Some lessons from Chris Carmichael’s book The Time Crunched Cyclist

I have to admit that I was pretty surprised by Chris Carmichael’s book The Time-Crunched Cyclist. When someone told me about it and dropped it off for me to read I figured I’d glance through it but did not think it would hold much for me. After all, my battle cry for years has been to ditch the roadie influence and stake a claim to our own training identity.

However, as soon as I saw that the book was based on getting max results for those who had less than 8 hours a week to train I was intrigued. When I saw that the entire program was based on intervals I was floored. Here is one of the best endurance coaches in the world saying that if you have less than 8 hours a week to devote to training then you are literally wasting your time taking the traditional “base miles” approach.

In the book he explained that over the years he noticed that his standard approach to training, which obviously works very well, was not yielding the types of results he expected for some riders. When he went back and checked to see what they had in common he realized that lack of training time was the common theme. It seemed that something just did not work with the standard “aerobic base training” approach when training time dipped below 8 hours per week.

He also realized that there were a lot of riders who fell into that category. It was not because of a lack of dedication but more a reflection of the realities faced by people as they got older and their responsibilities increased. Pursuing a career, raising a family and maintaining a life outside of riding all siphoned time away from training and that was time that was simply not coming back.

So, he looked at ways to get the fastest gains in the least amount of time and based on the research concluded that intervals were the answer (I told you guys that I don’t just make this stuff up). In fact, he points out in the book that even highly trained cyclists will not benefit from more volume but need more intensity in their program to continue to progress.

While I won’t bore you with all the details he cites several studies that show that interval training produces similar gains in VO2Max, mitochondrial density and other markers of aerobic fitness as seen in aerobic base training type approaches. Plus, they increase power at lactate threshold and VO2Max, something aerobic training does not which gives you a powerful bang-for-your-buck result for your time investment.

Chris claims that the interval based programs can help you across the board, from local crits to 100 milers and even multi-day tours. Of course, he does qualify that you won’t get the exact same results as you would from a more traditional volume based approach but if you don’t have the time to follow that approach then intervals are the best way to go.

Here are some other random tidbits I picked up:

– The higher your cadence (more than 90 revolutions per minute) the more of a cardiovascular demand is placed on the body. The lower the cadence (70 – 85 revolutions per minute) the more strength you are applying into the pedals and the higher the muscular strength demand is. Since you can control your cadence on the road you can get away with maximizing the aerobic side but since trail riding doesn’t lend itself well to constant high cadences we need more muscular strength than roadies.

– Chris says that in order maximize your limited fitness levels you need to learn to pedal less. Pedaling takes energy and if you can pedal less you expend less energy, meaning that you have more when you need it. Chris used examples like staying near the front of the lead pack, limiting your “pulls” and other roadie specific stuff but I took it a different way.

Learning how to corner and how to “pump” terrain will help mountain bikers pedal less and conserve energy better. I see this all the time when I ride – I pedal far less than most riders yet I go just as fast thanks to getting my butt out of the seat and working the flow of the trail. I also have more energy to put into climbs and technical sections when the time comes. All of this adds up to me being able to hang on 4+ hour rides despite never training to do so.

– Interval training will lead to the best performance in rides or races lasting less than 3 hours. Last time I checked most XC races and all Super D, downhill, 4X and even MegaAvalanche races were less than 3 hours long. Even laps in 24 hour races are less than 3 hours when you are competing with a team. You have to get into the real extremes of mountain biking to get into events lasting longer than 3 hours.

I realized that the roadies are obsessed with riding for longer time periods than we are. They want to be able to ride a century and base their training around that goal. The vast majority of mountain biking doesn’t require 8 hours in the saddle and basing your training plan on the off chance that you will find yourself competing in the Leadville 100 is kind of crazy. If your average ride or race is less than 3 hours then you may actually be better off concentrating on intervals even if you had more than 8 hours a week to train.

– I do have to say that I was very disappointed in the “strength training” section of the book. He kind of talks out of both sides of his mouth on this one – his basic take is that the science is inconclusive and that a time crunched cyclist would be better off spending all of his training time on the bike.

However, he also said that he knows for sure that strength training will make you a more resilient athlete and that only sitting on a bike to train will lead to massive movement, mobility and strength imbalances. How you can acknowledge that and then say that you don’t need to strength train is beyond me. As I mentioned in a previous article, if you were saved from 1 or 2 major injuries and several minor ones thanks to strength training, wouldn’t you be fitter in the end than a cyclist who missed training time due to those injuries?

Also, there is no evidence that he understands 21st century strength training principles. For example, he recommends an exercise that encourages movement in the lumbar spine and says that it is good because those same muscles are responsible for resisting movement. The joint by joint approach to training tells us that if you want to train an area to resist movement you don’t accomplish it by teaching it to create movement, you do it by using exercises that teach it to resist movement.

All in all it was a very interesting read. Obviously Chris is not a strength coach, which is why I wish he would leave the strength training advice to the strength coaches, but the gist of the book was right in line with what I have been saying for years. If you don’t have the amount of time that pros do to devote to training then you can not follow a watered down version of their program. You need something totally different – an approach that relies more on intensity than volume to deliver results.

So, if you pick it up to read take it with a grain of salt. Remember that a roadie has a very different idea about what they want out of training, that road cycling has different cardio and strength needs than we do and that strength training is important for reasons that go beyond the surface level looked at by Chris.

However, the take home message is pretty simple – intervals are the future of cardio training for endurance sports. Their advantages are undeniable and the time investment is much more palatable for the average rider. You don’t have to have a giant “aerobic base” to be successful and trying to get one without the required time is a waste of time.

-James Wilson-

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  1. WAKi says:

    It feels a bit upside down compared what I read in your program, but I totaly respect you for really trying different stuff yourself before writing about it. I’m a bit tired of business/sport/diet philosophies attacking from everywhere. Stuff gets really really down, and all it does it just destroys authority of true “scientists”. I just heard from my work mate that she read a book about sugar, and you have to be careful with eating too much fruit, as there’s som much sugar in them… there’s too much advice of “how to get there” by “I’ve never been there”.

    So again respect for actualy trying it before speaking your mind. Though I stick to the heavy breakfast and lunch with eating every 3 hours with 10g of protein + fruit with every meal. It works great for me, I keep good weight and I don’t feel hungry too much – less hunger, less bad choices as you said in some podcast 😉

    Reply • December 21 at 5:46 am
  2. Mark says:

    I read this and also like what he preached (except for the strenght training aspect as you mention). One thing which does confuse me is what exactly are you meant to do when you are not on the TCC 11 week cycle!? I intend to start the TC program at the start of April with a view to peaking at the end of May so what should I be doing between now and April? Should it be base building as for example Joe Friel type programs or another form of TCC interval training? Have you any take on this James. Great website btw.

    Reply • December 23 at 1:15 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      I am not too sure what you are supposed to do in that case although I don’t think that long, slow distance is ever the answer. Personally, I’d spend the time getting strong and mobile so you can maximize your time in that training block.

      Glad you like the website, thanks for the compliment…

      Reply • December 23 at 1:37 pm
  3. Gary says:

    I spent two springs ago trying the TCC workout. Overall I have the same take on it as James. It worked rather well, but my strength training was poor so I suffered on the XC circuit here on the East Coast. I had a month or so of time before my TCC time started so I spent time familiarizing myself with the workouts in the first few weeks of his program, doing balance drills and riding my bike hard in the woods. It worked well for me, but was too roadie focused for what I needed to do. YMMV. I’d defer to James though, which is what I plan to do this year.

    Reply • December 24 at 9:50 am
  4. Dave Everson says:

    Chris has the financial resources to do the research to prove his theories. And the time crunched workouts do indeed work very efficiently. As mountain bikers, you can improvise a bit and instead of doing everything on the road, hit the trails and do some of the explosive intervals standing and exploding up a climb for example. Or if you live in Chicago and trails are mooshy slop, this workout will have you in great shape for when the trails dry out. My best combo is the strength training drill by MTB James, especially hitting the strength over the winter 3x a week. Then in Spring cut the strength to 2x a week and start the time crunch cyclist drills for 12 weeks along with a new 12 wk cycle of James strength training. Then I believe you will be an off road rocket. And over the winter try some of James 1 minute power intervals to maintain your fitness on the bike.

    Reply • December 26 at 10:05 am
  5. Kreso says:

    I read the book, and even started with competitor plan for 4 weeks, when I got baby, and had to postpone training… Now I’m back, and since I’m planing to attend some endurance MTB events decision is start with experience century program (I have older version of this book without MTB dedicated chapter).

    My question is how to incorporate strength training with kettlebells in weekly training program? There are 4 days in a week on bike, only three to recover. Is it smart to perform strength training on rest days or is it better to put them in the same day as bike training (morning bike – afternoon strength)?

    Thank you in advance!

    You are doing great job with your training system. Here in Croatia I know a few guys that are following your program.

    Best regards,

    Reply • March 31 at 7:09 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      I think you may have missed the point of the review – there are several issues I have with the workouts in that book both in general and for mountain biking specifically. Strength training is a must and any program that doesn’t integrate it into the overall approach is flawed in my opinion. Plus, if you are hitting the trail a couple times a week you don’t need to spend 4 days doing extra cardio. You would be much better off using one of my programs – like the Ultimate MTB Workouts Program – if you want to see better results on the trail and spend less time training to get there.

      Reply • March 31 at 10:17 am
  6. Simon says:

    This is the second article on this site that I have read so I may be missing something here but… isn’t most XC mountain biking essentially interval training? The rides I do are typically winding single track with snappy up-hills of maybe 25 to 100m and similar down hills. I find that the hills act like intervals since they are often the most aerobically/anaerobically challenging. On the downhill’s you recover before the next “interval”. Just my 2c.


    Reply • June 26 at 8:00 pm

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