First, you need to know yourself
It seems to me that the use of heart-rate monitors and lately power-meters have misled many people into depending on the device to tell them how they feel, instead of knowing how they feel, and then noting the results on the device. The only people who get real and full benefits out of these devices, I think, are the people who have the resources and time to periodically run tests to monitor progress and then map out optimal training. Usually, these people are well paid professionals for whom the benefits outweigh the costs.
I feel strongly that it’s important to know yourself, whether you use a device or not. This is a long and sometimes sobering process, but when you know yourself well, you can better use heart rate monitors, power meters, and coaches. “Knowing yourself” means learning how long it takes you to go from the first set of intervals to your peak and how long it takes to recover from a peak as well as learning how long it takes you to recover from various races. You also need to know the smaller building blocks like how long you need to recover between intervals, a long endurance ride, and what things you do to best recover. It is mostly a matter of observing how things affect you, from day to day, from effort to effort.
Here is how you go about it, moving into quality training from base training.
Differentiation – Now things change.
During base miles there is little need for easy days vs. hard days. Ideally you just go out and do the same thing every day, gradually increasing your level of fitness week by week. As you move out of base training and into quality training you are ready for more intense efforts, and therefore there is a greater need for recovery.
When to Start:
You can start with quality work shortly before the first race of the year, or hold off until a few weeks into the season (my preference). It depends on how quickly you personally get into shape. If you build form rapidly, you want to start later, and progress your training slowly. If you gain form slowly you want to do the opposite. In general, however, I recommend doing at least a few races before beginning quality training. The accelerations and speed of early season racing is a great way to launch you into the shock of quality training.
The Basic Training week:
Here’s a basic layout for a training week, assuming a two-race weekend:
Sunday - Race
Monday - Easy
Tuesday - Intervals
Wednesday - Sprints or hills
Thursday - Long endurance
Friday - Easy with few efforts
Saturday - Race
A few notes about this structure, and training in general:
- Never do any intensity two days before a race.
- Some people, myself included, feel better the second day when there’s two days of racing. This compels me move my easy day to Thursday, and make my Friday a little more intense. Rather than Easy with a few efforts, it becomes tempo with several efforts, some sprints, and/or efforts on hills. Not so much that it blows the legs out of course.
- The structure is flexible – If you feel better switching your intervals to Wednesday, or moving your long day to Tuesday, that’s fine. The only non flexible item is rest: when you need it, you need it.
- Some people like to take one day completely off a week. If you’re one of these people, I’d recommend taking that day 2-days before the next race off, and combining the long day with the spints/hills.
- Don’t concern yourself with what other people are doing in terms of volume in quality training. You need to develop your form at your own pace, not someone else’s.
- It may take several weeks before you feel the training effect set in. So if you feel like a week or two of efforts and resting hasn’t had a positive effect, keep the routine going because it may take your body a while to adjust to the change in your habits.
The definition of easy is to go very easy. Probably slower than you think you need to go. There should be no strain on your muscles or cardiovascular system. How long you go depends on where you are in your riding life. One hour may be enough for some; riders at the top levels may get on fine doing 3-hours easy. Again, you have to figure out what works best for your recovery and with the time you have. I have been asked if its possible to go too easy. The answer is no, because with an easy ride you’re not looking to increase fitness. You’re only looking to get the blood moving and recover. It’s impossible to go too easy, but much too easy to go too hard.
Intervals have several dimensions..
The first set of intervals you do in the year should be a discovery mission. First, figure out the largest gear you can turn fluidly at your preferred rpms (of course I recommend keeping at or above 100. This will likely put you at a level of effort that feels as if you went much harder, you would crack. You should feel like you’re going all-out but you should never feel like you’re struggling with your gear. That is, your heart and lungs should feel maxed out, but your muscles need to be fluid on whatever gear you’re riding. Now, you figure out how many you can do. Start with a step-up routine: i.e. 1-minute; 1.5 minute: 2 minute. Start with sets of 3 or 4, and see how many sets you can do before diminishing returns set in. Diminishing returns are when the amount of time it takes to recover between each individual effort begins to take longer than previous efforts. In the weeks following you should increase the effort in some fashion in two-week blocks; more on that below.
The individual effort itself: Gauging your effort by rpms is an effective one. When you’re on the biggest gear you can turn at 100+ rpms, you know you’re very close to optimal effort in varying conditions like road gradient changes, and wind. There are a couple of ways to approach an effort. One way (and the way I usually employed) is to start off like you’re attacking, get up to speed, and start your time from there. This simulates most race situations, and helps develop energy stores, and muscle response to attacking. The other way is to steadily get up to your level of effort, then start the clock. This type is more geared for the time trialist and steady efforts.
How long each interval is depends on your level of fitness. Start short and work your way up. One might think its best to start with long efforts, but if you can do 1-minute in a 53x15 at 110 rpm and recover in 1.5-minutes, vs. doing a 5-minute effort in a 53x17 at 100 rpm (suggesting you’re well below your AT) that takes 2.5 minutes recovery time, which do you think will make you faster, and work on better improving your recovery? It’s better to do shorter and more efforts vs. longer and less, until you can go as fast at the longer effort as you do the shorter (that should happen as the weeks go on).
How long between each interval and how many should you do? Basically, don’t start the next effort until you feel like you’ve recovered from the previous one, and note how much time this takes. You may see that recovery takes a shorter time after you’ve done one or two efforts as you warm up. After your third effort, you should be able to use the amount of time it takes to recover as your beginning standard. Take that amount of time to recover from each additional effort. When you notice the recovery time widening back out, that’s your signal that it’s time to quit. This recovery time is also an important indicator of your progress. If it takes 2-minutes to recover between efforts at your first interval set of the season, but it only takes 1-minute to recover between efforts a month later, you know you’ve made real progress. This recovery work is one of the keys to racing. It’s not only how fast you go, but how fast you recover from your efforts. When the attacks start going, you have to be lucky to pick out the right one if you have only one move. If you can recover quickly though, you can make more than one move, and improve your chances.
How much riding before and after the intervals? This depends on who you are and where you are in your cycling life. At a minimum, go for 30-min before, and 30-min after, or as time allows, more, it’s up to you. For sure though, you need to get some tempo riding in before you go all-out with your tongue hanging out.
Where to do them: I hate to say it, because it’s no fun at all, but the best place to do intervals is on a wind/fluid/mag trainer. You can control your environment completely, and there are no interruptions. If you can’t tolerate indoor riding though, you can of course make good efforts out on the road. Find a place where you can make your effort uninterrupted, and hopefully on consistent terrain. If you’re in the city, and don’t have time to ride out to the farm roads, you can see why trainers are the best place to do intervals.
Hill intervals are quite a bit different from regular flat ground intervals. They are both extreme efforts, but for different qualities. If you want to work hill intervals into your regular rounds, alternate the two week to week, or do a little of both on the same day. It usually isn’t a good idea to do two sessions of intervals in one week.
Sprints or Hills:
Take your choice. One exclusively, one every other week, or as you feel it’s needed per your racing calendar. Note though, that you can do hills on your long endurance day. You would do hills on this day if you are looking to emphasize hills. Again, the specialty work here is a small part of the day’s efforts. Ride at tempo for 30min to an hour, do your hills/sprints, and ride whatever distance you like to round out the day. Don’t confuse hills in this case with hill intervals. A hill riding day, in this case, means just working on your hill riding tempo. You can either do repeats, or just ride over a lot of hills in the course of your ride.
Sprints are just that: sprints. They’re best done with other people as you have someone to egg you on, but you don’t lose much doing them by yourself. In short though, you don’t need to do them until you get diminishing returns, like intervals. Set an amount to do during a ride, and increase that number as the year gets on. It’s important though, if you sprint with a group, not to give up if you’re “losing” the sprint. Keep the effort on through the distance of the sprint, or you don’t get the benefit of the work, because you’re not doing the work…obviously.
If you’re not a sprinter by rider type, your lack of sprinting prowess is usually not a power or strength issue, but a leg speed one. Do your sprint training on small gears you can accelerate quickly. This way you train your muscles to snap quickly. If you try to train for sprinting by using the gears you would use for a sprint in a race, you merely reinforce the problem you have with sprinting in the first place.
Long Endurance Day:
Get out for as many miles as you can get, within reason. Go at a base miles type of effort. At the end of these rides, you should feel tired, but not wiped out. Now, obviously, a lot of us have jobs, and can’t really go out for 4 or 5 hours, just substitute by going as long as you can at your base miles level of effort. A good way to stack on extra miles is to do two sessions, morning and afternoon. It’s best to go out in a small group to keep the speed up with less effort.
Building to a peak
There are a couple of ways to approach it: Keep going until you hit a natural peak, a natural decline, and rise again; or stick to a schedule.
The natural peak method is a good experience to try once at least, to see what you’re made of. When you know how long it took from your first week of quality training to your peak, you can employ sticking to schedule more effectively. I don’t know of any standards for how long it takes the average person to come to a peak, but 2-3 months seems about right. If you’re going for a natural peak though, go in with few expectations; everyone is different.
Sticking to a schedule says that you’re going to manufacture a peak, whether it’s as strong and fast as you can ultimately go or not. You increase your training load to a certain date, back off 3-weeks or so, and start back up again, a month or so “below” where you left off at your first peak. Build back up to a targeted goal. If you don’t know how long it takes you to reach a peak, you won’t know if your schedule puts you at this target necessarily in your best form or not. You could fall short, or go too far. Falling short is better, at least you’ll be close to optimal, and going too far means you will be kicked, which is why it’s nice to know how long it takes you to come to a natural peak.
Whichever approach one uses, a typically effective way to build your fitness week by week is to run a two-weeks on, one-week off structure. Some people like to run three-weeks on and one-week off, whatever, that’s something you figure out for yourself eventually. People who come to form quickly would be better served by the two on/one off routine; those rising slower to form would benefit more from the three on/one off schedule. Here’s an example of a 2-week on, 1-week off training block, assuming two race weekends:
40-miles with 3-sets of 3 intervals, 1-min, 1.5 min, 2-min. With 2-min between intervals, 3-minutes between sets
35-miles with 8 200m small ring sprints
65-miles steady tempo with some hills
25 miles, easy but with four 1-minute efforts
Miles here aren’t a mandate, just an example.
40-miles with 3-sets of 3 intervals, 1-min, 2 min, 2.5-min. With 2-min between intervals, 3-minutes between sets
40-miles with a hill loop.
65-miles steady tempo
25 miles, easy with four 1-minute efforts
25 miles, four 1-minute efforts
The point of the three weeks shown above is that in the second of the two “on” weeks you do something a little more than the previous week. In this example, both weeks one had 3-sets of 3 intervals, but in week two there is 1 minute more of going at effort per set. That was the major difference between the two weeks besides alternating sprints and hills. The third week, the “off” week, is just backing off, as you can see. Still make some efforts, but basically take it easy, and set yourself up for another step-up in effort for the next two weeks. Now, obviously, when you’re stepping up the efforts in proceeding months, you have to advance your efforts in line with your ability to recover. Again, this is something where you need to figure out your own boundaries.
Also, just because you can do, say, significantly more intervals than the previous week based on your ability to recover from them, doesn’t mean you have to do them. Think about how many you’re going to be able to do maximum. If you top out on what you’re able to do (time-wise and/or effort-wise) in four weeks, and can’t increase your efforts the next four weeks to your main goal, you will peak before your goal, or your form will simply stagnate. I recommend you dose out your efforts carefully. Again, It’s better to fall a little short than to overshoot.
Another point: You will likely have an idea of how many intervals and sets you want to do at each session. If your recovery time starts widening out before you complete the desired number of intervals, don’t feel compelled to continue. When it’s time to stop, you should stop. What if it seems to you that the resulting efforts were less than the previous week? Or the training does not seem to have had any benefit? Look back at the previous weeks, not only in terms of riding, but other events in your life. Something may have happened that hurt your recovery. Don’t stress about it, just take note, get recovered, and move on.
How many peaks can a person have in a season? I’ve had up to 3, almost always with the second one being the best. Everyone is different though, so be open and take notes on yourself.
You have surely noticed that I haven’t come out and said directly how many sets of intervals, how long they should be, and how many weeks you should train to arrive at a peak. That’s because, as mentioned, everyone’s different. Some people get into form very quickly, some very slowly. Most people of course are in between, but you can’t give a group of people the exact same program and expect everyone to come up with the same results. You simply have to experiment and figure yourself out. Even if you follow a book or a coach’s instructions to a tee, and unless you know yourself, you won’t be able to optimize the information. Perfecting peak arrival can take years. Ultimately, you are your own best coach, because only you know how you feel. As long as you’re honest with yourself and maintain a good work ethic, no one else can give you better information on yourself than you. Coaches can certainly help any rider focus and go better, but if you don’t know yourself well enough to tell the coach what he/she needs to know, results won’t come as quickly.
The most important thing to realize about recovery is that it does more to make you fast than the intervals and other quality work you do. If that seems ridiculous, consider that if you don’t recover from the training efforts you make, then you will not gain any benefit from them. So take your easy days seriously and take it very easy. If you’re feeling tired and sluggish in races, it probably means you’re training too hard, and/or not recovering well enough. Note also that recovery may not only be a bike riding issue, but could also involve other areas of your life. If you can’t change the other areas of your life, you need to adjust your riding to a point where you can recover from training efforts.
As for real, absolute help for physical recovery, there is an incredible supply of advice and product out there to help you recover. Be careful with products pitching recovery qualities, the line between legitimate products and what is or is the same as doping gets very fuzzy. If it’s not actual food, I recommend staying away from it.
The one main, real, and effective thing you can do to help yourself recover from any exercise is to eat something within 30-minutes of finishing exercise. Better yet (if my years of listening to Shaklee nutritionists were of any value) what you eat would be 70% carbohydrate and 30% protein. Don’t worry about getting the percentages exact; just get something basically good in your mouth before a half hour goes by. The other main method of recovery: sitting on the couch, no joke. Our lives don’t always allow hours upon end go by just sitting on the couch, but it does work.
Massage, Ice baths, stretching: all these things may do something, but there’s no proof that they do. I’ve done many 2-week stage races with and without massage and cannot attribute any good racing or bad racing to the lack of or the presence of a masseuse. To me, stretching seems to help the most.
The Ever Changing You
As you get older, fitter, change jobs, etc, your circumstances change. As a result, what worked for several years may not work the following year. There aren’t any easy answers to this. If you feel you’re having a problem, you have to note what’s wrong, and figure out how to correct it, or make adjustments to adapt to what’s changed. This usually isn’t a problem for the dedicated bike racer until age advances, or there’s a major lifestyle change. It took me 2-years to re-figure out how to train while in school after I stopped racing nationally, and it took me 3-years to figure out how to train when I got a real job.
Remember always that the real path to effective cycling is an accumulation of fitness and knowledge. There aren’t any “tricks” to kick you into form. It takes time and there’s no way around it. How much time depends on an individual’s natural talent, and/or ability to learn and observe. Patience is a virtue, and is among the most valuable virtues in cycling. There are a lot of guys out there who train hard year after year and never get results because they do things before they’re ready for them; for instance, doing 10-minute intervals for you first set of the year, or doing power hill intervals straight off. Focus on what you’re able to do rather than what you think you should be able to do.