HOW TO: WRITE A CYCLING TRAINING PLAN

As the official coaching provider for the Taiwan KOM Challenge and Everesting, I’ve helped many athletes achieve their goals and get off those sticky plateaus that can bog us down. Here I pass on some of the tips of the trade to help you get along on your cycling journey, the right way…

Things were so much more simple before the intraweb arrived! When I first got into cycling in 1987 I headed to the local library (remember those?) to seek out anything I could find on cycling, and whilst I did discover some great books on Tommy Simpson, Fausto Coppi and Saint Eddy, there was nothing at all on training.

So, not knowing any better, I just kept on doing what I had been doing: going out and riding as hard as I possibly could over a 25 mile loop, three times a week. It hurt like heck but three months of that did make me strong, but it’s not recommended for everyone. At 15 I was full of vim and vigour, had been doing sport since I was 4, and had no 9-5 to worry about.

Which…. sounds like me now too actually…. well at least the work bit! But back to the issue at hand, how to write a training plan.

After those three months I joined a club and started asking anyone I could what they did for training. Then it was a simple case of trial and error, trying their recommendations and discarding what didn’t work and keeping what did. The problem these days, and this brings us back to the web, is that there are so many sources of information (literally millions) on training that it can be daunting. The beginner barely knows where to start and the more advanced rider, if stuck on a plateau, can be confused as to which of the many recommendations will work for them to lift their form to the next level.

And this is where I come in, adding my ten cents to the pile, which, um, is I guess just adding to the problem… But bear with me, and try out (if you so wish), these steps outlined below, the gist of which is to get back to basics and to allow the rider to set out a clear, uncluttered avenue upon which to work on improving all aspects of their cycling.

THE BIG THREE:

The crucial thing, before even drawing up an actual training calendar, is to ask yourself three questions:

  • What are my strengths?
  • What are my weaknesses?
  • What are my goals?

Strengths & Weaknesses:

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 of course, 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 will neglect sprints, and climbers will happily spend hours in the hills but never work on their time trial skills.

The fact though is that, if you are any kind of bike rider, 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.

A case in point is Keirin riders (if you aren’t familiar with Keirin, check out the vid). When I was living in Japan, there was a track nearby. Near my house was a 6km climb that started with a shallow 2km at 3-4%, then ramped up to an average of around 6-7% over the final 4km.

The Keirin riders would be out the early morning mid-week, hammering up this climb, sometimes on road bikes but usually on fixed gear bikes, and they were not worried about losing their sprinting power, but looking to build their all round strength and increase muscularity and tendon strength.

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Another example is the transformation Mark Cavendish undertook in 2009. The Manxman desperately wanted to win the mighty Milan-San Remo, a course with a finish that suited him but with that featured some pretty impressive hills that certainly didn’t, near the finale.

He and his coaches 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 MSR, 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.

So whether a climber, a strong flat rider or a classic sprinter, identify those weaknesses and get to work on them.

Cherish the hurt, because it means you are becoming a more well-rounded cyclist. Include your strengths in the training plan, but look to maintain them for a period rather than working on them constantly.

You’ll soon discover that training smart means that there are benefits to be found on all terrain, even those you dislike.

If you are involved or aspire to be involved in competition, you should be constantly asking yourself: “Is what I am going to do today going to help me in the race?” Don’t make the mistake of training just for what suits you, but for what the course demands of you to get to the finish line.

Goals:

About those goals: I always advise people who ask for advice or come to me for coaching 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 (indeed, this is true too if you are riding to lose weight or to keep up with friends on group rides).

If you have honestly answered the first two questions (regarding strengths and weaknesses), 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 a few examples. For some reason (ie ego!), most cyclists get into a race-type situation and suddenly think they have the power of ten riders. 60km still to go and BOOM! They attack.

But if you’ve never done 60km solo TT-style ahead of a rampant, frothing pack of fit riders in training, why do you suddenly think you can do it in a race?

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 at ‘average fitness’ (not unfit but lacking stamina and high end power), the first three weeks or so should include fairly longish stamina (lower Zone 2) rides on the weekend that increase in intensity and come down in duration with each passing week after the initial 3 week period.

Many riders make the mistake of riding almost constantly at a constant level of effort, which is great if you’re off on a 10 day super chill bike tour around the Netherlands, but this does little to prepare for a race or to increase strength and power. Mix it up a couple of times on your mid-week rides – and a lot of great work can be done on even just 30 min rides in the week – by adding intervals that target your weaknesses. This will increase VO2 capacity and lactic acid threshold and clearance, and enable you to deal with surging by others on rides / in races and bring your all-round abilities up.

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. Why? Because in the race you will be very unlikely to ride the whole 150km solo. Rather, you will spend large chunks of it slipstreaming off others, saving energy. 150km along in training may take you 5-6 hours, but in the race, the same distance might be covered in say 4hrs.

A better use of your time would be to focus on riding at what you expect to be ‘race pace’ on the day and starting that at an hour, then looking to up it so say 2 or even 3 hrs over the following weeks. Riding hard for such fairly long durations not only increases overall physical strength, it also increases stamina as well as working on the mental side of the game. Put simply, the more you can hurt for longer in training, the less it will hurt on race day.

To reiterate, 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.

Training smart is all about intensity, or to use another well worn phrase, quality over quantity is key. 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. When you look at a given race profile, deconstruct it as though it is a jigsaw puzzle. What you need to do is to work on each of these sections in your training, so that on race day, the body and mind are prepared.

A word on group rides. Train with others certainly, but be aware that when you do this you are at the mercy of the collective and the individuals within. Spending too much time with others means that you tend to get pulled around if not fully fit, which can be hit or miss – usually miss – in terms of getting you fitter. Or, if strong, you exploit your strengths rather than working on weaknesses. The same riders go at the same places, and the same riders drop off at the same places. Also, as we all know, we can end up riding 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. If it’s a team event you will be doing, pair stronger riders with weaker riders so that they learn to work together. The stronger rider will still be strong after a session like this, and the weaker rider can, if encouraged and looked after, become stronger.

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! 10 laps and 10 corners = 100 sprints.

Gulp!

So get sprint training, and quick.

A road race with three hill repeats of a 4 km climb? Then you should be doing three or even four timed hill repeats in training, trying to make each effort faster than the last, as often happens in racing. Once proficient at that, make it one climb easier, second full gas, then the third easier, last one full gas. Chop and change to shock the system into adaptation.

As you cut down the hours of training in the build up to the race, increase the suffering. Get the intervals going, short, sharp shocks that I like to think of as the threads that pull together the fabric of your form.

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. In a race this can help you drop riders before the finish line or on a climb.

If you don’t have a power meter, use the Perceived Rate of Exertion (PRE) scale. On this 1 is barely pedalling and 10 is a nuts out, on the rivet effort.

Within a 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. Be consistent too, and you will surprise yourself.

Also, choose a local hill or a local 10km stretch of road where there are few stops and ride them every 14 days or so, timing yourself to see the gains you are making. Increase the distance as you go along. Create a benchmark to go beat.

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 immediate pre-race training works best for you. Some people need complete rest for two days before a race, others feel better with a day off two days before and then a short interval session the day before the race.

This is what I prescribe to the majority of my coaching clients, the day before a race, following a day off:

10 mins easy PRE 3-4
5 mins PRE 6 (tempo)
3 mins easy
3×20 secs sprints 45 secs easy between
3 mins easy
3×1 mins PRE 8 (threshold) with ten secs sprints last 10 secs on last one, 2 mins rest between
5 mins easy
Another 3×20 secs sprints 45 secs easy between
Cool Down

*Use the PRE chart above to work out zones and FTP %

Finally, build good rest and recuperation into the plan. If your form dips, don’t train harder! Instead take a break, put 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%, and you can only do that if you rest properly.

Follow these steps and you will be more confident that you have covered most (if not all) of the bases required, and the you can skip that horrible phase of second-guessing your preparation, and the usual desperate attempt to cram 4 weeks of the training you think you’ve missed into 10 days.

Hope some of this helps you to build an effective training plan!

For coaching enquiries, please click here, thanks!

Author: Lee Rodgers

Cycling coach, race organiser, former professional cyclist and the original CrankPunk.

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