Here we are, in The Lull. Someone really needs to plan an event that comes between the razmattazz of the Tour de France and the altogether more cotton candyesque Vuelta a Espana (you know what I mean, it’s a hard race but it’s the flyweight amongst the three Grand Tours) to capture the cycling public’s imagination.
There’s no disrespect intended (well maybe a little) but the Tour of Utah and the Eneco Tour just don’t quite cut the mustard, and the Worlds, Paris-Tours and the Giro di Lombardia come way down the line.
Gravel racing is taking off in big style in the USA (races along old fire tracks and gravel-strewn mountain paths) – wouldn’t it be great to see Boonen and Cancellara, Voigt and Voeckler and the rest of the best taking on one of those?
Or maybe a roller-derby type event but on fixies, with studded armpads and no holds-barred? Last to lose a pint of blood wins? Something, anything, to fill the yawning chasm that is our post-Tour existence! (I’d bet on Cavendish every time).
Not wanting to get pulled back into the debate on doping yet again, I thought it might be time to look at training plans. There are myriad options out there and it can be confusing as to how to work out what is most suitable for the individual cyclist, but with a bit of level-headed reasoning it’s not too difficult to work one out for yourself.
The crucial thing though, before even drawing up a calendar, is to ask yourself three questions:
- What are my strengths?
- What are my weaknesses?
- What are my goals?
Most cyclists make the mistake of neglecting their weak points and focusing on their strengths, simply because it’s more fun to do what you’re actually good at, and it’s easier.
And therein lies the first big mistake. Often you’ll hear sprinters say they don’t train in the mountains because they fear that incline work will cut back their flat-line speed. Strong flat riders say the same, and climbers will happily spend hours in the hills but never work on their time trial.
The fact though is that, if you are a road racer, the courses you’ll face will rarely be completely perfect for your talents. Working on weak points will turn the specialist into a more complete rider.
To return to Mark Cavendish, we see a case in point. The Manxman desperately wanted a classic win and so looked to Milan-San Remo in 2009, a course with a finish that suited him but with that featured some pretty impressive hills near the finale.
He looked at his physique and his training plan and made the necessary changes, losing weight and working on the kind of hills he’d face in the race.
He bluffed his way through the races just before, huffing and puffing on the climbs to lull his adversaries into a false sense of security.
Then in Milan-San Remo he bided his time, shocked the rest when he hung in on the climbs, and readied himself for the sprint.
The result? Victory in a race that just about the entire cycling fraternity said was beyond him.
Alberto Contador made a similar adjustment, working tirelessly on his time trialing abilities, which he then married to his awesome climbing prowess to become, for a time, the best Grand Tour GC contender against the clock.
Thor Hushovd and Tom Boonen are also examples of riders who have re-examined their strengths and weaknesses and then adjusted their training to bring renewed success.
And then we have Andy and Frank Schleck, both talented climbers but riders missing speed on the flat. Andy’s own coach bemoaned the fact that he ignored ITT training for too long, relying instead on his climbing ability to get him high up the GC.
So yes, if you are a flat man then the hills hurt, but you always have to remember this: it might hurt in training but you are doing it for the race, or the club run, or the sportif.
Cherish the hurt, because it means you are becoming a more well-rounded cyclist. Include your strengths in the training plan, but work them just once a week instead of constantly. You’ll soon discover that training smart means that there are benefits to be found on all terrain.
If you are involved or aspire to be involved in competition, you should be constantly asking youself: “Is what I am going to do today going to help me in the race?”
About those goals: I always advise people who ask for advice to write them down. Have a clear idea of what races or events are priorities and what are best suited to be used more as training rides.
If you have honestly answered the first two questions then you will be better able to prioritise your racing calendar. And be realistic: getting fitter takes time, and there are nothing but pitfalls in trying to run before you can walk.
A word on racing smart too, before we look at an example plan. For some reason, most cyclists (myself included) get into a race-type situation and suddenly think they have the power of ten men! 60km still to go and BOOM! They attack.
But if we’ve never done 60km solo TT-style ahead of a rampant, concentrated pack in training, why do we suddenly think we can do it in a race?
I’m not a fan of Mr. Alejandro Valverde but he had one great bit of advice: what you feel bad, take a chance, enjoy it. But, when you feel very good, do nothing.
By which he meant that, when the legs are golden, be patient, abide, and go when you know it is the perfect time. You still may not win, but you have to ride to your strengths, and not hand the advantage back to the rest of the pack.
In any effective training plan, you have to build up the intensity, but the timing as to when to do that is crucial.
If you have say 2 months before an event and are just at an average fitness, the first three weeks or so should include fairly longish rides that increase in intensity and come down in duration with each passing week.
Many riders make the mistake of riding for say 3 hours at a constant effort, but this does little to prepare for a race or to increase strength and power. Assuming that the rider already possesses a decent level of stamina, we can do away with these kind of rides unless they are for recovery days.
Another mistake many make is to look at race duration in kilometers instead of time. If you have a 150km race then yes, sure, go ride 150km to be mentally confident that you can do that, but not every week.
Instead, work out how long that 150km at race pace will be roughly in minutes, then go ride the same duration, hard, say once or preferably twice a week.
In the race you will ride most of it in the pack so will be using less energy than when alone, and so the actual distance of the event is not such a useful rule of thumb in training.
Personally, even when I have a 160km or above race I will usually only train for 4 hours max. At a race pace of 40km/hr, 4 hours in training, ridden hard, is effective enough.
Training smart is all about intensity, or to use another phrase, quality over quantity. Some select riders need to ride massive kilometers a week but most overtrain, thinking that kilometers equals fitness.
But what you need in a race is power, speed, and the ability to recover within the race from sustained attacks.
It’s important then, to work out what the race will require you to do, then to go do that in training. It’s impossible to completely replicate a race situation in training but it is possible to replicate sections of a race.
Train with others certainly, but be aware that when you do this you are at the mercy of the collective whim. Spending too much time with others means that you tend to ride more on ego than on brains.
One effective method of getting an advantage from training with other riders is to set up ‘cat and mouse’ situations. Get to a hill or a decent stretch of road and have one guy set off thirty seconds or more ahead of the next, then chase. This is great way to replicate racing, and lots of fun too.
Again, look at the race coming and ask yourself what skills you will need to perform well, or to use a golfing analogy, what clubs you need in the bag.
Is it a criterium? If so, count how many corners are on the course and work out how many times you will be sprinting – sometimes this can be daunting!
Then get sprint training, quick.
A road race with three hill repeats of a 4 km climb? Then you should be doing three or even four time hill repeats in training, trying to make each effort faster than the last, as often happens in racing.
As you cut down the hours of training in the build up to the race, increase the suffering. Get the intervals going, anything from thirty minutes to five, coming down to three and one in the week before the race.
Many riders think intervals are only really intervals if they are thirty seconds long, but again, think about the race situation. You will probably not need to sprint for 30 seconds ten times in any race but a crit, so why concentrate on these too much in training?
Work on attacking yourself instead within hard efforts. So, do say ten minutes fairly hard, attacking yourself every second minute for 20 seconds, then return to the previous effort and keep it steady, then go again.
If you don’t have a power meter, and I don’t, use the Perceived Rate of Exertion (PRE) scale. On this 1 is barely pedaling and 10 is a nuts out, on the rivet effort.
Within training ride, alternate the PRE scales, increase, decrease, work on riding steady and becoming more attuned not only to your body but to what you are actually capable of – you will probably surprise yourself.
Also, choose a local hill or a local 20km stretch of road where there are few stops and ride them every ten days or so, timing yourself to see the gains you are making.
And in the weeks before the race, be sure to plan small ‘race preparation’ sections, where you can start to work out just what kind of pre-race training works best for you. Some people need complete rest for two days, others are better at keeping on going hard til just before race day.
The only way you can work this out is by either racing – a lot – or replicating it in training.
Finally, build rest and recuperation into the plan. If your form dips, don’t train harder! Instead take a break, out the bike away and come back motivated and fresh.
Training smart means training hard in bursts, and you can only do that if you hit those rides at 100%.
Hope some of this helps you to build an effective training plan!