Cyclists may train harder than most athletes, but that doesn’t mean that more training stress is always better. By optimising our TSS (Training Stress Score) rather than consistently pushing it higher, we can still train effectively while ensuring continual improvement. Here’s how to get fast even with low TSS.
As cyclists, we ideally do the least amount of specific training that brings about continual improvements in fitness. So why go overboard if it only serves to break you down further and compromise recovery?
Rather than blindly putting in long hours training week after week, a strategic approach to quantifying training stress can be one of the most effective ways for amateur cyclists to strike the optimal balance between performance gains and quality of life.
DON’T OBSESS OVER TSS
TSS is one of the most useful training metrics. With a simple number, it conveys how much training stress you’ve placed your body under by analysing the time spent in different power zones. We’ve written extensively about how to use and interpret TSS in the past, but here we discuss the idea of getting the best bang for your training buck while keeping TSS low.
The pros may have 30 hours a week to rack up all the stress they can absorb, but we amateurs must often balance the stress of work-life, family life and other everyday commitments. All of these factors affect not only the time we can invest in training but also our ability to recover. With restricted training time available, it’s crucial that we use it wisely, and don’t extend ourselves unnecessarily beyond our capacity to absorb and recover effectively from our workouts.
WHY LESS IS MORE: MASTERING THE MINIMUM EFFECTIVE DOSE
The first question to ask yourself is if you are improving with your current training load. If you’re on the right track and are experiencing continual improvements — like an increasing FTP — then it’s often best to steer the course with your current program. For the vast majority of amateur cyclists, the best approach to training is one of adhering to the minimal effective dose. This means that we elicit a training stress that’s high enough to bring about steady and continuous benefits without bringing on excessive fatigue.
WHY HIGHER ISN’T ALWAYS DESIRABLE
Many amateur cyclists obsess about continually upping and absorbing higher weekly TSS scores. But what some fail to consider is that if you continue to experience improvements with your current training load — like through a constantly improving FTP — then even the same weekly TSS rating will correspond to a higher training load. This is because TSS is normalised to our current fitness levels. Provided we adjust our FTP rating in our software of choice as it increases, our TSS won’t increase in kind, even though our absolute training stress is greater. In such cases, a fixed TSS across time doesn’t mean that you aren’t progressing as planned.
THE SHORTCOMINGS OF TSS
TSS is incredibly useful, but it does have shortcomings that some cyclists find difficult to grasp.
Comparing your TSS to different riders is far from ideal as it doesn’t take into account physiology, recovery, and the intensity and length of individual workouts. It’s unique to you, and the amount of training stress that you subject yourself to is dependent on a host of factors. They can include the time of year, the point in the season, your performance goals, your age, your training history and the training time you have available.
When analysed alone, TSS lacks the resolution to explicitly quantify the effort involved in the ride. For example, four 10-minute intervals at threshold are very different from one 40-minute interval done at threshold. Both may register the same TSS, but the second is much harder on the body.
Another area where TSS can be misleading is in improvements in fitness. As riders improve, they often take less rest between intervals. These shorter recovery times signal improvements, but they may also decrease your TSS due to the improved training efficiency.
TAILOR YOUR TRAINING STRESS TO THE EVENT
The secret to adhering to the minimum effective dose of training is to tailor your training so as it’s specific to your target events and goals. If you’re targetting endurance events, then stick to the tried and tested methods of levelling up your endurance with long and steady training that results in the slow and gradual accumulation of TSS over time. If you want to keep TSS within manageable levels in terms of recovery, then be mindful of spending significant time above threshold.
For those on the other side of the spectrum training for short, high-intensity events like hill climbs, then the accumulation of long slow miles in zone 2 won’t offer the same benefits as does taxing the VO2 max or anaerobic capacity systems.
For those training for high-intensity events, then “junk miles” are your worst enemy. To keep TSS close to the minimum effective dose, it’s important to be methodical and selective in terms of what workouts you choose to complete. For example, if you target the upper end of your VO2 max zone at 120% of FTP, then every 5-minute interval corresponds to a TSS of around 10. Six intervals will generate 60 TSS, and when you factor in warm-up time and recovery in between intervals, then you can soon approach 100 TSS in less than an hour of training.
MANAGING TSS WITH TRAINING STRESS BALANCE (TSB)
An additional metric known as Training Stress Balance (TSB) can be used alongside TSS to represent accumulated fatigue. TSB is then obtained by combining chronic training load (CTL), a rolling 42-day average of your daily TSS, and the acute training load (ATL), a rolling 7-day average. A positive difference in both means that the body is fresh, while a negative TSB shows that the body is carrying fatigue.
Fatigue is always bad in the run-up to a big event, but being too fresh is sometimes just as bad as it means that you’re losing form and fitness. Managing training stress is always a delicate balancing act, and TSB provides a more three-dimensional perspective on whether your training is leading you towards an overtrained or undertrained state.
Remember, perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away. TSS is a very useful metric, but without an awareness around how much of it is actually benefitting your progress, then higher doesn’t always mean better.