Stop Working Out and Practice Instead

Cartoon cyclists illustration riding uphill

Image: iStock,

Do you use a power meter or heart rate monitor for every cycling workouts? Do you know your training zones by heart? Do you regularly execute a threshold test set every 4-6 weeks throughout the year as your fitness improves? If so congratulations are in order…or are they?

Executing a workout well often means hitting prescribed training levels such as a target heart rate or power zone.  But an even more powerful training skill to master is nailing the effort level without out prescriptive guidelines.   Instead of having a pre-determined target to hit, you ride (run/swim) by effort following the guidelines of the workout and tuning in to your body’s response and signals.

  • How long can I sustain this effort?
  • Can I work at this level of dis-comfort for another 4 minutes without fading?
  • Can I repeat this focus level for another three sets of the same activity?
  • Is this recovery level easy enough that I can do another hard effort for the next eight minutes?

Nailing the workout intention when using effort alone means you’re in tune with how your body is responding to effort that day.   But it takes practice!


Failing is a Step Closer to the End Result

Henry Ford Quote - Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently

The first time you execute a workout like this, you may, in fact you will  fail miserably.   You’ll start too hard and won’t complete all the efforts.  You’ll finish too easily and not hit the desired intensity. You’ll look at your hear rate tracing after the fact and see a line that looks like the profile of the Hilly Billy Roubeaux instead of even like the Sahara desert.  IN other words your efforts were all over the place, rather than steady, even and repeatable.

You’re thinking,  “But coach, just give me a power target and I’ll hit it”.

Success in triathlon is not always about hard work. It’s more often about being in tune with your body on a consistent basis and relying on that instinct you’ve developed on race day.  Power training is fantastic, but there’s no substitute for your intuition about your own body’s performance.

There’s a recipe for developing this instinct.   Given any specific task, complete the workout in a “practice” mode.  You’re not trying to build fitness, nail a heart rate zone, get anaerobic, VO2 max-ish, or wherever the effort falls on a physiologic scale.

You’re trying to tune your instincts to hit the intention of the workout. ie  “go hard for an hour”, “run easy for exactly 30 minutes”, “execute three evenly paced efforts with 2 minute rest at the maximum of your ability”.

Prescriptive vs. Descriptive Training

It may be hard to see how it’s different to hit a power range for three eight-minute efforts, versus doing the same effort without targets and going just by feel.

The first is “prescriptive”…your efforts are given by your coach or your spreadsheet of training zones. But your spreadsheet doesn’t know your body’s ability on that specific day, and your coach won’t know unless you are in a daily training environment or communicate intensively on a daily basis.

In the second example, the power is “descriptive”.  You or your coach look at your power levels, effort or heart rate zones AFTER you complete the workout instead of before or during.

You improve your ability to understand your body while executing  a practice session, rather than a workout. While practicing, you’re also developing the specific fitness needed to improve your fitness and master the pace, master the effort and tune into your body.

On race day, it matters less what your power or heart rate targets are…it matters more if you’re operating within your body’s ability to cross the finish line having used your energy wisely and finishing in the fastest time you’re capable of.


Fitness Follows Mastery

Once you master the workout you can learn to push your abilities while still maintaining the practice intentions.  Maybe it takes you three ‘practice sessions’ to do an evenly paced 3 x 8 minute effort with 2 minutes rest.   “But Coach,” you protest again loudly…”If you’d just give me a target, I can do it right the first time!”   Right…but that’s not the point.

Building fitness is easy. Anyone can prescribe hard workouts.   Online training simulators like Trainer Road, Zwift and Sufferfest can help you do testing sets, tell you how to crunch the numbers (or do it for you) and give you back more training sets to do.  That’s algorithmic.

But coaching is an art and racing well requires practice…not just fitness.

Practice executing specific workouts by listening to your body.  Repeat these efforts to do it “better”…more evenly paced within the workout guidelines.  See what your heart rate and power were AFTER the effort is done. Are your efforts even or ‘hilly billy’?  Is each effort similar to the previous or do they get less intense as you get more fatigued?  Or is the first effort even and the second and third efforts ragged?


Practice Perfect the Push Performance

Chris McCormack - Triathlete running up stadium steps

Photo: Nils Nilsen,

Reread the workout guidelines and see if you executed it well.   If you did, congratulations! You now have a baseline. Next time you try it, see if you can push just a little bit more.  If the workouts are well designed, you’ll be building the fitness you need, but more importantly, building your reservoir of body sensing, pacing and confidence in racing.

Chris McKormack, two time Ironman World Championship winner, explains this concept well in a blog post called, “Keep it simple“…

“Training is about teaching yourself to understand your boundaries and then slowly pushing those boundaries up. You need to know how to feel those and where they are!

I say go out and try to get in touch with your perceived exertion and your body rhythm at least a few times a week in all the disciplines of our sport. Most of the time in training, especially when I go to a new town, I often test myself by doing the following. I leave the hotel room for a run and check the clock before I leave. 

I then say to myself, ok I am going to go and run for 1 hour. When I come back I try and see how close to that hour I actually was. I take no watch with me nor do I set any preconceived pace. I run freely and try and feel my way to understanding just how long I have been running by my surroundings and my pace and effort. Funnily enough, the fitter I get the better I am at getting very close to the hour.


Ride “Blind” and Benefit

During your next training session, try putting black electrical tape over your power meter or heart rate monitor.  Turn off Zwift and Trainer Road and go old school while listening to tunes, or watching a scenic youtube video.   Learn to “practice” rather than “workout”.  You’ll tap into a new set of skills needed for triathlon speed, success and enjoyment.

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