Choosing The 'Right' Training Load for you...

As we discussed last week, 'training load' as expressed in Training Peaks and other training software applications, is a long term, normally 42 day, exponentially weighted moving average of your daily workout TSS scores. Simply put it measures your activity over the past 6 weeks and assigns a score. Six weeks is a long enough time to elicit some fitness gains that are measurable and 'feelable'.

By definition the workouts you completed 6 weeks ago still have an influence on your fitness today. But here is the rub. For CTL to have any 'predictive power' in terms of your fitness level you will need to have been consistent in your training. By consistent I mean doing some exercise at least 3 times a week.

To keep your CTL moving higher you have to keep increasing the training load. As we discussed last week this can be done in a variety of ways and should be in line with your fitness outcome goals. If you keep going out and doing the same things each week, your CTL and hence your fitness will plateau and you could even start slipping backwards as well. To progress you will need to periodise your training to allow for overload with appropriate deload to allow for adaption. This is when improvements in fitness will be achieved.

Two important questions arise from this:

  1. How quickly should I build my CTL?
  2. What absolute level of CTL should I aim for?

Building CTL is described as a 'ramp rate'. At what rate per week should I be increasing my CTL? As ever, it depends.

For many amateur riders a CTL ramp rate of around 3-7 per week is sensible in the build phase of training. For more experienced riders a ramp rate of 6-8 can be achievable, rising to 10+ for very short periods of time. Much depends on training history, especially the volume of aerobic training you have banked over the years. I like to think about this as water behind a dam. The more water you have behind the dam, the stronger the dam needs to be. The stronger the dam is the more water it can hold back. The more training you have in your body, the more training your body can absorb.

I am going to use a personal example to illustrate some of the concepts here because it is my data and I can share it! It should be noted that the training I undertook here is extreme. It was the highest training load I had ever absorbed for the singularly hardest day I have ever had on the bike.

Below is my ramp rate during the training for Tour de Mont Blanc from November 2018 to July 2019. As you can see my ramp rate rises and falls as my training load changes due to the development of my fitness and fatigue and modulations in my training plan. The two purple lines are at a ramp rate of 0 and 10tss/day/week. My training ramps mostly to around 7-10 before I take a recovery phase to allow myself to adapt to the training. There are 3 times when my ramp rate went up to nearly 20. These were two training camps and the Joberg2C 900km MTB event I rode in late April. I understand my capacity for work and have a very intuitive feel for how my body is coping based from years of training. For me, ramping this quickly works very well but for very short periods of time and only when followed by a sharp reduction in training. I would not prescribe this approach for everyone!

The absolute level of CTL is again highly individual and should be driven by the demands of your chosen races and events. As we discussed last week there is no way of accurately correlating your absolute level of CTL with your performance. Performance comes from the specific things you do in training, not the aggregate level of training you have completed over the last 6 weeks. There is no reason to think physiology would be accurately represented by a mathematical calculation of training load or that this calculation would lead to consistent changes in physiology between different riders.

So what are we to do?

Think back to the calculation of CTL. It is an exponentially weighted moving average of your daily TSS scores over the last 42 days. Let's say your CTL is 50 right now. This tells us that on average you have been loading your body with 50tss of training stress per day over the last 6 weeks. Let's also assume that you have completed rides of 50tss per day, every day for the last 6 weeks to keep things simple.

Q: What do you think this level of CTL would prepare you for?

A: Rides of about 50tss!

Rule number 1 is that your CTL score should reflect the demands of the riding that you are preparing for. In general short events need lower CTL than long events.

Let's assume that your target event is a 100 mile Gran Fondo in the Alps, such as La Marmotte. This might take you 10hrs and your TSS for the ride will be around 600tss.

Does this mean you need a CTL of 600 to achieve this?! Clearly this would be unachievable for anyone, but what it does tell us is that you want to drive your CTL as high as possible within the constraints of your age, training history and time available to train. In addition to this your CTL has to be predominantly made up of long aerobic rides and plenty of muscular endurance training. This will prepare you for the overall physiological demands of the event duration and the specific demands of long alpine climbs. In our experience, for this type of event, a CTL of around 100 is an achievable level for many dedicated riders with full time jobs and families to look after.

Taking it to an extreme again, for my Tour de Mont Blanc training I had a lot of flexibility in terms of my work which meant that I could dedicate a lot of time to longer aerobic training which allowed me to drive my CTL to over 100 for a prolonged period of time. I had many years of training behind me so I knew that I could withstand a high training load - more water behind the dam.

Tour de Mont blanc was a 900tss day for me so I knew that I needed a lot of water behind the dam to be able to complete it in a good time and to have a good time too! Peaking CTL twice at 139 was tough, but a lot of this training was moderate level duration based aerobic training. Could it be done differently? Yes for sure, but for me this worked and gave me the confidence to take on an event that at 80kg did not totally play to my strengths!

To summarise use these guidelines when you are preparing for your season:

  1. Look at your historical CTL peaks and use this as a guide as to what you can achieve. In general increasing overal training load by more than 10-15% would be risky for most people so plan sensibly.
  2. If you have a high end of season CTL you need to take an off season break and bleed this back down to around 50-60 on average. This allows for adequate recovery and means that you will be prepared to train again and build your fitness to a higher peak.
  3. Don't rush to build CTL too quickly in the initial phases of training. This is the biggest mistake we see. The 3-7 per week works well for most people but again look at your history to see what you have been capable of.
  4. Look at the overal physiological demands of your chosen races and events and use that to judge what absolute level of CTL you need. In general shorter events need a lower CTL.
  5. Research the specific physiological demands of your races and events and construct your CTL with this information at the forefront of your mind. This is essential and is more important than the absolute level of your CTL in all but the extreme ultra distance races.
  6. This is quite complicated work and is why hiring us as your coach is a good idea, even if it is for some consultation time and a bespoke self directed training plan!

Have a great weekend everyone and is the time to start planning for 2021 and hopefully the resumption of races and events! if you need any help then you know where we are.

If on the other hand you want to be at a reasonably good level of fitness all year round then just ride your bike lots, throw in some hard efforts and have fun!

Rob Wakefield / Founder & Coach / 07779136840