How Setting Limits Can Set You Free!

In the second half of 1941 as Hitler’s Blitzkrieg rolled implacably towards Moscow the Russians dismantled 1,500 armaments factories, stuck them on trains and sent them to Siberia, along with over 10,000,000 people. In a matter of months they rebuilt said factories, rehomed said people and launched a counter attack that would ultimately defeat their enemies and end the war. This was accomplished in a matter of months. MONTHS!

Juxtapose this with my time working in industry. We would have meetings that would last for hours in order to decide what we would discuss in the next meeting. The next meeting would lazily roll around, much of which would be spent recapping what was discussed in the last meeting about what we would discuss in this meeting.

Then the fire alarm would go off and the meeting would be reconvened for another date. When that rolled around we would all have forgotten what happened in the preceding two meetings due to the minute taking being disrupted by the fire alarm and we would then have to start the sorry process all over again.

I used to leave these meeting and go and sit in a toilet cubicle with my head in my hands and lament those wasted hours of my life I would never get back.

The fact is in times of war things get done and they get done quickly. They have to do because of the pressure of time. Get it done or be annihilated. In times of peace things get panned out and panned out almost indefinitely because at heart human beings are inveterate procrastinators.

I try and live my life by two maxims. The Pareto Principle and Parkinson’s law – The Two Ps
Vilfredo Pareto was a 19th century economist who noticed that 80% of yield from his runner beans in his garden came from 20% of the plants. He then noticed this disparity in many other areas of life. E.g. 80% of the wealth in Italy was owned by just 20% of the population.

Simply stated – The Pareto principle (also known as the 80/20 rule, the law of the vital few, or the principle of factor sparsity) states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.

Cyril Northcote Parkinson was a British naval historian and author of some 60 books, the most famous of which was his best-seller Parkinson’s Law (1957), in which Parkinson advanced Parkinson’s law;

“work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”

Read this over a few times and think about it.

Imagine your boss gives you a report to write and says they want it completed in seven days. Are you likely to drop it on their desk two hours later? No. You may drop it on their desk six days later, a day early. Your boss would be impressed with that but if he / she has asked you to do it in seven days and you do it in two hours then surely you’ve missed the point. You must have rushed the job and left out vital information.

So you diligently get your head down and pan it out because Parkinson’s law is at work. Six or seven days later you return with a behemoth of a report and your boss gives you a pat on the back. Happy days.

Now imagine another scenario where your boss asks you to produce the same report but he / she gives you just one day to complete it. You will complete that report in one day because you’re a good worker and don’t want to let your boss down.

Are you going to work seven times as fast and put all the stuff that you would have done had you have had seven days to do it in the report? No of course not. Because you are up against time you will naturally only put in the report the most salient important facts and figures.

Either consciously or subconsciously you will apply the Pareto principle and look for the information that provides 80% of the gains and ditch or massively reduce the niff naff and trivia which really doesn’t add all that much.The Russians did this in the war. There was no time for red tape and bureaucracy. The 2 Ps had to be ruthlessly applied to the job in hand. There was no option.

Look at your life in general, take a step back and ask yourself in all honesty – do you apply The 2 Ps to your life? If you look back over the last 7 days how much of the stuff you did actually had a meaningful impact on the world? Be honest.

When reviewing my rider’s training I shake my head in exasperation when a session is curtailed and cut short because the rider had to stop and take and ‘’urgent’’ phone call from work. I think, was it really urgent? If the phone had been on silent and the call could not have been taken for another hour would anything terrible have happened? I think not.

All of us delude ourselves every day that everything we do is of critical importance when really it isn’t. We’ll never cure ourselves entirely of this but if we are aware of this and try to apply The 2 Ps we can get a lot me actual meaningful work done.

So how does this all apply to training?

Well I was inspired to write this article by three riders I coach. The first rider has started a new job and its very time demanding (I wonder if The 2 Ps are being applied here?). He also has a young family and told me that he just doesn’t have to the time train any more so he’s going to just mostly do running and the odd ride. He was doing maybe 7 to 8 hours a week of bike training and mainly he rode 10 and 25 mile TTs.

Now I look at what he is doing and he is probably doing maybe 4 to 5 hours a week of random bike riding and running. I have told him that off 4 or 5 hours a week we can get him to a level where he can be nearly as good as he was at 25s and possibly even better at 10s I we simply apply The 2 Ps to that 4 or 5 hours but he just won’t have it. In his mind that is simply not enough training to be competitive so he won’t even try. Typed here it seems illogical but we all have certain strange rules and beliefs that we follow that really do not stand up to critical argument.

I coach another guy who has it in his head that he needs to do a certain amount of hours and achieve a certain level of training stress to do be at the level he needs to be at. This level of training is now very hard to achieve due to other factors in his life and trying to achieve it is making him tired and miserable.

I moot the idea that we could slash his training volume in half and he would go quicker and most importantly enjoy his training again. But again he won’t listen. He will either continue trying to cram the level of training into his life that makes him miserable or he won’t train at all – which again would make him miserable. Hmm.

Rider three is a guy who also has a very demanding job. He gets very little sleep and in recent times he had a bit of a health scare. The level of training we were doing was already pretty low. Perhaps five or six hours a week on a big week and a pretty modest overall training stress score.

But it was clear that even this was too much. So we decided to slash the volume and ruthlessly apply The 2 Ps. Only the most important key elements of his training were kept.

Training is a game of ever diminishing returns. Say for example you ride for 90 minutes at a tempo intensity (about 85% of the best power you can hold for an hour). 50% of the gains from that session would be realised in the first half hour of the session. After an hour perhaps 85% would have been bagged. That last half hour might only yield another 15%.

The flip side of the coin is that as training gains decrease, carry over fatigue increases. So that last half hour may only yield maybe 15% of the training gains but it probably makes the session around 30% more tiring and harder to recover from than an hour. Not much but if you have a rider who is sleep starved and over stressed these small margins can make the difference between staying healthy and getting ill.

So if you have rider who is struggling to recover it makes sense to utilise the areas of the training that give the best bang for buck in terms of effort in for gains out and slash the areas of training that produce not much gain for effort in but lots of pain!

He had been training four times a week. We upped training frequency to five times a week. Five shorter sessions rather than four longer sessions. Overall hours were cut from five to six a week to four to five and overall his weekly TSS (Training stress score) dropped by maybe 20%.

Bear in mind though not all TSS scores are equal. Though he had a lower weekly TSS than he used to this TSS was made up of that high yield good bang for your buck training stress that occurs in the early stages of a session. What happened? Numbers shot up. Mojo shot up. In fact general mojo has shot up to an extent that he is now talking about riding 100 mile and 12 hour TTs next year. I think we’ll be having words about that though!

We are all an experiment of one. Even though on the face of it the rider in the last example is doing what on the face of it isn’t much training we have nailed the sweet spot for him in terms of the training he can absorb around his life style and his body’s ability to recover.

If I could convince the other two riders to embrace The 2 Ps so would they. I haven’t given up yet. The fact is the vast majority of us train more than we need to.

I’ll talk about time trialling here for no other reason than fitness (power at lactate threshold) plays more of a part than tactics. E.g. the winner of a road race may not be the fittest rider. They may simply be the most race savvy.

If I were to look at the winner of most domestic time trials of a weekend I will find certain riders that trounce the field by some margin, week in week out. I am confident that with the majority of these riders (not all – I like to look at the weekly hours of top riders on strava and it’s clear that some are fully embracing The 2 Ps already) I could slash their overall training volume by a third or maybe even a half (assuming I made what was left really count) and it would have no discernible impact. They would still be clear winners.

By the same token if I were to move down to the middle part of the field I’m confident (and again I like to look at riders volume on strava – because I am very nosey) I could cut overall volume by a third to a half for most of these riders and it would have a profound effect. They’d get much faster!

A very good powerful rider will be able to get very close to their best level off maybe seven or eight hours a week tops. Doing twice that much will add very little. But if you’re young, have the right genetic make up and / or have very little stress in your life it doesn’t matter so much. You can absorb it.

If you’re not so good and / or have a lot of stress in your life then trying to match the training volume of the top riders is likely to simply make you worse. Remember we are all an experiment of one. More does not equal better. It’s about the optimum load for you.
Most people make the mistake of looking at how much time they can in theory train a week. Say ten hours a week. They then fill this ten hours. It doesn’t matter that it exhausts them. It doesn’t matter that it results in no progress. Remember Parkinson’s law. Because they have ten hours they put in tiring middle of the road riding to fill that ten hours, even though it’s not achieving much.

If that’s you I would urge you to step back and ruthlessly apply The 2 Ps. Slash everything that is of dubious value. If you’re regularly doing things like five x five min full on V02 Max intervals and are coming back shattered and seeing no gains. Cut it to three, or even two. If you’re doing four hour rides – slash them down to three hours tops or even two hours. If you are making no progress and it’s physically impossible for you to do more training – what have you got to lose?

It seems obvious and logical but most people aren’t logical. Without the objectivity of a coach we tend to train with our egos rather than our brains. We will continue to batter ourselves with a training schedule that doesn’t work or we will give up completely because anything else is just a sign of weakness. Madness.

Ruthlessly applying The 2 Ps to your training is liberating and it forces you to be creative. Imagine you train on average twelve hours a week and you have an FTP (functional threshold power / best 1 hour power) of 320 watts.

One day on the way to the chemist to by some cream for your terrible saddle sores you bump into a magic wizard (as you do). Said wizard offers you a deal. If you cut your training volume to a max of six hours a week for six months and in six months you still have an FTP of 320 watts – or better, he will give you 10 million pounds.

I think you’d have to be a bit odd (admittedly cyclists are mostly a bit odd) to not take a punt on that one. In all honesty do you not really believe that by cutting a lot of the excess baggage from your training you could not at least maintain that FTP? Of course you could.

In all probability you would increase your FTP because your training would be more focused and there would be more left over to allow your body to recover from it.

You would probably find having these limits both fun and liberating. Fun because you need to put more thought into your training and you get to think about how to really make those six hours count. That’s a creative process.Liberating because you would not be overcome with the constant irrational guilt that most competitive cyclists have that they should be doing more. You’d feel very guilty about doing more because you’d be kissing good bye to 10 million smackers!

If your performance is in the doldrums I urge you not to wait for a magic wizard with no money sense. Take a step back and look at your training and race results with a cold hard eye. If you can’t do that get someone else to do it for you. Once you’ve done that apply The 2 Ps religiously and set yourself a limit on how much you are going to train each week be that in terms of a maximum amount of time or a maximum TSS.

Like any change at first it will feel strange and you might not like it. But when you start to see your numbers going up and your race times going down you’ll start to like it. On top of that training will no longer be an exhausting drudge, it will become the joy it used to be before you found yourself sinking into the unwinnable war of more is always better.

John Morgan