Remove the bells and whistles.
Strip cycling training down to the core principles that actually work.
That was my mission when I sat down with the result of my database search – some 50 research papers on cycling science and exercise physiology.
If you want to improve you cycling game as much as possible, and as quickly as possible, what comes FIRST?
After countless cups of coffee, a good few sleepless nights and some long weekends putting it all together, here is where I suggest the most current evidence is heading:
1. Ensure consistency first
2. Increase your training load
3. Balance your intensity distribution
4. Apply basic principles of periodizing & tapering
5. Finally, worry about the devil in the details
It sounds so simple. At the same time, history demonstrates that many riders are struggling with getting this right.
The key message of this post is to make sure you get the above steps done in a purposeful order.
It does not work when you begin with the latter and discard the basics.
I shamelessly call this my how-to-fix-your-broken-training-checklist. It is by no means an ultimate truth. Nor is it an end to all discussion on how to approach cycling training.
Instead, it is an honest attempt at de-complicating the last 18 years of cycling science. And a shot at building a knowledge-based framework you can use to improve your training and results.
Let us dig into the details…
1. Ensure consistency first
Tired of going into yet another season with the same performance level as last year?
So, how do you take your game to the next level?
Chances are you are already on such a mission. Most cyclists have an inner drive to strive for improvement. Climbing that hill just a little bit faster. Beating your personal best on that Strava segment. Getting that podium finish in your prioritised race.
Cycling certainly is a sport with no shortage of gadgets, equipment, opinionated riders and sophisticated training philosophies.
But, what if you could only change one thing in your current training? Which single step would yield the greatest result?
I suggest the answer is as clear and low-tech as it is overlooked.
Ensuring consistency first.
Imagine making a wager with your training buddy:
The current season is coming to an end. You are both fit, having trained 10-15 hours per week over the summer.
You both decide to go for broke next winter and see who comes out in best shape the following summer. However, for the upcoming 8 week post-season break the two of you decide for different strategies.
Your buddy decides to cut his training to 7 hours a week. He will do low-intensity rides mostly, but also one regular high-intensity interval every 7-10 days.
You too opt for cutting your training to 7 hours a week during the post-season. As opposed to your buddy, you decide to do low-intensity only for the next 8 weeks.
Do you think these opposing strategies will make a difference come next year’s spring races?
[Pick an answer before you proceed:]
- “Yes, this will certainly make a difference”
- “No, next season is too far away for this to matter”
The above scenario is the exact experiment a group of Norwegian scientists performed on well trained cyclists in 2014 (1).
High-intensity interval training maintains performance during the transition period and improves next season performance in well-trained cyclists
This study in which two groups of well-trained cyclists applied two different post-season training strategies demonstrates the importance of maintaining high-intensity training load.
Over the course of the eight weeks of post-season “break” one group did low-intensity training only (Low) and the other group did one weekly session of high-intensity intervalls in addition to low-intensity training (Low + HIIT). Both group did equal amounts of weekly training hours.
Following the eight week post-season “break”, both groups completed the same 16 week pre-season training.
Interestingly, the Low group lost lost so much ground during the initial eight weeks that they were unable to make up for it over the following pre-season. Come spring, the Low + HIIT group displayed 12.1% better threshold power compared to the Low group.
Rønnestad BR et al. HIT maintains performance during the transition period and improves next season performance in well-trained cyclists. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 2014;114:1831-1839
The takeaway message is that endurance capacity is short-lived. Without continuous stimulus it withers – quickly. Keep in mind the loss of endurance capacity demonstrated above occurred despite the riders maintaining a fair volume of training (7 hours per week).
Imagine the results of an 8 week period completely off training.
The average amateur might often endure several periodes with time completely off training during a year. Family, work, illness, injuries and life in general has a habit of getting in the way.
The marginal gains you can tweak out of carbon frames, expensive lab tests and high tech gadgets is pale in comparison to the endurance capacity so often lost due to lack of consistency in your training.
Suffering time off training is a double whammy. Not only do you loose out on enhancing your endurance capacity. You also regress from your current level. Instead of +1 you are now stuck with -1, having to make up for the difference of 2 fitness levels.
Therefor, the ambitious rider will do well to minimise the number of weeks off training throughout the year.
Please, do note that I am referring to days/weeks of unscheduled training breaks. Periods with planned low training load as part of recovery or tapering is different and should be part of any training program.
Threats to your consistency
Injury and illness are the most common causes of lost training.
A 2015 study reports that in a group of 98 Norwegian cyclists, every second rider has suffered impaired training due to injury over the last 13 weeks (2). This means one in two riders probably has not achieved the progress he/she could have had.
Data from athletics show a clear association between the number of weeks available for normal training and the degree of success in reaching the season goal for the individual athlete (3). Put shortly, athletes that are free of illness and injuries reach their goals more often.
In my personal experience, preventative measures such as strength training, sleep and hygiene routines often receive less attention amongst amateur athletes. This is understandable, seeing how these are not often considered performance enhancing measures as such.
Perhaps we should start looking at this differently. Maybe the first step to enhanced performance should be making sure you do not lose endurance capacity due to missed training? Given the high prevalence of injuries in cyclists, and knowing how detrimental time off training is to performance, so called preventative measures could be considered to be directly performance enhancing.
The fact of the matter is that if you want to improve your threshold power, VO2 max, peak power or any other performance parameter, consistency in training is a prerequisite for success. This means;
- minimising unscheduled time off training
- …by preventing injuries
- …preventing illness
- …and planning to avoid gaps in your training load
No high-tech gadget or state of the art training program will matter much if you constantly allow de-training to occur.
Ensure consistency in your training load before you start chasing marginal gains.
2. Increase your training volume
Now, let us assume you got the issue of training consistency under control.
What are you going to do next in order to improve your endurance capacity further?
An obvious possibility is to train more. Increase the duration of your workouts and/or train more often. And there are good reasons you should consider doing so.
Your capacity to perform endurance work depends on a range of physiological processes, involving your heart, blood vessels, nerves and muscles. Particularly important is the process of tapping into the body’s energy storage and supply, and converting these to viable energy for your muscles.
The human body is a remarkably adaptable organism. Physiological pathways that get stimulated more often, tend to adapt by becoming more efficient. Simple logic would suggest that the more hours you train, the bigger the stimuli to enhance the physiology that contribute towards your endurance capacity.
Indeed, practical experience seems to support this argument.
Winners always train high volumes
Whether Pro tour level or masters rider you will hardly be able to find a top level athlete who does not train a vast amount of hours. Reports suggest it takes about 10 000 hours of structured training to produce a podium finish in international championships (4).
The long game of Alexander Kristoff
Alexander Kristoff is an example of how high training volume affects endurance capacity. Stein Ørn, medical doctor and trainer of Kristoff, explains how Kristoff’s development is a result of a long-term plan involving high volumes of time-consuming training and long rides in addition to strength and high-intensity work (5-6).
According to Ørn, the emphasis on low-intensity training in the early stages of a rider’s career is a process that requires time before it pays off. (My comment: because it might require sacrificing some of the training that might yield quicker short-term gains, such as VO2 max training).
“I am one of those who believe that for this purpose, VO2 max and blood lactate measurements are of less importance. … In cycling, the group of muscles involved is relatively small compared to the systemic circulation. The capacity of the heart to deliver oxygen to the body far surpasses the capacity of the muscle fibers to utilise this oxygen.“ (My translation of original Norwegian quote)
– Stein Ørn, MD and Alexander Kristoff coach
My understanding of where Ørn goes with this statement is that the above argument justifies training aimed at improving local energy utilisation at a muscular level, rather than emphasising improving cardiac function and systemic capacity for oxygen delivery.
In their case, this involves a long-term strategy of high training volumes.
PS! Ørn is a medical doctor and specialist in cardiology.
Coping with high training volumes
There is somewhat of a catch 22 with high training volumes. In order to cope with them, you need a solid base of high training volumes.
A practical situation where this comes into play is the build-up phase leading into big races.
The build-up phase is a key component of getting race-ready in which you overload your body with training stimulus with large amounts of intensive training in a short timespan. Anecdotal evidence suggests riders with a solid base, achieved through a high training volume over time, are better able to cope with and adapt from such overload periods. Thus, increasing their chances of greater race performance.
I seldom see athletes with a high training volum overreaching. However, overreaching is far more common amongst athletes who train fewer hours.
– Johan Kaggestad, coach of marathon legend Grete Waitz
If training volume increases too quickly, so does the risk of injury and overreaching. Development of the capacity to cope with high training volumes is a process that takes time.
Improved cycling economy
A third argument for why you should consider prioritising training volume is the benefit to your cycling economy.
The ability to effectively transfer forces from muscular contraction to the pedals is known to be closely associated with your total number of hours logged on the bike.
Tjelta and colleagues refer to research that suggests that athletes with superior working economy are most often aged and with a long history of high-volume training years (7).
When do you cash out?
When it comes to training volume, there are indeed exemptions to the idea that “more is better”.
If you are in a hurry to boost your endurance capacity maximally, there are more effective ways of doing this than maximising the amount of training hours. For this purpose, polarised training is proven to yield rapid gains in VO2 max and lactate threshold power (8).
There are also reports of young cyclists improving their results from one season to the next by decreasing their training volume (9).
The question you need to consider is: “When am I aiming to be at the peak of my game?”
If you are looking to develop as a rider and you are in it for the long run, increasing your training volume will probably do you well. However, if you are scrambling to get fit for a race that is only months away, you might want to consider lower volume and higher intensity training.
The development of a Tour de France podium rider
Thibaut Pinot holds GC podium finishes in Tour de France and several top 10 finishes in Grand Tours. Between the age of 18 and 23 a group of sports scientists monitored his training closely (10).
Pinot’s training data demonstrates a severe jump in endurance capacity in this six year period. This development was closely associated with an increase in total training hours and total training load.
Over the six year period, Pinot’s yearly training hour increased from 526 to 943. In the same course his training load was upped by 83% (training load is an expression of training hours combined with perceived exertion during training)
Pinot J og Grappe F. A six-year monitoring case study of a top-10 cycling Grand Tour finisher. Journal of Sports Sciences, 2015; 33(9); 907-914
Increasing the yearly training volume is a key step in the development of young athletes in any endurance sport.
When the principle of training consistency is achieved, an increase in training volume would be a natural progression to consider if you are an amateur riders looking to improve your performance.
3. Balance your intensity distribution
If training volume was the suit, training intensity would be the shoes to go with the outfit.
Your distribution of training intensity can single-handedly make or break your training program.
There are numerous systems designed to aid athletes in planning and controlling training intensity. In the below PDF I review three commonly used systems, and their pros and cons:
- The power-based system of Allen & Coggan
- The multi-parameter system of Olympiatoppen
- The 3-zone system commonly applied in sports science
[pdf download below]
Does it matter which system you use?
I would suggest it matters more that you use a system to record training intensity, rather than which particular system it is.
Take note of the fact that Allen & Coggan power zone 1-5 do NOT correlate with zone 1-5 of Olympiatoppen. However, that does not mean the two systems disagree. Both systems coincide fairly well on what absolute percentages of FTP represen low-, moderate- and high-intensity training. They have just placed the cut-off for their respective zones at different places.
It is kind of like two different persons labelling the different parts of a bike with post-it notes. Although they might attach the “frame” label to different locations on the frame, it is never the less the same frame.
In the end, it probably does not matter which system you use, as much as it does applying a system that is practically useful in your daily training.
A difference between monitoring training intensity with power and heart rate
There is one big difference between power and heart rate that carries great practical implications when monitoring the intensity of your workouts.
Power is a split second expression of the absolute external load to your system right now.
Heart rate is not.
In contrast, your heart rate is a compensatory mechanism that adjust depending on the oxygen demand of your muscles developed over the last seconds-to-minutes. Compared to your power output, this mechanism is somewhat delayed.
As a result, when you increase your watt output, it takes some time before your heart rate increases enough to sufficiently reflect the resulting increase in oxygen demand.
In using recommended heart rate values to guide a high intensity interval training session, you normally cannot expect to reach the recommended HR values for the higher intensity zones until quite some time into your session.
By comparison, recommended power values (% of FTP) can be attained immediately, and maintained throughout each interval in its entirety.
This makes the power meter an easier tool to gauge the intensity of your interval training by. An even stronger level of certainty is of course achieved by monitoring both power output and heart rate simultaneously.
Why you will benefit from monitoring your training intensity
Most riders think of power meters and heart rate monitors as means of hitting a desired intensity during your workout. That is all well and good.
Interestingly, it appears you don’t need power meters or heart rate monitors to get a fair idea about your training intensity. Research suggests that rating your perceived exertion (RPE) on a scale from 6-20 can regulate training intensity just as well as a heart rate monitor (11-12).
Instead, I would make the case for a further added benefit of mapping your training intensity. That relates to evaluating and planning your training.
Training stimulates different physiological pathways depending on your exercise intensity. Low-intensity training has a different effect on your body than does high-intensity training.
Different intensities also require different post-workout recovery duration.
What is more, there is compelling data to suggest how to organize your training between different exercise intensities.
Therefor, the benefit of recording your training intensity is twofold:
- It can help you achieve the desired physiological stimuli and adaptation
- It will help you evaluate and tweak your training depending on your results
The most successful season of a 10 times World Champion
The mountain bike rider Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjå can look back at an astonishing career, boasting gold medals from Olympic games, World championships and European championships alike. In what has been described as her most successful season she recorded the following training hours (across the intensity scale of the OLT) (7):
These numbers represent the accumulated training time in each intensity zone.
Note that these numbers are collected from the athlete’s training diary and do not represent recordings from power meters or heart rate monitors. Instead, a 6 x 10 minute threshold interval in zone 3 would be recorded in the training diary as 60 minutes in zone 3 (and the remaining warm up, breaks and cool down in respective zones).
You could probably ask ten different experts and get ten different answers concerning what is the optimal distribution of training intensity. My conviction, based on current best evidence, is that the answer will depend strongly on your ambitions and how much time you can allocate to training over the year. And, to some extent, what you are training for.
Although different schools of thought exists, we do know a great deal about what seems to be working well. There is indeed a compelling base of data on how the best cyclists train.
The intensity distribution of Dahle Flesjå correlates well with what is being reported from other top level riders. This also seems to agree with what we know about the training of successful athletes in other endurance sports.
Olympiatoppen reports that a yearly training cycle typically consists of 10-15% of training hours in OLT zone 3-5 (89-120% of FTP). Of this, the majority of the intensive training will occur in OLT zone 3 and 4 (89-113% of FTP). Only 1-3% of the total training time occurs in OLT zone 5 (114-120% of FTP) (4).
Note that you will easily underestimate the number of zone 5 sessions this adds up to. Recall that a zone 5 interval typically has a total effort duration of half of that of a zone 4 session. An equal number of zone 4 and 5 sessions will lead to roughly twice the accumulated time in zone 4, compared to zone 5.
Threshold training or high intensity?
What kind of interval training is most effective is a topic surrounded by controversy. Of particular interest is the discussion of threshold training versus high-intensity training.
There certainly is not enough published literature to single out the best intensity zone in which to complete your interval training.
Although, this article adds interesting results to the debate.
I suggest you could view threshold and high intensity training as different tools in a tool box that all might help you build your house. Each tool having their own pros and cons.
From soccer player to pro level cyclist
A few years back, ex professional soccer player Knut Anders Fostervold came thundering onto the Norwegian time trial scene. Sports scientist and Professor Tønnesen describes an interesting example from Fostervold’s training (4).
During his efforts to improve as a cyclist, Fostervold increased his weekly training hours from 8-10 to 18-20 over short period of time. Before this, he would complete 2-3 high-intensity intervall sessions (OLT zone 4-5) per week (100-120% of FTP).
To induce further performance gains, Tønnessen and Fostervold decided he needed to increase his training time on high heart rates. Meeting this goal required a change towards more time in NOC zone 3 and 4 (91-113% of FTP).
Three months later, Fostervold had increased his VO2 max from 82 to 90 ml/kg/min, and his total volume from 6.8 to 7.3 L. This is on par with the highest test results by Norwegian endurance athletes ever. In the same period, his threshold power increased from 375 to 440W.
Fostervold ended up claiming three medals in the time trial nationals, finishing runner up to the likes of Thor Hushovd and Kurt Asle Arvesen.
My comment: we can only speculate as to how much of this progress is due to increased training volume by itself, and how much is due to a change in intensity distribution. It would however appear as the transition towards longer interval duration, at the expense of slightly lower working heart rate would greatly contribute to increasing the total training load, and thus cardiac and peripheral stimuli.
The case of Fostervold highlights an important “take home” point. It is not necessarily the highest training intensity that yields the highest VO2 max or performance gains.
It would appear you need to factor in your total training volume in the equation. And then decide what kind of intensity distribution will give you the biggest bang for your buck.
For instance, a rider who trains 6-7 hours a week can complete all his intervalls in OLT zone 5 (114-120% of FTP). And by this probably get sufficient stimuli to achieve good progress.
In comparison, a rider who trains 15 hours a week will already be at ha higher level. He or she will therefor be needing a greater training stimulus to achieve further progression.
Perhaps it is fair to suggest there is a limit to how many OLT zone 5 intervalls you can cover in a training week. A well-trained rider might find himself in a situation where his “tolerated” number of weekly zone 5-intervals does not constitute sufficient stimuli to drive further physiological development. By dropping the intensity to OLT zone 4 (101-113% of FTP) he could spend a lot more time on what is still high-intensity work, within the same number of interval sessions. This will probably increase total training stimuli, and thereby drive further endurance capacity development.
As you now see there is probably no such thing as a one-size-fits-all magic charm for optimal intensity distribution.
Instead, your training intensity should be guided by a combination of:
- “best practice” recommendations
- your current performance level
- your total training volume
What is more, some high-intensity workout designs have been demonstrated to induce far superior results than others.
What about those training less than 500 hours per year?
For top level athletes the intensity distribution formula of 10-15% threshold and high-intensity training seems to be easy enough to follow.
But, what if you don’t have time for double digits of weekly training hours. Does the same rule still apply?
Imagine the following scenario:
You are a keen, middle aged amateur cyclist who train 200 hours a year. You do about 6 hours per week from February to August, then the rest of them scattered throughout the fall.
If you were to apply the “rule” of 10-15% of your training time in OLT zones 3-5 it would look like this: [extrapolating from Dahle-Flesjås percentage of time spent in each zone]
114-120% of FTP: 2 hours (approx. 10 sessions)
101-113% of FTP: 12 hours (approx. 16 sessions)
91-100% of FTP: 14 hours (approx. 9 sessions)
This adds up to 35 intervall sessions per year. When you distribute these by two sessions per week, as cyclists often do, you would have already “completed” your intervall sessions by May.
The above numbers suggest that blindly following the intensity distribution of professional riders might not be the way to go for amateur athletes.
Compared to the professional “recipe” of 10-15% high-intensity training, you might argue that riders with a lower training volume could take on a higher percentage of their total training time in the upper intensity zones.
Research on endurance sports such as long distance running, swimming, rowing, cross country skiing and cycling are surprisingly concurring. These data suggest high level athletes, regardless of sport, appear to be doing about 80% of their training at low intensity, and the remaining 20% at higher intensity (13).
This 80:20 relationship between low and high intensity training also appears to be beneficial in the short term.
A 2014 study compared the effect of four different training programs on well-trained and competitive endurance athletes (including 15 cyclists). All programs lasted nine weeks. The program that yielded the best performance enhancement used an intensity distribution of 80% low and 20% high intensity training (8).
[training plan below]
Among these well trained cyclists it appeared that the training program with a high amount of threshold training resulted in the least amount of progress (8).
Results from other experimental studies have shown a tendency towards low intensity training amongst amateurs being performed at higher intensities than intended. It has been claimed that when planned low-intensity training (erroneously) approaches moderat intensity, training load becomes more monotonous (14). It has also been demonstrated that athletes who are able to reverse this trend, by keeping the easy sessions at the intended low intensity, achieve better progress (15).
Are high doses of threshold training detrimental?
The ironman distance in triathlon has a substantial race time including several hours of cycling. Research on Ironman athletes can therefor be of interest to cyclists.
A 2014 paper investigated the association between training intensity distribution and finishing time in Ironman competitors (16).
The scientists found a clear association between the amount of low-intensity training and low race time (high performance). Interestingly, there was a strong association between higher amounts of moderat (threshold) training and longer race time (decreased performance).
My comment: from the paper it is somewhat unclear how much of this “moderat training” was in the shape of classic threshold intervals (approx. 91-105% of FTP) and how much was “endurance training” (approx. 76-90% of FTP).
Muñoz I et al. Training-intensity distribution during an ironman season: Relationship with competition performance. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 2014; 9: 332-339
It has been suggested that extensive training at moderate intensities (what I say translate to 76-100% of FTP) results in monotonous training load, which might lead to stagnation and reduced ability to perform high intensity training of good quality (17).
One hypothesis is that high amounts of moderat-intensity training might increase the amount of sympathetic stress (neurological stress response) and result in increased risk of overreaching (18).
You should note that this is not yet certain knowledge, and that the evidence regardig moderat training is somewhat conflicting.
Espen Tønnesen at Olympiatoppen states that there is a trend amongst international athletes that increasingly larger amounts of training takes the form of threshold training (equivalent of 89-100% of FTP).
Some of the world’s most successful athletes in running and cycling spends 20-30% of their training on this intensity.
– Espen Tønnesen, Olympiatoppen
Perhaps elite athletes are better prepared to cope with the monotonous training load from threshold training than the average amateur rider?
For now, the question remains open for speculation.
An attempted conclusion regarding training intensity
Regarding threshold training we can safely conclude that most riders include it as a part of their training regime. The big question is how much of it you should be doing.
What we do know is that successful and highly performing athletes usually spend about:
- 75-80% of their training time on low intensity (approx. 56-76% of FTP)
- 15-20% on higher intensities (aprox. 91-120% of FTP)
- …and small amounts on low-moderate intensities (approx. 77-90% of FTP)
If you are looking to get fit for next years race goals, there is much evidence to suggest you can safely plan for a training intensity distribution just shy of 80% low-intensity and 20% high-intensity training.
This “rule” seems to apply both short term and in the long run.
4. Apply basic principles of periodizing and tapering
The ultimate goal of all athletes is peaking your fitness on the biggest competition of the year.
But, what makes a fitness peak, and how to you bring it about?
Before you plan your next season it might be well worth investing some time in understanding the mechanisms underlying your fitness level.
Performance equals high endurance capacity plus a well-rested body
Improving your cycling performance is first and foremost about developing your ability to produce higher power outputs. However, it is also about improving your ability to sustain these increased power outputs at a similar, or lower energy cost.
There is no single physiological measure that cover all aspects that make up a race-winning rider. However, threshold power it proven to be a strong indicator of performance level (19-23). If you add peak power (the ability to produce high power-outputs over short periods) to threshold power, the performance prediction becomes even stronger.
This means most cyclists would do well by aiming to enter races with the highest possible threshold and peak power.
The table below demonstrates how different performance parameters of female road cyclists develop over the course of a training year (7).
In a comment to these figures, former Norwegian national team coach Atle Kvålsvoll states:
Our most important goal is actual race performance, here defined as “rider strength” (my translation). Experience shows that it is difficult to develop VO2 max during race season, whereas it is possible to shift lactic acid profile and improve strength which in turn boosts performance level.
– Atle Kvålsvoll (former Thor Hushovd coach)
Notice that the maximum oxygen uptake peaks during early race season, and thereafter stagnates. Meanwhile, power at 2 mM lactate, lactic acid profile and peak power continue to improve throughout the season.
I would suggest these data reflect the somewhat misunderstood role of maximum oxygen uptake (VO2 max). Yes, the best cyclists often boast a more than decent VO2 max. However, when comparing evenly matched riders VO2 max is a poor indicator of actual race performance (24).
We can therefor safely suggest that your job is to schedule your training so you enter race season with best possible threshold and peak power.
Let us look at how this can be achieved.
Total training load is key
When I was a young athlete, I used to struggle with the concept of getting fit for big races. I did not see clearly what physical parameters makes up a great race performance, nor did I understand fully how to achieve them.
So I spent a lot of time chasing arbitrary training strategies and methods in the hope of stumbling across the magical recipe.
What I have later understood, is this:
Great shape is nothing more than superior endurance capacity plus a well rested body.
– (shamelessly quoting myself)
Arguably, we could add to that a dash of anaerobic capacity and peak power. But, your aerobic capacity is the biggie.
There are numerous systems and methods developed to guide development of endurance capacity. Yet, nearly all rely on a gradual increase in total training load when race season approaches.
Your total training load is made up of:
- Your training volume (hours)
- Your training intensity (HR, % of FTP)
Imagine two separate sliders, like for base and treble on your stereo. Training volume is the base and training intensity is treble. You can manipulate the sliders to your liking to make up the sound (total training load)
Will you peak too early if you use short, high-intensity intervals during your winter training?
My comment: This is a claim I commonly encounter in endurance sports. I believe it is based on a flawed understanding of what a fitness peak really is.
Recall, a fitness peak occurs when you have great endurance capacity (e.g. threshold power & peak power) and you are well recovered and in surplus of energy to race.
Such fitness peaks are typically triggered by an initial overload period, consisting of high training volumes and ample high-intensity training. The point being exposing the body to a big amount of training stimulus (7).
Then follows a taper, consisting of considerable lower training volumes and shorter sessions. The goal is allowing the body to adapt to the big training stimulus from the previous overload period (25).
Once sufficient adaptation and recovery has taken place, performance levels can be improved with a good few percents from “usual” performance level.
During the taper, short intervals are often applied to sharpen the capacity for anaerobic work. However, it is not the format of the interval session that brings about the fitness peak. Rather, it is the manipulation of the total training load in an overload-then-taper-sequence.
I would claim that short, high-intensity intervals can be very successfully applied throughout the entire winter training, without the rider ever risking peaking too soon.
The key lies in controlling the total training load.
A pertinent question then, is – how do you best plan your total training load throughout the training year?
Is there such a thing as a optimal training program?
Unfortunately, research is scarce on long-term effects of different training regimes.
Few athletes are willing to risk entire seasons by training by different methods than those they already believe in. In addition, monitoring athletes closely enough over such long periods demands lots of resources.
For those reasons, experimental research is of little help when it comes to planning your yearly training program.
Instead, you will most likely benefit from considering:
- basic understanding of training physiology
- experience from successful riders
- personal experience
Combined, this will provide you with a solid foundation upon which to build your training program.
3 common training philosophies
In the book “The Cyclist’s Training Bible” author and cycling coach Joe Friel presents three common training philosophies (26).
“Compete to fitness”
This strategy is simple. Develop a base of aerob training (1000 miles = 1609 km). Then do weekly races to get in race shape.
This strategy is very race specific, in the way that your racing becomes your training. As such, you will stimulate the specific abilities you need during races.
The drawback is that the method is somewhat unpredictable. There is no guarantee you will reach your fitness peak exactly when you need it.
By training the same volume all year around, you can maintain a stable level of fitness. This is plausible strategy if you live in a part of the world that allows for cycling all year around.
However, this is a challenge if you’re living in a country where training conditions vary with seasons. In addition, it can be challenging to maintain top motivation if the training becomes overly monotonous.
This method is extensively used by most successful cyclists. Periodising usually involves the following steps:
1) Training goes from general to specific throughout the year.
2) Training is organised in cycles. The idea being to maintain the abilities you have developed in the previous cycle, all the while moving your focus to develop a second ability.
3) Total training load is manipulated in cycles by adjusting training volume and intensity.
Periodising has proven to be an effective strategy for a great number of riders. The challenge is that it requires some planning, and that you might become somewhat less flexible for adjustments, illness and injury.
Another benefit with a periodising strategy is that you can decide for yourself how detailed you want to get with organising your training cycles. This will usually depend on how much time you can allocate to training and how flexible you are to make change to your training plan.
Below are some of the most commonly used methods of periodising you should consider.
Linear periodising is also known as classic periodising. This involves a gradual increase in total training load when approaching race season.
The initial period of base training focuses on long and easy rides. In the later part of the build phase, the volume of easy rides decreases, while the focus if shifted towards high-intensity training.
One of the strengths of linear periodising is that the method is well documented (26). For a long time, it was considered as the gold standard in endurance training.
Some experts have argued that linear periodising can be a challenging strategy in sports with a heavy race load (27). Which is indeed the case for many cyclists.
Additionally, this method requires some flexibility in terms of weekly training hours. For the busy working-family man or woman, finding the time to vary the weekly training volume can pose a challenge.
Reversed linear periodising
This is linear periodising done “backwards”.
It involves initiating base training with a focus on high intensity interval training. And then moving to more high volume, low-intensity training as the season approaches (26-27).
Reversed linear periodising allows you to establish a sufficient total training load for your base training with relatively few training hours. This method is particularly useful for people living in areas where outdoor cycling is not an option during winter
Undulationg periodising is characterised by a cycling variation in weekly training volum and intensity.
This strategy has proven itself useful for riders with a busy race schedule. Furthermore, this type of periodising closely resembles how many riders tend to prefer training (26-27).
Short or long races?
Friel reports good results with reversed linear periodising for riders who participate in long races (26). However, he suggests this strategy is less effective for shorter races.
My comment: From a physiological point of view, this makes sense. I have previously claimed that total training load is key to achieving a fitness peak. It should follow then, that there is more than one way to achieve a fitness peak, which practical experience also would support.
As previously discussed, it is common practice to increase emphasis on training specific to your race format when race season approaches. It makes sense that the physiological property you emphasised most recently is the one that is best “tuned” come race day.
Since long races are performed on significantly lower average intensities than short races, reversed linear periodising might be better suited for long races, and linear or undulating periodising could perhaps be a better fit for shorter competitions.
This type of periodising differs to the above in that it does not describe the total training year.
Block periodising involves a shorter training cycle where the goal is to improve one or two specific performance parameters. This training cycle will involve extensive amounts of training directed specifically towards the desired ability.
Such a training “block” can last anywhere between 2 and 12 weeks.
Research suggests that for well-trained cyclists, block periodising with high-intensity interval training can improve VO2 max and power output to a greater extent than traditional training (28). Similar results with block periodising has been reported in other endurance sports, as well as in strength training (29-30).
Block periodising can therefor be used as a tool to be implemented into either of the above mentioned periodisation strategies.
Take note of this word of cation though:
Several of the presented papers on block periodising involve pretty extreme training loads over a short time period. It therefor makes sense that this might stimulate development and further performance improvements in well-trained athletes.
However, if you do not possess a solid training base, or you are not highly experienced with large volumes of high-intensity training, taking on heavy block periods of high-intensity training might drastically increase the risk of overreaching or overuse injuries.
Unless you are well accustomed to 10+ weekly training hours, I would recommend caution in taking on block periods of high-intensity intervals.
How do you choose what periodisation to use?
Sadly, the research on different types of long-term periodisation is lacking (11).
A number of long-term periodisation structures have been conceptualised and described. However, controlled studies comparing the impact of these different organisational structures on endurance performance are lacking.
– Stephen Seiler. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance 2010
Anectodal evidence suggests that riders can achieve high results with either periodisation plans.
Perhaps the pertinent question is not which periodisation plan is best, but which is the best fit for you.
The best model for an athlete is one that optimizes the balance between training stress with recovery as they fit within everyday life.
– Chris Harnish, PhD in exercise physiology
In other words, the best periodisation model is the one that fits your work and family life the best, in allowing you the best possible combination of training stimuli and rest.
Arguably, an ambitious rider with few other commitments than training can pick and choose between any model he or she likes. And, to the best of our knowledge, achieve great results with all of them.
The busy amateur trying to juggle the combo of having a career, a family life, a social presence and racing ambitions might be less flexible.
A professional rider then, can achieve great results with the same model as an amateur. But, an amateur might not be able to choose from all the same strategies as the professional.
A simple questionnaire to find your periodisation model
PhD and exercise physiologist Chris Harnish has developed a questionnaire that will aid you in determining the right periodisation model to fit your every day training.
From what I can tell, this is not scientifically validated as such. However, it appears to be a sensible and easy to use tool that might be of help in planning your training.
You can find the questionnaire at Harnish’s website tradewindsports.net.
Based on the basic principles for periodising and tapering discussed above, you should now be able to draft the contours of an effective training plan.
Taking the time to put such a plan down on paper is useful in ensuring the necessary consistency and total training load required to develop your endurance capacity further.
5. Finally, worry about the devil in the details
Even the most carefully planned training program can fall apart if you fail address the smaller details between training sessions.
There is a reason I have been saving this point for last.
If don’t train regularly, and you don’t train a lot, you probably need not worry to much about the following.
However, the more you train, and the closer to your your limit of what training load you can endure, the more important these detail become in maximising the results of your efforts.
Training breaks your body down. Rest builds it back up.
Without sufficient recovery between training sessions, progress will come to a halt and your efforts will be wasted. From this point of view, recovery is just as important to performance as training itself.
Recovery encompass the amount and quality of the rest you get between each training session. It often also involves longer periods, lasting days or weeks, whereby training load is reduced to ensure sufficient recovery. Usually, this strategy is applied following a period of particularly high training volume or intensity (25).
Sleep is a key part of recovery, and of vital importance to performance. A shared habit of many world class athletes across different disciplines is that of spending a lot of time sleeping.
This is not always achievable when you need to balance training, work and family life. Yet, it is worthwhile stressing how much lack of sufficient sleep can affect performance.
Research suggest athletes often acquire less than the general recommendations of 7 hours per night (31-32). There are also reports of a clear connection between lack of sleep and the degree of fatigue before training (33). Furthermore, cyclists report sleeping 1 hour less the night before races compared to before regular training days (34).
26% variation in performance throughout the day
A study from 2015 investigated at what time of day athletes were at their peak performance (35). They also factored in if the athlete was usually an early or late riser.
Testing the athletes with the BLEEP-test (classic aerobic capacity test) revealed that performance varied as much as 26% from peak to bottom throughout the day. The time of day for peak performance also depended on whether the individual athlete was an early or late riser.
It therefor appears that in addition to amount and quality, sleep timing is of importance for training as well as race days.
My comment: Due to the nature of the BLEEP-test it would probably be incorrect to assume a 26% performance variation on other performance tests such as threshold power or VO2 max. However, the point remains that there is a potential for performance enhancement in optimising sleep habits.
For amateur riders with a busy work and family life, getting sufficient sleep can be a challenge.
To ensure sufficient recovery to allow optimal training adaptation it would be recommended to plan for sufficient sleep before entering periods of particularly high training loads, or ahead of prioritised seasonal races or goals.
To take on the debate of what is the optimal nutritional program for cyclists is a huge endeavour and way beyond the scope of this review.
However, sticking to the principles of keeping it simple, and doing the basics well I suggest you consider the following;
Studies on professional cyclists show that their nutrition follow recommended guidelines for endurance athletes (36). In short, this comprises a carbohydrate-based and low-fat diet.
Quick intake of carbohydrates and proteins following exercise contributes to enhance recovery (37-39). Milk-based products are an easy and accessible source of nutrients post-workout.
There ARE lots to be said about nutrition – and I will have to save the carbohydrate vs. fat (HFLC) debate for a later post.
However, with a balanced diet consisting of sufficient amounts of carbohydrates, lean and poly-unsaturated fats, plenty of fruit and vegetables (especially the latter) will be a successful recipe for the great majority of cyclists.
The mental aspect of athletic performance is probably equally over-emphasised in some circles and disregarded in others.
However, elite athletes often spend considerable energy on mental preparations during training and before races.
There is indeed research suggesting this might be worthwhile.
Enhanced performance with self-encouragement
As early as 1988, Rushall and colleagues investigate the effects of mental training in Canadian cross-country skiers (40). While racing a short track skiers were instructed to talk to themselves by using one of the following strategies:
1) Task related statement (“Follow through the movement!”)
2) Mood related statement (“Come on, give it all you got!”)
3) Self-encouraging statement (“I feel strong!”)
All three strategies led to a 3% enhancement in racing time. This might not seem a big deal. However, in sports, a 3% improvement can be the difference between placing 1st and placing outside top 10.
The above example is discussed in further detail in the book “Utholdenhetstrening – Forskning og beste praksis”, by Tjelta et al (7).
The same author discusses similar results in elite rowers in efforts spanning 3-30 minutes (7).
A different form of mental training is visualisation. The idea being to picture the perfect execution of a move or finish over and over again until it becomes hardwired in your brain. And that this will hopefully make it easier to repeat the perfect execution come race day.
A common trait among the majority of sporting legends in any discipline is a burning desire to reach their goals and a sincere dedication in doing what it takes to get there.
I would argue you won’t find a world class athlete without this trait. There simply is no “talent” capable of beating hard work and dedication.
Therefor, even the best training plan becomes worthless if you cannot find the will and determination to put it into action. For amateur athletes, success or failure usually is not determined by tenths of a second. Rather success is determined by the preparation going into ensuring the general endurance performance is as high as possible.
I would therefor argue that the most important mental training for amateurs consists of preparing to put it the necessary work. To get out when it is rainy and cold. To face the snow and the heat. To endure the early mornings to collect those kilometers.
Prepare to get the job done.
Without the proper physical preparations, no amount of pre-race mental training can make up for lack of endurance capacity.
The take-away-messages from 18 years of cycling science
In the jungle of training advice, equipment and gadgets it can be difficult to single out those aspects of your training that will provide you with the biggest performance gains.
In this article, I have taken a different approach.
Begin with addressing the elements that will provide the greatest performance loss if omitted from your training.
Ensure you have it in place.
Then move on to the second greatest loss-potential.
Get it fixed.
And so on…
Based on the current science of cycling and exercise physiology, here is my suggested list of prioritized items to emphasize in your training.
1. Ensure consistency first
Consistency is an absolute prerequisite to become a better rider.
This is the element that is frequently holding back amateur and professional riders alike.
Unless you are able to train consistently you will not get the progress you could have otherwise expected.
The first and most basic step of becoming a better cyclist is taking steps to minimize the risk of unplanned time off training.
Additionally, periods with reduced training load, such as post-season breaks, should include a minimum level of high-intensity exercise to counteract the loss of endurance capacity due to de-training.
2. Increase your training load
With training continuity intact, the next and simple step to become a better rider is to simply increase your training load.
You cannot escape the fact that anyone who is any good at cycling either trains a lot, or have previously been training a lot for a long time. If you are to reach your potential as a rider there is no way around putting in the necessary hours.
High training loads are closely associated with high results, as well as important performance parameters like cycling economy.
3. Balance your intensity distribution
Data across multiple endurance sports indicate that successful athletes perform approximately 80-85% of their training as low-intensity exercise.
The remaining 15-20% consists of high- (and moderate) intensity interval training.
An 80:20 relationship between low- and high-intensity training is well documented to yield solid performance gains both short and long term.
Threshold (moderate) training is implemented by most riders, however it is difficult determine the optimal volume of threshold training. It is not unlikely that the benefits of threshold training might vary depending on training volume and performance level.
Some authors suggest that ample threshold training might increase the risk of overreaching. Higher volumes of moderate training is reported to result in slower race times in long distance races compared to higher volumes of low-intensity training.
Less experienced riders has a tendency to perform a greater amount of their training at a moderate intensity. Reports suggest that novice riders who shift exercise intensity from moderate to low experience enhanced performance.
4. Apply basic principles of periodizing & tapering
There are many ways to schedule a yearly training program. Most commonly, these include some kind of periodizing.
Most periodizing systems apply the principle of increasing total training load when race season approaches.
Performance peaking includes an initial overload period. This is followed by a shorter taper characterized by lower than normal training load, but maintained frequency of high-intensity sessions.
Riders with a lot of time on their hands can probably become successful with most periodizing programs. If you have limited time available for training, you might be best off with an undulating program.
Block periodizing, as it is described in the literature, has great potential for enhancing performance. But, it can be extremely demanding. Unless you are cycling full-time, you should exercise caution when adapting block periodization strategies from the literature.
5. Finally, worry about the devil in the details
A successful training regime depends on quality recovery. Amount and quality of sleep has direct influence on performance during training and competition.
A varied diet with frequent intake of the basic macronutrients provides the necessary conditions for optimal recovery and adaptation from training.
Furthermore, mental training has the potential to tweak additional percents out of your performance.
With that, I wish you “bon voyage” on your quest to improve your cycling game. If you found this article useful, please do not hesitate to share it.
Want more reviews of cycling science?
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