Fall Transition – Keep the Intensity?

With #CXisCOMING the hashtag for many of us and the fall season arriving, it’s time to start thinking about transitioning out of peak summer cycling form. Should we think about just riding easy during this period, or including a bit of intense work?

stephen cheung cross
No ‘cross last year for Dr Stephen

Cranking up Summer Fitness
Thanks to my broken/dislocated foot from 2019 and COVID-19 in 2020, that was two years without any racing or competition for me. Luckily for me, I love riding my bike and competition is only one facet of why I love the sport.

Even without a competitive goal or club training rides and races, I’ve spent this summer working on riding solo pushing my Fitness Signature as high as I could get it. This involved a pretty polarized approach to training. Namely, I was mostly riding at endurance pace, sprinkled in with a weekly MTB ride where I let the terrain dictate intensity, then every 10 days or so a ridiculously hard all-out interval effort.

I’ve been pretty successful in maximizing my Xert Fitness Signature, with a Threshold Power of 240 W, High Intensity Energy of 26.0 kJ, and a Peak Power of 1164 W.

How to Detrain
Now I’m flat out into teaching two courses online and getting my lab reopened, but CX in on the horizon, I’m already starting to think about transitioning my fitness and building up for the winter of 2022/23.

The first thing I, and most non-professional and professional racers, should be doing is to take time off the bike. Taking a break completely off the bike is not just about physical recovery, it is a mental necessity to get off the regulated training mindset.

When you find yourself waking up in the morning and thinking “I HAVE to laugh today” rather than “I GET to ride today,” regardless of time of year, it’s almost always a sure sign that you need a mental or physical break.

For me, I’m planning an off-bike break starting in mid-October, with the Canadian Thanksgiving leading into our university’s Reading Week. Personally, I’ll be keeping active with a rock climbing trip with our older son.

Almquist et al. 2020
Until then, I’ve got three weeks of a shoulder season and transition. A perfect time to explore a new study by Nicki Almquist and colleagues in Norway (Almquist et al. 2020). What they looked at was what elite cyclists can do during a three-week transition period following a season of racing. Should they just reduce volume and ride at low intensity? Or should they look to add some short but intense efforts? If the intense efforts can help maintain fitness, will it do so at the expense of added mental load?

Here’s the experimental setup:

  • Two groups of elite Norwegian cyclists with VO2max of 73.4 mL/kg/min (sprint or SPR group) and 71.3 (control = CON). Wmax were 439 and 442 W, respectively, and training load in the prior 30 days averaged 14 and 12 h/week.
  • The 3-week transition phase started 3-5 days after the final competitions of the season. Training load decreased by about 64% during this period. The CON group performed 12 sessions of low-intensity training.
  • The SPR group did 13 sessions. All were low-intensity except for once a week, when they performed 3×3 sets of 30 s all-out efforts, with 4 min between efforts and 15 min between sets.
  • Pre- and post-testing included VO2max, a lactate threshold test, a seated 6-s sprint, a series of 30-s max sprints, and a 20 min time trial. Strength testing was also done with a leg-press protocol.
  • Mental freshness was measured using a 15-question Athlete Burnout Questionnaire. Each question was rated on a scale from 1-5 of agreement, with a sample question being: “I feel so tired from my training that I have trouble finding energy to do other things.”

jumbo camp 22
You can have some nice training days in the fall

Keeping Things Sharp
The study comes from the always-reliable lab of Bent Rønnestad, and I felt that it was quite well-designed and performed overall. A strength was in the use of elite athletes, along with the comprehensive test battery providing insights into multiple aspects of physical capacity compared to a single test such as VO2max. The addition of the burnout questionnaire is critical, as any benefits can be moot if it leads to athlete burnout exactly at the period where they should be mentally recovering.

  • Not surprisingly, specificity comes into play, and the SPR group had an improvement in 30-s sprint power compared to no change to a slight decrease in CON.
  • 6s sprint power remained similar across both groups pre- and post, with no decay over time in either.
  • 20 min time trial power did not differ comparing SPR and CON. However, when looked at over the three weeks, it was better maintained in SPR.
  • VO2max and Wmax remained similar across the two groups over the testing period.
  • No major differences were found in the burnout questionnaire. However, there was a trend towards the CON group having a reduced sense of accomplishment or feeling of value to their training.

Keep it Light or Hit it Out?
Overall, in this cohort of elite cyclists, there were relatively minimal changes in overall fitness regardless of the transition program. Importantly, the SPR group had slight benefits in physical fitness, and this was done without additional mental strain. So it can be argued that this would better set one up for the off-season by maximizing your overall fitness going into it.

Flip that around though, and the question must be asked whether fitness maintenance is ultimately the priority for the transition period. I would argue that fitness is actually NOT the priority, but that mental freshness is. So from this perspective, program your transition in a way that makes you happiest.

If that means just fun and easy coffee rides, this study should give you support in that three weeks of drastically reduced training (64% reduction) will NOT significantly harm your fitness. So absolutely do not get stressed about the reduced activity and focus on whatever is fun.

However, if you want to have fun peppering some rides with a townline sprint or attacking the odd hill here or there during this transition period, then this study suggests that that’s not wrong or detrimental either.

The important thing, really, is to take a break. It can be completely off the bike or it can involve a reduced training. Then gear up for a stronger and faster 2023!

Laugh fast and have fun!

Stephen just loves riding his bike


Almquist NW, Løvlien I, Byrkjedal PT, et al (2020) Effects of Including Sprints in One Weekly Low-Intensity Training Session During the Transition Period of Elite Cyclists. Front Physiol 11:. https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2020.01000

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