By Karen Brems, Master World Cyclocross Champion
Planning an effective weekly, monthly or yearly training schedule is something that requires a fair amount of trial and error, but can really pay off. If two people follow exactly the same schedule, they will not necessarily achieve the same results. It is a good idea to talk to other riders and find out what they are doing as far as training, but everyone has to figure out for themselves what works the best for them. Also, remember one workout does not equal a training program. Training is a package deal and everything is cumulative. If you do a certain top rider’s favorite workout every time you ride without any knowledge of what else is in their schedule, chances are you will not receive the same benefits. Unless you are independently wealthy or riding your bike for a living, your training will be the result of trade-offs with your “real” life. Each person has to determine for themselves how many hours a week they have to devote to cycling and make the most of them. To achieve the greatest benefits from your training, you have to stress your body as much as possible and then give it enough time to recover and adapt to the stress. Your rest periods are actually when you grow stronger. As you grow stronger, you have to stress your body more and more to continue the adaptation. If you do the same thing every week all year, you will eventually just reach a performance plateau. Stress is cumulative as well. Professional cyclists do a tremendous amount of training and racing, but when they are not on their bikes, they are most likely sitting or lying down somewhere relaxing or taking a nap (except when they are traveling all over the world!). They also probably get 8-10 hours of sleep a night, a luxury most people trying to fit cycling in around a full-time job and/or family life cannot afford.
When we are at national team training camp, we tend to do all our training in “blocks” : 2 days hard, one day easy, 3 days hard, 2 days easy etc. Days of the week have no meaning. In “real life”, however, I think it is easier to dedicate certain days of the week to certain workouts. Most cyclist the world over sort of fall into a general plan during the racing season of: race Sat and Sun, Mon. easy, train Tues.-Thurs., easy Fri. If you use this plan, Tues. and Wed. should be your hardest workouts since that is when you are freshest. When you are first starting out, you may find that you can only go hard every other day. As you get fitter though, you will have to start going hard 2-3 days in a row to continue the adaptation. You should always keep at least one day a week completely easy.
You can then put the weeks together to form monthly blocks. I find that a schedule of 3 weeks hard, one week easy works well for me. That means that approximately once a month, I will take at least 4-5 days in a row very easy. Where you fit these “rest weeks” in can depend on your race schedule or other obligations. For example, if you know that because of your job, you will not be able to train much a certain week, schedule that as your easy week and go as hard as you can the few weeks before it. There have been times when I felt like I didn’t need the “rest week” and skipped it, but I almost invariably regretted it later... I also find that in general, I ride the best the 2nd week of the block. After more than 1-2 days of easy riding, you may become “blocked”. In general this means after a period of rest, your body will sort of shut down and start up its repair processes. You may feel pretty sluggish the first time you go hard again. This is completely normal. Most top riders like to do a “race opener” type workout the day before a race. This is usually a few short, high intensity intervals and/or some jumps. You can use smaller gears than normal to save your legs while still getting high heart rates. In a long stage race such as the PowerBar Challenge or even, I’m sure in the Tour de France, if there is a rest day in the middle, most of the riders will be out doing a few intervals that day. You need to keep your race systems active - otherwise you will really regret it the next day.
The key to a good training program is variety. To be a successful road racer takes many different skills and energy delivery systems. If you only train one system all the time, your race tactics will be very limited. The basic requirements for road racing and the types of workouts that develop them are the following:
Aerobic capacity: Long rides (at least as long as your longest race) at a steady (but not hard) pace. HR less than 80% of max. These will help you be fresher at the end of the race and teach your body to use fat for fuel and thus spare precious muscle glycogen
Aerobic power: Longer intervals (10-30 min.) at or just below your anaerobic threshold. Rest about half the work time. These will help your climbing and time trialing as well as allow you to spend more time riding aerobically when just going along in the pack as opposed to being anaerobic most of the time and then when the pace picks up, you have nothing more to draw on.
Anaerobic power: Very short (20-40 sec.) very high intensity intervals with complete recovery in between (4-6 min.). These must be a maximum effort the entire interval.
Anaerobic capacity: Short (1-2 min.) very high intensity intervals. Rest about 3 times the working time.
Sprinting: 10-15 sec. maximum effort. Full recovery in between. This will train your creatine-phosphate energy system. You can also get a lot of the benefits of a sprint workout without the fatigue (for example if you are not really a pure sprinter and training that system is not your highest priority) by just doing very short (8-10 sec.) jumps in a relatively small gear. This will also help your leg speed.
Strength: Lift weights. Or, you can do hill repeats of 3-6 min. in a large gear (45-60 rpm) at moderate heart rates (80-85% of max.). Don’t do this if you have knee problems.
Threshold training: medium length intervals (4-10 min.) above your anaerobic threshold (hard time trial type intensity) with incomplete recovery (3-5 min.). These should be as hard as you can go for the given amount of time.
You can also train your body’s ability to clear and buffer lactic acid by doing short, high intensity efforts (30 -45 sec.) with short recovery (1-2 min.).
All these intervals can be done either uphill or on the flats, except for sprints and anaerobic power intervals which are best done on the flats. Where you do them depends on what your priority is. In general, doing them on the flats is harder - your legs will hurt more for the same heart rate. Ideally, you should do some of both, or you can do the shorter ones on a varied loop so within a workout, you will sometimes be climbing and sometimes going on the flats.
Obviously, nobody can train every system every week. This is where the theory of periodization comes in. The basic premise here is that is takes less to maintain a system than to train it. Therefore, you can train each system individually and then just do a minimum number of workouts to maintain it while you train the other systems. So, for example, you can work on strength and aerobic capacity in the winter. Then you can work on aerobic power and threshold training for a month while doing one long ride a week to maintain aerobic capacity and maybe hit the weight room once a week or do a few climbs in a bigger gear than normal. Then the next month you can keep your one long ride (which will eventually become your road races as the season starts) and one aerobic workout and add some anaerobic ones. Once the season starts in full force, you may do one aerobic, one anaerobic and one sprint workout a week. Or you can fit your sprints into an aerobic ride, or ride your bike to work and do some jumps or sprint out of every stoplight you hit and then have space for another type of workout in your week. The emphasis you put on each type of workout depends on your individual strengths and weaknesses and your particular race goals. Everything is a trade-off - the more emphasis you put on one type of training, the more other areas will suffer. Even at the highest level, NOBODY can do everything all the time. For example, if you are training specifically for the district TT, you may do 2-3 threshold workouts a week and sacrifice your sprinting. Same thing for training for a hilly RR. If you want to specialize in criteriums, you need to emphasize sprinting and anaerobic intervals.
So where does the noon ride fit in? There is nothing inherently wrong with group rides. Their big advantage is that you can use other people to push you harder than you can push yourself. Plus, they are fun, and after all, that’s the reason most of us got into cycling in the first place! They are also a chance for newer racers to test out tactics. However, if you are doing the same group ride 2-3 times a week plus racing on the weekends, you are basically training the same thing all the time. Also, NEVER do a group ride on your easy day - you will invariably get sucked into going harder than you should. When you first start riding, as long as you just ride your bike, you will get stronger. Then, you will need to go harder to continue getting stronger, and this is where group rides can come in. However if that is all you do, you will develop significant “holes” in your overall ability. The closer you get to your potential, the more you will need to add specific training to your program.
What about “double days”? The advantage of fitting 2 workouts into one day is you can put more stress on your body for greater adaptation, and get more rest days to grow stronger in. For working folks, it also has the advantage that often it is easier to schedule 2 shorter workouts than one long one. This is especially true after daylight savings time hits. For example, you could do a double day on Wed. and still get your 3 workouts in for the week. Then you could take an extra rest day on Thurs., do some jumps on Fri. and be that much fresher for your race on Sat.
Part of racing is just learning how to ride through pain. No matter whether you are a cat 5 or Miguel Indurain, going hard hurts! As you get fitter, you just go faster for the same effort - the effort is always there. The fresher and stronger you are, the harder you can go and the more it will hurt. It is usually my best races that have hurt the most. It takes time to develop the ability to suffer on a bike. So, if you are just getting into racing, you will probably be better off doing most of your hard training in a group setting until you learn to push yourself hard enough on your own to benefit from interval training. This is also where having a training partner comes in. If one person is stronger, they can start the interval later and chase and everyone can benefit. Be careful when doing any kind of intervals where you are trying to stay at a particular heart rate that is less than your max. Here, having a competitor next to you can cause you to go too hard and be “out of your zone”.
You also have to keep your training fun and interesting. If you are not motivated to train, you will get nothing out of it. Do not be afraid to take extra rest days if you feel you are getting tired. Mental attitude is a big indicator of overtraining. Most of us basically look forward to getting out on our bikes everyday. If training is becoming a chore, you are probably tired. Find a way to measure your progress – seeing improvement is the biggest motivator of all no matter what your level. The intervals I describe above are based of time. You can also find a hill or stretch of road that will take approximately that amount of time to ride and time yourself on repeats.