This is a question I get asked a lot. It is especially common for us to get asked this question in the context of a taper when the temptation is to do ‘just one more long ride’ too close to the event or race in the hope of squeezing out a little more fitness. The reality is that such an approach will just result in more fatigue and a worse performance.
However, the answer to this question is not straightforward and at the risk of sounding ‘on the fence’ ……it depends!
The way your body reacts to and absorbs training is going to be influenced by the type of workout, your recovery rate and your body’s rate of adaption. This will be different for different people.
So whilst there will be personal differences, if we assume full recovery, good sleep and appropriate fuelling, we can offer some general guidlines that we hope will be helpful when planning and understanding your training. (Remember as we age our recovery process takes longer so full recovery for a 20 year old might be 24hrs, for a 50 year old it might be 48 hrs or more)
Taking all of the above assumptions, here is how quickly you might benefit from the various types of training session you will find in a typical training plan.
These are the staple ‘bread and butter’ rides that should be in your training at all times of the year, but should feature heavily when building your aerobic base. The aim of these rides is to improve your long term metabolic fitness by developing more mitochondria, improving capillary beds and increasing myoglobin in your muscles. These changes in your physiology are long term and as such it can be difficult to feel the benefit, especially if you have a long training age. Typically, improvements in aerobic fitness can be gained in 5-6 weeks so these adaptions take time (this is why Training Peaks uses a 42 day half life for CTL). This is also the reason that cramming in too much aerobic volume leading up to an event is counterproductive. You don’t get fitter, just more tired!
These workouts should be working at or slightly below your FTP with the aim of improving the power, and duration you can generate that power for, at your maximum lactate steady state (MLSS). The effects from this type of training can be felt much more obviously and quickly, taking somewhere in the region of 10-14 days to elicit a noticeable improvement.
These workouts are taxing as you should be working at your maximum (the clue is in the term MAX!) aerobic capacity. These workouts push the body into working at the limit of its aerobic capability and as such the gains from this type of training can happen very quickly, even after 2-3 workouts. When you will actually feel these gains depends heavily on how recovered you are, and it is very normal for you to feel you are losing fitness if you do too many of these workouts and don’t recovery enough. Noticeable gains should be felt within 14 days if recovery has been sufficient.
These workouts are designed to improve speed. Short duration efforts with long recovery periods, target the nervous system and improve your ability to exert under oxygen debt. Whilst these efforts are anaerobic in nature, they can also have significant aerobic benefits. Gains from these workouts can be felt very quickly, within 1-2 sessions, and thus can also be highly effective in certain taper training plans.
It is worth remembering that the aim of training is to improve long term performance. Whilst it is good to feel your fitness improving week on week, you must keep focused on your long term development, building a plan that balances hard work and hard recovery. In order to improve you need to progressively overload the body with training stimulus week on week, month on month and year on year. At some point you may feel your fitness, and see your fitness markers stall, and in some cases go backwards. We all have our physiological limits and often when things decline we need to reduce training and increase rest.
Remember that training is a game of diminishing returns. You might be at 75% of your physiological capability on 10 hrs training a week but you will need to increase your training volume significantly to harvest another 10% and increase disproportionately more to get anywhere near 100% (there is a reason that pros train for circa 30 hrs per week). Choosing a training volume and rhythm that suits you and your lifestyle, and being mindful of the performance implications of that choice, is vital for a feeling of accomplishment from your training. Remember that for most of us more is not always better. Better is better. Hire a coach and learn how to train effectively with the time you have available.