Tales of torment from the turbo trainer
It’s time. The bar tape does not need changing. The brake blocks are not worn out. Even the bottles are washed. I’ve run out of displacement activities. There is no other excuse available. It’s time for a trainer session.
But wait. You can’t just get on the trainer and pedal; that’s insane, pointless. You need to plan a session. What should I do? A threshold session, or a hard intervals workout?
Threshold: I’ve been doing that once or twice a week, the last three weeks; it’s not that it’s too easy, but I know I’m kind of plateauing if I just do another hour of threshold efforts. The racing season now is, what, not much more than a month away. In my heart of hearts, I know it’s time to up the ante. Ugh.
So, it’s got to be intervals, I guess. Sigh. But what kind? I mean, there are intervals, and intervals. Do I just want to do some intervals? Or should I really do some intervals?
Oh God, not the Tabata Protocol. That’s just some crazy sadistic physiology experiment gone wrong. And not the 2×20 IT effort. Almost as bad. I am not looking for a benchmark number here.
If I wanted that, then I’d do it properly: book a ramp test and have some guy in a white coat prick my thumb every three minutes for three-quarters of an hour. Amazing how giving blood-lactate samples makes time fly.
Speaking of which, this question of what kind of session I should do is starting to turn into another displacement activity, whereas the training manual I am constantly writing in my head has motivational subheadings that say things like: “Thinking about intervals is not doing intervals”.
So, what then? Decision time. The choice is, basically, blocks or steps: supra-threshold blocks could be 3×8, with 2-minute rests; with warm-up, warm-down, that’s an hour.
Or steps — aka Russian Steps (as opposed to Steppes? That must be some coach’s idea of cracking wordplay) — 1-min, 2-min, 3-min etc near-maximal efforts, with 2-min rests, and then back down the scale.
I like this workout: one, because it varies more than most and that helps with the everlasting brain-death quality of the trainer session; and two, because in my fantasy-cycling imagination, it replicates the unpredictable variety of race-type efforts.
(In reality, as we know, there is no trainer session yet devised — including the ramp test, aka test-to-exhaustion — that fully replicates the turn-yourself-inside-out, balls-to-the-wall intensity that you will demand of yourself in actual race efforts.)
There is also the Criss-Cross interval session. I’m not even going into the detail, but the theory is that, instead of doing a steady-state interval at, or just above, threshold, you induce greater adaptation (training manual parlance for improvement) by shifting back and forth, above and below, the threshold sweet spot.
By the way, sweet spot: what a misnomer. Working out at threshold is simultaneously really boring and just uncomfortable enough to be really unpleasant. That’s like the opposite of a sweet spot, the non-sweet spot, the anti-sweet spot.
Training manuals are full of this kind of cheerful denialism of the basic deal of training, which is: no pain, no gain. If it’s not hurting, you’re not doing it properly. That’s why I don’t waste my time with the Criss-Cross session: it’s too easy, your body just finds a way to game it.
So, steps it is. Time to set up. Trainer, check. Bike locked in, check. Fan on, check. (Actually, I ride on the roof of my building: nature does the fanning. Or it doesn’t, in which case… ) Sweatband on, check. Towel on top tube, check. Press Start.
I know some guys roll with pumping bass, fast techno, angry rap, whatever. Me, I need the spoken word to keep my mind above the hellish monotony of the stationary bike ride. Radio news if it’s early morning. Maybe podcasts at the weekend. Occasionally, an audiobook if I’m going all-out for the mens sana in corpore sano self-improvement thing.
I actually subscribe to the trainer school of literary criticism: it’s got to be some wizard prose-wrangling and killer storytelling to make effective distraction from the clock-slowing hurt-tedium of holding 300 watts for 3 minutes.
Philip Roth? Nice words, but not enough narrative drive. Joseph Heller? Way too picaresque, just loses me — and leaves me all on my own with that eternal last minute of the interval. Fyodor Dostoevsky? Only insofar as the world of The Brothers Karamazov makes the interval seem like fun.
Read: Matt Seaton – dirty stories of shame, grime and bad habits
But Henry James — you might not think so, but it works: plot, character, wit, and, perhaps most useful of all, one of his sentences quite often lasts 3 minutes.
The rest is just counting up and counting down: the warm-up; the first block done; halfway through; one more block… finished! Warm-down, dismantle, shower and done.
The payoff for all the bad anticipation and dreary execution is the deferred gratification of that leg-burn you feel when you climb the stairs later in the day, the ticklish ache in your hard-worked lungs, the slow beat of your tired heart. And the knowledge that you won’t have to repeat the routine for a whole, blissful 48 hours.
From issue 45 of Rouleur.
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