Back Off

Steady Burn

May 1, 2000
Outside Magazine

LANCE ARMSTRONG HAS BUILT A CAREER OUT OF DEMOLISHING OUR EXPECTATIONS. When he entered the pro ranks in 1992 at age 21, the cycling press billed him as "the next Greg LeMond," eliciting the famous retort, "No, I'm the first Lance Armstrong." His victory in the Clasica San Sebastian in 1995 sent the competition a not-so-subtle message about his tenacity—three years earlier he'd finished dead-last in the very same race. And his victory in the 1999 Tour de France redefined what it meant to be a cancer survivor. (As did his nekkid appearance in Vanity Fair shortly thereafter.)

But while Armstrong's triumph over his disease and his rivals made him a superstar, the training plan that got him there—the same one he'll use to defend his Tour title this July—may prove to be an equally stirring story. It enabled him to pull off one of the greatest comebacks in all of sports (a saga detailed in his memoir, It's Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life, to be published later this month by G.P. Putnam's Sons), yet it tramples the underlying tenet of most every athletic training program, no pain, no gain.

And if professional road cycling is about anything, it's pain. "The tried-and-true approach is to sink yourself in Europe and race yourself into condition," say Chris Carmichael, Armstrong's coach of ten years. Each season begins the same way: Starting in early February, you push yourself to utter exhaustion at a race every weekend, ride easy for several days to recover, and then do a maximum-effort ride midweek, only to race again a few days later. Physiologically, we're talking repeated high-intensity anaerobic workouts—bludgeoning your body to increase its capacity for pain.

When Armstrong returned to racing in 1998 after sitting out a year to recuperate from his cancer treatments, he jumped right back into the charming conventions of the peloton. It quickly became clear, however, that he wasn't recovering between races as he should. In early March, at Paris-Nice, the first important stage-race of the season, he abruptly dropped out on the first day. His explanation? "I decided that I didn't like the sport at all and wanted to quit and go home to Austin forever."

His dicouragement faded fast; this was a guy, after all, who had been world champion in 1993. Before long he was back on his bike and talking to Carmichael about his training. "What his quitting did was make us take a different approach," the coach says. "We had to improvise." Instead of doing loads of anaerobic work, they backed off and began focusing purely on Armstrong's aerobic system. To that end he logged endless hours in the saddle, doing fairly low-intensity aerobic workouts. "What we found was his body was actually adapting better," Carmichael says. "We cut back the racing, and by keeping him fresh, it allowed him to stay focused, to stay with his training."

The '98 season wsa still young. After taking stock, coach and cyclist decided to skip the Tour and peak for the World Championships in The Netherlands in October. The results were astonishing: Armstrong won several second-tier races in June and Jule and then took fourth at Worlds. The man was back.


The key to power is pace

THE PERFECT CADENCE MAY BE LIKE THE HOLY GRAIL TO THE enlightened cyclist, but finding it should prove to be a helluva lot easier. Just follow the directions below from Chris Carmichael, Lance Armstrong's coach.

You'll need to equip yourself with a heart-rate monitor and a bike computer that records pedaling cadence. Lay out two three-mile time trials along a route in such a way that you'll have 15 minutes to recover between them. Ride as fast a pace as you can maintain for the duration of each trial. If you can't do the second TT at the same pace, then you're probably exceeding your lactate threshold. The course, not incidentally, should be windless, flat, and without traffic lights, angry dogs, or other distractions. Do the first trial, spin easily to the next, and repeat.

Follow this drill once a week for three weeks, making sure to keep the workout consistent down to the smallest details. "Do the same warmup the same time each day, and eat the same foods," say Carmichael. The only factor you want to vary is your cadence (shifting gears as necessary). Ride at 80 pedal revolutions per minute the first outing, 90 rpm the second, and 100 rpm the third. It's fine if your cadence drifts above your target rpm, but don't let it dip below the mark.

After each TT, record your time, as well as your average heart rate and cadence. The goal is to ratchet up your cadence ever higher until one of two things happens: your heart rate jumps five beats per minute or, alternatively, your ride takes an extra 15 seconds. So long as you haven't hit these marks, you can and should boost your cadence. For example, if at 90 rpm you finish in six minutes with an average heart rate of 170, but at 100 rpm can tick off the same three miles in six minutes and ten seconds with a heart rate of 174, you'd do well to train at 100 rpm.

Be warned: Changing a factor as critical as cadence is as awkward as tweaking your running stride. But, as Arnstrong will attest, the payoff can be huge.—G.L.

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