Training Basics

Here is a basic look at how to structure a solid racing season. First I’ll give an overall structure, followed by details on the various bits of the structure.

Before starting in on training for a racing season, I like people to realize two basic things. First, you can’t be on form all the time. Chances are you knew this already, but most people train like they do not know this (without realizing it). I will tell you how to avoid that. The second realization is that the older you are in cycling years, (so long as you keep continuity) the more capable you will be in terms what you can do in volume and intensity in subsequent years. A rider just getting started now will in five years be able to train better, bigger, and more effectively due to accumulated fitness and experience. Bike racing success is largely a matter of experience, and that’s true in terms of training and racing tactics. Building a good bike racer is a process, and it takes time.

There are a lot of different formats and theories about how to train for a racing season, but before you get into the specifics, you need to know the basics. This means learning how your body reacts to exertion. Training programs monitored by coaches take a lot of input from the rider receiving the coaching. If you don’t have reasonable expectations of how you’re going to react to a training regime, then you won’t get the best results from that regime. As an example, in ’91 I had a fantastic season which included a training program laid out by Chris Carmichael, then national team coach. While I did follow the program, it took a lot of tweaking to make it fit my particular style and needs. A lot of guys that year followed the CC format, but I assume most of them also adjusted it to fit their personal tendencies. The basic point here is that if you take care to learn how you’re body reacts to training, then you’ll be better able to effectively use and interpret other influences.

I will also explain now that I am not a physiologist and have had no training in terms of coaching other than taking the USA cycling level 1 exam (which I think helped my knowledge marginally). The ideas I will express are based on my own experience derived from advice given to me by the people who taught me how to race when I was a wee junior. These ideas are probably seen as being “old school” but they are still relevant, and more complicated programs are usually simply refinements of these “old school” ideas. Again, if you know how you react to the basics, you’ll be better able to interpret the refinements.  

Overall Structure

There are three parts of a road racing season:

  • Base preparation
  • Racing
  • Off Season

Base preparation is the simplest part of the structure, but quite possibly the most misunderstood and generally most poorly executed part. Again, there are a lot of ideas out there, but what I’ll explain later is a tried and true method, whose only caveat is that you actually go out and do the miles.

The racing portion of the year involves micro and macro cycles of intensity work and rest. The complications come from how and when to perform the quality work, and when to rest. Moreover, it is important to recognize when to rest, and when to dive into the intensity. I will explain, among other things, how to recognize these things.

The off season part is easy. Almost no one messes this one up. It involves staying off the bike and doing other things. But there are a few things to keep in mind during this time.

Base Training

It is my firm belief that base training is the most important step in the process. Ultimately, what you should take from base training are the skills and ability to suffer that you need for racing. Proper base training will make you a more versatile rider less likely to burn out during the year. To explain it I focus on the fundamental skill of our sport: Pedaling.

The first idea is that it is most important to pay attention to your gear selection and leg speed. We train to simulate racing to a degree, and the best way to do this is through pedal action. You can best accomplish this by keeping your rpm’s at or above 100 most of the time. Here is a point to support this assertion:

§  Take the (correct) idea that you don’t need to ride 100-miles to be competitive in a 100-mile race, but rather it is sufficient to ride the approximate time it would take. Since you can’t go race speeds for 100 mi in training, your mileage comes out shorter. Similarly, to push gears you will use in races, you don’t need to push those same size gears in training. Instead, its better ride what gears you are able to push in training at the rpms you will likely experience in racing.

On winter group rides all across the country I have seen people in the big ring turning 70-80 rpm at 20-22 mph. At the same time, I would be turning a 39x16,15 at 100+ rpm. If the speed increased, I would endeavor to accelerate by increasing my rpms, not by changing to a larger gear. I’ve rarely touched the big ring before my first road race of the year; even when I raced at the national level. I assure you that riding this way does not mean you won’t be able to turn a big enough gear to compete when racing begins. Because most riders don’t typically target their first races of the year as important, you can use these races effectively as “motor pacing” to help ramp you up to quality training. The draft will mitigate any perceived lack of strength you may have, and your ability to ride high rpms will mitigate the need to ride a bigger gear than you are able to push.

My argument against riding too large a gear at too low rpms in base training is that it trains your muscles to fire at too slow a rate. In races then, big gear riders tend to have slow, easy to cover attacks, and often find they are unable to cover really fast attacks. I also contend that bigger gear riding don’t teach correct suffering.

Training with lighter gears and high rpms will give a rider the muscular reserves to increase the pace at the end of longer training rides, and this is where you learn to “suffer correctly.” What I mean by this is the feeling you get when the effort to maintain or increase your current effort is attainable but by no means pleasant. The muscles, the heart, and lungs send you signals to back off, but you are able to resist because you are able to keep on the pressure. Incorrect suffering is when, in pushing on, you are unable to maintain or increase your effort. In this case, there is indeed suffering, but the current effort then usually declines because the muscles are unable to push the larger gear faster for a sustainable time.

I also want to dispel the notion that riding in the small ring necessarily means riding “easy”. Again, if I’m in a 39x15 vs. everyone else in a 53x17, going the same speed, taking the same pulls, how is it easier? I would argue that it is in fact harder because you have to apply more muscle to keep your pedal circle smooth. Not to mention your muscles are firing 20-40 more times per minute, which adds up over 3-5 hours. Additionally, at higher rpms, the heart bpms tend to be a bit higher, as well as breaths per minute. Both of these unpleasant physical reactions are things you experience and have to endure in racing.

Time and miles in base training

Base training is really very simple. Ride the same basic effort most every day, with different mileages/hours as you are able. The gear you want to use is the one that feels like you can sustainably keep at high rpms for the duration of the ride. Otherwise, get as many miles as your body and time allows. If you feel tired some days, meaning you overdid it the previous days, ride a smaller gear over a shorter duration to let yourself recover. Adjust your schedule to make sure you don’t overdo it again. Through the weeks, you should be able to move to slightly bigger gears. Whenever you feel like you “have command” of the gear you’ve generally been using, you can move up a cog.

A few more notes about gear selection and rpms and other theory

It isn’t imperative to ride at 100+ rpms at all times, there are exceptions: hills are the most notable. Steeper hills will likely mean you don’t have a gear small enough to push at 100 rpms at a sustainable pace. In fact, on most any sizable hill, it takes a lot of work to be able to go at high rpms. So don’t sweat it, get up the hill in the best style you can.

If you feel like you’re lacking power, there are a few tricks that aren’t terribly onerous. The easiest is to ride any sizable hill on a cog or two larger than you otherwise might. You want to keep your rpms somewhat high in doing this, don’t merely ride a larger gear up the hill, but suffer a bit to keep your legs moving. It won’t be 100 rpm, but try to keep it over 80. Another method is to use slighter grades as an opportunity for power building. To do this, just keep your speed the same as it was on flat ground. It’s hard to do, but sustainable, and is big power builder in the best way: at high rpms.

At this point in the year, I’m not a fan of using heart rate or power monitors to dictate your training. Don’t get me wrong, a monitor can be useful, but it’s not the only, or even the most important factor in any kind of training. For base miles I don’t believe it matters too much what your numbers are during a ride because in a high rpm regime, it is self regulating. The gear you will have to ride in order to maintain the rpms will put you in an acceptable heart rate/power range. If you go outside of the acceptable range you’ll know it (especially if you’re going too hard). Instead of watching your heart rate, pay attention to how the muscles feel. If the pace you’re riding at is tiring your muscles too quickly, you need to back off. If you’re totally fresh after a ride, you need to pick it up; being more specific than that isn’t necessary.

As you approach the first race…

The old conventional wisdom said that you should have at least 1000-miles before your first race, or begin quality work, but even more is better (2000-3000 miles). Don’t despair if you’re short on miles. All you need to do is take it easy in the races and continue with base miles until you feel ready to move to quality work. The number of miles you have before you begin racing will depend on what your body allows and more importantly on how much time you have. Time limitations may in fact leave you with fewer miles than you are honestly capable of doing. Again don’t despair; you can make up for it by being prudent. The important thing is not to rush into quality work just because the racing season has begun.

I generally recommend that you in fact not begin quality training until several races into the season. As I’ve mentioned before, the first races can be used as a good way to ramp you into quality training.

 If you don’t do any quality training and have done your base miles well, how should that first race feel? Racing at 25-27mph in a 53X17 or 16 should feel relatively easy in the draft. At 30 mph or more, you’ll have to go to the 15 or maybe the 14 and this will make you suffer a bit, but the many hours at high rpms will have trained you well to endure this. In the March races, in the last hour or two, people start getting tired, and it is possible to “walk” away from the field in a 53x16 or 15. Again, you suffer to do this, but you should be able to overcome it. The important thing is that early season races should act as a good introduction to starting quality work in training, and get you used to the suffering you will encounter in more important races. Locally, and even nationally, there is little need to come into March fully prepared to race, as long as your muscles are trained to respond correctly.

You should feel like your “heart is ahead of your muscles.” That is, your heart is ready to race, but your muscles aren’t quite ready to tackle things you would expect in May. And this is a good place to be in the early season, because there’s a solid base and room for improvement. People who have already started quality work in February (before they’re really ready for it), typically have their “muscles ahead of their heart”, and have trouble finding ways to get much faster through the year, a recipe for burn out

Where does burn out begin? Here’s an example: 180 bpms on a 39x15 at 23mph means different things than 180 bpms on a 53x15 at 28mph. If you’re doing the former in February, you have plenty of room to get stronger. If you’re doing the latter in February, I ask you what you’re going to do to get faster later when it matters. When you reach your peak too early, you will continue to try to push yourself further, and get nowhere.

There’s also something to pedaling technique

Correct pedaling is difficult to describe. Basically, you strive to apply muscle to every part of the pedal circle, and most people do a lot less of this than they think. The best way I can think to describe correct pedaling is to consider your foot and ankle as similar to your hand and wrist when throwing a ball; that is, like a lever.  On the down stroke, “dig into” the pedal circle pushing with your toes, dropping your heel.  On the backstroke, pick up the heel pointing your toes down. This is a difficult thing to do consciously. It helps that at higher rpms you naturally do this a little anyway, but it helps to try to work the action a little more. It just takes practice. If you try it out at slower rpms, up a hill, you can feel the benefit. If you can master the technique at higher rpms, you will be able to turn a larger gear than otherwise without sacrificing your ability to stay on top of the gear. Note also that another method to attain a correct pedaling style is to ride a fixed-gear, but I caution that a fixed gear on its own doesn’t necessarily help; you have to keep up the rpms as well.

Group rides

It’s important to realize the effectiveness of group rides in your base training. The only reason to ride with others from a training standpoint is that with others, you will be able to move at a faster pace than by yourself. Everyone in the group then, needs to be mindful of the idea that everyone is there for each other’s benefit, and take advantage of this opportunity to move a faster pace. If the group lollygags and you could move faster on your own, it’s just a social visit. Also know that the ideal size of group to ride in is six to ten riders. Any more than that and you don’t get in the wind enough, and it’s hard to control the group in terms of traffic issues. Any less and you’re in the wind too much, and you have to move slower, and again, you’re just as well off alone.

So, the broader points:

  • Ride everyday (or at least as often as you can).
  • Keep your rpms above or at 100 (except up long, steep hills, have a gear you can turn 80 rpm)
  • Remember that you’re not looking to ride easy; you’re looking to ride at a level you are able to, with a view to rising to a higher level.
  • Listen to your muscles. If they feel tired, and warming up doesn’t help, ride a light gear at high rpms for a shorter time.

If you do these things, you will have a proper base for beginning quality work.