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Know your cycling training sessions

Michael Donlevy
17 Mar 2020

Learn the meaning of buzzwords and get to know your training sessions better

Cycling training is full of buzzwords and initialisms whose sole purpose seems to be making the process of getting fit as baffling as possible but it doesn’t have to be this way. Not when you know your FTPs from your TTIs, your MIETs from your HIITs and your RPIs from your RPEs. Let us explain... 

FTP: Functional threshold power

FTP is closely related to your lactate threshold – the point at which your body produces lactic acid, which is what causes your muscles to burn and you to slow down.

‘FTP is the maximum average speed you can maintain for around one hour,’ says coach Ric Stern. The idea is to train just below that point, at your race pace, regularly enough to get fitter and increase your lactate tolerance. This will allow you to race faster, for longer.

'It can be estimated in a variety of ways,’ Stern adds. ‘The easiest way is to ride a time-trial over 25 miles (40km) and see what your average power is.

'Alternatively, you can estimate it from a hard one-hour crit race or from a maximal aerobic power [MAP] ramp test. This uses an increasing power output, and the highest power output achieved over 60 seconds is your MAP.

'For most people their FTP will be around 75% of their MAP.’

Watch our 3 minute video on the FTP test

RPE: Rate of perceived effort

You’ll hear coaches talk about this a lot, so it’s worth a mention.

‘It’s a psychological measure of how hard you feel a training session is,’ says Stern. ‘It can be measured on a scale of one to 10, where one is very easy and 10 is an all-out sprint.

‘While power output doesn’t change – 200W is always 200W – RPE can shift depending on how you feel on a particular day and is useful if you keep a training diary.

'By assigning a number to a session you can see how various distances and power outputs cause different sensations when you’re training.'

Training zones

Before we grapple with more initials, training zones are a more scientific extension of RPEs.

‘They’re a way of assigning objective measures of work, especially with a power meter or heart rate monitor, to make training sessions more specific,’ says Stern.

‘Being told to ride intervals [we’ll come to those – we can’t define every term at once so we made them form a queue] for four minutes at 320W or 170bpm is more objective than being told to smash up a hill as hard as you can for four minutes and repeat five times at the same intensity.’

You can find out more here: cyclecoach.com/calculator

MIET: Medium-intensity endurance training

Don’t be fooled by the word ‘medium’.

‘You won’t be going flat out, but this is a hard endurance session that can last anywhere from 20 minutes to three hours for very well trained cyclists,’ says Stern.

‘It’s a zone 3 effort, or about 80 to 90% of FTP, which is just below the effort a strong rider could average for a 50-mile or 80km TT. So doing it for as short a time as 20 minutes shouldn’t be too stressful.’

You can break longer sessions into blocks, for example two 40-minute sessions separated by a five-minute rest. But, however you do it, working at this intensity will increase ‘fatigue resistance’.

‘It will also help increase lactate threshold, raise and extend FTP, burn more fat and to a lesser extent build MAP and VO2 max – the maximum amount of oxygen your body can use during intense exercise.’

HIIT: High-intensity interval training

Intervals – where you combine bursts of intense exercise with easier, recovery periods – have become ubiquitous in recent years, but you have to get them right.

HIIT is most of your training that’s above FTP in intensity,’ says Stern. ‘Obviously the harder you exercise the shorter the duration must be.’

That means HIIT is time-efficient. The intensity raises your metabolic rate and heart rate much higher than steady-state training, so you burn more energy and get fitter, faster.

It also causes small tears in your muscles – which is a good thing, because muscles then repair themselves stronger. But herein lies the danger.

‘Too much HIIT can have an adverse effect on performance because it’s very tiring,’ says Stern. Less is more, so don’t do more than one session every week or two.

Examples? Stern suggests four-minute intervals at just above FTP pace with three to four-minute rest periods in between, or 30 seconds on/30 seconds off with the ‘on’ starting at your maximum sprint pace.

‘Split these into sets of three with 10 minutes easy in between sets to maintain quality,’ he says. ‘These 30-second lung-busters are great for building sprint power, but like all intervals will help build FTP and MAP too.’

TTI: Threshold tolerance intervals

These offer a way of breaking FTP sessions into chunks.

‘You can do two 20-minute sessions at just below FTP with a few minutes easy in between, but you can also do shorter efforts such as eight five-minute intervals at between 95 and 105% of FTP with somewhere between one and five-minute recovery periods,’ says Stern.

‘These can be done regularly and for long periods of time.’

RPI: Race pace intervals

Intervals can also be used to get you primed for action.

‘An RPI lasts two or three minutes at the same intensity as the shorter TTI efforts, with one minute recovery,’ says Stern.

‘Do three of them the day before a race to "open" your legs and lungs, as part of your race warm-up or to lead into a longer training session.’

Endurance rides

‘Endurance rides of between one and four hours are the cornerstone of your training regime,’ says Stern.

‘They’re zone 2 on the flat and somewhere between zone 4 and 5 on the hills – so 100% to about 115% FTP. As well as building endurance they’re great for weight management, burning fat rather than carbohydrate and practising cornering at a reasonable speed.

'Longer endurance rides should be challenging without breaking you.’

Long rides and steady rides

Nothing beats time on the bike, and you should aim to do a long ride every week if you have the time.

‘They’re generally between three and five hours, although you can apply the term to any ride that feels long for you,’ says Stern.

‘They should take place over rolling terrain, but some hills are fine. For most people they’re zone 1 on the flat and zone 3 to 4 on the hills, so about 80 to 100% of FTP when you’re going uphill.

‘These rides are great for weight management, building endurance, having fun and learning new skills such as eating and drinking on the bikes. You can throw in a few hard efforts too.’

Steady rides are similar but shorter – up to 80% of a long ride – with no hard efforts.

Flat sprints

Flat sprints are often incorporated into longer sessions.

‘They’re great even if you don’t actually need to sprint,’ says Stern. ‘They increase your neuromuscular power and as you improve you’ll increase the force you can apply and the cadence at which you can pedal.

‘Do either 10 seconds flat out from a rolling start or five seconds from a standing start, with maybe 10 minutes between sprints and anywhere between four and 10 sprints in a session.’

Recovery rides

Recovery rides generally last 30 to 90 minutes and are done at a very low intensity. You should feel like you’re walking the bike,’ says Stern. ‘Gearing should be low, cadence moderate and routes generally flat.’

These sessions keep you in the saddle when you need to take it easy, for example in the days after a race, interval training or a hard FTP session. Relax and enjoy.

Putting it all together

We’ll look into assembling a training plan in more detail another time, but for now you’re armed with enough information to start filling in a training jigsaw.

‘Do a long ride every seven to 10 days and complement that with one interval session, some steady rides incorporating sprints, endurance training and either an FTP session such as TTI or an MIET session once a week.’

Just remember not to overdo the intervals.

‘You’ll only make gains for a few weeks, and you may stop improving after a while until you revert back to more moderate work. Balance is key.’

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