Training Camps for Time-Crunched Athletes

Just because you have limited time doesn’t mean you can’t create a training plan that involves an overload stimulus. We show you how.

Ryan Kohler training camp time-crunched athlete

As a time-crunched athlete, I know how difficult it can be to fit in training hours among the many other responsibilities in life. So, to be able to carve out time for a training camp involving 50 to 100 percent more time than the average week is a feat unto itself.

If you can manage the time, don’t assume you need to do epic rides day after day to get in a solid, quality block of training. Even calling it a training camp is probably not necessary.

Instead, it’s more appropriate to consider it an “overload week.” You’ll still reap many of the beneficial effects of a traditional training camp, and it will be less time intensive.

Let’s start with an overview of the underlying principles of an overload stimulus.

How and why to produce an overload

Why do we do these so-called training camps in the first place? The key is overload. During our normal weekly training, the goal is to stress the body in such a way that it adapts and makes us stronger and fitter.

In a training camp scenario, we have that same goal in mind, but we’re concentrating our workload into a very specific time frame. So, if we normally achieve 6-7 hours of training in a typical week (on average), in a training camp, the goal would be to accumulate 12-14 hours in a single week.

While the typical workload produces a certain level of adaptation, the overload allows us to concentrate workouts and accumulate volume to enhance that adaptation.

Keep in mind that when we concentrate the workload in a training camp scenario, we must also allow for as much recovery time. If our recovery is not long enough, the overload can produce too much fatigue and send us into non-functional overreach.

What an overload looks like

As an example of an overload week, I’ll detail a recent week of my training. Before that, let’s take one step back, for context.

Leading up to the overload week, my training included:

  • An average of 7 hours per week over the previous 12 weeks
  • An average weekly mileage just shy of 100 miles per week over that same time period
  • Most weeks I primarily rode indoors, and I also did some commutes by bike. I usually performed one HIIT workout per week, and did the occasional Zwift race here and there. My overall training distribution primarily reflected a “base” approach.

As I planned out my overload week, I set some goals. These included:

  • To increase my training load above and beyond (roughly 50 to 100 percent greater) what I accomplished in recent months. (For reference, my weekly load averaged 340 TSS before the camp.)
  • To accomplish as much riding as possible without negatively impacting family commitments. This is something that comes with experience, and there isn’t much science to it. You just have to feel out what is right given your time constraints and your family/work situation.
  • To come out of the overload week feeling fatigued and ready for some rest

What a successful camp looks like

If I hit all the above goals for this overload week, I would be able to dub it a success. Here’s what I accomplished:

  • My training volume increased to 14 hours for the week, doubling my preceding average.
  • My training load rose to 670 TSS, nearly doubling my peak load over the past 12 weeks.
  • My family was very supportive; the training didn’t negatively impact our activities.
  • I experienced several indicators that suggested overload occurred. For example, heart rate response was affected, the sensations of fatigue in the legs were greater as the week progressed, and I noticed a mood/motivation change on the final day.

Now, let’s take a closer look at the days of this particular week. (As a reminder, I’m training for Breck Epic, a six-day MTB stage race in Colorado.)

On day 1, I did a training ride with the junior MTB team I coach. We performed threshold intervals. This was a great way to start the overload week and put in some miles on the dirt, since many of my past rides took place on the road or trainer. We rode for about 30 miles in total.

Day 2 was a bike commute to and from work. I did both rides on my singlespeed MTB since I’m also preparing for a 50-kilometer MTB race in early May that I’ll do on the SS. So, while HR was relatively low for the commutes, torque production was the focus that day. The legs were starting to feel that combination of the backpack plus the training session from day 1.

On day 3, I started with a ride with Trevor and Chris. (We did some filming while riding up Sunshine Canyon, a beautiful climb that starts in downtown Boulder.) This is where my lack of specific training to date really showed.

We accumulated about 4,500 feet of elevation gain that morning and the legs were feeling it. The body was off, and physiologically this was the low performance day of the week. The power/HR relationship reflected this, as shown in the chart below. You can see a good bit of decoupling occurring from the first half to the second half of the climb. Fatigue was really increasing, and this ride pushed me.

Because the goal of this week was to achieve an overload, I rode on. It was an appropriate time to push through while fatigued. I focused on fueling and hydration to keep energy levels as high as possible, so although the legs didn’t have the power that day, I was still delivering nutrition to the body to accomplish the ride and continue preparing for upcoming rides.

Notice the decoupling differences between the first half and the second half of the climb. Fatigue was really increasing, and this ride pushed me.

Finally, that ride wasn’t the only one I had planned for the day. In the afternoon, I had another training ride with my junior MTB squad. We did some additional threshold efforts and put in another 30 miles on the dirt at a solid tempo. So, this was a little over five hours for the day. The legs were pretty cooked that evening.

Day 4 was a good one. The body put the painkillers to work after day 3. (The body responds to stress by releasing certain substances that help us to perform and keep pushing day after day. Cortisol, for example, helps by releasing energy and blocking some of those pain signals so we can keep pushing on. Endorphins also act to enhance our “feel good” sensations.) The legs felt spectacular to start. So, I decided to take the singlespeed out to play in the dirt for as long as possible. I managed 32 miles.

Aerobically, things felt really good. So good, in fact, that near the end of the ride I thought I had enough in me to give a pretty sizeable VO2max effort and go for some Strava segments. This is where the overload week was showing its effects. As you can see below, peak power was only 873 watts, and even 2-minute power was just 330 watts.

When I’m fresh, I’ll see 2-minute power over 500 watts and peak power north of 1,300 watts. So, this was an indicator that the top-end was compromised, and that the camp fatigue was very much present—as much as I might not have felt it thanks to the painkiller effect.

In this graph, the effects of the overload week are starting to show. Peak power was only 873 watts (down from a typical 1,300 watts), and even 2-minute power was just 330 watts (down from 500).

You’ll also see that HR, after four minutes of going hard, peaked at 166-167 beats. I was capped there. Normally I’ll reach the upper 170s after an effort like that in a fresh state, but with the previous days in the legs, this was the indicator I needed that: 1) I was going to pay for this the next day, and 2) the overload goal had been accomplished.

On the final day, I woke up with the motivation to ride, but every time I thought about taking an epic route into the mountains, the legs just said, “Nope, sorry guy, not today!” So, day 5 turned into a pastry ride. I decided to listen to the body and do a very easy spin around town, at a nice endurance effort, and finish at a great local bakery for some pastry.

You can see how light this ride was in the chart below (top), compared to previous rides that week (bottom):

These two charts give you an indication of how light my final ride was, relative to previous rides in this overload week.

Overload on a time budget

In the context of a time-crunched lifestyle, avoiding negatively impacting family time is a primary goal. In that sense, this overload week worked out perfectly. While I would have loved to do longer rides and get 4-6 hours in over 3-4 days to end up with a similar training load—and better approximate the durations that would be required for my N1 Challenge at the Breck Epic—that wasn’t a possibility.

So, instead, I needed to maximize the overload by spreading it out over five days, with most days being relatively short. To account for the training load, the intensity had to be increased across these relatively shorter days.

The training load was big, doubling my peak load over the past 12 weeks. Keep in mind, however, that it’s all relative. Your situation and circumstances will dictate what you’re able to do. If you have a lot of commitments and are unable to dedicate large weekly volumes, there are ways to build your season to gradually accommodate larger loads, strategically.

One key thing to avoid is training too hard too early in the season. Build flexibility into the plan to allow for the type of rides you choose, along with the intensity of the rides, to adjust as necessary to meet your needs.

For example, I was able to come out of this overload week feeling fatigued, looking forward to a recovery week, and not feeling like my soul was sucked out of my body. If that soul-sucking were to happen, there would be psychological pitfalls; for instance, I wouldn’t look forward to being on the bike, or I might notice a drastic change in mood. Both outcomes would have the potential to extend the recovery period or just make it harder to get back to normal training.

Other metrics to watch

During any training camp or overload week, I pay close attention to my heart rate lag as well as my power at a set heart rate.

Heart rate lag is the time it takes the HR to respond following an increase in power output. We know that HR doesn’t respond immediately to increased power, so there will always be some lag time. However, larger changes can highlight differences in our performance and our sympathetic/parasympathetic balance.

On day 3 of the overload week, HR lag went from its usual range of 30-45 seconds (when fresh) to 15 seconds on this difficult camp day. I was under more training stress by this time.

What could this indicate? It might be that sympathetic withdrawal did not occur to the same degree as it would have after a single session. Maybe I was also getting dehydrated and the heavy sweat rate on the climbing day was causing a very high and fast HR response to cover the exercise demands. Whatever the case, something was off on day 3 and it became very apparent with the physiological response during that ride.

Another thing to consider when analyzing an overload week is to use a specific heart rate (in my case, I chose 143 beats), as a marker of a given intensity, to then compare power response over time. For example, when I’m relatively fresh, and my heart rate is 143bpm, I will produce between 220-270 watts.

However, on day 3 of the camp, power output at 143bpm was 165 watts. This stood out because the power was dramatically lower. This type of decline indicated that something was going on and the body was not at a good fitness level for the day.

This response is typical in training camps. You’ll have certain days that feel good and other days that are a struggle. This type of scenario highlights one of those rough days where power is low, and the perception of effort is high compared to normal. The good news? You’ll climb out of days like these and have better ones. You just have to get through the tough ones.

The importance of listening to your body

Even with all the data that we can collect from training blocks like this, I am still a huge proponent of relating that data back to our perception of effort. So, when you are planning your training block or a training camp, think about your expectations and goals so you can go into it with good direction. Allow for some flexibility to suit your needs, especially if you’re time-crunched.

Finally, tune into your perception. Work on learning the cues that your body gives. Tie that into whatever data you collect and go through a similar process with your perceived effort: understand the sensations, assess what you’ve accomplished given the context of the week, and adjust accordingly to make plans for the next one.

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