, I am a biologist, it’s what I went to school for undergrad, but so what I start to find is that the deeper I got into kind of lab research, there was a big disconnect to actual human performance, so I was always picking out the people who were smart enough to wade through all of the pertinent literature but knew what was minutia that was not applicable to actual high performance.


Trevor Connor  01:29

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Are We Being Duped by Zones?

Chris Case  02:22

Alright, this first question comes from Brian Adkins. He writes, “given that there are three primary energy systems, one being the ATP-PC system for very short efforts, two being that anaerobic glycolysis, and three being the aerobic system.” He continues, “now we know that all three are typically being utilized just in varying proportions. I’m wondering if we, cyclists, have been underserved with this seven zone Coggan model, which has seven zones. I’ll read them to you, one, active recovery, two, endurance, three, tempo, four, lactate threshold, five, VO2 max, six, anaerobic capacity, seven, neuromuscular. It seems to be that neuromuscular makes sense as a proxy for that ATP-PC system, but it seems that as we progress from zone one through zone six, we’re just increasing the proportion of anaerobic glycolysis in more of a fader-manner, as opposed to a light-switch manner, meaning off-on. The polarized training idea resonates well with me, and I enjoy that type of training, so I’m trying to think through the ramifications of various interval durations for power that are above threshold. The distinction between zones five and six seems a little silly, aren’t both emphasizing anaerobic glycolysis quite a bit with more emphasis from higher wattage? Are the added actual adaptations resulting from a 4×8 minute at 108% of FTP really that different from a three or four, or even 1.5-minute at 125% of FTP? I haven’t found much science on it.” He finally says, “it seems reasonable that central adaptations may relate to durations of a certain heart rate, for example, eight-minute intervals averaging 90% heart rate max seem important from Seiler, but what about the muscular adaptations and how they vary in these higher zones? So, a lot to unpack there, and a long question, hopefully, listeners out there are familiar with Coggan’s seven zones, but if they’re not there are lots of zone systems out there, we’ve discussed zone systems on the program before. Alec, I’ll start with you. How would you initially respond here to Brian? Are we being duped somewhat by zones, or do you have a different take on things?


Alec Donohue  04:53

We are being duped by zones, but they are very workable, so I think the whole thing with coaching and training is we have to have a somewhat common language to try to achieve roughly the same thing. So, it’s like they work, but why they’re working and like how you apply, even like zone two that’s a big zone, and like, if you’re doing 45- minutes or six hours, like, you can totally mess up a workout in zone two, by like, using the wrong end based on the duration you’re doing, and every zone has a bucket load of caveats that you need to take into account when you’re applying them. Like your carbohydrate status, the temperature, there’s so many things, there’s a lot of, you know, things that will be conditional with each effort. So, there are no partitions, that part of the question is like, clearly, there are no partitions and like, the fader kind of concept makes more sense. I think most people are on that page where we are not binary on and off, the systems are being used at different proportions as you go harder.


Chris Case  06:03

Ryan, I know you had some thoughts here. What do you think? What’s your take on this?


Ryan Kohler  06:08

The fader sort of insight that Brian had really resonated, because even here in the lab, when I’m testing people, there are a number of athletes that come in thinking it is this on-off switch, so it’s a good opportunity to get them to understand that there is this progressive change, and yeah, because of that I focus very heavily on those three main zones that would fall with within the Dr. Seiler kind of methodology there, but then also just explaining how those other zones fall within that structure. It seems like that’s very understandable for people once they know it’s not this on-off switch, and then when we talk about more ranges in there, more zones, then I look at those as helping to inform you know, more of what’s the purpose of the workout? What should the feel be? Thinking more about that specificity for your events or different races.


Trevor Connor  07:09

I received this question, and I wrote a really lengthy answer to it, and I’m still not sure I unpacked everything in the question. There’s a lot here and a lot of good stuff. So, I’ll touch on a couple of the points. One, we talked about this in a previous episode, not all that long ago about how we’re always talking about training energy systems, and you’ll hear other coaches use that, you’ll hear physiologist use that, it is a bit of a misnomer, he is right, there are really three ways in which our bodies can produce energy. So, if we were literally just trying to train energy systems, it’s actually not that complicated. When we talk about training energy systems, we’re talking about a lot more than that, and I’ve thought at some time, should we be talking about training energy systems, or maybe use a term like homeostatic systems? Because really what happens when you are racing, when you’re going hard when you’re doing a threshold effort, whatever sort of effort you’re doing, all your body’s trying to do is maintain homeostasis, and the definition for me of fatigue is the point when your body can no longer maintain homeostasis. There’s a whole lot of ways in which you can lose homeostasis, and those are all the different things that we’re trying to train. So, we’re talking about lactate clearance, pH homeostasis, muscular calcium homeostasis, cardiovascular drift, I could give you a list of 50 different things, and we just use this term energy system as shorthand to describe all these things. I did feel I needed to address that with this question, because we might have given some people the wrong impression that we’re literally when we’re talking about training energy systems, just talking about these three things, and that’s not the case. Loved what both of you just said about this, because I fully agree, I don’t use the term zones, I use ranges because I hate that notion of, well, when you go from zone four to zone five, even though you’ve only increased five watts, you’re now training in completely different systems, just not the case, we’re not that precise. I agree, there are some ways in which zones are duping us, but I do think there is a lot behind it, and the most important to me is really seeing how effective training is being done, and finding those when you’re doing this type of work to target these sorts of systems, here’s about the range that you’re going to work in or zone you’re going to work in. I don’t try to get too caught up in what’s the names of those different ranges or zones.


Alec Donohue  09:50

I’m getting more away from threshold determining zones because it’s kind of just not the way bodies really work. So, like every zone pivoting off threshold is not really working for me, and it’s a way I’ve felt for a while but I’m learning more and more why that kind of is backed up by the differences in people’s physiology. You don’t need to get into the weeds that deep with them quite yet, as you know, the teachers of this stuff, it’s like, I want to let people know what’s critical to make their training better, but I think throwing new stuff at people every year is just so confusing, I don’t want to get in like that kind of scientific battle that like, the poor athletes are stuck like, “You said this two years ago, and now you’re saying this.” I’m like, this other person is saying this like the information war is so hard for athletes, but yeah, I’m using less terminology that focuses on five-minute based on X percent of threshold.


Trevor Connor  10:52

I agree 100% with you. I think some of that’s just because we didn’t have the tools 20 years ago that we have now. The one thing that we really could measure was threshold, so they had to come up with approximates based on percentage threshold, but there’s no reason to do that anymore.


Alec Donohue  11:08



The Physiological Event That Differentiates Zone Five and Zone Six

Trevor Connor  11:09

I think I’m saying the same thing as you, and I agree 100% that I do like it when the ranges or zones are based on physiological points. It’s one of the reasons I really like Dr. Seiler’s three-zone model because, in each zone, there is an actual metabolic event that occurs at the breaking point of each zone. So, on his own models, when you transition from zone one to zone two, that’s when you start to see lactate kick up on a lactate curve, that anaerobic threshold, MLSS, whatever term you want to use for it, differentiates his zone two and zone three, and there is a definite change in our physiology at that point. I found the question really interesting, because, in the question, he says, “This distinction between zone five and six seems a little silly aren’t both emphasizing anaerobic glycolysis quite a bit?” So, zone five is VO2 max, zone six is anaerobic capacity in Coggan’s model, but there is actually a physiological event there, once you hit your VO2 max, if you go above that, that’s the point where heart rate and oxygen consumption can no longer keep up with the work. So, there actually is a physiological event that differentiates zone five and zone six.


Alec Donohue  12:27

And for zone five, I use up to 40% over threshold, and so I think there’s a very big difference between that 8% or 25% is pretty minimal, but if you’re looking at 8% versus 45% over threshold, that is noticeably different, and like the rate of lactate production and kind of you know, focusing more on buffering combustion and shuttling capacity is stuff that has very important applications in certain events, but completely unusable and other events. So, I think there is a lot of nuances in that five-to-six range, but it’s not always applicable for every athlete.


Trevor Connor  13:15

Agreed. The one thing I do agree with fully here is whether you’re in zone five, or zone six, you’re not going to be going for very long, and it’s going to really hurt.


Alec Donohue  13:23



Trevor Connor  13:24

One last thing I want to bring up about this and this was the focus of my answer, this is where I do think you’re getting duped, if you take this approach is to think, well, I want to train a particular energy system, so what zone do I need to be in? Pick that zone, and that’s all you focus on? That’s a mistake. So, when you are designing your work, there are a lot of other factors, what’s the duration? What’s the rest length? What are your repetitions? What cadence are you doing? Are you on the climb or the flats? There are all these other factors that play in that ultimately help you target a particular energy system, and if you aren’t considering all those other factors and just focusing on the zone, no, you’re gonna get off track.


Performance and Recovery Effects of Alcohol Use

Chris Case  14:12

Well, let’s turn our attention to perhaps a bit lighter subject. This question comes from Eric, he’s in Somerville, Mass. He writes, “given the beer and bike culture, I would be very interested in knowing if there are any performance or recovery effects of alcohol use?” Is this a question worth answering? Alec, what are your thoughts here?


Alec Donohue  14:39

Dosage is key in this.


Chris Case  14:42

Yes, dosage. Explained dosage when it comes to a beer.


Alec Donohue  14:45

Well, I feel like if someone’s having a beer or a couple of beers, you know, one or two nights a week, there’s no real downside to that if that is something that brings them together with friends or they really enjoy things. We don’t need to be into the business of deprivation, and so I think we’re responsible consumption of pretty much anything that you want to eat, or drink is reasonable and is not going to ruin your season. So, you know, I don’t think beer is helping anybody recover, although, I’ve had athletes that like, weren’t amped to do programs that didn’t include a little bit of reasonable consumption. So, I think it’s just something where it’s like, it can add a lot of psychological stress, if we’re like, depriving people of things unnecessarily. So, I think it kind of doesn’t really matter in my mind, but, you know, when people that drink a little bit more, when they cut back, I often see five-to-eight pounds come off that athlete, and the recovery does get better. So, experientially, that’s what I have seen, but I think, you know, the occasional beer is like, not bad at all, and it’s good to have friends.


Chris Case  16:07

This is very true. No, I like how you took what could be dismissed as a pretty silly question and turned it into very thoughtful answers. Trevor, Ryan, do you have other opinions here?


Ryan Kohler  16:19

Ask the cyclists that doesn’t drink beer or coffee, like the one person? Yeah, right, I mean, I agree with Alec. I think that social benefit is really the key consideration there. I’m mostly mountain biking, I feel like beer is a pretty big component of the post-mountain bike rides or races. So, and yeah, I think it all comes back to that, keep it low to moderate and you’re probably fine, it’s not something I encourage or try to dissuade people from unless they’re maybe getting a little too wild after the race, but yeah, moderation, that’s what I always fall back to with this one.


Alec Donohue  17:04

I think the other thing to watch out for is that within three hours of bedtime, it really tends to interrupt sleep. So, you don’t want to have beer right before bed. So, we do see that with HRV, and people’s experience with sleeping is like you tend to fall asleep quickly, but the quality of sleep is noticeably diminished. So, giving yourself a little bit of time to kind of metabolize the alcohol and get back into a normal rhythm, it’s good to give yourself that window before bed.


Trevor Connor  17:40

I was shocked when I got a WHOOP Strap, so I rarely drink, I have maybe four beers a year, but when I got a WHOOP Strap and had my first beer after getting the WHOOP Strap and saw my sleep the next night, it was extraordinary the difference, like there was no deep sleep, it was all light sleeper or awake. I’ve heard other people say the same sort of thing that drinking a little bit can just absolutely tank your recovery score, not that I’m saying focus on the recovery score, but it was quite shocking to see the graph of how different my sleep was even just after one beer.


Ryan Kohler  18:25

Hey, I’m Ryan Kohler, head coach, and physiologist at Fast Talk Laboratories.


Trevor Connor  18:30

I’m Trevor Connor, CEO of Fast Talk Labs, between the two of us Ryan and I have over 40 years of coaching and clinical experience, from juniors to masters, national-level athletes to club riders.


Ryan Kohler  18:41

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Trevor Connor  18:51

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Ryan Kohler  19:01

Schedule a free console, we’ll discuss your background and recommend a path forward.


Trevor Connor  19:05

Book a coaching help session, we will help you push your thinking to find new opportunities. We can troubleshoot challenges and find solutions. Even if you’re working with a coach, we can help support you and your coach by bringing a neutral, science-based perspective to your training.


Ryan Kohler  19:20

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Trevor Connor  19:30

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Ryan Kohler  19:36

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Chris Case  19:57

Let’s turn our attention a bit to cyclocross, what I would say is Alec’s specialty, maybe he would disagree, but I know he has a love for it, and it’s that time of year when people are transitioning to cyclocross, maybe they’ve been racing on the road or the mountain and they want to transition into cyclocross, or maybe they don’t race except for cyclocross. So, we’ll touch upon all of that. We have a specific question here, it comes from Collin, he’s in Colorado. He writes, “I’ve been racing marathon mountain bike and 100-mile gravel races this year with large volume and significant work around LBP, or lactate balance point, and SST, or sweet spot training, to create high CTL numbers, for me, that’s around 95. What strategies should I employ to transition summer fitness to cyclocross specificity? Should I continue high volume in a polarized fashion while the weather is nice while focusing on VO2 Max and anaerobic capacity work during intervals? Is there value in still hitting SST or FTP in my lead-up? Alec, we’ll start with you.


Strategies To Employ To Transition Summer Fitness to Cyclocross Specificity

Alec Donohue  21:12

This is where I might lose some friends, but I am not a very big believer in SST, especially for cross. It tends to really mute people’s glycolytic capacity, and you get very good at doing steady work, which you will never encounter in cyclocross, really. So, dropping your CTL, which is another place where I could digress for a long time, which I’m not a big CTL believer, tends to lead athletes down the wrong path as far as valuing recovery. So, I think with an athlete like this, which I have plenty of, we really have to focus on, you do maintenance zone two, but we really need to get glycolytic capacity much, much higher, and so focusing on those kinds of short, hard efforts, things like 40/20s, VO2, yes, but with this person needing such a big VLA shift it’s like, they really need to stay away from things that suppress VLA and focus on high carbohydrate diet and very high glycolytic flux rate efforts.


Chris Case  22:25

Can you give an example of that?


High Carbohydrate Diet and High Glycolytic Flux Rate Efforts

Alec Donohue  22:27

That’s where just like riding a cross course, is really good, and it’s a cross course, where you want to have very polarized efforts where you can hit it, you know, hit the power very hard for probably five-to-twenty-seconds, and then between those efforts, you have technical sections or places where you can coast. So, the opposite of steady-state work is what you want to look at, and so with somebody like this, we would want to test to see how low their VLA is and how hard we have to push this, and if someone is extremely low, I would do more stand-alone rested, short, hard efforts, but if someone’s pretty close, this is where you could push the high glycolytic rate efforts into a block, you know, a 10-minute block or even like 15-minute block, but then I think once you start to do that longer intermittent block, you’re going to get less of an extreme movement in your VLA. I think making sure that they pull back on hard steady-state efforts is one of the major points because you’re trying to not reinforce where you’re stuck.


Trevor Connor  23:47

I couldn’t agree more with everything you’re saying. In terms of the efforts, yeah, I think sweet spots are not going to help you at all for cross. If any of our listeners, if you’re a road cyclist getting into cross and trying to figure out how to do the training, I would say the closest thing in road cycling to the fitness you need for cyclocross would be a crit. So, it’s that going through corners, going through technical parts, and then coming out hard, it’s a lot of hard efforts and points where you’re not pedaling at all. There are some racers who just try to get out solo, and then it’s more like a time trial, but again, you’re not sweet spot, this is a sub-hour race for most people, you’re going to be at threshold or higher. So, you want that high intensity, and I love that you said don’t focus on the CTL, the other thing to remember is in cross because of the types of efforts and because you’re getting off of your bike and doing a lot of running if you are training right, and especially if you did a road season, you’re now going into cross, your CTL is going to tank because remember CTL is based on training stress score from each ride, and you’re not going to get an accurate training stress score for your cross races because you’re killing yourself and you’re running but you’re not accumulating any TSS according to your bike computer.



Ryan Kohler  25:02

So, yeah, where he’s talking about doing sweet spot training to create high CTL numbers, that initially has me concerned with an athlete that already has that high focus. So, in terms of anything to add, I think strategies to employ to transition to cyclocross is mentally get yourself ready to see a drop in CTL. If that’s something you can’t handle, then that’s going to affect your season. Yeah, as Trevor and Alec said, the training and everything that you should be doing on the bike is spot on, the only other thing I can add is that mental piece to say, “Hey, can I handle seeing my CTL drop?”


Trevor Connor  25:45

Just to give you an example, so I have a cross athlete I’m coaching who does a road season as well, but he’s more a cross rider, in the spring during the road season we will get his CTL up in the 115-120 range. During the cross season, and we have him down around probably 70.


Chris Case  26:03

Alec, you sort of said you could talk for hours about CTL here, and we have been doing this recently, quite a bit, sort of picking on CTL, from your very extensive background working with cross athletes, is CTL even a thing for you?


Alec Donohue  26:25

It is not.


Chris Case  26:26

Tell us a little bit more.


Alec Donohue  26:28

There are too many external variables from like, was this ride on the second day? Were you depleted of carbohydrates? Was the temperature hot? Did you race three days before? None of those factors are reflected in CTL. So, when I have athletes trying to chase a certain number, they stop listening to their bodies. So, I love a lot of these smart devices coming out, but I need people to still think, and some of the best racers that I’ve still ever worked with were an older generation where people actually knew how to go hard on the courses at the right point, they used their brains more and weren’t, data-driven is good, but you can’t replace thinking with just looking at the numbers. So, CTL is kind of the thing that really exemplifies that for me, we can look to see how much have you been riding? Looking at like time and the zone is more interesting to me but focusing on keeping that number up is the number one way I see people are like, “I’m just gonna go a little bit harder today a little bit longer, I’m not going to take that day off because it’s going to hurt my CTL.” Once you get people to take those extra days off here and there, they bounce back from their low points so much faster, like once they lose that trap of chasing the number, they value recovery and listen to how their body is primed or not primed before training, which is more important than any kind of CTL number you’ll ever give yourself.


Chris Case  28:01

I bet that’s music to your ears, Trevor?


Trevor Connor  28:04

Yeah. I don’t know if you agree with this, but the other thing I’ll point out is, remember the cross season for most of us is a short season, maybe a couple of months, and you’re often racing every weekend, sometimes twice every weekend. So, certainly, when I take athletes into that part of the season, all we’re trying to do is get them ready every weekend to race and keep them on top of things. If you get fatigued and get behind, it’s very hard to recover, come back, and have a good season. Like road season, it’s so long, let’s say in the middle of May, an athlete is starting to get fatigued, “Okay, let’s take a couple of weeks off, and then we’ll rebuild, and get you back to racing.” You do that in the middle of cross and you’ve just missed half the season. So, I don’t care about CTL. during the cross season, it is all about just hopefully we come in with good enough fitness that we can just get through the race and get you a little stronger, and then it’s just every week, let’s make sure you’re ready for the weekend, and let’s make sure you never get behind on your recovery. Alec, how do you feel?


Alec Donohue  29:11

So, I think the concept of CTL has merit as far as like I need to know if people’s aerobic conditioning is still at a high level, which we lose that very quickly during cross, because if you’re racing twice on the weekend, and then kind of cooked on Monday and Tuesday, you aren’t doing very much training and that’s where I will lean more towards, we don’t want to race more than three weekends in a month. Many athletes don’t have the fitness bank account to race twice a weekend, three weekends in a row, they need to work on that zone two. So, like we do need to have a certain ratio of zone two to races, I think even in a three-month season. So, you do need to do accounting for that kind of chronic training load, but it doesn’t often show up in that number.


Chris Case  30:09

Excellent. Well, let’s continue with the cyclocross theme, but get into a bit more of the technical side of things. We have a question here that came in from Megan, she’s over in Westport, Ireland. She writes, “I’ve heard Katie Compton discuss how she trains a certain cross skill by repeating that same skill over and over again, at a faster and faster pace, until she is ultimately going faster than even, she would in a race or faster than race pace. Is this a sound approach for amateurs as well? What other pro tips do you have for mastering cross skills, particularly ones that involve quickness at race speeds? Alec, again, I’ll turn to you first since you have so much experience with the cross side of things.


Pro Tips for Mastering Cross Skills

Alec Donohue  30:55

So, I would say this is the only way to do it, kind of free riding and seeing new terrain all the time, you don’t workshop anything, you know, so Katie’s obviously the gold standard in cyclocross and a brilliant handler, like watching her race at Hartford Nationals when it was like icy frozen rotten like it looked like she was riding on a bike path, while everybody else’s bikes were exploding here and there, she’s such a brilliant technical rider, and I think this kind of training where if you have a small loop, you want to hit the same corner 50 times and like, try weighting the front end more, try weighting the rear end more, try with less pressure, try with a shorter stem, until you workshop all the variables in just a few conditions, you’re not really training your technical skills, you’re just kind of like free-riding and having fun. So, I think this method of having a training area where you’re hitting the same features over and over again and pushing the speed up as you learn how to get more performance out of your equipment, and your technique, that is the way to do it, obviously, Katie’s right.


Chris Case  32:12

That’s very interesting to hear, and not surprising whatsoever. Ryan, Trevor, do you guys have anything to add there?


Ryan Kohler  32:19

Yeah, one the repetition, just the volume is that crucial piece, but then I do like the progression from slower speeds to faster and just pulling from, you know, teaching skills on mostly a mountain bike and some on the road, one of the things that I see is that if there are movement deficits, we can usually identify them pretty easily at slow speeds, because as we go faster and faster, then we mask those. So, I do a lot with juniors on the mountain bike, and their tendency is to really just go fast and have fun riding their bikes, so I find myself always trying to slow them down, and it’s almost a bit like you know, the zone two or LSD type of riding that we do for training, where we just need to do a lot of volume at this slower speed and get comfortable with this because we can, we can identify movement deficiencies and really work on them at slow speeds, and then transition you up to those faster speeds.


Trevor Connor  33:19

The thing I’ll add, I fully agree with everything Alec was saying and Ryan was saying, skills are critical in cross, you can have a giant engine, if you don’t have the skills, you’re going nowhere. To give you my embarrassing example, when I was coaching the CSU cycling team on a bet, I agreed to enter a UCI cross race and had never raced cross before, and they had dropped me before I had crossed the start line. Then it was a very embarrassing 20-minutes before I put my tail between my legs and pulled out of the race. So, skills are critical.


Chris Case  33:59

I think you see that as a good option, a lot of areas we’ll have a group, practice race, Wednesday Worlds, Tuesday Worlds, whatever day of the week they decide to do it on and a group will get together and they’ll do sort of mock races, and there will often be some skills involved because they’ll set up a course at one park or another. The problem I think that people can run into there is those mock races are just that, and people will tend to try to race and focus less on the skills because they’re not repeating the same sections that often or they’re not, as Alec says, workshopping that and sort of picking it apart and really dialing it in a single element or section. They’re more focused on racing and so that would just be my caution is if you go out there, and you are not the most skilled rider, there’s probably less benefit for you on at least some weeks, taking a step back and saying, “I’m not going to try to race and win or beat more people than I did last week, I’m actually going to focus on the technical side of things.” You’re going to get the intensity, you’re going to get the technical aspects, but you’re not going to just go as fast as you can and kind of be sloppy and mask some of those errors because all you’re focused on is speed. So, that I see often at these training races.


Mental Quality of Technical Practice

Alec Donohue  35:41

Completely agree on that one. I don’t think people really learn during races, and I think that’s kind of why we have a very hard time going to Europe and trying to learn those skills during the race and it doesn’t happen, and so I think on every level, that’s what we see is you can’t process and assimilate new skills when you’re at full capacity. A training session where you’re with some people that can model the correct riding, and then you try to, you know, follow them, that with your heart rate down a bit lower is I think a very good place to start, or a critical place to start, you have to have a little section where you can just ride over and over again, where you take a breather, once you get tired. I think the other part I focus on a lot is your mental state, if you’re doing very good technical training, you probably have about 45-minutes of quality, you’re essentially in zone five with your brain for these sessions, and if you’re not really checking in with every neuron in your body, like you’re not seeing, like, what am I feeling through my hands? What am I feeling through my feet? What am I feeling through my saddle area? If you’re not processing all of that, it is not deep practice, and so deep practicing is many people do junk practice and kind of just go through the motions, and you’re not growing or learning, and so getting into deep practice for this stuff is critical, and very uncommon, unless you’re a good technical rider. So, I think the people that I see get stuck, they kind of go through the motions, but never get their brain fully engaged with what they’re doing and what they’re going to improve or try out for the next lab to see if it’s going to be better, and so I think the mental quality of the technical practice is the biggest driver for improvement that I see.


Chris Case  37:44

Yeah, I think it’s also worth noting that when Katie refers to these types of sessions, and she repeats them repeatedly at a faster and faster pace, she’s very much not talking about five repetitions, she’s talking probably closer to hundreds, it doesn’t slide up the scale that fast, we’re talking repeatability, repeatability, repetition, after repetition, and maybe over many sessions. If you’re not at Katie’s level already, we’re talking many sessions before you’re doing some of these things at race pace, or beyond race pace, so you can’t rush it. Then, as you said, Alec, getting into that deep practice, rather than the scratching the surface practice that a lot of people do, it is critical if you want to really hone these skills for every situation in a race setting. Let’s be honest, it’s also hard to duplicate the intensity of a race in a practice session out there, whether it’s skills or an interval session.


Mapping Out a Training Week

Chris Case  39:03

Let’s move on to another question, this one takes us out of cyclocross a bit into mapping out a week, comes from Robert. He writes, “I typically have 10 hours per week to train. I try to spend one to two of those hours doing some strength routine work for maintenance, I tend towards a polarized model. I’ve been writing regularly for eight years, so there’s not a lot of unknowns in my overall capabilities. Like a lot of people, I am time-crunched, especially when it comes to getting in a ride work out of longer than one and a half hours, that said I can probably get two to three hours of training in a day a couple of times a week if I work out before and after work. So, those be two-day sessions. So, within a week, I try to get in the following, two hours of maintenance and weights, six hours in Seiler’s zone one, two hours in Seiler’s zone three, one day off, one day totaling three hours in a two-a-day type scenario, and three days he’ll do one hour. What’s the best way to plan this for maximal adaptive response? How do two-a-days affect adaptive response with different kinds of stimuli? Again, a somewhat complicated scenario may be or typical scenario, I think this is probably a fairly common scenario. Is he doing things well? Does he have a good plan here? His final two questions, what’s the best way to plan for maximal adaptive response?


Alec Donohue  40:47

My first question for him is, how much is he sleeping? If you’re splitting up your workouts into two-a-days, if you’re sleeping enough and supporting it with adequate nutrition, they can have benefits, but usually, if you’re having to split this day up, you know, at this short duration, it means you’re very committed for the rest of your life. So, most likely napping would be better for that second part in an athlete like this. Age, sleep, and nutrition are aspects that I would need to thoughtfully answer this question, but I think in general, it looks solid.


Chris Case  41:32

Trevor, what do you have to say here?


Adaptive Response

Trevor Connor  41:34

I guess since we’re talking about the two-a-days right now, we did recently do an episode on that, and I did say I ate a little crow on that episode because I used to be very anti-two-a-days and I’m coming more on board. I do look at this, he has two days where he does two hours, and that’s divided between twice a day, so it’s one hour ride, I’m assuming in the morning and one in the afternoon, that’s the one part that I look at and go, not sure that’s benefiting you that much, because, A, lot of that’s going to be junk time. You also need to factor in, you got to get changed, you got to get on your bike, you got to get ready, I don’t know if he’s showering after each one, but it’s actually taken up a lot more time than if he could just get the two hours and at some point. So, if he could turn those into just a two-hour ride, once a day, I think that’s gonna be actually more time-efficient, and a more productive ride. I think back when I was training in Toronto, what I would do in that case, and this is actually what I do, I often try to get a two-hour ride in during the week, get up early or get on the bike by six o’clock get my two-hour ride in, just have to shower once, and then in that afternoon, where he would have been doing a second ride, I agree with Alex, take a nap to get some recovery.


Ryan Kohler  43:04

As Alec said, we would have a lot more questions that come up here in trying to find what works for this athlete would take, you know, some back and forth. The thing that stuck out to me was that this is broken up into the week, and I think it’s easy to just go within that week’s timeframe for these training blocks. So, one thing that comes to mind to add for me is, can we break this up into getting rid of the week microcycle essentially, and just think about days? Can we block out days differently for this athlete to get maybe a better overload, a bigger overload, and try to help that adaptation? Then to Alec’s point about sleep, I think we get a little bit stuck sometimes when we’re time-crunched, and me being a time-crunched athlete myself, I totally see where this is coming from, and it’s easy to go into that calendar week scenario, but if we can sometimes think about what do we need to get an overload? And can we do that over a certain number of days? Oh, if a recovery day ends up popping in on a weekend, well, that’s fine, maybe we can focus more on sleep and recovery and then not have to stress as much about sticking to this seven-day model.


Chris Case  44:30

So, what you’re suggesting is your life and work-life in particular might revolve around a seven-day calendar, but your training life could an eight, nine, ten, day cycle which could aid in creating the overload that you need to create these adaptations.


Ryan Kohler  44:54

I’ve been able to work with a number of firefighters over the years and I think their schedule is a great example, they have some kind of schedule of maybe three days on, three days off, four days on, four days off, and for us, that was really the eye-opening moment for me with coaching is working with them to say, “Well, we can’t stick to this, because if you have your regular Saturday group ride, well, there’s gonna be plenty of weeks where you miss it, but we need to adjust around that,” and now their seven day week is now broken up into maybe it seven, eight, nine, ten-day, quote, unquote, week.


Trevor Connor  45:27

I find that really interesting. This shows you Ryan and I often think a lot of like, because I’m looking at my response to the email that I wrote back, and I cautioned against trying to map out the perfect week and said, “Stop thinking in terms of weeks,” and recommended that he think in terms of two, three-day blocks. So, do two or three days where you build up a little bit of fatigue, and then have a day or two of recovery, and then do your next two, three-day block, and who cares if it starts on a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Saturday?


Chris Case  45:58

It’s often hard to answer questions like this when we don’t know everything about the athlete, but I think those were some great suggestions.


Chris Case  46:07

Alec, it’s been a pleasure to have you on Fast Talk this week. Thank you so much for joining us.


Alec Donohue  46:13

Thank you for having me.


Trevor Connor  46:15

Pleasure having you on the show. Thank you.


Alec Donohue  46:17

Thank you.


Chris Case  46:19

That was another episode of Fast Talk. Subscribe to Fast Talk wherever you prefer to find your favorite podcast and be sure to leave us a rating and review. The thoughts and opinions expressed on Fast Talk are those of the individual. As always, love your feedback, join the conversation at forums.fasttalklabs.com to discuss each episode. Become a member of Fast Talk Laboratories at fasttalklabs.com/join and become a part of our education and coaching community. for Alec Donohue, Trevor Connor, and Ryan Kohler, I’m Chris Case. Thanks for listening.