Carmichael Training Systems "Classic" Review

www.trainright.com

This spring, I decided to pony up some money for a real training plan, rather than the "just ride" approach that I've used in the past.

I looked at a few options. If you want to interact with a real human, it seems that the going rate is around $100/month, either from Carmichael, or CycleU. (If you have other coaches to add, please reply in the comments). And, of course, you can spend more than that if you want.

That seemed a bit excessive for my goals (which aren't race-related), so I decided to opt for the TrainRight "Classic" package for $40/month, which gets you access to their online training schedule ("dynamically built according to your current fitness and goal event"). You also get access to their forums where you can ask specific questions, but you don't have somebody "assigned" to you personalizing your schedule.

I'm going to break this review into three parts (more or less):

  1. Some training theory
  2. How the system works
  3. How well does it work
  4. Limitations of training without a coach.
  5. Limitations of the TrainRight package
  6. Summary

Some training theory

A very short intro into training theory. I won't do it justice, but you can get the basic idea. If you want more, get The Ultimate Ride and/or The Cyclist's Training Bible.

Most endurance athletes train using periodicalization, which is a short way of saying, "weeks of increasing intensity, followed by rest weeks". A typical approach might spend 3 weeks ramping up the intensity, followed by a week at lower intensity (often with a fitness test at the end), and then another cycle.

Overlaid on top of that is a series of different periods, which Carmichael names "Foundation", "Endurance", "Specialization", and "Transition" (I think those are in the right order). Foundation is all about aerobic energy, Endurance also focuses on aerobic but adds some higher intensity work, and specialization adds lots of high intensity.

Here's the way I like to think of it:

Aerobic training gives you the baseline, and sets how hard you can work in a steady state. High intensity training gives you the ability to produce more power for short periods - like climbing hills, working at the front of a paceline, etc.

Aerobic by itself means you can ride a long distance, but you can't ride faster. High intensity by itself lets you produce that high power, but if you don't back it up with good aerobic capacity, you can't hit as high of a peak, nor can you deal with as many peaks before you blow up.

If you graphed your power for a ride, there are flat parts and peaky parts. Aerobic training pushes up the overall average effort, and high intensity pushes the peaks higher and lets you have more of them.

And now that I've covered 25 pages of theory in 3 paragraphs, onto the TrainRight system.

How the system works

TrainRight Classic bases its scheduling on two things - an interview that you fill out, and a field test.

The interview steps through a bunch of questions - when is your goal event, how many days do you want to train each week, how many hours, that sort of thing.

The field test is used to gauge your fitness level and, more importantly, to figure out the HR ranges for different exercises. You do need a HR monitor, and it's easiest of you have one that has a computer interface. Cadence is also useful. I use the Polar 720i, which stores all the data and lets you download it to your laptop.

For the field test, you pre-fuel, do a good warmup (with a few high-intensity intervals), and then ride your heart out (figuratively and sometimes literally) for 3 miles without stopping. You take 10 minutes to recover, and then you do it again. And then you're pretty darn tired. My average HR for my first field test was something like 158 BPM, while my max is somewhere in the low 170s.

From that, you can get an average HR during that time. That HR is related to your lactate threshold (LT), which is the point where your body no longer is able to buffer (ie deal with) the lactate acid accumulating from your aerobic fuel system. That is roughly the point where the feeling changes from "that hurts" to "I have to stop". (note that this is before "has anybody seen my lung?")

From the average and your age, the TrainRight system generates a set of heart rate ranges, and your online calendar shows not only the exercises you're supposed to do, but the heart rate ranges you need to target during those exercises.

Initially, you'll get lots of simple miles. In the endurance period, a typical workout for me would be 1.5 to 2 hours at 80-140 BPM. The goal is to spend 95% of the ride in that range.

Staying that slow will be difficult if you're used to riding hard or you ride in a group, and I spent a fair amount of time plodding up hills at the back of the group so I wouldn't blow out of the range.

In addition to that work, you may get some muscle tension (low cadence/strength) drills or fast pedal (high cadence) drills as part of the workout.  This mix changes as the season goes on, adding tempo rides (20-30 minutes at a higher heart rate), and a few different kinds of intervals. Hill intervals are especially fun in a group. You get to attack, ride off the front, let people catch you, attack, and repeat.

Periodically, you will get additional field tests scheduled. This lets you track your progress, set new HR ranges as you train (it's common for people to push their average field test heart rate up as they get more trained), and suffer every month or so. That new data feeds into your revised schedule, and you also get an "end of period" review, which asks whether you want more/less time for your workouts, different days, easier/harder workouts, etc.

How well does it work?

Count me as a convert to organized periodicalized training. It's really hard to ride that easy at the beginning of the period, but my aerobic capacity increased considerably. I went from 140 BPM making me fairly out of breath to being able to talk comfortably at that level.

And when I got into the speed work/hill work, I definitely am faster on climbs (note the all important "er" in that...), and can deal with the pacelines we sometimes do at the end of our workouts. And the hills seem overall less taxing. On flying wheels this year, I got to the Fall City - Issaquah Hill - which is a 400 foot climb of gradients up to around 13% (ish) that comes at about 80 miles into the ride - and found that halfway up the hill, my legs still felt fine.

Limitations of training without a coach...

TrainRight says the classic program is "optimal for active individuals, entry-level event participants, and first-time competitors".  Which is essentially true, though they don't give you the details of their approach, and it turns out that the details aren't very well handled. I'll talk about that more in the next section.

But the big problem is that without a coach, it's really hard to accurately set your training intensity.

Or, at least, I didn't have a good idea on how to set my intensity - it could be that they've just done a poor job at telling people what to do.

For example, at the end of my first period, during the questionaire, it asks me if I want to adjust the intensity up or down.

How should I know? I know that I'm not working that hard, but I also know that I'm not supposed to be working that hard right now. 

That comes up over and over. I bumped up my intensity later, had a couple of hard weeks, and was a bit run-down at the end of them. Was that okay, or was I working too hard? What sort of performance could I expect at my training level? Was I putting in enough training time to realistically complete my goal event?

The web interface and directions are silent on that, as is the coaches forum, for the most part. And I think that's a big problem. Part of it is inherent in not having a coach, and part is due to their implementation.

The other problem is that you don't get the motivation/interaction/richness that you would get from having a real coach, but I think that's inherent in choosing that package I did. If you want that, you should expect to pay for it.

Limitations of the TrainRight Classic Package...

So, those are the issues with web-based instruction (perhaps "non-personal" instruction is a better term...) in general, and they are significant.

In this section, I'll talk about the limitations on the TrainRight implementation of web-based training, compared to my vision of what the ultimate web-based system could do.

The issues are many and varied, and putting on my "PM design hat", it's clear that they haven't spent much time looking at how people actually use the system and using that data to make it look better. Here's a list of things that I've come across:

  • No cookie support, so you have to login every time. My data just isn't that important. Give me the option to not have to do this.
  • Scheduling is buggy. My schedule consistently shows 5 workouts the weeks that I have a field test instead of the normal 3. And lots of others have similar issues.
  • "Ask in the forums" is too often the answer. This I find especially annoying because they're costing themselves time and effort as well. If I'm reading the description for PowerIntervals, why isn't there a link to a FAQ? That sort of cross-linking is pretty much absent, and it isn't an expensive thing to do.
  • Popup window sizes are miniscule. Why do you put information in a 400 x 200 window and then make me scroll it. This is just stupid UI.
  • I have to transfer my workout information by hand every time, instead of grabbing it from my polar software or straight from my HR monitor. And every time, I have to tell it that my info is in miles, not meters, and it always asks for information on my power output despite the fact that I don't own a power meter, and even if I did, the classic program doesn't support it.
  • No meta-period schedule information. How do the phases lay out over the year?
  • No future schedule until the field test is done. I understand that the field test will change the details, but it's Friday night. I have a field test in the morning, and I'm trying to play my Tuesday and Thursday rides. I may do them with my group, or I may do them by myself if the workouts don't fit in well. But the UI won't show me, and god forbid I have to postpone the field test if the weather's bad - I'll get no workouts at all.
  • There's no way for me to add multiple events. If you plan to do a warm-up event - a century before your double, or a metric before your century - you'll need to know that you need to taper, do the taper, and then work around your schedule afterwards.
    You can say that you did different workouts or skipped them, but I couldn't see any change in the schedule afterwards.
  • You don't take vacations.
  • You don't do group rides. A system could shuffle around the activities knowing that I do group rides during the week and typically ride by myself on weekends, but this one doesn't. I can, however, do this manually.
  • Don't expect a really in-depth response to a question, especially if it is a fairly individual one.

The problem comes down to this.

The business model for CTS is selling coaching services to athletes, and their corporate activities are arrayed around that. The Classic package is primarily useful as an upsell to their direct coaching programs, and having a great classic experience may actually be against their business goals.

Summary

Before I finish off, I'd like to note one more thing.

CTS has a promotional agreement with PowerBar. Nothing wrong with that, but their association often goes beyond informational to marketing. Most of the coach responses in the forums that mention nutrition (though not all) only talk about PowerBar products. I find this especially annoying when dealing with sport drinks. There's lots of anecdotal data that says that different people have different experiences with different drinks - one drink may work great for one athlete and cause stomach upset with another athlete. To recommend only a single drink without noting that fact does a real disservice to their athletes.

The advice from forum members in this area is markedly better than that of the CTS coaches, and I really think they should re-examine their policy in this area.

So, on to the summary. I find myself conflicted at this point.

On the one hand, the training definitely worked for me. On the other hand, their web-based system isn't great, and has some serious limitations.

My recommendations:

  • If you would class yourself as a non-athlete who's getting into cycling and you want to do your first century, something like the classic package would be a good fit for you. You will get well-defined workouts and you are very likely to complete your target event.
  • If you're somebody who has a few season's of cycling under your belt, you should be aware of the limitations of the TrainRight package, and consider other options (which I'll talk about below).
  • If you are somebody getting into racing, I think the limitations of the classic package are too severe (though there are some racers that use it).

All in all, I'm happy I spent the money, but I think I've learned what I can, and don't think I'll continue next year. I'm considering a couple of options:

  1. Actually spending the money for a coach. Cycling is a hobby, and I'm probably not going to pony up that much money given what my goals are (or the lack of real goals). 
  2. Spending some money getting a plan designed, but then running it myself. CycleU will provide consulation on a per-hour basis.
  3. Buying PC Coach. This looks interesting - the software seems nicer than what CTS does, and, more importantly, that's how the company makes their business, so they likely have more focus on making it better.

I think I'm leaning towards the third one, but haven't decided yet.

[Update]

I should have noted that any of the Carmichael training requires a 6 month committment. They are nice enough to refund 25% of that money if you cancel ahead of time, because of the large investment they had to make to render web pages for you.