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How to progress a training routine.

Wesley Doyle
12 Apr 2016

Does your training routine look the same week-in, week-out? If you want improvements, something will have to change.

For many a recreational rider a training ride is one when you don’t stop for cake. For others, however, training schedules can be energy-sapping and time-consuming, and yet they still find their fitness lagging when they need it most.

Unless you ride for a living or have a personal trainer monitoring your every move, it’s tempting simply to do the same sessions you always do (an hour on turbo after the kids have gone to bed; long ride with the club at the weekend, etc) especially if job, partner or children mean time is at a premium. While there’s nothing wrong with this per se, it does mean areas requiring extra effort are improved at the same rate as everything else, so if your sprinting isn’t as good as your climbing, that’s the way it will stay. 

Rather, wouldn’t it be more preferable to focus on your sprinting while maintaining your climbing schedule, meaning at the end of a specific training period you’re both a mountain goat and a speed freak? Of course it would. Why be mediocre for a whole season when you can be at your best for a month?

What this requires is a bit of planning, with every ride having a purpose and fitting into a bigger scheme – that of getting you to be the best all-rounder possible and make sure these improvements are in place at the exact moment you plan to do an event. 

‘You want each training session to contain all the performance elements while being specific towards your goal,’ says ABCC coach Ian Goodhew. ‘You can’t be brilliant at everything, but being good enough at certain things can get you through. Cav is never going to be a great climber but he needs to be good enough to get to the end of a race and the bunch sprint. Maintain what you’re good at but remember there’s no point in having a good sprint if you can’t corner or climb.’ 

The key is to work on different elements of your fitness in phases throughout the season, using different types of training to build each area. This type of training is called periodisation, and don’t worry, it’s a lot simpler than it sounds. 

Eastern promises

There was a time when all athletic training required a year-round focus, maintaining – or trying to maintain – a peak level of fitness with no regard to season, fixtures or events. In the late 1940s, though, sports scientists in the former Soviet Union, the dominant Olympic power of its era, found that athletes’ performances improved noticeably if the duration, intensity and frequency of training was varied throughout the year. 

This system was further developed by the East Germans and refined by Romanian sports scientist Tudor Bompa, the ‘father of periodisation’. Bompa stipulated all training programmes should start with a general fitness focus and progress to specific training, resulting in a schedule that increasingly resembles race conditions and performances as the event approaches. This way the elements achieved earlier in the programme are maintained while new ones are improved.

First a bit of terminology: most perodised programmes refer to the training year as a ‘macrocycle’, which is then broken up into six two-month ‘mesocycles’. These in turn are broken down into ‘microcycles’ made up of individual training sessions. Still with us? If you rename the mesocycles ‘pre-race season’ and ‘race season’ and apply specific training goals to each of the microcycles, you’ll see how it can help you plan for an event. 

In the classic periodisation model, these specific blocks fall under three categories. The first is general preparation that normally lasts for eight to 12 weeks – that’s two to two and half ‘mesocycles’. You may have heard it referred to as the ‘base period’ and its aims are increased aerobic endurance, greater strength and improved bike-handling skills. Types of training include long, slow endurance rides, pedalling and bike handling drills, and hill climbs in a big gear. 

‘If you look at training as a pyramid, the bigger the base, the taller the pyramid,’ says Goodhew, ‘so this type of lower intensity training is fundamental – although no one to my knowledge ever won a race at 18 miles an hour. Progression is the key word. As soon as you cock your leg over a saddle, whatever you do – whether 10 minutes or 10 hours – you’ve got to come back having seen an improvement.’

Once you’ve got the base period under your belt you can start working on the skills that will be required specifically for the event you’re training for. These six to eight weeks (one and a half to two mesocycles) are known as the ‘build period’ and aim to replicate the duration and intensity of the race and can include intervals, group rides, hill sessions and, if part of the event, time-trials.

The weeks immediately prior to the race are known as the ‘taper period’, during which you’ll slowly reduce the number of miles you’re doing but not the intensity. Then it’s onto the event itself, when you’ll be at your peak. If you’re doing multiple events you’ll need to work within the periods between them. 

‘In racing season I tend to use basic four-week cycles targeting a race at the end of week four,’ says Goodhew. ‘Week one will be hard, week two harder, week three hardest, and week four will be your taper. Within each of those you want to do speed, power and endurance.’ 

After the event you move immediately into a ‘transition’ or rest period. If you’re doing several events this may only be a few days – Stephen Roche famously only took a single day off between his 1987 Tour de France win and the World Championships – but building it in is essential. Resting both psychologically and physically and repairing the damage you’ve inflicted upon yourself during an event is as key a component to periodisation as any other. 

Divide and conquer

But what does this mean for those of us who hold down full-time jobs, have families or both? ‘With my guys we start the week with the short, sharp work then move to the endurance rides just before the weekend,’ says Goodhew. ‘Intervals are easier to recover from while longer rides take more out of them. If you work, you have to be even more organised, maybe even more so than a pro because you’ve got less time to maximise training.’ 

As anyone in the UK can attest, the weather can certainly put a spanner in the works. ‘The trick to successful periodisation is flexibility,’ says Goodhew, who was also the former coach of UCI Continental team, IG Sigma Sport. ‘With IG Sigma, injury meant that we had to pull riders into
races when they were training for something else. You need a plan in place but it’s just a framework.’ 

What if dedicating a year to training on the bike is unrealistic? What if you’ve only got one eight-week ‘mesocycle’ to get ready? Goodhew suggests applying the principles of periodisation to the time you have available.

‘I have a relatively simple formula that always works for people who can only devote a certain amount of time to training. Let’s say you’re doing an event early in September and that your last training week is the final week in August. What’s the most you can do in that last week? Let’s say 11 hours on the road and a couple of hours on the turbo. That’s 13 hours in total. So if that’s the most you can do at the end of your eight weeks then that’s got to be the end of your progression. So the week before you do 10 hours, the week before that nine, taking it right back to maybe only a few hours at the beginning of July. Determine the maximum you can do at the end and work backwards. If you want to do more in those early weeks then ride harder not further.’

Obviously the longer you have to train for an event the better but the principles of periodisation can be applied whatever your timeframe. As with most things, a little bit of preparation goes a long way, as does a bit of self-awareness: the only way your sprinting will improve or climbing hurt less is by specifically working at them and no regular Sunday club ride alone is ever going to do that.

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