Separate The Signal From The Noise
It’s clear that structured training works but there is no single ‘best way’ to plan a programme. However, by listening to what has been said and done before (instead of what we want to hear!) and by applying some well proven principles from science and experience, it’s possible to separate the signals from the noise and create an effective and enjoyable approach to achieve your cycling goals. Read on to discover seven stages to planning a cycling training programme.
Your Body As A Signalling System
Our bodies are essentially electro-chemical signalling systems. These signals (or the absence of them) make something happen, good or bad. When we train, our bodies receive a signal to change in response to that stimulus. When we rest, our bodies develop and grow. If you stop riding for too long, the adaptive signals cease and the beneficial changes reverse. An ideal plan will optimise the intensity and distribution of these signals, creating an environment which will cause the rider to adapt in a way which helps them to meet the demands of the event they are targeting.
Stage 1: Ask Yourself Some Questions
Before we consider the signals in your environment and begin to plan a programme, ask yourself three questions:
- Do you know who you are?
- What do you want?
- Are you in control of your life?
These questions may seem irrelevant, but I believe they are one of the leading causes of success or failure in executing a training programme. If a rider spends days labouring over a plan but isn’t honest with themselves about how their life is set up, what they really want or if they are sufficiently in control of their life to achieve their goals, they will struggle to create an appropriate programme or adhere to it.
Question 1) Do you know who you are?
I’ve seen too many amateur cyclists convince themselves that they were elite cyclists in the making, when their lives were really set up to support family and career, rather than bike riding. Start by being honest with yourself about what you’re really living for. Make realistic goals in the context of this and you’ll be amazed what you can actually achieve.
Question 2) What do you want?
In the context of your cycling goals, decide what you really want. If you’re not getting paid to ride your bike, take some time to make sure your goal is something you feel intrinsically motivated for, rather than getting dragged along with a group. This will help to generate an enduring motivation to get through the inevitable peaks and troughs of a training programme.
Question 3) Are you in control of your life?
Do you have enough control over your time and resources to create and complete the plan you need to achieve your goal? You may not be able to answer this entirely until you’ve started to plan the programme, but it’s helpful to begin by conducting an ‘audit’ on the ‘signals’ in your environment that will influence all aspects of life and performance.
We could see the signals in your environment as being composed of 6 elements:
Commit to address your health alongside and perhaps even before your cycling specific fitness.
What are you capable of now, what do you need to do to achieve you goal (see next stage) and how far away are you in terms of your current level? How much time can you commit to training each week?
Are there any bio-mechanical issues on or off the bike which will prevent you from following a programme e.g. a poorly fitted bike or bad posture at work which may leave you too uncomfortable to train?
Are you eating in a way which will support training and help to create the adaptations you are looking for?
Can you sleep and rest enough to support the demands of your planned training?
6) Mental Energy
Do you have enough capacity left in terms of mental energy to pursue a structured training programme alongside the other demands in your life?
Stage 2: Decide On A Goal & Describe Its Demands
Training programmes should begin with the end in mind. When you have decided what you want to achieve, you need to describe its demands specifically and measurably. If you’re not targeting an event, choose a measurable route which you ride regularly and aim to complete it more quickly.
Describe the demands of you target in objective terms such as distance, time, intensity (using power, heart rate or perceived exertion), characteristics of the route, requirements of challenging sectors and whether any particular skills are necessary (e.g. confident descending).
You can find much of this information online, especially if you are training for an event which is run on a similar course each year. Organiser’s websites, Strava and performance modelling sites such as cyclingpowerlab.com are a great source of information about what a ride will involve and therefore what capacities you will require.
For example, if a rider was aiming to win the 2015 Fred Whitton Challenge, the demands would include:
- Completing the 176.7km in 6:04:26 (beating the time of 6:08:54 in 2014) at an average speed of 29km.hr.
- Repeatedly climbing at low cadence and high-intensity for periods of up to 15 minutes.
- Descending swiftly, safely and with confidence.
- Producing an average power of 4.1 watts.kg for the entire route (Strava will help to predict this if you don’t have access to a power-meter)
Stage 3: Define The Capacities Required To Achieve Your Goal
When you have described the demands, define the capacities you will need to meet them – i.e. specific aspects of fitness or ability. Most cycling goals can be described in terms of Strength, VO2 Max, Endurance, Threshold and Specific Skills. For example:
- Endurance: Completing the route at this average speed requires aerobic endurance and efficiency.
VO2 Max: Climbing at high-intensity for 5-15 minutes repeatedly requires a well developed maximal aerobic capacity and lactate metabolism.
- Threshold: Producing 4.1watts.kg over the entire course requires that you build your maximal aerobic capacity and ‘Critical Power’ (the power you can sustain for a given time period without fatigue) to the point that 4.1watt.kg only represents a relatively small proportion of what you are capable of.
- Strength: Climbing at low-cadence at high-intensity requires an ability to produce high-torque forces in the pedal stroke – i.e you need to be able to push hard on the pedals!
Specific Skills: Descending quickly and safely requires a good level bike-handling skill.
Stage 4: Test These Capacities
Once you know what capacities you need and have defined them objectively, you need to test each capacity to see what you are capable of before the programme begins. This could take the form of evaluating some recent rides or events which include similar demands, or simulating parts of the event in a training session. For example, to complete a particularly steep climb, a rider requires ‘torque’ and a well developed maximum aerobic capacity to ride in zone 5 for 10 minutes at 60RPM. They may test this capacity by riding an ascent in zone 5 intensity at 60RPM for as long as possible, then repeat the test each month to ensure they are progressing sufficiently to reach their target intensity and duration. Design similar tests for each capacity that your goal requires.