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

I have to admit that I was pretty surprised by Chris Carmichael’s new 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. Agustin Farias says:

    James, I was actually at a local bike shop here in Phoenix last week where Chris Carmichael did a Q&A and book signing on his TCTP. I asked him about any advice on his book for mountain bike specific training. He said something that in a way contradicts your training methods: “to train for mountain biking you have to spend about 80% of your time on the road. Since MTB is quite physically intense with your body you need that much time on the road bike to improve your aerobic capacity. And then some time on MTB to improve your skills”

    What’s your take on this advice ? Since I love MTB but not road riding that much, I’ve been debating with the idea of getting a road bike to better train for MTB racing. What I have tried for the interval training is use a stationary indoor trainer on my mountain bike. This seems to have worked and is less expensive than needing a Road bike.

    Reply • November 23 at 11:59 am
    • bikejames says:

      @ Agustin – I had to sleep on that one, it really pissed me off when I first read it. It is possibly one of the dumbest things I have ever heard. However, I think that I can sum up my response like this…

      When all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.

      Chris is a great road cycling coach but he is pretty one dimensional with his tool box. He looks at the world through the prism of a road bike with a power meter. His answer to everything is obviously to ride a road bike with a power meter, even if your sport is not road cycling.

      I do think that it is funny how he cites the Specificity Principle in his book as a reason for Time Crunched Roadies to skip strength training. His take is that in order to get better at riding a road bike you need to be out on the road bike as much as possible and so you don’t have time for the gym. I guess Specificity only applies to his sport?

      The truth is that Chris is not a mountain biker. Just because you own a mountain bike don’t make you a mountain biker. Reading through the book his idea of a good mountain bike ride is the Leadville 100. I’m sorry, I know that this will piss some people off but if you can ride 100 miles of it, it ain’t mountain biking. That is road riding on dirt and the two are not the same thing.

      That is the problem with training for our sport – you have well meaning coaches from other sports who dabble in ours who try to apply what they know from their sport to ours.

      I’ve got a series of articles on this site called The Top 3 Reasons to Leave the Skinny Tires to the Roadies. It sums up my take on the approach of using another sports tool for our sport. I mean, we must be the only sport in the world that is told to rely primarily on another sport to train for ours. I think that it is pretty insulting.

      If you are not a roadie then don’t ride a road bike. We are our own sport and it is time we told guys like Chris thanks but no thanks, we don’t need you telling us that your sport is a better way to train for ours.

      Reply • November 24 at 8:13 am
  2. Chris Kilmurray says:

    I think Alwyn Cosgrove said that you should never just read books you think you’ll like! Point proven here I think!

    Reply • November 23 at 12:54 pm
  3. Agustin, you opened up a can of worms with that question. Search the archives for his posts on road training for mountain biking. In a nutshell James thinks it is a complete waste of time, his arguments are very interesting and worth reading. As a skills coach and a pro racer I agree with James for other reasons and the ones he states. There are a few things I dislike about road riding; 1. riding singletrack is much more mentally stressful than road riding so you are not training you body/brain to deal with the mental stress of mtbing when on the road (I stress getting mental and emotional recovery in my skills camps as well as physical recovery) 2. Your bike set up is different, skinnier bars on your road bike, possibly a higher seat, narrower bottom bracket etc. James really dislikes the similar but different training of the road bike. 3. Mountain bikming is much more demanding on your upper body than road riding. 4. Time on your road bike or your mtb won’t improve your skills, learning the correct, often counter intuitive skills of mtbing and doing drills to master these skills will improve your skills

    Well thats my take on road riding for mtb training, definitely find James’s articles on the subject.

    Reply • November 23 at 6:54 pm
  4. Paul Holzman says:

    I’m a big proponent of training with power (ie measuring watts) using a powermeter on the bike. Now I agree doing interval training may be the best for MTB cardio training. However, it is very difficult and nearly impossible to get good quality intervals in your target power zones when riding on a MTB on a trail. This is due to such things as sudden changes in terrain, gradient, steering and manuvering the MTB. However on the road (using your MTB or road bike), you can more effectively target and train in the proper power zones for the specified amount of time and repetitions. So I believe some “road” riding is necessary for interval training but obviously trail riding is necessary also to develop other skills.

    Reply • November 23 at 7:51 pm
    • bikejames says:

      @ Paul – I totally agree with you. In fact, in my Ultimate MTB Workout Program I advise you to do the cardio workouts on a trainer indoors so you can control as many variables as possible. And if you need to get out on the road just do it on your mountain bike.

      However, given the difficulty to train with a power meter on the trail I would also have to say that its direct application to the trail is not as great as in road cycling. Road cycling is simply a different sport and requires a different approach. We need more strength and technical skills and need to budget our training time accordingly.

      Reply • November 24 at 8:01 am
  5. RHS says:

    I hit the ground hard on the weekend and am 99% sure that without the natural armour created I would not have been able to ride for a good couple of weeks!

    Regarding ride/comp length. I will be taking part in european enduro races (Multiple Super d’s throughout a day with climbing to reach the tracks) and feel on the fence about intervals/base.

    On one hand I know that intervals are an absolute must to recreate the racing but the length of the day (9-5), vertical ascension (1500m+) and intensity of racing must call for a base to fall back on? Or is that base created through structured interval training?

    Reply • November 25 at 2:49 am
  6. RHS says:

    [i]Just because you own a mountain bike don’t make you a mountain biker. Reading through the book his idea of a good mountain bike ride is the Leadville 100. I’m sorry, I know that this will piss some people off but if you can ride 100 miles of it, it ain’t mountain biking. That is road riding on dirt and the two are not the same thing.[/i]

    And that is the reason I just broke out my credit card to get your workouts in full!

    Reply • November 25 at 3:00 am
  7. Agustin Farias says:

    @James & @Gene,

    Thanks for your answers. I have to say that I agree with both of you 100%. Actually now that I think about it, wouldn’t it be great to have a joint Q&A between you guys and Chris Carmichael? Since all of you live & train in CO this should not be too difficult to organize, right!? Or at the least invite Chris to this forum. It will be fun to watch… BTW, you too should think on writing a book!

    Best regards from sunny AZ (it’s the best time of the year to go out MTB riding in here!)


    Reply • November 25 at 10:43 am
  8. Walt says:

    Well, I wouldn’t say road riding is bad for mtb riding. Who says you have to ride a road bike? I know a great xc racer (also very skilled – 6′ drops on a xc bike) who rides out to the trails from town (10 miles each way) to do his 30 mile loop on single track and he says that the road part is what really makes him stronger. I think when Chris C. was talking about mt. biking he was talking about xc racing period. Downhill, freeride and all mountain riding is different and requires a different training style. That’s what James focuses on. A great downhill rider that I know weighs 240 lbs and is built like the probverbial brick shithouse. But there is no way that dude is going to win a xc race. If ever James wanted to win regional xc race, he would find that he’s going to have to put more time on a bike (but it doesn’t have to be a road bike) pushing a big gear or a long time to get the fitness needed to win. The gym training helps but it helps you out or gravity riding a lot more.

    Reply • November 25 at 11:23 am
  9. Andrew Brautigam says:

    If you can ride a hundred miles of it it isn’t mountain biking? Seriously? Talk about ignorance. Leadville is an abberation in the world of endurance mountain biking.

    While I do think that strength training has some value to mountain bikers, riding your bike has the most value. If you want to be good at something, do it as much as possible. Other types of training (cross training, weight training, etc) should be done only as much as it takes to achieve the desired results – staying injury free, balanced, etc.

    If you want to be good at riding a mountain bike for 3+ hours, ride your mountain bike a lot.

    Reply • November 25 at 1:25 pm
  10. michael says:

    i just read this book and thought it was amazingly informative and well written. i live in a ski resort and will adapt his plan so i can build on this summers fitness for next summers racing. i am now going to buy his other book the ultimate ride which he says is training for people with a little more time on there hands. the only thing that puts me off is the plan gives you a short peak of fitness hence my adaptation of his recommended plan and the reading of the ultimate ride.

    Reply • November 25 at 5:10 pm
  11. Dave Everson says:

    I like to mix up my riding and when trails are soaked in Chicaogoland, it’s nice to get out and ride a skinny tire bike now and then. But come race time on the trails, the best way I know how to prepare is to stick to trails and stick to a mountain bike. I do the strength combo training and on the days between do James interval program. They do the same thing. Increase your time doing intensity work and decrease your recovery time between hammering. Get through the 12 week cycle and, if you really do it with dedication and intensity, you’re ready to fly. Take a short recovery period between, then start another 12 weeks. Each 12 week session you get stronger and faster, not only in the weight room, but on the trails. It’s really simple and it works. It sure beats the old 9 – 12 month periodization time tables I used to develop and follow.

    Reply • November 27 at 8:58 am
  12. bikejames says:

    Just to clarify my point, I am in no way saying that strength training is more important than riding your mountain bike…unless your weaknesses are things that can only be addressed with it. If you have strength and mobility imbalances then there is no way to address them on the bike and as long as you have those imbalances you will not get the results from riding your bike that you are looking for.

    Also, I do think that XC racing is different than trail riding and I certainly do lean more towards trail riding/ all mountain riding with my advice. However, as I will explain in an article I have planned for next week, XC racers ignore the advantages that getting more All Mountain skills and fitness provide at their own peril.

    Reply • November 27 at 9:36 am
  13. Big Chris says:

    I think it is simple here and fitness training options and not really a Roadie vs Mtn Biker debate at all.

    Nice review of the CM book. Good point on the strength training gap. As a life long cyclist an I have never found anything he has offered to be revolutionary but take away something regardless. or I just don’t get his style…I remember him on VS. during a Tour years ago telling us all we need to drink water like Lance and shut the dude out after that….my bad

    The point of the long miles on a road bike for me is discipline and routine given the time needed. But the base miles never made me faster. Why I fail to apply discipline and routine to intervals and strength is beyond me. But I have now and notice the difference

    I have scrapped my old “base training” miles program for more intervals with in the same allotted time on the bike and have noticed a huge difference right away both Mtn and Road. Adding strength and stretching like you have laid out here has made me a better roadie and my acceleration is better climbing on the road bike. All that “base training” never got me over the top level anyway.

    BTW monitoring my Heart Rate in the intervals and recovery seems to benefit me. The one key is recover time between intervals. What are your thoughts

    The one real question i have is warm up time on any bike. I need a lot of time to warm up before I can hammer. For example if I am on a road ride and the guys hit it hard early I am done for the rest of the ride. On the other hand if I take time to warm up, like 10-12 miles, I can hammer them longer. Same on a mountain bike. If I hammer hard on the climbs early I am toast. Regardless of conditioning.

    any advice on a time efficient warn up for the heart rate in the saddle?.

    Reply • January 4 at 11:56 am
    • bikejames says:

      @ Big Chris – You can train yourself to adapt to pretty much anything. If you are taking an extended warm up before your intervals then your body will get used to that and “need” it when you ride. If you try to cut down your warm up to 5 minutes before doing your interval training it will feel harder at first but your body will adapt to hammering sooner without the extended warm up and you’ll see that on your rides. Hope this helps…

      Reply • January 5 at 2:13 pm
  14. Keith says:

    Read Tim Ferris ‘4HR Body’. There is a section on how to run an ultra marathon without killing yourself by running countless ‘junk miles’ as a training tool.

    The mindset is based on crossfit guru Kelly Starrett’s belief that strength training (kettlebells and olympic style lifts) will provide the runner with the necessary ‘gears’ to complete an ultra.

    Nonetheless…a very interesting take on how training for endurance events has changed in the last 10 years. BTW US Special Forces and other SPECOPS operators are using outside strength coaches in a program called THOR3 at Ft. Bragg. Less injuries on the battlefield. No more running countless miles and bodybuilding routines! Good read for sure!

    Reply • January 4 at 2:12 pm

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