Nearly all of us have limits on our available training time, yet all of us are looking to improve our cycling abilities and performance. This often creates a paradox where we try to cram as much “stuff” as we can into our rides, but end up with sporadic fitness gains and performance. To this end let’s look at some ways to organize your training to accomplish all of the above and more.
The Training Week – Classical View
Cycling, like many other sports, is built on the history of what came before. It has been, for example, a long standing tradition to take a rest day on Monday after a weekends racing. The rest of the training week has followed a similar pattern: Tuesday is for sprint work, Wednesday is for threshold training, Thursday is long endurance day, while Friday is a tune up for the Saturday and Sunday races. This plan, as the story goes, puts the most intense workouts early in the week, when the body is most prepared for them.
This pattern has been drilled into athletes, and coaches, for a long time, and is often considered to be merely the micro-cycle component of a periodized training plan. Tudor Bompa, long credited as the father of periodization, first introduced macro, meso, and micro cycles in the 1950’s. Indeed, the original concept of periodization was built on Hans Selye’s General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS), which looks at the stress placed upon a system, and the adaptation that occurs as a result.
When he came to the United States in the 1980’s Eddie Borysewicz brought a similar structure to the training program at the United States Cycling Federation (USCF, precursor to USA Cycling). His plan, espoused in the seminal (for US riders!) “Bicycle Road Racing – Complete Program For Training and Competition,” included Monday rest, and sprints on Tuesday and intervals Thursday. Wednesday was endurance, while Friday was recovery/tune up. Saturday was high intensity/race simulation and Sunday was the longest and hardest day.
Recently I was cleaning out some of the vast clutter that is my filing system and came across the 1994 U.S. National Team training plan for Senior Men. The plan was written by then National Team Coach Chris Carmichael. In thumbing through the pages a familiar pattern began to emerge. In the forty weeks of training listed there was not one week where the “Monday rest” pattern was broken. Fortunately, there was substantive variation in the day to day program design of the rest of the program, a testament to Carmichael's embrace of modernization of training even then. Interestingly, there is no mention made of lactate threshold based training. It is either Aerobic, Anaerobic, or VO2max!
The Training Week - Updated
The previous examples are not offered as a “what not to do” but more as back drop when looking at your own training. To be sure the foundations of periodization are sound and should form the basis of your plan design. Rather than preach a “perfect” model for organizing your week, let’s look at some of the factors that may play a role in how you might schedule your week and optimize your workouts.
Optimize Your Training Time
If you are on a limited training schedule you have to learn to optimize the time you have available. That means cutting out the ‘junk’ hours and focusing on the task at hand. While it sounds logical and doable, you’d be surprised how easy it is to squander training time. Take that extra 20 minutes to warm up and you’ve cost yourself both the 20 minutes, and the positive training effect of having stepped up the intensity, even if it’s only to a tempo pace. Multiply that over 3 training days and your 10 hour training week only has 9 hours to accomplish the goals you set.
One of my current favorite workouts is what I call a “Sweet Spot – Level 2.” A traditional “sweet spot interval” is doing 88-93% of your Functional Threshold Power (FTP) for 60 minutes. If you do a 15-minute warm up and cool down then you’ve got a very good training ride in an hour and a half. A level 2 effort takes the warm up and cool down and moves them up to tempo efforts (ok, maybe a five minute warm up). Instead of rolling around for 20 minutes at 50% of FTP, you are on the gas immediately and holding 70-75% of FTP for the warm up cool down (ok, maybe five minutes warm down too). In the end you have the same 1.5 hour workout, but you have a higher total training stress score and more aerobic development.
Another favorite workout is the 3peat Threshold Workout (or 2peat, 4peat, etc). Find a climb that is at least 10 minutes long, the minimum needed for a true threshold level workout. Time yourself up and down holding a steady threshold effort on the way up and a brisk recovery pace on the way down. Now that you have a baseline see how many up/down cycles you can do in an hour.
Around my house that is a 3peat climb on Montebello Road; a 2-mile climb that averages around 10%. It usually takes me about 15:30 to climb at 300W (which is about my FTP) and about 4:15 to descend, so if I do 3 up/down in an hour it gives me about 45:00 minutes of threshold work, a nice recovery between intervals, and a serious dose of climbing. As fitness goes up I can push harder to try and get as far below an hour as possible. My current best is 55:55 with individual intervals of 13:35 at 350 Watts, 14:44 at 319 Watts and 13:54 at 343 Watts, for a total TSS of 100.7 and an Intensity Factor of 1.07 at 258 Watts average/322 Watts normalized (My FTP was set at 310 at that time, but was probably closer to 330). Since it’s about 15 minutes each way to the climb this is a pefect workout on those days I don’t have long to ride.
Hans Selye referred to the effects of either “eustress” (positive/beneficial) or “distress” (negative/detrimental) on the system. Eustress resulted in feelings of improvement, increased muscle strength, and other markers of a positive impact on your training. Distress, on the other hand, leads to tissue damage, fatigue, and ultimately can lead to overtraining. The challenge is to recognize the difference.
Let’s look at the Monday rest, Tuesday sprints model for example. You race on Sunday and do pretty well, although you are tired. Monday comes and you are feeling pretty good, but it’s a rest day so you chill. You don’t sleep well on Monday night, work stress is piling on, you ate a double death burger for lunch and now you “have” to go do your sprints or else you’ll lose fitness and never upgrade! The workout is a mess. You don’t even come close to your top speed or max power, your heart rate is stagnant and you feel so slow you think about giving up the sport. Clearly you’ve experienced more ‘distress’ than “eustress.”
While that is an extreme example of how life, for us working stiffs, can interfere with your ideal training plan, it does offer a little insight into possible modifications to your training that won’t cause you to lose fitness or motivation.
Ride Hard Fresh
Time and again coaches advocate recovery over additional intensity, volume, or both. Improvements in Chronic Training Load (CTL) are most effective long term when the ramp rate (or gain) is approximately 6 – 8 TSS points per week. If the athlete is gaining CTL at a faster rate it is generally unsustainable long term.
Let me take a step back here and define what is meant by Chronic Training Load. CTL is a measure of accumulated training stress across a long period of time, typically at least 30 days. It is expressed as a rolling average of Training Stress Score (TSS) points per day. For example a CTL score of 100 means you have averaged 100 TSS points per day over the length of your ‘snapshot’ (eg 30 days). By tracking your training across time in this manner you are able to get a good overall picture of both your training trends and fitness improvements.
Time and time again athletes forego that advice in the pursuit of fitness gains. Unfortunately that tends to create randomization of training. That is to say that week to week the athletes total training load shows wider variation than that which is recommended for a ‘responsible’ progression. Are you one of these athletes?
If so, try something different. Schedule your weeks training around a more gradual gain and then play with the daily specifics to try and address physiological needs. If you are focused on developing FTP, spend lots of training time at FTP. If your focus lies in VO2max development, spend your training time on that. The caveat is that you have to scale back the volume, and possibly the frequency, of training you do, but that doesn’t matter. If you’re target is 600 TSS points for the week and you can get it done in 9 hours instead of 12 you’ll have three more hours to spend on another part of your life while still making steady and substantive gains in your total fitness.
It is far too easy to fall into a predictable pattern of training. Coaches and other athletes will readily offer you the ‘perfect’ training week as described across time. However, with the demands of work and family often taking priority it is common for one’s training to stagnate on a traditional plan. Rather than continuing to follow the same patterns to the same conclusions try to vary your training around a few core principles.
Freshness: Training should be a positive stress in your life. If you start a training ride and are carrying residual fatigue from the weekend races give yourself an extra day to recover.
Focus: Look at your current training. Are you optimizing your training time or just riding around on your bike? Find or purchase some high quality, highly focused workouts that will help you get the most out of your limited training time. If you use a power meter, look at the files. Did you ride for two hours and average 50% of your threshold power even WITH the 2x20 minute intervals? Perhaps it’ time to try some focused tempo efforts!
Consistency: Try to create a realistic training plan that allows you to progressively improve your fitness over time. Sure, you can ‘get fast’ in a few weeks of heavy overload, but you’ll ultimately pay the price in reduced motivation and time off from training later when the cost of those hard miles comes due.
Putting these elements into your weekly training schedule will help you realize consistent gains, have more fun, and chew up the competition at the next race (which is the fun part!)