Don’t Overthink Your Training
Now being an exercise scientist and writing a book like Cutting-Edge Cycling, I’m obviously an advocate of smart and focused training, using the latest scientific advances and tools. And of course I am, up to a point.
Much as scientists may hate to admit it, training is as much art as science. What works for one cyclist may be the absolute antithesis of what another cyclists needs or wants. Every cyclist brings a unique set of physiology and capacity to respond to training load, not to mention mental makeup. There are just so many variables that it’s impossible to prescribe a standard template of training that works for everyone.
Or is it?
Look at almost any cycling discipline or athlete, and there are really three fundamental requirements for success in my opinion:
1. Aerobic fitness
2. Event-specific fitness
3. Event-specific technical ability
Plan your training around those three principles, and you can’t go too far wrong. For myself, my big goal in 2012 was coming back to Ontario and upgrading from Masters 3 to Masters 2 in cyclocross, a goal that has eluded me the three prior seasons.
The Importance of Aerobic Base
Regardless of your goals or cycling discipline, the sport requires and rewards a big aerobic capacity and as high a functional threshold power as you can get. In that sense, it really isn’t rocket science. Whether you’re a pursuit rider on the track, a crit specialist, a cross fanatic, or aiming for a century or gran fondo, the “heart” of the sport is maximizing your cardiovascular, metabolic, and neuromuscular efficiency. Even a kilometer rider on the track is predominantly stressing their aerobic metabolism for energy.
So without that aerobic base, you just won’t get your race fitness as high as you could, and your peak fitness won’t last as long either. So focus on that as much as you can. Of course, how much aerobic fitness and endurance you need depends on the nature of your sport, and that’s where individualization and specificity comes into play.
For me, what really hit home was my brief chat in Brussels last year with 2x World Cyclocross Champ and all-around nice guy Bart Wellens. Asking him about training for CX, he talked about spending the summer building aerobic fitness and racing smaller Belgian races with his Telnet-Fidea squad. Then in August and September switching to CX-specific workouts.
So if that works for Bart, who am I to argue? I thus spent May-July in the Netherlands bashing my head against the relentless wind, doing a variety of 10-20 min threshold building intervals. I didn’t touch a bit of anaerobic work for that whole time, with my only goal of raising my FTP as high as I could get it. Through the Pez party and other fun rides with friends, I also did long days in the saddle >5 h to build sustained endurance.
How did that work out? Well, arriving in Netherlands, I was doing 10 min efforts averaging 215 W. Week after week, that average kept going upwards, which only helped to increase motivation to stay the course. Returning from the Pez 10th bash in Italy in early June, the 10 min average went up to 235 W. By the end of July, I was regularly able to do 4×10 min at 275 W!
Lesson #1: There really are no shortcuts to fitness. It takes time and consistency, but the results can be quite dramatic!
Once your aerobic capacity is as high as you can reasonably get it based on your planning and time availability, the next step is to convert that towards event-specific fitness. This is often the “Build” phase of many programs. The primary purpose of these phases is to focus on high-intensity workouts that replicate the efforts required in your desired events. So individualization and specificity here is critical. What works for a cyclocross rider is going to be completely different from that of a crit racer. Even though both events are often similar in duration and feature a lot of accelerations, a cross rider is doing it at low speeds and in low cadences, while a crit rider is accelerating from a very high cadence. Each will therefore benefit from different kinds of high-intensity workouts.
For my focus on cyclocross, the keys to the sport are both really high power outputs from low cadences, but also these bursts are really short and with short periods of recovery.
My plan for August then was to transition from aerobic work to high-intensity. Rather than jump into very short 10-15 s intervals right away, I went with the philosophy of maximizing my anaerobic power by spending two weeks doing 3-4 workouts/week of 6-8 absolute maximal 1 min efforts from a standing start with lots of recovery in between.
After that, I then introduced the incomplete recovery inherent in cross, and indeed in most racing. Taking a cue from the sadists at The Sufferfest, I did road versions of two of their videos, the “Downward Spiral” (120-105-90-75-60-45-30-15 s all-out with equal recovery) and “Revolver” (15×1 min all-out with 1 min recovery). Besides leaving my lungs on the road, these three simple workouts prepared me well for the final phase of training, that of event-specific technique.
Lesson #2: Match your high-intensity work to your cycling goals!
Event-Specific Technical Ability
The final step, one that can run throughout the year, is technical mastery of your discipline. That may involve lots of trail riding for mountain bikers, fast and large group rides and drills for road riders, high-cadence spinning for trackies, etc. This really cannot be neglected, or else all that fitness you’ve built up is going to be frittered away because of things like not being in the right position in the peloton, or of course crashing out of a race! For a cross rider, technique is really huge, as that extra second lost coming out of each corner adds up to a ton of extra work.
Thanks to Nathan Chown, our St. Catharines CC has a great weekly cross workout where we get solid workout in addition to focusing on technique. A few crashes and trash-talking each other are all par for the course too – thanks gang!
There are a thousand ways and more to dissect and plan training, but what I’ve laid out here I believe to be the fundamentals of any training plan for any cyclist. Therefore, while the devil may be in the details, don’t lose sight of the big picture and the three main boxes that you need to tick in order to achieve your goals for 2013!
p.s. I did 9 races this cross season, and indeed achieved my long-held goal of upgrading to M2 partway through the season! Better yet, I then recalibrated my goal to achieving a top half finish in a M2 race and managed to nail that too!
Ride fast, have fun, and here’s to a terrific 2013!
Stephen Cheung is a Canada Research Chair at Brock University, and has published over 60 scientific articles and book chapters dealing with the effects of thermal and hypoxic stress on human physiology and performance. Stephen’s Cutting-Edge Cycling, a book on the science of cycling, came out April 2012, and he can be reached for comments at firstname.lastname@example.org .