Monday, June 11, 2012

Seven Elements of Wiggins' Training: Part 3

The remark I find most interesting about Wiggins' training is his statement that he's been training like a swimmer.  It's not exactly clear to me what he means by this, since there is no one way swimmers train.  Swimmers train differently based on the demands of their event--and the demands are just as different as the demands of cycling.  Just as track cyclists, with their 200 pound frames, differ from climbers, so sprinters like Dara Torres or Cullen Jones differ from distance swimmers like the Australians Kieren Perkins and Grant Hackett--swimmers under the tutelage of Wiggins' current coach, Tim Kerrison.

Isn't that the case?

Well, from what I've seen, the answer is, surprisingly, "no."  There isn't a huge difference between how swimmers specializing in longer events (800m, 1500m) train from sprinters training for the 50m free.  This may because swimming is a far more technical sport than cycling.  The best swimmers are not only the fittest, they're also technically the most proficient, and the best way to improve technique is to spend time in the water.

This is also true, to some extent, on the bike.  Wiggins is clearly one of the more technically efficient cyclists in the sport; just watch him pedal, and it's clear the guy can effortlessly churn out power.  Unlike cycling, improving swimming efficiency requires constant conscious effort for most, whereas cycling efficiency tends to improve for the first hundred or so hours, then level off at a constant.  In fact, according to one study, world-class cyclists like Wiggins are no more efficient than you or I.

While Wiggins clearly has spent some time working on his efficiency, it's unlikely his improvements have anything to do with hours spent "scraping mud off his shoe"--trying to become more efficient.  That would be a losing battle.  There's little valid advice on how to improve it quickly.  

Wiggins has pursued mechanical efficiency--the efficiency of the bike and how the body transfers energy to it.  His cadence is noticeably smooth at high (although this is not necessarily a sign of efficiency).  Wiggins is one of the few riders in the peleton to adopt extremely shaped chainrings, an innovation that's been around for several decades.  Astute observers will note a slight change in the shape of his rings this year:

Here's his 2011 TT chainring, which is, roughly, a box with rounded top and bottom:

Here's his 2012 chainring:
The shape seems less box-like and more circular to me, with less abrupt transitions from edge to edge.

Whether this mechanical innovation increases Wiggins' efficiency is unknown (although I'd bet on it), but it's clear Wiggins spends some time thinking about and using equipment that may improve his efficiency.  And in this attention to efficiency--in equipment, if not in training--Wiggins is similar to swimmers.

But Wiggins' statement was, in fact, about training, not his equipment or his focus.  So he probably means something else.  Another possibly notable element of swim training is volume.  As everyone knows, even high school swimmers often log two sessions a day in the pool.  Even the most anaerobic events--those lasting around 20 seconds--require hours of daily swimming.  Track sprinters--both runners and cyclists--spend far, far less time cycling or running.  

Consider the daily workouts of sprint god, Alexander Popov:

300m warm-up 4 25m IM 1x5000 distance with cruise speed 400m kick + 8x50m kick on 50 400m resistance (surgical tubing) + 8x25m assisted sprint 
And that's just the morning session.  
The afternoon session is based on repeating the previous distance work but this time broken into 100m intervals but with a similar structure… 500m warm up 10x25m on 60 30x100m on 1:30 (w/ target heart rate)140-150bpm) 500m drills 20x100m on 1:40  (w/ target heart rate) 
400m kick 4x100m on 1:40 8x25m dive start on 2:00 
Popov's program, which was subsequently adopted by Australian swimming and contributed to their dominance in the present era, follows a mesocycle similar to that we cyclists know:

This phase is described as having "...low to moderate intensity aerobic work...," but it involves 10 sessions a week, logging over 5,000k per session.  The focus of this is not merely to build an aerobic base, but to increase the efficiency of each stroke--that is, to go faster at a given heart rate.  Keep in mind, this 7-hours a day in the pool, this huge volume of daily time in the water--this is how swimmers train for a mere 20-second event!

This is similar to the build phase, as described in Friel's The Cyclists Training Bible.  Says Popov's coach, "The goal of the Specific phase is to prepare the skills and energetic systems necessary for the competition. At this stage, the aim is to maximise the volume of swimming undertaken at competitive speeds."


There is a substantially different approach to competition training among swimmers, in that they taper severely.  Here's what the coach says:

At this stage, a favourite exercise is three days of simulated competition approximately three weeks from competition, with a further day of time trials approximately 10 days from competition. This work typically takes the form of…  
300m warm-up 1x100m Butterfly (e.g. 54.60) 3x50m on 3:00 (e.g. 25.0, 24.6, 24.6) 6x100m recovery on 1:40 heart rate 130-140bpm 8x25m dive on 2:00 1000m kick and drills 
The last high intensity training session is held five days before competition. 
While Popov's mesocycle approximates the cycling training mesocycle, in that it has base, build, and race phases, there are notable differences:
(1) Popov noticeably tapers--no intensity in the five days leading up to a competition.  Most cyclists do not taper.  They will often do intervals or even race at intensity throughout the week leading up to their key race event;
(2) Notice the resistance work and sprinting done in the base period.  Most cyclists avoid even moderate efforts during this period;
(3) The goal of the build phase for Popov is to maximize time spent at race pace; cyclists typical think of the build as the period of variable intervals, in which intensity is added and volume lessens.

This is all somewhat speculative, but perhaps these differences--along with a somewhat mysterious focus on efficiency--are what Wiggins is implying when he references swim training.  

This comparison also leaves me with some questions that I can't answer:  Why is it that Usain Bolt will never run an interval longer than 40 seconds, but Cullen Jones--America's best hope in the 50m freestyle--will swim 4 hours a day with intervals over an hour?  And if the requirements from swimming are so different from cycling, why would Wiggins adopt a training program designed for swimmers?

One simple takeaway from this comparison is that both swimmers and cyclists share a belief in the necessity of volume in the first period of the mesocycle.  Whatever else Wiggins was doing up there on his mountain in Tenerife, he was certainly riding long hours, possibly twice a day, and maximizing his time on the bike.

I'd hoped to come away with a nice takeaway recommendation, and this is the best I can muster so far:  in the base period, ride a long time, but don't just ride--sprint, do power drills, and possibly employ a reverse periodization protocol.  Also, you might want to consider asymmetric chainrings, although I'm not convinced of their value.

Next up I'll look at Wiggins' statement about how he now maintains a constantly high level of fitness ("It’s just trying to be 95, 97% all year and constantly working").  


qualia said...

I remember Floyd saying that everyone was debating volume versus intensity, when the solution was simple: both. Sounds like Wiggins' philosophy too. Lots of volume, incredible amounts of time at race pace and beyond. (He says training is *harder* than racing!) No downtime, basically ever. Throw in plyo, weights, altitude, hell, throw in coming-of-age death matches with the local tribes. It's only tough "mentally".

I don't buy it. The thing is, the reason you typically have to choose between volume and intensity is that REST is also part of the equation, and you need that on both micro and macro cycles. Unless you're on the right drug protocols, something else the swimmers really had worked out.

If you read Friel, he says that most cyclists come to him already training *too much*, afflicted with chronic respiratory infections and fatigue, and they improve with structured training because it allows them enough rest to really hit their intensity goals. How to square that with the philosophy of more of everything all the time: volume, intensity, weights, plyo?

Thomas Craven said...

pThere is no difference in the 2011 and the 2012 chainring that Wiggins uses. They are both the Osymetric design the Jean Louis Talo created. Chris Froome and Richie Porte used the rings in every reace during 2012. Team Sky leads the charge with innovation and make sure that everything that each rider needs to make them more efficient is available. The call it a campaign of making marginal gains. The rings are available in the US at