Once a while I get told that whatever it is I do to stay fit, must be working. It is true that my routine has helped me regain fitness, cut weight, and improve my sharpness and focus at work. It works for me, and maybe could work for others. So in the spirit of sharing, here it is, my life recipe, all in, raw ingredients and method.
One thing I have learned is that in the long run there are no better gains than those achieved by increasing the weekly training volume. Although there is plenty of merit in high-intensity training plans which work well for time crunched athletes, as they reduce the amount of time required to keep and improve fitness, these plans are short-term focused, or local optima. Long term improvements towards a global maximum, i.e. season by season improvements, require long volume at endurance intensity that time crunched training plans do not provide. When it doubt, I put volume, not intensity.
Which is not to say that high intensity is not important. There is plenty of research showing that the maximum adaptations for the elite athlete are achieved with plans bringing 80% of training volume at L1 (sub ventilatory threshold inflection point) and 20% at L3 (above lactate threshold inflection point). It’s important to exercise hard, high intensity training, and combine it with volume of low intensity training. A lot of low intensity volume won’t make you stronger, it’s just the base required on which you can become stronger if you complement it with high intensity training. And the thing in between thresholds, L2, just don’t do it, it’s pretty much a waste of time.
Due my work responsibilities and schedule, I cannot target exact race events or competitions in the year. I prefer to have shorter cycles of 6 to 8 weeks, and follow a continuous plan throughout the year.
I track training load by TRIMP (training impulse based on heart rate). I have found that in multi-sport setups, in my case mixing cycling, running, swimming, and rowing, the training stress computed from relative functional intensity, either power or pace based, cannot be combined across sports, whereas TRIMP can. I have found TRIMP to be the best measure for multi-sport stress, at least based on my personal perception, somewhat validated by measuring my morning HRV. Aside HRV, I also track regularly my blood pressure and post-exercise pulse oxygen in order to quickly detect over-training. It’s important to call out that although I track training stress (load) using heart rate (TRIMP), I plan workout intensity (and in fact race strategy) on power and pace, not heart rate.
In the short-term, I like to see a wave-like curve for my training stress balance, so I will usually overload 1 or 2 weeks and then step back for a few days, up to 1 week. Overloading for me is done by increasing both training volume and intensity at the same time. I tend to do regularly 100-110 TSS per day during base weeks (training 7 days per week), and during stress loading weeks, I do 3 to 4 days at 140-180 TSS per day. Once my stress balance reaches the TRIMP overload point, I step back for a 2-3 days till it tips on the positive side once again. And I keep repeating this cycle.
I also like to see a long-term wave-like curve for my chronic stress. Since my training usually accumulates a constant load of 700-800 TSS per week, my CTL/LTS curve looks mostly flat across the year. Once a year I bring it down for 2 to 3 weeks, usually through focusing more on long easy open swims (5k-10k per day) during our summer holiday break. This helps me relax both body and mind, and I can see the flat curve go up and down a couple of times a year.
If stress is important, recovery is critical. Overload can lead to injuries and it definitely handicaps improvements in fitness in the long run. I don’t follow a weekly training cycle, as doing 4 sports in parallel helps reduce sport-specific propensity to injuries. I follow instead a longer 21-day training cycle, and then I take a day totally off my feet, when I just chill out. The longer cycle provides more flexibility than the shorter 7-day cycle which requires higher structure, and given my travel and lifestyle I find this flexibility critical to be able to meet my training goals. In addition to taking a day off every 21 days, I also do one a year a 2 to 3 weeks easy training camp.
Athletes are made in training, and champions are made resting. I find it’s extremely important for me to sleep well, which is not the same as sleeping a lot. I sleep in 90 mins intervals, wake up 2 or 3 times per night and end up sleeping a multiple of 90 mins. In practice this translates to 4.5, 6.0, or 7.5 hour nights. I like to always wake up at 5am (+/- 15 mins), and go to sleep when I feel tired. This rule is particularly important for fighting jetlag. Regardless of where I am, I try to stick to this routine: sleep when tired, wake up at 5am.
In order of importance, right after sleep comes nutrition. I am extremely careful about my diet, although I do like and accept a few little treats, which I am totally fine with. I find these treats are necessary for me to own my diet, rather than for my diet to own me. I track my daily intake as accurately as I can. In the past I developed very complex multi-page spreadsheets breaking down day by day every single macro and nutrients. Now that I control my nutrition, I am just fine using an app for 90% of the time.
In regards to macro breakout, the most important variation from a standard diet is that I eat twice the recommended daily protein intake, at 1g of protein per pound of weight. The WHO standard recommended dietary reference intakes are influenced by the honorable objective to fight a global epidemic of cardiovascular diseases, and as such they focus on complex carbohydrate intakes, roots, vegetables, and fruits, limit sugar, and reduce fats. This is all good, perhaps, if you are an average individual, with average weight, and average activity levels. But if you are training regularly and on a serious plan, you are not what they would consider average. These recommendations do not necessarily apply to athletes, and athletes need more protein to reconstruct broken fibers during training. As humans age we lose lean muscle mass –which leads to falls and injuries–, both because we don’t exercise enough and hence the body gets rid of unused fiber tissue, and also because we find it harder to digest protein, so we switch to more carb rich diets. My diet is first protein rich, then full of complex carbs, then finally healthy fats. I try to stay away from processed carbs as much as I can (my treats are for example cottage cheese with dried fruits).
Putting protein aside, there is the whole debate around carbohydrates vs fat based diets (keto-adapted endurance athletes). I really cannot get my head around this: I can’t understand how to sustain a long training session of VO2Max intervals with a fat based diet, and I can’t understand how to quickly rebuild muscle without feeding carbs (and protein) that promote insulin release and lead to restoring glycogen muscle reserves –and double emphasis here on quickly–. I could maybe understand this for an ultra-distance runner, needing to rest anyway for 2 days after a long run. But not for me.
In terms of supplements, I only take iron and calcium.
I train in the mornings, as I find it easier to just get it done and out of the way and then move onto the rest of the day with work and family. Anytime that I have told myself to skip the morning thinking I’ll catch up during the day or the evening, it just never happens, as when the evening comes, I am just too tired to get training. This has some small consequences though. Power output and performance is worse in the morning, when the body is still waking up and the temperature is lower, than it is in the afternoon when we are fed, fully awake and warm. On the counter side, because of this, for the same level of exertion, you burn more calories and more fat in the mornings.
Intermittent Fasting (IF)
This one is a bit controversial as it’s new to me and still under evaluation. I have only been doing IF for a few weeks and I am hesitant to recommended it yet. The deal here is to fast for 16-20 hours a day. I stop eating at 8pm, and only eat again after 12pm, 16 hours later. I don’t skip breakfast, I just have it in the afternoon.
Aside whatever other benefits daily fasting may have from a metabolic optimization, body composition, better insulin sensitivity and whatnot, I find that fasting in the morning helps me stay more alert and concentrate better at work. I get most of my really productive day done between 5am and noon.
This one is really still under trial: I am measuring my weight, FTP (cycling) and HRV and I will make a determination based on whether I see benefits or not (independently of the more soft benefits experienced so far, such as better concentration, which could be due to a placebo effect).
I drink a LOT during the day, both plain water as well as green teas. I like to see my wee always almost water-clear. Going to bed and urinating a guiness-dark pee means a bad night, not recovering, and suffering with poor performance and bad concentration the next day.
Definitely. Even though I only started drinking coffee at the age of 24, I like the bitter taste of a good black coffee, ideally my home-made cold brew, but I am in love with pretty much any method of making coffee. However, I only have coffee right after I wake up at 5am (alongside a big glass of water) and before heading to training, and then again at 7am, 9am and 11am during the morning fast. So 4 cups a day.
There are many good reasons for this, fat burning, short-term performance gains, cardio health, etc. Just Google it.
I used to weight myself daily. I stopped and I now check once a week. I kind of track some fuzzy body composition numbers about body fat, lean muscle mass, and body water from a smart scale, but honestly, it’s all just mostly rubbish. A mirror, the weight and calipers (finger pinching in my case) are the best tool. Currently, I keep my weight between 74 and 76kg.
Cross Training and Rowing
As a triathlete, I have found that rowing delivers disproportionate benefits. First, it’s mostly a leg based workout, so both cycling and running benefit from it (mostly running, at least in regards to muscle groups used). Also, proper rowing technique at low cadence and high torque rowing works on strength, even at low intensity and helps develop muscular stamina, necessary for both cycling and running. Rowing also develops the core and the arms, usually weak in cyclists and runner, so it’s a perfect complement. Finally, VO2Max based workouts in the ERG are really all-out efforts, and there is nothing as humbling, as well as rewarding, than putting an all-out 2k effort in the rower.
Travel can be a killer for a training plan. But by adopting a continuous training plan, and being on a 21-day cycle, I have a bit more latitude than if I were doing periodization and on 7-day cycles. Given that I travel a lot, I find this a critical choice. I usually leverage the trips to increase the running load, or swimming if a pool is avavailable, and reduce rowing and/or cycling. But regardless of where I go to, I always, always, exercise, and never miss a session. My first thing as I wake up at 5am is water, coffee and training. Always. No excuses, no jet lag.
By slightly tweaking proven training methods, optimizing my nutrition and looking after my sleep, I have reached what I consider a sweet spot that allows me to be fit, healthy, alert and very productive at work. I am just a sample of one, and what works for me may or may not work for you. But whether it’s something similar to this or something totally different, what is really important is that rather than following the latest trend in fitness or diet, you also approach the problem from a data driven experimentation approach, try with variations of your training, nutrition and sleep, measure your results, and only then decide what works and what does not (and why). Good luck, and enjoy!
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