Stage 5: Design A Logical Progression To Improve Your Capacities
Once you have established what you are capable of and what you need to do, define ‘sub-goals’ in relation to each capacity by writing down your current capacity relative to what you need to achieve and describe the difference as a percentage. For example, if you need to ride in zone 5 for 10 minutes but can only manage 5 minutes at the beginning of the programme, your performance needs to improve by 100%! This will help you to establish how far from your goals you are, help you plan the incremental workload in the programme and allow you to chart improvement. For example, intervals targeting zone 5 intensity may begin with repeated 3 minute efforts, gradually increasing the work period duration and/or reducing recovery time until you are closer to maintaining the required intensity for the whole 10 minutes. Test your progression regularly so that you can adjust your training, if necessary.
Stage 6: Periodise Your Programme To Address The Capacities You Require
There are many different approaches to training periodisation but they essentially boil down to breaking the training year into blocks of time, each with a particular emphasis. The purpose of this emphasis is to provide sufficiently ‘loud’ and frequent signals to encourage the body to adapt and grow. I recommend that rider’s programmes follow the pattern of increasing specificity i.e. the program begins by establishing the ‘building blocks’ that underpin the capacities we are aiming to develop, then over time, training gradually becomes more like the target event.
However, even though each block should emphasise the progressive development in a limited number of capacities, it’s important that also you include occasional sessions which stimulate other capacities that you are not emphasising. This maintains the ‘signal’ for this capacity and prevents the body from reversing its adaptations. For example, include a few high-intensity efforts during the Build and Event Preparation periods, event if they are not a part of the specific emphasis of those blocks.
A Note On Intensity
Some traditional models of training periodisation suggested that you should avoid riding intensely in the winter. However, there is little evidence suggests that riding at high intensity compromises the building of a deep endurance base. In fact, it may even compliment it. Avoidance of intensity for a period of time makes sense for riders who have accumulated a deep level of fatigue from a long racing season, but the reality is that most amateur riders simply do not get the time to compete or train enough to justify long periods without any high intensity work.
Also, whilst not a replacement for steady, low-intensity miles, high-intensity training is a time efficient and effective means to send signals which improve endurance performance, such as enhancing fat metabolism and efficiency by increasing the number and density of mitochondria (the energy factories) in cells. In addition, for sportive riders, short, high-intensity intervals may represent one of the building blocks which underpin the capacity to produce the longer, sustained more moderate power efforts which characterise their events. Consequently, it makes sense to include high-intensity workouts in ‘Base’ periods.
So, broadly speaking, a periodised progression could be broken down into five periods, each with a particular emphasis developed over two to twelve weeks, depending on how far away the target is. For a rider targeting a Fred Whitton type sportive in 16 weeks time, the general programme could look something like:
Base Period: 6 weeks
Develop muscular strength through weight training 2 to 3 times per week and sprint/neuromuscular efforts on the bike. Improve VO2 max and efficiency through short high-intensity intervals (zone 5-6 or at least 7 out of 10 in terms of RPE) once to twice per week, if possible. To maintain endurance, include a few longer rides during the 6 week block, up to 3 hours in duration, if the weather is good enough.
Build Period: 6 weeks
Increase the length of low-intensity rides (Zone 2) to build endurance and introduce one longer, 6-10 minute, low-cadence ‘big-gear’ interval session during the week to develop ‘torque’. Interval work periods should be at the lower end of zone 5.
Event Preparation Period: 3 weeks
Begin to introduce longer rides which also integrate longer tempo periods (zone 3-4) for 30-45 minutes and short, intense climbs to simulate the demands of the upcoming event.
Race Period: 1 week
Take is easy during the week leading up to the event. Do one ride half the distance of the target event during the week and one interval session with half your usual number of repetitions.
Recovery Period: 1 week
Rest and ride when you feel like it. Review the event performance and the previous 16 week programme to evaluate what worked and what you could improve.
Progression & Recovery
When you have determined the emphasis of each block and what type of sessions you will do, plan the sessions so that they result in a progressive stimulus from week to week by increasing workload. You could increase the workload by increasing volume/duration and/or intensity or adjusting the ratio between work and rest in interval sessions. The increases should push the body just hard enough to send the signals to keep developing but not so hard that your system is overwhelmed and breaks down. Progression should be consistent but moderate. Within each block, schedule consecutive weeks of increasing workload, followed by a week of reduced workload. Many riders find that two weeks of increasing workload, followed by a week of unloading works well. I’d also suggest that you include one complete rest-day per week.
For example, you may plan a 6 hour week, followed by a 7 hour week, followed by a 4 hour ‘recovery’ week. Within week one, you may do one intense session involving 4 x 3 minute high intensity intervals. In week two, you may slightly increase the work period in the interval i.e. 4 x 3 minute 30 second high intensity intervals. Week 3 may feature easier sessions to facilitate recovery, perhaps doing one intense session but only completing 2 x 3 minute 30 second high intensity intervals, just to maintain the ‘signal’.
Recovery is the most important and frequently overlooked element of training. We get stronger whilst we rest, not when we train! Websites such as TrainingPeaks and Strava are a helpful means to record sessions and quantify training stress. They can also help to take the guess work out of determining the mix between work and rest, suggesting how fresh or fatigued you are, enabling you to plan subsequent training sessions and rest periods accordingly.
Stage 7: Design Your Weekly Programme
Now you can see the big picture of what you need to achieve and the phases to get you there, look ahead to the next few weeks and plan your programme day to day.
Low Means Ego-Crushingly Slow
As a general guideline, plan one or two specific sessions each week working on the capacities you are emphasising (an interval session for example), then do disciplined steady rides in zone 2 (2 -3 out of 10 in terms of perceived exertion), for the rest of the time you have available. The evidence suggests that cyclists benefit most from spending 80% of their time riding at low-intensity. Low means ego crushingly slow – less than 75% of FTP or maximum heart rate or 2-3 out of 10 in terms of perceived exertion. You should be able to speak in complete sentences, without taking a breath, when riding at this intensity. Most riders don’t spend enough of their time here and struggle to believe that it’s effective, preferring to ride at moderate, tempo type pace. The problem with too much moderate intensity riding is that the signal it sends to the body is too quiet to result in significant adaptations but loud enough to leave the rider feeling too fatigued for more effective training. Tempo rides are an effective means to simulate the demands of an event, but they are not a particularly potent stimulus. Save them for Event Preparation periods. It’s the accumulation of steady miles, year on year, that gradually builds the base of endurance conditioning to support progression.
Stage 7: “That which is measured improves”
Once you have completed the previous 6 stages, you should have a clear idea of what you are aiming to achieve and how you can get there. Each ride should have a purpose. Remember to test yourself regularly and record progress towards your goal.
Endurance training expert Professor Stephen Seiler suggests that you should simply “smile and walk away” if someone claims that their plan or training method is ”completely new and revolutionary”. The challenge in planning any training programme lies in developing the appropriate training mix for the individual to provide enough training stress to accumulate fitness, add the right ingredients at the appropriate time by deciding when to add low or high-intensity and in what formulation before allowing enough time for the ingredients to ferment, resulting in the performance objective.
A few take home points:
- Be realistic about how much training stress you can handle – take into account the factors that you can not record objectively such as work pressures and family life.
- Monotonous plans can induce short-term gains/losses (e.g. 6 week high-intensity only programmes) and rarely promote long-term success – variety is important in every stage of a training programme.
- Build a deep base through as much low-intensity riding as you can fit in (<75% FTP/2-3 out of 10 in terms of perceived exertion).
- High-Intensity Training (>106% FTP/>7 out of 10 in terms of perceived exertion) is a potent stimulus to improve many capacities that are vital for cycling performance.
- Only tackle high intensity sessions when you feel fresh enough to hit the ‘big numbers’.
- Be patient, there are no short-cuts to fitness.
- Train moderately and consistently.
- Rest often.
- Test yourself regularly to verify if the training is working or not.
Above all, keep your training simple. Consistency with moderated progression, variety without too much complexity are the most effective means to achieve your goals.