6 ways to make your cycling training better
There are many ways to go about training for cycling and I think we all respond in some way to all types of training. I have found that many motivated cyclists experience anxiety about their training. Is it the right kind? Will it work? What about those intervals my buddy does? How much higher can my FTP get? The truth is that it is impossible to predict exactly how we will respond to any training. What worked one season might not work the same for the next. What works best for one individual may not work best for another. I believe using the following tips will lead to improvements regardless of the training strategy.
Set goals and make a plan
It probably sounds basic, but I rarely take on a new athlete with previous training experience that has any evidence of concrete goals or an annual training plan. I believe this is where it all starts and is one of the things that separates the great athletes from the almost great athletes. Pick attainable and measurable goals and write them down. Work backwards from your goals to make a plan. The annual plan is a rough draft and will likely change, but is necessary to stay on task. Choosing a plan can be stressful, but If you are new to the sport, then I think you could follow any proven training plan and improve significantly before a plateau occurs. I once heard this period of training referred to as checkers by a coach I respect. As one gets more fit, then training becomes a game of chess. If you have been training for longer than a year or so, then you probably have a sense of your strengths and weaknesses and I would use these to make a plan and work on your weaknesses in the off season. Yes, this might mean high intensity work in the 'Base' period if that is an area that holds you back in your goal events. I would also do some research on the types of training plans out there and be critical of the source. I enjoy talking about training with other coaches and successful racers and am often surprised at the advice I hear and understanding of training principles.
Stick to the general plan
I review previous training files (if available) when I take on a new athlete. It is not uncommon for athletes I work with you have purchased a sound progressive training plan to follow in the past. In this scenario I can see what was planned and what they actually did and usually see that they followed the workouts they liked and avoided the ones that they did not. Sprinters tend to avoid long intervals and TTers tend to avoid sprinting. Often, I cannot make rhyme or reason to why types of workouts were chosen and see a lack of progression in training. I also have seen where athletes change from the plan because they feel like it is not working. Keep in mind that it takes the body 4-8 weeks to respond to training, so you need to stick with something for several weeks. When I see peak performances or improvements, I look back 2-3 months to see what likely triggered this. I also see the flip side where an athlete wants to continue a recent training strategy when they experience a gain and associate it with the previous week or two. Stick to a sound plan and reflect back on it over time to find trends and avoid knee jerk reactions.
NOTE: By sticking to the plan, I mean the general plan and principles and feel it is important to listen to your body day to day. You may have an interval session planned and are feeling mentally and physically tired, so rest is in order and then move onto the next planned workout. This is smart training and still sticking to the general plan - do not get too rigid.
I am a fan of frequent field testing every 4-6 weeks. I understand testing is not easy and can be a source of anxiety, but I feel it is necessary to track response to training and also to help guide if one should consider adjusting the plan. This assumes enough time for an adaptation has lapsed. As a coach, I am not always looking for PRs in testing as I might be interested in detraining one system to help another, so a decrease in one area might be a good thing even though it can be hard seeing lower power numbers. Testing is also great training and just another interval after all. Testing should be relevant to the demands of your event, system you are training and repeatable - same course, same time of day, same fatigue level, similar weather conditions, etc. I think it is also important to track improvements in a subjective way with a training diary. It is valuable to look at power files along with an athlete's sensations from day to day to unlock patterns and trends. I know I am glad I have notes about training to reflect back on as I forget from year to year.
Train race limiters
I touched on this in sticking to the general plan. Athletes tend to avoid training their limiters, which is understandable. You need to be cautious with training limiters as these workouts tend to create a lot of mental and physiological fatigue since they are not in your wheelhouse. A little can go a long way. I do feel they are important to address and they should be trained year round to some degree. Your strengths will always be there when you need them. On that note, there is usually a cost to benefit when it comes to endurance training. Improve your endurance and FTP and your sprint and anaerobic power are likely to decline. I think this makes training for mass start bike races exciting and challenging. Understanding your strengths and limiters in relation to your event is very important for making training decisions. I often see recommendations for all criterium racers to do sprint or on/off anaerobic workouts since those are the demands of the event. Criteriums are also endurance events and FTP and endurance are important. In general, TT types can benefit from anaerobic and sprint work to keep up with the surges of a crit sine they are good at endurance and sustained efforts and sprinter types generally benefit from FTP and Vo2 work since they are already good at keeping up with the accelerations. Just be sure to understand what your limiters actually are in relation to your event and the best training strategy might be counterintuitive.
Recovery is probably the most important thing to be disciplined about. This can be very difficult for many motivated athletes. Take the rest days and get as much sleep as you possibly can. That is when we actually get stronger and this is a hard concept for many athletes to embrace. It is also easy to get caught up in riding hard with your friends when you are supposed to be riding easy or hammering that hill to test the legs. We do not need to be completely up tight and rigid with our training, but discipline does pay off. I tend to plan social rides for my easy or recovery days and stick to my pace. If the others want to hammer then they can leave me or wait for me. I am clear about my pace before I plan a ride with others so they can decide if they want to join or not. If I have intervals planned, then I do them before I meet up with friends so I stick with my plan. Riding consistently is also a form of discipline that has huge pay offs. We all have curveballs that interfere with our training plans, so roll with the punches, but also get in as much time as you can and try and ride on all planned ride days unless you are ill or need recovery.
Enjoy the process
I saved this for last as I think it is the most important ingredient to successful training. There are going to many highs and lows if you are training and participating in bike racing or any endurance sport. The human body is very complicated and unpredictable. We can have great days when we should be tired and vice versa. The athletes that are successful are able to keep things in perspective and enjoy the process of making themselves the best version they can be.