Why “working harder” isn’t always the answer…

Something that has come up recently with some new Distance Coaching Clients is the danger of replacing Focus (your ability to think about what you are doing and how you are doing it) with Intensity (your ability to do a lot and/ or work hard). They are worried that since I am asking them to take a step back and work on improving their Focus during their workouts they are going to miss out on the lack of Intensity and lose fitness. This can be tough to buy into at first, especially since we have been raised in a fitness culture that equates how you hard train with the type of results you get.

Intensity and Focus are the Yin and Yang of the weight room – too much Focus and not enough Intensity and you end up weak, too much Intensity and not enough Focus and you end up burned out and injured.

How can you be improving as a rider when you aren’t working as hard as the next guy?

What I tell them is that most riders (and coaches on some level) don’t really know what to work on and so they tend to work on everything as hard as they can to make up for it. When you understand your real weak links and have a plan to address them you don’t have to train like a maniac because your energies are better focused.

Remember that when you are working hard you are simply cementing your current moving and breathing patterns. You have to be very careful about what type of movement and breathing habits you are ingraining since that is what you will fall back on when you are tired on the trail.

This means that you have to assess your movement and breathing gaps since they are the fundamental building blocks for your sport specific fitness. If these gaps exist then the fastest way to improve is to address them. While you want to compete with your strengths it is your gaps that will eventually dictate how far you go as a rider and how injury free you remain doing it.

To do this you have to use more mental than physical energy during your workouts. It is very tough to make any sort of change or improvements when you are exhausted. If you are working on moving or breathing better you have to work at an intensity that allows you to still think about and consciously correct your mistakes.

When done correctly, this type of workout is surprisingly hard since you are highlighting and attacking your weaknesses. Granted, it is a different kind of “hard” compared to the workout where you set a new PR in a lift or find yourself on the floor, waiting for the world to stop spinning before you can go on with your day after a cardio workout.

But that kind of “hard” is rather cheap and easy, which is why it is the fallback for those that don’t know what else to do. It is the other kind of hard, the one that comes from laser-like Focus on correcting your mistakes, that needs to be woven into your program in order to give you a better base to apply Intensity from.

Intensity and Focus are the Yin and Yang of the weight room – too much Focus and not enough Intensity and you end up weak, too much Intensity and not enough Focus and you end up burned out and injured.

So yes, the rider who is working on some simple program of the core kettlebell exercises and patterning their breathing through some jumping rope intervals while only breathing through their nose is making more progress than the rider who is working “harder” but has some serious movement and breathing issues.

If you need to Focus on improving how you move and breathe then no matter how much Intensity you throw at the problem you will always get sub-par results. Focus on improving your gaps, use Intensity to improve your strengths and don’t try to replace one with the other.

-James Wilson-

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  1. Paul says:

    James, I am yet to read one of your articles that doesn’t make complete sense, and I’ve been reading your stuff now for 3 years!!

    Reply • January 28 at 9:22 am
  2. Brian says:

    The breathing. Are you referring to when an athlete reaches their lactate threshold or goes anaerobic. I notice my breathing really change while on long climbs with increased effort(anaerobic?) with increased rate and depth and become a loud mouth breather. I always thought it was to blow off more co2 to help clear the lactate. It gets better the more hill work I do but it’s always there. Anyway, why nose breathing?
    Respectfully . . .

    Reply • January 28 at 1:33 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      No, it has more to do with how you breath than what is happening metabolically. How you breathe does affect what is happening metabolically, it is just a fundamentally different thing.

      Check out this video on Swing Breathing Ladders to see what I am talking about and a specific way to train it.

      Breathing through the nose forces you to use the diaphragm and self limits your breathing – you can’t start to rely on bad mouth breathing habits to keep working harder and how hard you work is dictated by how efficiently you can breathe. While you won’t breathe exclusively through the nose on the trail the principles of nose driven breathing is the same and once you have that down it you’ll able to work harder yet maintain your breathing and heart rate better.

      How you breathe matters since “cardio training” is essentially cementing your breathing habits. You can’t work as hard but you’ll be forced to focus on your breathing. Learn the lessons and then go back to working hard and you’ll get more out of it,.

      Reply • January 28 at 4:01 pm

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