Knowledge Level: Advanced
There are many ways to train successfully for a bike race. This is obvious since we know that high-performance athletes and coaches follow many different philosophies using a wide variety of methods in achieving podium finishes. The workout variables they manipulate, however, are few and common to all – duration, intensity and frequency.
This is a brief discussion of that methodology with an emphasis on the key workouts. Realise that in each week of these periods there will also be recovery days with low-stress workouts. And after two or three weeks of consistently high stress there should be a few consecutive days in which low-stress recovery rides allow for rejuvenation before again increasing the training load.
General Preparation Period (“Base”)
There are three “abilities” I have athletes focus on early in the first few weeks of this period. They are as follows.
This is the ability to produce a moderate intensity for a long duration. The standard workout involves long rides of one to four hours ridden steadily at or near the rider’s aerobic threshold (AeT) following a brief warm-up. Short of lab testing to determine aerobic threshold, subtract 30bpm from your lactate/functional threshold heart rate to estimate AeT. This will be in zone 2 using my heart rate zone system. Over the course of a few weeks, with this session being completed one to three times weekly, you should experience an increase in average power output as heart rate remains constant. This is an excellent sign that aerobic endurance is improving. When power relative to this heart rate plateaus it is time to change the training routine to focus primarily on muscular endurance (explained below) while going into a maintenance mode for aerobic endurance. You can maintain aerobic endurance by doing this workout half as frequently as it was done in the earlier portion of this period.
To pedal powerfully you must be able to push hard on the pedals. Muscular force is the ability that addresses this matter. Muscular force may initially be developed in the gym by lifting weights with exercises specific to pedaling a bicycle, such as squats, deadlifts, and leg presses. This may be done in the first few weeks of the general preparation period. Training of this ability must eventually take place on the bike to be developed even more specifically. There are many ways to do this. One such workout involves warming up well and then doing high gear-low cadence repeats on a short (about 50m) and steep (greater than 6%) hill. Ride to the base of the hill shifting to a high gear (such as 53 x 14) and coming to an almost full stop. Remaining in the saddle drive the pedals down 8 to 12 times using maximal force. Recover for 3 to 5 minutes and repeat. Four to ten or so such repeats may be done in a single workout. Be aware that besides being a high-reward workout that it is also high-risk. Stop the workout at the first sign of any discomfort in the knees. If you have poor knees this session is best avoided.
Besides muscular force, the other component of powerful pedaling is cadence. Power is the product of torque (rotating force) and pedal velocity (cadence). Also, to ride efficiently – meaning a relatively low metabolic cost for any given power output – you must refine your pedaling skills. This essentially means learning to turn the pedals quickly while staying relaxed. There are many drills for this. One of the simplest is called “spin-ups.” While in a low gear, over about 30 seconds, gradually increase your cadence until you top out. This is indicated by slight bouncing on the saddle while tensing muscles throughout the body. When topped out slow the cadence slightly and maintain it for a few seconds while remaining relaxed. Then return to pedaling easily at a normal cadence. Repeat the spin-up several times. This may be done as a workout by itself or as a part of the warm-up or cool down for another session. This ability also involves bike handling skills such as cornering, bunny hopping, descending and braking.
Late in the base period, once aerobic endurance is well-established as indicated by a plateauing of average power, begin to concentrate training on muscular endurance. This is the ability to maintain a relatively high intensity, especially at or slightly below the lactate/functional threshold, for relatively long periods of time. A typical workout is 2 x 20 minutes done steadily at about 90% of functional threshold power (FTP) with a 5-minute recovery interval. Do this one to three times weekly. A good indicator that this workout is producing positive gains is an increase in FTP after several sessions.
Specific Preparation Period (“Build”)
The specific prep period is the time to do workouts that are increasingly racelike. This, of course, is defined by the A-priority races you have planned for the year. Besides the expected competitors, race strategies and tactics, you must also consider terrain and weather, especially heat and wind. With all of this in mind, the following workouts should be adapted to make them as racelike as possible. How many of each of these is done in a week during this period depends on your limiters – weak abilities which are standing between you and success. The abilities developed in the general preparation period should be maintained during this period by including them in warm-ups, cool downs or even during recovery rides (spin-ups, for example).
Intervals much the same as done in general preparation for this ability may continue into this period. Make them increasingly racelike by doing them on long climbs, on rolling courses, on courses with several corners or on your time trial set-up. You may also ride with a fast group while sitting in.
The outcomes of road races are often determined in brief episodes lasting a few minutes during breakaways, bridging gaps, surges on climbs, in shifting winds and when accelerating out of corners. All require anaerobic endurance – the ability to maintain a very high power output for a relatively long time while deeply anaerobic. One way to prepare is by doing intervals such as 5 x 3 minutes at zone 5 power (106-120% of FTP) with 3-minutes recoveries in zone 1. The course may include hills and corners. Another way to develop this ability is to ride aggressively with a fast group. This latter method is very effective as it closely simulates road racing. C-priority races may also serve as anaerobic endurance training.
Bike races often come down to a sprint to the finish line. The rider who can accelerate quickly and maintain a high power output for a few seconds while minimizing aerodynamic drag will be very competitive. One workout to build this ability is called “jumps.” These involve very short accelerations (8-12 pedal revolutions) with an emphasis on high power as quickly as possible, pedaling skills and body position. Recover for 3 to 5 minutes after each jump. Doing these with a training partner is very beneficial. Include hills and corners to make them more racelike.
Pre-Competition Period (“Peak”)
In this period, which typically lasts one or two weeks, do a racelike workout, such as done in the specific preparation period, about every 72 hours. These workouts should get shorter as this period progresses. On the two days between racelike workouts ride easily. This pattern will maintain your race fitness at high level while removing fatigue.
Competition Period (“Race”)
The week of your race do an increasingly brief, racelike workout every day. This may be something such as warming up and then doing 6 x 90-second anaerobic endurance intervals with 3-minute recoveries (see above). Do this 6 days before the race. Five days before the race do 5 such intervals. Continue this decreasing pattern right up to the day before your race. If you decide to take a day off this week the best day is usually two days before the race (Friday for a Sunday race).
Following your A-priority race take a break from serious training. This may involve a day or days off and low-stress riding. Early in the season this period may be only three days or so. But as the season progresses it becomes longer. Following the last race of the season it may be a month. How long depends on your level of physical and mental fatigue.
As mentioned in the introduction, there are many ways to prepare for a successful race season. What I have described above is but one way. The knowledgeable athlete or coach will adapt and modify such a plan to better fit the athlete’s unique needs. The real key to success is the development of the plan regardless of the philosophy so long as the methodology is scientifically sound.
Joe Friel is a coach, co-founder of TrainingPeaks.com and the author of several books on training including The Cyclist’s Training Bible. You can use TrainingPeaks.com Premium Athlete Edition Software to design yourself a custom training plan based on Joe’s training methodologies. British Cycling members enjoy up to 40% off on TrainingPeaks Premium.
© Joe Friel 2013