Training is defined as the act of performing a given athletic task with the goal of creating a stress to your body’s homeostasis with the intention to trigger signals to cause positive physiological adaptation. In simple terms, after a training session, your performance will first decrease to a point (depending on how hard the training sessions was) and then will slowly increase until your body has adapted, leading to improved performance. This physiological principle was first described in 1936 by Hans Seyle and it is known as the general adaptation syndrome (Figure 1).

Figure 1: A diagram describing effect of training stress upon performance, as described originally by Hans Seyle in the general adaptation syndrome.

The general adaptation syndrome and its application to training

The simplified explanation of the general adaptation syndrome shown in figure 1 consists of an alarm phase and a resistance phase. In brief, the alarm phase is the body’s initial response to the training stress and may be demonstrated by performing an extremely hard session or effort two days in a row. This will normally lead to a worse performance the second day. The resistance phase is the phase after the body has responded and adapted to the training stress. During this phase a repeated very hard effort will lead to an improved performance.

An ideal training program should consist of very hard training sessions which are repeated once you have adequately recovered and are within this resistance phase. There really is no way to know when you are within this phase until you analyse the specific session retrospectively. Frequent analysis will inform you and teach you about your body and how you recover from specific training sessions.

It is very important to note that each individual responds totally differently to a certain training stress. For example, you may have noticed when training with a training partner and you both perform the same session on a Tuesday, that when you perform the same session on a Thursday, that your training partner feels great and has improved, but you feel sluggish, tired, and simply can’t sustain the same power as what you did two days before. This is a perfect example of two individuals, who respond differently, and again highlights the importance of analysing data to gain knowledge of how rapidly you recover and adapt to hard training sessions.

It is also important to note that when we think about the general adaptation syndrome and stress in the context of training, we can’t exclude the effects of other sources of stress on your body. Stress, whether it is training stress or work stress, accumulates and may prolong the alarm phase, or even blunt the resistance phase. Therefore, if you responded positively to 3 days of rest between key hard training sessions in the past, you may need more recovery if you have had a couple of late nights with a lot of work stress.

How to analyse your training session?

This leaves us with the question: “How should we be analysing our data to ensure that we are improving?” Commonly, hard training sessions consist of interval sessions. The major advantage of training with a powermeter is that it provides you with an exact objective measure of your performance. You should analyse and plot each interval and calculate your “session average” for the specific sessions. Therefore if you do a 3 x 10 minute interval session, and you achieve 410W, 398W and 388 watts for the 3 respective intervals, your session average is 399 watts. It becomes a bit harder to measure performance objectively when you are not training with a powermeter, because measures such as speed and distance may be affected by the wind and other factors. Below we have included an example from an athlete.

Figure 2: A diagram showing session analysis of all 4 minute (typically 6 x 4 minute intervals with 2.5 minutes rest) and 2 minute intervals (8 x 2 minute intervals with 90 second rest) that a certain athlete has performed. These sessions are analysed to ensure that the session average (shown on the figure with a short horizontal line) is improved from session to session.

Sticking to a standardised training session which is repeated often allows us coaches to compare apples to apples. It may seem monotonous to some repeating certain sessions, but it is difficult to compare 5 x 5 minute intervals to 6 x 4 minute intervals. For this reason, our library of sessions are often limited and would recommend you do the same for you to be able to repeat certain session to ensure that you are progressing.

What should I do when I am not improving?

Referring back to Hans Seyle, if training is not bringing on improved adaptations you are either not training enough (in which case you are past the resistance phase and detraining has occurred), or in most cases you simply have not rested long enough.

The most common error made among competitive recreational, amateur and elite cyclists is that they simply do not include enough rest between training sessions. Therefore, they are training and performing hard training sessions within the alarm phase before their bodies have adapted from the previous training sessions. This will eventually lead to a downward spiral of performance and may eventually lead to a state of overtraining, where prolonged rest is required. However, not to be alarmed, in most cases simply including adequate rest (days) between hard training sessions and ensuring that the easy days remain easy are normally enough to get most athletes out of their ruts.

What about the days between interval sessions?

Without spoiling an up and coming article feature too much, the principle of polarized training is also very important. In brief, polarized training implies that your hard rides should be very hard and constitute approximately 20% of your training load. The remaining 80% should remain very easy. Therefore, in support of this principle, and in support of the general adaptation syndrome, ensure that your days between your hard interval days remain very easy and do not add significant training stress.


About the author: Science to Sport

Science to Sport bridges the gap between scientific research and sports men and women in the field.

Utilising scientific tools and experience gained through research and practical involvement at the highest professional and scientific level, the experts at science to sport are able to provide athletes with scientifically validated methods and products which they can use to their advantage during training and competition.