Episode 199: Training as a Time-Crunched Athlete, with Chris Carmichael

I listened with interest to the podcast with Chris Carmichael. What I am curious about is the idea that it is a limited effective training program, ie as was noted in a say 6-8 week block/cycle at which in the end you have to back off. At the end of the training block would it be reasonable to assume you could some sort of maintenance block for 2-4 weeks then return to the 6- 8 week block? In essence the question is would the progression be 2 steps forward 1 step back or 2 forward 2 back see saw… If 2 forward 1 back that is progress and with the limited time I can spend (2 or 3 one hour turbo sessions per week) on intensity training the time crunched principle is attractive.

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I was greatly anticipating this episode, but was hoping for a bigger disagreement between Chris and @trevor

I have done a Sweet Spot program for many years. However, I needed a change this year, so tried to give “polarized” a try. Based on what I’ve heard on the podcast before, Trevor and Dr. S seem to still recommend polarized approach for those with shorter hours. So, I took this advice. I’m doing the Trainer Road “experimental” Polarzied program. Most weeks I can do about 7-8 hours, and the program has about 1 Vo2Max workout and the rest are low intensity. I try to ride 2 x 2-3 hour rides on the weekends.
So a typical weekend is something like:
Tues: Vo2 Max 1.25h
Wed: Easy 1.25h
Th: Strength
Fri: Easy 1h with some pedaling drills
Sat: 3h easy
Sun: 1.5h easy or with some SS work

But it seems like in this episode Trevor is agreeing with Chris, that you should be doing intervals for much of the week. (I’ve tried Chris’ program when I started cycling.)

My unresolved questions are this:

  1. What are the minimum number of hours that you can do a “polarized” program and get the benefits before switching to a time-crunched/SS/Interval intense program? (It seems like the number fluctuates between 6-8-10.) How do we get a scientific answer to this?

  2. If a polarized program is ok at the 8 hour range, it is likely that 1 or 2 days you are going to be doing easy rides that are less than 2 hours. Are those rides still beneficial for the aerobic system?

  3. Can you get the benefits of the polarized program if you do one long weekend every 6 weeks or so? (I remember Trevor mentioning this.) If so, should you keep polarized on the short weeks so you are fresh for the 1 day of intervals? Or should you compensate the time by doing some more intervals?

I would love a podcast where the crew goes through what a typical week looks like for “polarized” at the 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 hour weeks. Looking forward to it!


Hi @lenny3200. A great episode it was!

“Think principles, not days or numbers”.

The principles to consider:

  • hierarchy of training needs
  • extend or intensify

Applied to every day:
Not sore, go hard, and harder than before
Sore, go easy, and longer than before.

Looking at your program you are likely to go harder (intensify) on the vo2 and strength days, but the extension might be under appreciated. Assuming that is because your are trim-crunched, you could spice up the sat and sun rides with some HR zone 3 blocks → more each week.
Try to avoid Z4+, because that will hurt your hard days.

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It’s interesting what different folks pick up from the same episode.

In amongst the talk there was this

  1. The high intensity work is developing your glycolic fast twitch fibres
  2. The slower more moderate effort longer rides are developing your aerobic slow twitch fibres

In order to perform you need to develop both, and in fact number 1 will stall if you don’t develop number 2. If you’ve done a time crunched high intensity block for a few weeks then the gains will stall or you may even see a setback if you extend it for two long.

The type 2 work shouldn’t be seen as a setback but in fact a foundation on which the type 1 work depends. If the foundation is weak then cracks will appear and it’ll come tumbling down.

He sees time crunched as a short term approach to a near term goal. Not something you can do all year round and expect results.

I also like the physiology stuff I’ve heard elsewhere. Your glycolic fibres produce the lactate, the aerobic fibres consume it, if developed enough. In other words , your high intensity work helps you go faster and stronger up the hill, whilst your low intensity work lets you recover faster once you’ve crested the hill.


I went to the transcript to get some clearer insights and Trevor made the point “state very clearly in the book between these 1011 week builds, you need that four to six weeks of recovery before you do your next build.” to which part of Chris C.'s reply was:" I think one of the things we found with this is, we can do shorter cycles of interval training, you know, three to six weeks, followed by three to six weeks of easy moderate paced rides, and then back into this, these interval sessions, and kind of toggle that the entire cycling season" so it is cyclical and maybe as summer hits it may be easier to get in the hours for more time but in winter for me 1 hour on the trainer is all I can hack (or more specifically my butt can hack). But on weekends I try to get out on the XC skis or fat bike for a few hours maybe 2 outings 1.5 h or so long. So a week for me would be 2 (rarely 3) 1 hour rides on the trainer plus some outside time on the weekend either xc skiing or fat biking at a fairly low intensity. The big question that the Time Crunched option seems to answer is I can make some limited gains using that approach so that when the summer or regular outside riding time arrives I can be ready to go with the group. The big issue is not falling behind at the beginning of the season and then playing catchup which does not work so well for me anymore.

That’s exactly my question: to “extend” in those longer weekend rides, you need to do some “zone 3” or “zone 2” in a polarized model. From what I’ve heard, the polarized approach would say to stay away from that middle zone on these rides and just keep it easy. Contrary to this, I’ve always heard that this “middle zone” training is the same aerobic system, just more fatiguing. So if you are only doing 8-10 hours a week is it ok to do these “middle zones” during base season?

Tim Cusick was talking about undulating periodization in one of the recent WKO5 webinars. The context was the cyclist that wants to be fit all summer and not do a traditional periodization like an elite athlete training/peaking for a specific event.

One thing I’ve been thinking about lately is that:


I tried the Seiler polarized plan and did get good gains at about week 7. I was breaking all my PRs and was at 10 hours per week. I continued building for 5 more weeks topping out at 13 hours per week and got zero additional gains. I had great endurance and could go longer but not much faster.

Last year I embraced San Milan zone 2. I transitioned into some sweet spot and then some threshold and then really hard group rides. I did hit a new personal best FTP but was still off the back compared with the guys I ride with. Some are my age though and stay faster.

I’ve scoped out my “competition’s” training on Strava this year. They are all doing it wrong if you go by sports science principles. Several of them jump on Zwift for 3-5 hours per week. They smash out an hour of threshold / high sweet spot for an hour.

One guy took two months off and did nothing and now he’s smashing it on Zwift for 5 hours per week at a way higher wattage than I can hold. I did see him do 5x5 @ FTP one week during a Zwift ride but he’s not following any kind of progression or plan.

Another guys runs, swims, lifts, and then cycles maybe 3 hours per week and he’s as strong as f. He took two months off in Nov/Dec. At least he seems to be doing some interval sets with regularity. He seems to like pyramid intervals. He just does short ones and doesn’t smash out an hour at threshold in Zwift like the others. He’s still only doing 5 hours per week in all sports and his wattage is impressive.

My most frustrating friend who was pro 25 years ago. He hardly rides in the winter and does nothing else. He’s inconsistent and rides between 2-5 hours per week. Mostly he putts around on Zwift at 150 watts for a 2-3 hours per week. No intervals. He will show up in the spring like last year, start doing 50 mile group rides, and be hanging with the A group all while he’s 20 pounds over weight. I guess he won the genetic lottery. :frowning:

My conclusion is that you can get pretty far by doing it all wrong and just crushing it at threshold for a few hours per week. If any of my friends did Carmichael’s structured plan, they would probably be way faster in the spring. If they also did the 3+ hour Z2 endurance rides they might even be faster.

On the topic of rules breaking friends.

This was an interesting article on non responders to exercise. In essence there will always be someone who responds and get faster on far less exercise stimulus than you. The trick is to find what is the minimum amount of exercise frequency, duration and intensity for you, that leads to a response / adaption / improvements. Which may of course vary from month to month, year to year. Though there may always be a minimum threshold you have to cross to achieve gains.

Plus refuting non responders

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I think the rules are for maximizing n+1 potential. …The farther you are from your potential you are the less the “rules” apply to you. I think that’s one thing we need to consider when we listening to fasttalk, what they describe is how to maximize your potential and they assume their audience is looking to do the same.

For me I Stagnated for years, but then finally following the “rules” I saw massive gains.

I really like this as a way of structuring ones training… Especially when time crunched.

The hierarchy from Stephen

I agree but I also have a feeling that tempo, sweet spot, no man’s land, etc. have been demonized much more than they should have been.

My friends show that you can get pretty darn far on 3-5 hours per week smashing it in no man’s land. I think that is underestimated. I can imagine that most of them don’t want to or can’t ride 8-10-12+ hours per week.

My mistake was embracing the Seiler Z1 too much. I got a good fitness bump after 6-7 weeks of Seiler Z1 but got zero extra gains after that despite trying for them. I’ve since switched for a more pyramidal distribution and it’s working much better for me. On the last podcast that Dr. Seiler talked about pyramidal and cycling. I almost fell out of my chair!

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I think the area I am trying to gain understanding of is the difference between a high volume training, moderate volume and low volume. In time crunch I think one would say it is low volume/ minimum volume.

So when Dr Seiler looks at elite athletes and polarity this is a high volume (basically unrestricted) training approach.

Somewhere in between is the serious competitive athlete at moderate volume

then there are the people who want to maintain fitness and show up at a group ride and stay with the pack but have limited time or motivation to train more than say 5-6h per week.

It is this latter case that interests me, what does an optimal plan look like and if it is cyclical what do the training cycles look like. Do you try to focus on high intensity and do you mix up duration at intensity… It seems very complex to me but based upon the podcast it seems a viable option for many people. I am trying to get to the bottom of it. I have the original version of Chris Carmichael’s book but still find I have questions on implementation and what has been learned in the time since it was first published.

Hi @scooter.

  1. maximise volume. If you have 6 hours, you should be riding all 6 of them
  2. maximise intensity. If you can go all-out for all 6 hours, do it
  3. if you are not fully recovered before you next session, turn down intensity so you can at least put in the volume.

By following these three steps you’ll always make the most of volume and intensity. History forecasts that you’ll end up with 1 or 2 high intensity sessions.
That is, the other session can have a high RPE, but are not fast because you are out of energy and have torn up you type II fibers.

An alternative approach is the COPID one: add a bit of intensity to each session for more variation (=motivation). Allow yourself to finetune the percentage of high intensity you can sustain during the entire week. Probably around 10% of the session duration, split into <120s intervals at HR zone 4 (out of 5), or 20% at zone 3.

This guy do 1 - 2 hr rides with A guy and mantain big waattage? I asked because looks like he is a track / anaerobic Only training

Thanks for your thoughts @kjeldbontenbal. If you were going to do a 1 h session with your suggested:10% of the session duration, split into <120s intervals at HR zone 4 (out of 5), or 20% at zone 3.
what would it look like in tabular form? I am trying to wrap my head around the workout intensity vs the weekly intensity targets, as well as how to vary them and progress them over an 8-11 week block for instance…

This guy bikes, swims and lifts weights. Occasionally he runs. Looking at his current weekly distribution on Strava it looks like:

bike 3 hours (2 sessions)
swim 1 hour
weights 1 hour

His typical bike workouts looks like this:

Workout #1
1.5 hour session
Two sets of:
3min x 250watts
3min x 270watts
3min x 290watts

+2 minutes at 270watts
(I guess he wanted 20 minutes total of intensity.
The rest of the ride is 150 watts
His FTP seems to be 285 watts (per Sauce on Strava)

Workout #2
20minutes 150 watts
7 minutes 220 watts
14 minutes 200 watts
7 minutes 220 watts
20 minutes 150 watts

He seems to do those two workouts lately, once each per week. It’s a pyramidal distribution with 6 minutes above threshold at the top, 20 minutes around threshold, 32 minutes of tempo and 128 minutes of endurance zone.

Next time I run into him, I’m going to ask him how he arrived at this training plan.

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In tabular form:
10 min warmup in z1
5 min z2
120s z4
5 min z2
120s z4

1 - I think that is the frustrating - it depends answer. physiology type - sprinter/time trailer can really matter here. I find that polarized and sweet spot training concepts overlap in reality in cycling and are not all that different. Polarized zones are also based off of lactate testing to identify LT1 and LT2. Seiler’s 6 min power for estimated power at vo2max and 60 minute power for LT2 work pretty well. LT1 is the tough one. If not testing, then up to 80% of 60 minute power (FTP can work here) is the LT1 cut-off. I think this is important as steady state rides up to an IF of 0.8 are technically zone 1 Polar (zone 3 Coggan). If riding less hours, then the zone 1 rides executed at around 75% of FTP tend to make a big positive difference for athletes compared to 60% of FTP. 60% appears to be too easy for <12 hours per week polar approach IME. To add to the confusion, LT2 tends to be sweet spot if using FTP system. So, the no go zone 2 is really only between about 80-90% of FTP.

2 - rides less than 2 hours are beneficial - maybe not development, but are nice stimulation workouts to keep things going/maintained in between development interval and long rides - again, 75% of FTP tends to be superior to 60% for the shorter ones. The one long ride (~4 hours) per week can and maybe should be 60%. The long ride weekly is also a key component to polar working for time crunched - 7 hours a week = 1 HIT session (development, 2 x 1 hour zone 1 rides (maintenance) and 1 x 4 hour development zone 1 ride.

3 - I am not sure what you are asking…many ways to be fresh for the hard interval day regardless of training approach you are using. Rest day (or more if needed) the day before the interval session, shorter stimulation ride the day before intervals, maybe one is fresh enough to do quality intervals after a long 60% zone 1 ride…

Quoting my own post - Chris said exactly the same thing in yesterday’s 200th episode!

I was really disappointed to see this podcast. Carmichael built his coaching career and business with doping. Not only was he coach of Armstrong and a part of one of the greatest sports fraud in history, he was also accused of doping U23 athletes without their knowledge and settled lawsuits with a couple of these athletes that included payments of $250K. The settlements are sealed but, of course, he can make them public if he wants. Dope And Glory - CBS News

A coach doping his athletes is a whole level above an athlete choosing to dope because a coach, of course, will never experience the health, mental and legal consequences of doping. He has never admitted his role, or showed any regret but profits to this day from his role in doping athletes. I really respect the expertise at FastTalk Labs and am just really disappointed that you would associate yourself with Chris Carmichael.

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