Junk Miles

Eddie Merckx, the greatest cyclist in history, is famous for saying that his secret training technique was to "ride lots." Modern cycling coaches have to fight that quote again and again, like an undead zombie. For one thing, guys like him didn't just ride lots, they also raced lots, often several times a week. They even invented cyclocross so they could train during the winter to be ready for early-season races. But the result of his quote is that many cyclists still follow that approach. They ride lots, and then wonder why they never win.

Enter the Cold War. East-Block countries started using sports as a way of proving the superiority of the Socialist system. Periodization was the secret weapon they came up with to fight Western athletes. It worked. Tiny East Germany was usually third in the Olympic medals chase, behind the Soviet Union and USA. Crazy.

Most coaches today set up a carefully designed periodized schedule of workouts for their athletes, with a specific workout for each day of the entire year. These workouts vary intensity and volume, usually in an inverse relationship, so that the athletes "peak" for priority competitions. I, for instance, followed a periodized program for the first time during the 2007 season and had my best season ever, by far. Sure beats the "ride lots" approach! I followed the guidelines set forth by Joe Friel in his book Cyclist's Training Bible (mostly), deviating by not doing his recommended weight trainning, but generally doing a good job.

But classic periodization also involves lots of easy "base" miles, just like Eddie did. And those miles are the ones the best coaches now question. Some even call them "junk miles."

Two good friends with impressive resumes, Chris Tanner and Mark Edwards, have led me to question the value of base miles too. They only ride with intensity; every ride involves pain. Yet both are super strong racers. Mark even does long road races which is where you'd most benefit, in theory, from lots of base miles; his weekly training volume isn't a whole lot more than the two- or three-hour road races he excels in. Chris doesn't even touch his bike until April, but is winning races after just a few weeks of riding.

There are a lot of precedents for this questioning. Even classic periodization coaches tell their athletes that if they only have limited time they should only do the intense workouts. And periodization calls for dropping the base miles in order to peak for a race. It seems everybody agrees intensity is more important.

All of this has led many excercise physiologists to take that one step further: Why not just drop all of those low-intensity workouts? This is where I am at now.

I feel that my constant load of base miles merely makes me too tired to conduct my intense workouts at full power. So wouldn't I be better off not doing those "junk miles" at all? We shall see.

I have no doubt I will continue to ride "junk miles" because I also bike-commute. It's hard to ride with intensity every single day, and I try not to drive much. I just need to balance my volume and intensity better, and will also add intensity into my off-season rides.


Steve Rosen said…
Hi Dennis,

Great post - and I have a couple of articles for you to check out, with regards to shorter, intense training sessions (t-max intervals):


And here's someone's blog entry that is related to that article about t-max interval training:


It looks like we might want to make the big investment in power meters - but even if we don't, it looks like I see lots of suffering on the horizon... :)

I just happened to read a current article in Bicycling magazine - it's called "The Ultimate Interval" and it's about this pro cyclist, Peter Herzig, that is a convert to this approach to training...