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How to create the ultimate cycling training plan

japanese keirin training
Michael Donlevy
2 May 2021

Building an effective training plan is one of the biggest challenges you face as a cyclist. Now you don’t have to, we’ve done it for you

There are plenty of benefits to be had from riding to a structured training plan. They can offer rigour to your riding, help boost motivation to get out on the bike and, naturally, will make you a stronger, fitter and better cyclist.

The general improvement plan we've put together below has been devised by renowned coach Ric Stern, who builds on our guide to training sessions by assembling them into a two-week programme that you can then adapt to your needs and expand on as you get fitter.

It contains a mix of high-intensity sprints and intervals along with endurance-type work which can take the form of long steady outdoor rides and endurance sessions. Based on four sessions a week, with the option to add another if you fancy, it’s designed to be fairly flexible. 

Any of the recommended training rides can also be accomplished on an indoor turbo which can simulate gradient if you’re pushed for time. 

Either way, bear in mind that cadence for each ride should be 85-100rpm on the flat and 70+rpm on any hills, and every ride should finish with a five-minute cooldown.

Below you can jump straight to the plan, while further down is a more detailed explanation of the thinking behind it along with information on understanding your heart rate or power zones. 

Build an effective training plan

Week 1

Sunday

Warm-up: 5min
Session: 3hr30min long ride with 4x10sec flat sprints
Intensity: Zone 1 on the flat, zone 3-4 on hills, all out on sprints
Instructions: This is your weekly long ride incorporating flat sprints from a rolling start. Use a moderate gear such as 53x17/16 and go steady on the hills

Monday

Rest day

Tuesday

Warm-up: 5min
Session: 1hr30min steady ride with 5-6x10sec flat sprints
Intensity: Zone 1 on the flat, zone 3 on hills, all out on sprints
Instructions: Steady ride with flat sprints from a rolling start. Use a moderate gear such as 53x17/16. Go easy on the hills and smash the sprints

Wednesday

Rest day

Thursday

Warm-up: 5min
Session: 1hr15min steady ride with 5-6x4min intervals
Intensity: Zone 1 on the flat, zone 3 on hills, zone 5-6 on the intervals
Instructions: Steady ride with aerobic power intervals. Hit them hard and try to maintain an even effort across each interval. These should hurt

Friday

Rest day

Saturday

Warm-up: 10min
Session: 1hr30min medium-intensity endurance training
Intensity: Zone 3 on the flat, zone 4-5 on hills
Instructions

Medium-intensity endurance training will give you a solid tempo session for quality endurance work. Pedal smoothly, stay in an aero position and drink regularly

Week 2

Sunday

Warm-up: 5min
Session: 3hr30min long ride with 4x10sec flat sprints
Intensity: Zone 1 on the flat, zone 3-4 on hills, all out on sprints
Instructions: This is your weekly long ride incorporating flat sprints from a rolling start. Use a moderate gear such as 53x17/16 and go steady on the hills

(Same session as Sunday Week 1)

Monday

Rest day

Tuesday

Warm-up: 10min
Session: Endurance training with 4x10sec flat sprints
Intensity: Zone 2 on the flat, zone 4 on hills, all out on sprints
Instructions: Core endurance ride with flat sprints from a rolling start. Use a moderate gear such as 53x17/16 and aim for a consistent pace on the flat

Wednesday

Rest day

Thursday

Warm-up: 5min
Session: 1hr15min steady ride with 5-6x4min intervals
Intensity: Zone 1 on the flat, zone 3 on hills, zone 5-6 on the intervals
Instructions: Steady ride with aerobic power intervals. Hit them hard and try to maintain an even effort across each interval. These should hurt

(Same session as Thursday Week 1, but try to add one more interval)

Friday

Rest day

Saturday

Warm-up: 10min
Session: 2hr steady ride
Intensity: Zone 1 on the flat, zone 3-4 on hills
Instructions: Steady ride on as much flat terrain as possible. Don’t go hard today. Practise eating and drinking while you ride

In the zone

Amateur Hour Blur -Rob Milton

Training zones are important here, so don’t ignore them. You’ll need a heart rate monitor to gauge them accurately, but here’s how they work as defined by Stern as long ago as 2000…

Recovery Zone is an easy effort at 40-60bpm below your maximum heart rate. Use this for cooldowns and easy spins on rest days

Zone 1: Endurance session at 45-50bpm below your maximum heart rate
Zone 2: Endurance session at 40-45bpm below your maximum heart rate
Zone 3: Endurance session at 30-40bpm below your maximum heart rate
Zone 4: Intensive effort at 25-30bpm below your maximum heart rate and just below your lactate threshold
Zone 5: Intensive effort at 15-25bpm below your maximum heart rate and just above your lactate threshold
Zone 6: Maximal effort at 0-15bpm below your maximum heart rate
Zone 7: Maximal sprinting effort at or just below your maximum heart rate

How it works

The plan contains a mix of high-intensity work from sprints and intervals through to endurance-type sessions such as long rides, steady rides and endurance sessions.

‘These cover a variety of bases to target multiple physiological systems,’ says Stern. ‘Previously, people thought you should only try to work on one aspect of physiology such as anaerobic power, but this isn’t the case. You can concentrate on more than one.’

In terms of structure, longer rides take place at the weekend, while shorter, harder sessions are done during the working week.

‘But you can be flexible, for example by cutting the 90-minute Tuesday ride to an hour and adding 60 minutes on to a weekend ride,’ Stern adds.

In fact none of this is set in stone, and the idea is that once you’ve done the two-week programme you can amend it to fit your free time and your goals.

‘The order is very rider-dependent and may change if you add a third midweek session. Some riders like to do intervals after a day off, when they feel fresh, while others perform better when they do a session the day before.

'If you’re still able to do intervals in a “tired” state towards the end of the week, when your muscle glycogen is slightly depleted, they can lead to greater fitness adaptations in the muscles.’

Don’t go all in all of the time, though. You also need rest days, which allow your body to recover from the hard efforts you’ve put it through and for the body to restore its muscle and liver glycogen – the body’s carbohydrate stores.

‘It’s also important to freshen up from a mental perspective,’ says Stern. ‘Rest days needn’t be a complete day off the bike, and could include really easy and relatively short spins, but proper rest means you’ll come back to your harder sessions with more energy and higher intensity.’

  • For a guide to fuelling appropriately, see our guide here.

Moving on up

Building fitness and proficiency on the bike requires progress over time, so your training plan can’t standstill.

‘The current plan is based on four days per week, which is sufficient for a wide variety of people competing in different types of cycling,’ says Stern.

‘But at some point, you need to either up the intensity, the volume or both. This places more “stress” on the body so you can keep working on increasing your fitness. The fitter you become, the harder it is to keep getting fitter.

'It’s the inverse of weight loss – if you’re very overweight it’s quite easy, physiologically, to lose a kilo or two, but once you’re down to race weight it’s really difficult to lose a further kilo so that you look like a Tour de France rider.’

Stern has already hinted at adding an extra session in midweek to give you a total of five rides per week. Once you’ve added an extra day you can start upping the intensity, for example by increasing the number of intervals you incorporate into those sessions.

‘I have to point out that it’s hard to be too specific, because how you adapt the plan will depend on your personal strengths and weaknesses, and what your goals are.

'A time-trialler will have different goals and needs to a road racer. The time you have available is also a big factor because if you have 25 hours a week to train most of those hours will have to be low intensity, while if you have six hours a week your training will have to be really intense.’

This is where individual coaching can help, but there are some general principles you can apply.

‘If you’re a road racer you may want to increase the number of intervals you do, as well as the frequency, to build speed and power for specific race scenarios.

'If time-trials are your thing you may want to add in functional threshold power work and do moderate-to-long intervals of 10 to 20 minutes, to increase your ability to ride for a long time at a set speed.’

You also need to consider – and be honest about – your limitations. ‘If you’re racing a criterium but you’re not great at sprinting out of corners, you can adapt the sprints in the relevant sessions to practise spriting of corners from a good speed,’ says Stern.

‘For a sportive, it maybe you’ve never ridden the distance before. Add in more medium-intensity endurance training to build your fatigue resistance and increase your long ride by 30 minutes every other week to help build endurance.’

How to complete it?

Completing this training plan on the road is doable but challenging for a variety of reasons. Terrain, daylight, traffic lights and weather can all get in the way of a perfectly planned training ride.

As an alternative, you'll find yourself having to opt for the turbo trainer, at least for some of the more structured sessions.

With these workouts being based upon heart rate rather than power, you do not necessarily need a turbo with integrated power in order to complete.

With that in mind, buying a cheap rear-wheel turbo will do the trick and also reduce space taken up in the cupboard. Prices for these kinds of trainers start under £100.

Alternatively, opting for a direct-mount turbo opens up the possibilities of having on-screen power, more realistic gradient changes and the option of using apps such as Zwift.

  • We have put together a guide to the best turbo trainers on the market here. Check it out for some ideas.

Five commandments

Finally, Stern has some golden rules that are worth remembering/pinning to your garage wall.

  1.  Don’t ramp the hours up like a lunatic. Only increase your training by 30 to 60 minutes per week.
  2.  Do NOT make all your sessions high intensity. You’ll end up hurting yourself physically and mentally.
  3. Steady endurance work should form the bulk of your training.
  4. Tapering isn’t generally required unless you’re doing a lot of training –more than 12 hours per week, every week for at least a couple of months.
  5.  As you get fitter, up the intervals sessions from once every 10 days to once every seven days, and potentially up to twice per week with a few days between them. But don’t do two per week unless you’re a strong rider and even then don’t do them for more than a handful of weeks at a time because you’ll plateau and you won’t get the full benefits.

How to create a training plan

Words Stu Bowers

If you want to reach top form, you need a strategy. Cyclist gets the expert view on how to devise your optimum cycling training plan

In the words of Hannibal Smith, leader of The A-Team, ‘I love it when a plan comes together.’ In his case, that usually meant breaking out of a high-security compound having knocked together a tank out of some spare parts found in a barn, but his catchphrase also rings true for the cyclist looking to get in shape after the winter lay-off.

Without a proper cycling training plan, it’s hard to structure your training in any meaningful way, so where do you start in creating one?

You could always hand over a fistful of cash to a qualified coach who will guide you every step of the way, but that’s an expensive option. You could follow a pre-prepared training plan as found in many magazines and websites, but they can’t take into account your personal goals and situations (that two-hour recovery session on a Tuesday clashes with the local pub quiz).

Instead, you’re better off learning the fundamentals of how coaches put together their cycling training plans so you can formulate something that works for you. And, as our carefully selected experts explain, a little understanding can go a long way.

Cycling training plans: Going back to school

Amateur Hour Set off -Rob Milton

‘Education is crucial. When I’m coaching, it’s always better to get people to understand why they’re doing the sessions, and not just say, “Do this,”’ says coach, sports scientist and Torq Fitness founder Matt Hart.

‘I like to give people the tools to understand why certain types of training work in the ways they do. The principle of periodisation is a key thing to understand.’ 

Periodisation, as it turns out, is coach-speak for how you plan your cycling training over a specific timeframe. ‘Training is fundamentally about progression, otherwise there’s little point,’ says Hart.

‘You first need to ascertain what kind of workload your body can cope with, and then its about progressing the workload and interspersing rest so your body becomes better at coping. Then you can gradually ask more of it.’

It seems that the best place to start with a cycling training plan might be at the end. ‘Plan backwards from your key event,’ says Cyclism cycling coach Pav Bryan. ‘I ask clients to tell me about as many of their events and goals as possible, but then get them to categorise them into A, B and C. An A goal would be an event where you want to be at your very best. You’d typically have fewer than five in a year.

'B goals would be the kind of events you’d want to be riding strong for but would still sacrifice for A goals. Finally, C can be interim goals and races you plan to use as training events. 

‘Training cycles get called different things but essentially it’s about starting with a base period, or general preparation, then a pre-competition phase where training becomes much more specific to your goal,’ Bryan adds.

‘Then there’s the period closest to the event, where you want to sharpen up and taper towards the big day with short, high-intensity work but with adequate rest to stay fresh.

'Following on from the event there must be a longer recovery period, the length of which would depend a little bit on the number of A events you have in your plan.’ 

Hart warns against trying to squeeze in too many A events: ‘There’s a danger if you try to peak too frequently you will be fresh but not necessarily as fit as you could be, as you’re spending too much time resting up in a season and the accumulative effects of training will be lost.

'So that reinforces why it’s important to decide your key goals early. It may mean you have to accept you’re not going to be as fresh for some other events or periods. Usually three “peaks” would be the maximum for a season.’ 

Cycling training plans: Meso, macro, micro

You’ve mapped out your cycling training plan, so what next? Now it’s about breaking it down into manageable chunks.

‘Meso-cycles could be considered your whole year plan, but then we need to discuss macro-cycles, which are the blocks of training, and then micro-cycles, which are the individual weeks within those blocks,’ Bryan says.

‘A four-week macro-cycle is a perfect example. You build up intensity over three weeks, then back it right off for the fourth week to allow recuperation and the adaptations to take place in the body.

'It’s a good system to use, as most people have the capability to train like this. For a beginner, I might choose to start with three-week cycles, with one mid-intensity week, followed by a harder week, then an easier week, until the client is responding well enough to move it on to a four-weekly programme.’

Hart agrees: ‘The stepped model seems to be the best approach. That’s to say, you begin with a couple of mid-high load weeks, and then back off for a week, followed by a few more weeks at a slightly higher load than the previous two, and then another rest week.’ 

He emphasises that rest weeks aren’t just about letting your fatigued muscles recover: ‘Psychological recuperation is important too. You need those breaks in training to stop yourself getting stale mentally.

'You’ll be more motivated when it comes to the hard sessions. If you can train harder during the hard blocks your gains in fitness will potentially be greater. If you know there’s a break coming it will keep you motivated if you’re starting to feel fatigued.’ 

Movistar’s Alex Dowsett, former Hour Record holder and founder of Cyclism, adds a pro rider view, saying, ‘You absolutely have to rest. If you don’t you’re inevitably training yourself to go slowly, as you’ll end up too tired to ride fast. And you can’t train hard on tired legs.

'The better you rest the better you recover. The more recovered you are the better you can train, and usually that means the better you race.’

For more pro insights on training: 'Training with Madison Genesis'

Clear horizons in your cycling training plan

With long-term goals set, and a basic cycling training plan for three or four-week training cycles, it’s time to look at the micro cycles – the weekly goals.

‘You want to be freshest for your key sessions,’ says Bryan. ‘You could begin with a three-day cycle where the first day is your hardest session, the next day a medium-intensity session and then a day with only low intensity.

'Then a day off, followed by a two-day cycle with a medium followed by a low, then another day off. That’s an ideal micro-cycle. You’ll work all the necessary areas but still allowing plenty of recovery.’

If you’re on a four-week macro-cycle, you need to assess your fitness after four weeks and decide how to adapt your micro-cycle accordingly.

‘As you progress you need to decide whether to increase the amount of time given over to training or whether time is constrained and so you might look to keep the hours the same but up the intensity to push the body on, so you don’t just plateau,’ says Bryan. 

Hart agrees that increasing intensity is the best option for the time-poor cyclist, but warns, ‘It depends on the event you’re training for. You might not need a huge amount of high-intensity intervals if you’re training for a long sportive for example.

'That said, as you get older it’s the fast-twitch muscles that suffer most, so older riders might want to pay more attention to some of the high-end strength training side of things.’

Be prepared to bend the training plan's rules

Dowsett adds another perspective: ‘Being flexible [with your cycling training plan] is vital. Within the week things can change. You might have a bad night’s sleep and not feel up to a certain session, and it’s pointless training half-hearted.

'You always have to be able to take into account your body will have off-days. Listening to your body is super-important and if you haven’t got a coach or someone to actually tell you to stop then you have to be disciplined and be able to make the judgement call by yourself.’

Being able to assess your performance and fitness is key to knowing how effective your training is, and when to up the intensity or back off a bit.

(Photo credit: Redbull content pool)

Finally, there are plenty of hi-tech training aids out there to assist you, but they are not essential. According to Bryan, ‘The basic kit you need to follow structured training is a bike. That’s it. Power meters have become popular, but they can be really expensive.

'A heart rate monitor is great, but to be honest if you’ve not even got that you can still structure your training. You can simply use a rating of perceived exertion [RPE] scale, 1-10, where 1 is “I can do this all day”, right up to 10, which is incredibly tough.

'I often still use this in cycling training plans even with clients who train with power. It’s still valuable and useful.’

Hart is more in favour of power meters, saying, ‘The great thing about power is that it gives you feedback about your effectiveness, and systematically recording sessions to make comparisons easy is valuable. It’s non-subjective. It’s not like saying, “I beat that guy last week and now he’s beaten me this week,” as that could be down to any number of other reasons.

'With power you know exactly what’s going on and you can be less emotional about your decisions.’

However you go about it, knowing your body and working to a structured cycling training plan is the secret to getting the results you want. Anyone on the A-Team could tell you that.

• For information on how the Wattbike Atom can help you achieve your training goals, visit wattbike.com/gb

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