All coaches agree that a carefully maintained training diary is a must-have for any serious athlete. With most cyclists well into their winter training, now is a good time to look back on the year that's passed, and think about planning for an even better year to come
In times gone by, a paper-based training journal was de rigueur and experienced cyclists would proudly retain details of every session from the previous 10 or more years.
In the data-driven 21st century, heart-rate monitors, power meters and GPS devices have allowed the latest online training diaries to be populated with stats on every imaginable metric. Completed journals have been replaced by megabytes of memory, but there remain some key principles that must be adhered to in order to get the most out of your record keeping, whether you remain a staunch traditionalist or a slave to the latest technology.
As a coach with PBscience, Dan Henchy has seen hundreds of training diaries, including the good, the bad and the ugly. Here he offers some pointers that will help you to make the best use of yours.
What information should a good diary contain?
A training diary is a personal record, and as such, anything goes! There are, however, a few ‘must haves’ – vital pieces of information that are crucial to being able to get the most out of using one.
For tracking training load, we need a measure of duration and a measure of intensity. In other words, how long and how hard was the ride. At its most basic level, a wrist watch and a rating from one to 10 on how hard you rode addresses these points.
However, you may want to further break this down into how hard different sections of the ride were – for example if you completed any intervals or if your ride ended with a ‘fast finish’. For many, this step has become much easier with the widespread use of downloadable bike computers: a basic downloadable HR monitor has become very affordable and offers a way of tracking how hard your body is working to cope with the demands placed on it.
For those looking for the best option, a power meter set up with a GPS computer allows you to track power, heart rate, speed, distance, cadence and many other secondary metrics derived from these fundamentals.
‘State of being’
How well rested do you feel? How many hours and what quality of sleep did you get last night? Any soreness or niggles? Training is about more than facts and figures, so don’t become a slave to the numbers and learn to read your body. If you’re feeling awful, make a note of it in your diary. Equally note down periods where you feel fantastic, those ‘no-chain’ days are just as important to remember when it comes to future analysis.
There are a number of reasons to track your bodyweight, beyond the obvious case of people who are looking to lose weight. For weight loss, a weekly weigh-in is generally sufficient to identify a (hopefully) downward trend in body mass.
This way, the rollercoaster ride of daily variations is hidden and the tendency for motivation and emotional well-being to also ride this rollercoaster is eliminated. These short-term ups and downs are generally representative of changes in hydration status, or in the hard-training athlete, muscle glycogen levels.
Daily monitoring of body weight (or sometimes even twice daily, pre and post training) can provide insight to these short term fluctuations. For example, a sudden drop in body weight of 1-2kg before a lacklustre ride may indicate that you haven’t recovered from the previous session and that your diet needs amending.
Most of the above bits of information can be entered into a simple template, with a separate box for each ‘stat’. The final piece to any training diary, and in many ways the most important, is to have a section for you to add your personal thoughts on the training session, and indeed, anything else that is going on in your life that day.
You may want to include details of who you rode with, the weather conditions, anything out of the ordinary that happened or you saw on the road, that argument you had at work before heading out for your lunchtime training session… anything that’s on your mind and could impact performance .
The review process
Once you have all of this information at your disposal, what do you have to do to make it useful? Just writing things down offers some benefit – at the very least it forces you to spend some time thinking about your session and some of the things that you need to do to improve. In terms of consistency, regular record keeping can be self-reinforcing – nobody wants to see a ‘zero’ in the diary. Missed sessions are minimised in an attempt to preserve the continuous training streak! However, the real benefit comes when you use the diary to make informed decisions on future training. There are three key timeframes for analysing the data you have collected.
After any training session the temptation is to pop the kettle on, put your feet up and bask in the glory of another workout ticked off on your road to glory.
Or worse, for the majority of us the end of the ride signals the start of a new race to a) get back to work, b) pick up the kids c) cook the dinner d) hang out the washing or e) all of the above. Give yourself a pat on the back for getting the session done, but if you can find five-10 minutes to spend with your training log then so much the better.
First, take some time to download your training file and add subjective comments on how hard the effort felt, plus all the other factors described above. Now comes the important part, so pay attention. How does the session you’ve just completed impact on the rest of your training plan?
Were you able to complete the session as planned?
If you couldn’t hit your targets, is it wise to progress the session next time out or should you first try and nail the current session? For example, your target was 5 x 3 minute hill repeats, but you found yourself struggling after three… perhaps rather than shooting for seven repetitions next time, try to complete five good ones.
Was your nutritional strategy adequate?
On a four-hour ride you found yourself bloated and getting stomach cramps after two hours… do you need to adjust your carb and fluid intake to aid absorption or even consider using a different brand of drink? Maybe you simply rode at too high an intensity?
Remember that creaking sound coming from your bottom bracket?
Even if you can’t fix it now, make a note of it so you can address the problem before your next ride. How many of us have been guilty of chucking the bike in the shed only to be reminded 10 minutes into the next ride just how annoying that squeak is…
There are endless possibilities, just remember that the best training plans have some level of adjustability, and it’s this post-ride analysis that forms the basis for that.
End of each month or training block
By now hopefully you’re in the routine of day to day analysis and making small alterations to your training plan as you go along. Sometimes it can be hard to ‘see the forest from the trees’ in the short term, so it’s also important to put aside a small amount of time each month or at the end of each training block to try to get an overview of how things have gone.
The key question to ask is: have you hit your targets for the block? If not, why not?
If you’ve completed every session as planned and things still haven’t progressed, then perhaps the plan is wrong and you need to change tack.
Maybe you’re halfway there and just need a little more time. Fingers crossed, everything’s bang on target and you can continue as planned with an extra boost of confidence that the plan is working.
Or maybe (and this is not talked about as often) you’re ahead of schedule. this might seem a good thing, and in many cases, it is, but are you running the risk of peaking too soon? Each year there will be people who leave their best form on local training routes a month or two before their goal event. Sometimes the best strategy is to ease back a little when things are going exceptionally well, particularly on the ‘off-season’ or a long way out from your targets.
After a target event/end of season
With short (session by session) and medium (monthly or block by block) term evaluation you give yourself the best chance of making your current training plan work for you.
The final piece in the puzzle to getting the most out of your training diary is to use it as a tool to make year-on-year improvements or to get better from one target race to the next. For this, I like to make three lists: things that were perfect, things that need modifying and things that need binning altogether.
Hopefully at the end of any season there are things that you can look back on and say “Yeah, that worked really well”. These must form the bedrock of any subsequent training plan. Often the things that end up on this list are based on classic training principles and common sense. For example, following a recent athlete’s review, I came up with the following list:
Consistent, steady-state riding saw gains each time we visited it during the season.
Periods where work was ‘normal’ and sleep patterns were stable saw your best form.
Your training camp led to a big jump in form three weeks later.
These may not work for you, but are an example of the kinds of things you may want to look at and use to inform your future training plans. This athlete trained with a power meter so we had the advantage of clear, objective data on which to base these judgements.
There are just as likely to be things that still worked, but perhaps you would do differently next time around. With the same athlete in the example above we found that…
Five-minute intervals resulted in a better improvement than three-minute ones.
A long period of easy/steady riding was more successful as a warm-up for racing than one with higher intensity.
It’s rare to look back and find that everything was perfect. One of the joys of cycling is that there’s always something to work on.
A little experimentation in your training plan is always advisable in the hope of finding something a little better than your current approach. This is obviously a bit risky in the run up to your biggest goals, but early season races or lower priority events are the perfect opportunity to do things a little differently.
With any sort of experimentation there are bound to be things that didn’t work and perhaps didn’t offer any improvement or worse, actually saw your performance level decline. Be sure to make a note of these approaches to avoid making the same mistakes again.
Keeping a record of your training sessions is a valuable process to help refine your preparation. We’re constantly told that the response to training is very individual and that what works for one cyclist won’t necessarily work for you.
This means the most relevant information on which to base your future training is a sound understanding of what you’ve done in the past and how well that worked. Keep filling in that diary, take some time to analyse what worked for you and make sure that 2013 is your best year ever on the bike.
Scientifically based training is centred on careful measurement of your performance to ensure that you are making progress towards your goals. Only with accurate and reliable data on your key performance indicators can we continue with those aspects of your preparation that are working and ditch those that aren’t. Here are some metrics that you can use to track your performance.
Average speed. Many people have a favourite stretch of road or a training loop that’s a regular feature of their training. Over time you hope to see your average speed over these increase, but beware using individual rides as markers of improvement. Weather conditions will potentially have a much bigger effect on your time than any change in fitness.
A long climb can provide a better measure of improvement but these can be hard to find in the UK. If you can locate a hill with a gradient of five per cent or more, most of your efforts will be to overcome gravity (a constant) rather than wind resistance (variable).
Strong winds will still affect your summit times, but if you pick your days carefully you can still get some meaningful data.
Measured power output takes the guesswork out of tracking improvement. Even if owning a power meter is out of your price range, you might be able to persuade a friend or club-mate to loan you theirs for a monthly test of progress.
The highest average power output you can sustain over 20 minutes is a standard test used by many, but pick a test that is relevant to your own target events or races. Alternatively, many clubs or gyms now have Wattbike ergometers that can be used for testing.
If you’re committed to improving your cycling performance in 2013 then consider moving a power meter to the top of your list of must-haves in place of that fancy set of carbon wheels.