INTRODUCTION TO STRUCTURED TRAINING
A training programme is designed to bring you to peak performance for your target event or to help plan towards achieving a goal. The same principles that you would apply to any big project, goal or event can be applied to your cycling targets. Break it down into a list of components, steps and actions, in the case of a race or challenging bike ride, this would be the ‘event demands’, then create an action plan so that you are ready on the day. As an example let’s look at an athlete planning to compete in a local closed circuit race. Here is a list of possible event demands:
Repeated surges in speed
High pace for the full duration of 1 hour
Possible sprint finish
High speed close group riding
Short steep climb
Short steep descent
Race awareness and tactics
So, they need to be able to maintain a high speed for an hour, in a group of other riders. The repeated laps of the track will involve negotiating tight turns, and multiple climbs and descents. Other riders will be attacking, which you might need to cover or have to deal with the resulting surges in speed. You might find yourself in a small breakaway, which could consist of just a few riders, maybe only two, or even a solo breakaway, out on your own, requiring solo or team time trial skills to stay away. This then gives you an idea of what you need to work on to be ready for race day. We can be split these demands into three key areas:
Find out as much as you can about your target event so you know what will be required on the day. This might involve going to watch a similar event, finding online footage of the previous year, or actually participating in similar events in preparation. Honestly evaluate your own skills and make a plan to learn any you feel are missing, work on your weaknesses and hone your existing skills. These could be climbing, descending, eating and drinking on the bike, taking bottles, cornering, group riding, or could include discipline specific skills such as mounting and dismounting for cyclocross, etc.
As well as race awareness and strategies, this also includes your nutritional plan. You will need to plan out what you are going to eat and drink before, during and after the event. This is something you can work on and perfect in your training, testing what works and doesn’t work for you. Event day preparation is also something to be ironed out in advance. Getting in to a good routine of getting your bike in good order one or two days in advance, and kit ready the night before, means reducing the risk of forgetting something, or not noticing a mechanical problem, and more importantly, less stress on the important days.
A coach would create what’s called a periodised plan to get you to peak fitness. This involves progressively developing various aspects of fitness during planned phases, managing fatigue and avoiding any risk of short and long term injuries. Beginners respond very quickly to an even basic structured plan, but once an athlete reaches elite level, and is nearing the peak of what a human can achieve, a far more detailed and personalised programme is required, with a high level of observation and analysis, in order to make improvements.
The basic premise is simple: a muscle must be stressed in order to illicit adaptation
That is: you must challenge the muscle, beyond what it can currently perform easily, in order to trigger the process of rebuilding stronger. This can be achieved through increasing the resistance, duration, range of movement or complexity. In repeating the same exercise, or route, at the same effort, will not challenge your body to improve. You will just become very good at doing that one exercise, routine or ride. By planning ahead, progression can be built into your weekly activities. For a simple demonstration of this we will look at the example given for the one hour closed circuit race. The rider needs to improve their maximum speed that can be maintained for the duration of the race. This can be broken down into two factors, maximum speed and duration of effort. To increase your speed you need to increase your power, that is the amount of energy you can output to move your mass.
POWER = STRENGTH + SPEED
(Here speed refers to leg speed, your pedal rpm or cadence)
You can increase your strength with resistance training on and off the bike. On the bike strength session would consist of intervals using a heavy gear with a low cadence (40 to 60 rpm). Off the bike maximal strength training would consist of three to five sets of 5 to 8 repetitions of exercises such as squats, lunges and deadlifts, that work the muscles used in cycling and mimic the pedal action.
These are low resistance high cadence sessions to train your neural pathways. They improve your pedal action and efficiency.
Over time you start to introduce sessions that bring together these two factors, with on the bike intervals of progressively heavier resistance and higher cadences, whilst also increasing the duration of the intervals until you are simulating what you might expect in a race. Off the bike you would introduce power exercises such as the snatch, cleans, jerks and weighted plyometrics.
Increasing the duration at which you can sustain a high effort requires improving your cardiovascular system as well as muscle endurance. By improving your cardio efficiency you will be able to provide more oxygen to your muscles and for longer. When you exercise fats and oxygen (and also protein in very small amounts) are used to create ATP in the muscle cells, and this is the energy that powers muscle movement. Producing ATP from fat is a slower process, so is fine for low effort exercising, but is not sufficient for more intense training and racing. When the demand for ATP is greater the aerobic energy system becomes dominant. Your breath rate and heart rate increase to meet that demand. Including zone 1 to 3 rides in your training will develop your ‘fat burning’ efficiency and your aerobic fitness. These sessions strengthen your heart and lung muscles and encourage development of the capillaries in your muscles, allowing more oxygen to be supplied when it’s needed.
CREATING A PLAN
So, hopefully you are starting to see, in getting yourself ready for your event, and making the most of your valuable time, you would benefit from planning ahead. When I’m creating plans for my clients I start with a spreadsheet with a column for each day of the year, and mark off their target events. I then divide the year in to blocks of four weeks or so, detailing which elements need to be worked on in each of those blocks, the physiology, skills and tactics identified in the event demands analysis. I then add various test days for each block to measure progression and the effectiveness of the training programme. From there I can start to build progressive training and rest weeks into each block, and eventually creating sessions for each week. I rarely create sessions for more than four weeks in advance. The training programme provides a framework, but the weekly plans need to remain fluid and react to the athlete’s response to training, the weather, any injuries and life events.
When designing the plan I find it best to work backwards from the target event. In the block immediately preceding the event the intensity will be high, with sessions consisting of race effort intervals, but volume will be low to allow sufficient time to fully recover from every session and be fresh and rested for the important day. Ensure that you also include exercises to maintain your maximum strength, leg speed and flexibility.
BUILDING INTENSITY | REDUCING VOLUME
POWER | SKILLS | TACTICS
MAINTAIN: MAXIMUM STRENGTH | FLEXIBILITY | LEG SPEED
You would then plan one or two blocks, depending on how much time you have before the event and your current fitness, to focus on getting event fit, with sessions that replicate the demands of your event, and event simulations. Here you would start working on skills and tactics, as well as introducing power training, on and off the bike, bringing together the strength and speed built in the previous blocks. Again, ensure that you include exercises to maintain your maximum strength, leg speed and flexibility. In these blocks intensity is building, whilst volume is reducing to allow adaptation.
BUILDING INTENSITY | REDUCING VOLUME | POWER | SKILLS | TACTICS MAINTAIN: MAXIMUM STRENGTH | FLEXIBILITY | LEG SPEED
The blocks early in the year or season are an opportunity to build your aerobic fitness and maximum strength. With no races or events to be fit for you can afford to plan high volume and high intensity, with long rides in zones 1 to 3, and an off the bike strength and conditioning programme. Before you start a maximum strength training you must ensure you are in good condition and prepare your body. If you have any weaknesses from previous injuries, or any imbalances, now is the time to work on addressing those, as well as leg speed, flexibility and core strength.
HIGH & LOW INTENSITY | HIGH VOLUME
CONDITIONING | MAXIMUM STRENGTH | FLEXIBILITY | LEG SPEED
DESIGNING PROGRESSION AND RECOVERY
In each four week block (sometimes more or less than four is appropriate) map out a progression in volume (hours of training) and intensity (effort or complexity) over the first three weeks, followed by a rest week. The both the progression and rest week are vital to improving your performance. Many athletes keep training for weeks and weeks, pushing themselves trying to illicit adaptation, then find themselves hitting a plateau, developing niggling injuries or even start seeing a decline in performance. Don’t be tempted to skip the rest week. This allows full adaptation and recovery ready for the next block, reducing the risk of injury and burnout. You can still train, but reduce the volume and/or intensity by around 50% to 60%. I have written a guide to recovery, explaining the benefits, and giving examples of how to incorporate rest and recovery in your weekly activities. Consider it a vital element in your training.
TRACKING THE EFFECTIVENESS OF YOUR TRAINING
It is recommended that an athlete is regularly tested in order to monitor improvements. Recording progression also helps maintain motivation. There are lots of tests that can be used to measure physiological improvements, such as the FTP or FTHR (functional threshold power or heart rate), but it is worth evaluating whether this popular test is relevant to the event you are training for. There are alternatives worth investigating. I also recommend finding a way of measuring your improvements and setting targets in other areas, for example increasing the speed at which you can corner, or building your confidence and balance on the bike to where you can comfortably eat, drink, or even removed a layer of clothing. Schedule these tests and mini targets into each of the blocks in your plan. There are many online platforms to help you track your progression, as well as your fatigue and form, at a wide range of price points, such as Training Peaks, Today’s Plan, Intervals.icu, Golden Cheetah, TrainerRoad and even Strava has a fitness and freshness tool included in their offerings for premium subscribers.
SHOULD WOMEN TRAIN DIFFERENTLY?
Unfortunately, the majority of what we know about sport and nutritional science is based on studies conducted on cohorts of young males athletes or obese adults. There is still lots to learn about how female physiology affects response to training. Thankfully, the number of female sports scientists is increasing, and there is a growing trend in expanding our understanding of gender differences, with leading pioneers such as Dr Stacey Sims and Professor Louise Burke. The growing belief is that we should be paying more attention to and designing our training around our hormonal cycle. Through our menstrual cycle we respond differently to different types of training, so working to a standard pattern of four week blocks may not be appropriate. But also, because our hormones drastically change from puberty through to post menopause, we should also adjust how we train and our nutrition through the different stages in our lives.
What is clear is the need for women to include strength training, throughout our lives, but especially as we approach our 30s and beyond. Traditionally, hitting the free weights and picking up heavy stuff has been associated with sweaty grunting men, with over developed upper body muscles. We need to get over that, get comfortable with the weights area in the gym and embrace the benefits. We also have a cultural belief that we should be taking it easy as we get older. We should be doing the opposite! High resistance training helps us to improve and maintain bone density, protecting us from Osteoporosis, fight the loss of muscle mass due to hormonal changes and maintain balance and flexibility, reducing the risk of falls and injuries. Weight training should be considered essential for your long term health as well as improving performance on the bike. Look out for my guide to training and nutrition for women, where I discuss this in more detail, which I hope to publish very shortly. In the mean time I recommend the very popular book by Dr Stacey Sims, titled ROAR. You can also follow Stacey on Instagram and Facebook.
FASTER | FITTER | HEALTHIER | HAPPIER
Hopefully this guide will help you focus your efforts, make the most of your time and help you achieve your goals. If you would like further advice or more help getting starting Veloqi can create a three month personalised plan for just £60, currently available on the website veloqi.cc. The plans are tailored around your goals, current fitness level, available equipment, your likes and dislikes and your lifestyle. They offer a taster experience to structured training before attempting to self coach or committing to s monthly coaching subscription. Also available are one to one skills coaching sessions, a discount on monthly coaching subscriptions, and membership to the Veloqi cycling club, giving you access to more advice on cycling and training, and a community of like minded cyclists.