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Building Early Season Fitness 2: Tempo Training
January is the time for base miles, so the story goes. Get your kilometers, up your hours, and build the foundations of a solid season. That’s great if you’re a pro with unlimited training time and exotic warm-weather training camps to escape the frigid winters. However, what is the most effective mix of training intensities to build fitness in these early months for those on limited time?

By Matt McNamara

In the build up to his first team camp later this month, one of my pros did over 20+ hours and 16,000 kilojoules last week. What will he do this week for an encore? More! It is enough to make the mind boggle and the heart long for those uninterrupted days of training we all love.

Last month we looked at the efficacy of the Long Slow Distance approach to training. Recall that Seiler and Tonnessen reported that, by and large, elite and professional level athletes followed a similar pattern of training. Approximately 80% of their training volume was at low intensity (defined as efforts below 2-mMol of Lactate concentration) and 20% was at high intensity (above 4mMol Lactate concentration). The caveat to that methodology was that the elite and professional athletes described had nearly unlimited time to train and averaged over 24 hours weekly volume. So what about those of us without such freedom? This week we’ll look at the rationale for a different mixture of intensities for those with limited training.

Doing More With Less
While the idea of multiple 20 hour weeks is probably appealing to a large portion of the Pez community (if you’re nodding your head at the prospect, then you probably qualify), the reality is that a vast majority of us survive, and thrive, on 8 - 12 hours per week. For this group the idea of spending 8 out of 10 hours riding around at a low-to-moderate endurance pace is unfathomable! We ride TO ride hard, to feel the fatigue and to sleep well at the end of the day. In addition we simply don’t have the luxury of spending 80% of our training time below 2-mMol if we want to maximize performance gains. Thankfully there is a viable alternative – ride harder (but not too hard)!

OK, before you jump off the deep end and start doing a bunch of VO2max efforts in early base phase, let me qualify the above statement. Chances are you already “ride hard.” However, many ‘recreational’ cyclists (defined as training 6-12 hours per week) tend to ride ‘too hard’ on easy days, and ‘not hard enough’ on high intensity days. Therefore, they end up riding the exact same intensity day-in and day-out. This intensity generally ends up being too high to qualify as aerobic training, yet is too low to work as high-intensity training. Overall, the end result is minimal ability to significantly build aerobic reserves, elevate lactate threshold, or anaerobic capacity.

In support of this, Esteve-Lanao et al. (2007) prescribed a polarized program of 77-3-20% of training time in zones 1-2-3 respectively (endurance, threshold, high intensity), yet found that the athletes defaulted to 65-21-14% of training time in the same 1-2-3 zones. This mix of efforts is not the most efficient way to gain fitness. For a recreational cyclist, it just isn’t enough volume to maximize fitness gains given that the majority of it is spent below 2-mMol.

Sweet Spot
A ‘sweet spot’ level effort (88-93% threshold power), on the other hand, is a very efficient way to gain fitness by accumulating a higher volume of training time at/near threshold without too much recovery cost. In essence, it doesn’t take too much to recover from such an effort, so you can do multiple efforts (e.g., 2-3 efforts of 20 min) with fairly short recovery breaks (5-10 min) in between, making for an efficient 70-90 min quality workout. It also is not such a hard effort that you need 4-5 days or more to recover, but can likely repeat such a workout 2 days apart.

Ultimately, what such types of efforts allow you to do is to accumulate a greater training load in a constrained amount of time over a week than if you were replicating a “pro-style” low/high intensity mix in that same limited amount of time. Assuming you balance this by adequately recovering from this greater workload, the end result is a greater progression of fitness.

It is also important to note that for such workouts, the real benefit is during the ‘on’ phase, so recovery should be kept to a minimum (e.g. long enough to grab a drink and reset). Remember we are trying to maximize efficiency of available training time, so extending a recovery period with these “moderate” high intensity efforts simply makes the workout unnecessarily longer.

Building Your Plan
Now that you have an overview of the differences between LSD, “Sweet-Spot” and Threshold workouts it’s time to start putting together a plan that meets your goals. I do believe that if you are returning to training after a few weeks (or years) off then you owe it to yourself to do a bout of LSD riding. Normally I’d keep this in the 3 – 5week range for most athletes.

Once you’ve reacquainted yourself with aerobic fitness a little bit, it is a good idea to try and maximize the week to week fitness gains by increasing the overall intensity of your workouts from one of primarily Zone 2 training, to the more demanding, and more rewarding, Tempo/Threshold model we’ve been discussing here.

Take the time to lay all of this out in a plan. If you are looking for a deeper discussion of creating a viable Annual Training Plan, I am hosting a webinar on “Building Your ATP” on Friday January 15th at Noon Pacific Time. The webinar is $24.99 and lasts 60 minutes. You can learn more and register for this at – or drop me an email for more info.


We would all like to have more time to ride. The idyllic nature of cycling makes it easy to embrace the idea of building substantial base fitness with low intensity rides hour after hour. The reality is that, for most of us, training time is at a premium and to make the substantive gains that result in higher fitness and race performances we have to try and squeeze as much into our training as is reasonable. Reasonable and responsible may be interchangeable here. Certainly you can embark on one of the current waves of purely high intensity programs on the market. That approach will quickly have your anaerobic, neuromuscular, and VO2max systems humming along at some perceived peak of fitness, but as we’ve described here the essence of fitness is built over time.

Cycling is an aerobic sport. Approach your training from the standpoint of creating a sustainable training load week to week. For many that means doing large volumes of training time in the so-called ‘sweet spot’ that resides between about 85 – 95% of your Functional Threshold Power. These workouts are very effective at building your chronic training load, increasing your Lactate Threshold power, and putting you in a position to be a factor in your races when crunch time comes. Certainly you must mix in higher intensity training (L5/L6/L7) once you’ve reached a good fitness level, but for the athlete on limited time you are well served on a diet of tempo/threshold workouts week to week.

*A Special thanks to Andy Coggan for assistance with estimating the Intensity Factor that likely correlates with 2-mMol/4-mMol Lactate Concentrations.

Esteve-Lanao J, Foster C, Seiler S, Lucia A (2007) Impact of training intensity distribution on performance in endurance athletes. J Strength Cond Res 21:943-949. doi:10.1519/R-19725.1

About Matt McNamara:
Matt McNamara is a USA Cycling Level 1 coach with over 20 years of racing, coaching and team management experience. His first in a series of training webinars – Building Your Annual Training Plan” will be held this Friday January 15th from Noon – 1:00pm PDT. The webinar is $24.99 and will be available for download as well. Full details and registration can be found by visiting:


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