Basics of Training Plans
The words “training plan” often strike a note when heard by non-professional cyclists. Scheduled workouts, planned mileage … at first glance it seems to take the fun out of riding. Furthermore, training plans for cyclists come from many arenas of opinion. There is long slow distance, cross-training, intervals workouts, hill repeats and periodization; the mere variety of training plans found online can be confusing.
But, if you take a blustery winter’s evening to sit down, look at your schedule and put together a skeleton training plan at the very least, you’ll reap the benefits that consistent training offers. The biggest benefit to having everything pre-organized is that you won’t be circling the block riding what cyclists call “junk miles.” These are typically miles that aren’t hard enough to benefit the aerobic system while at the same time not being easy enough to assist recovery. Additionally, you’ll be able to more easily see your progression and increase in fitness when you have a pre-determined ride on your calendar.
While I will provide a few basic training ideas you can draw inspiration from, I refer you to Joe Friel’s Cyclist’s Training Bible for the best compendium on training plans. His thorough explanation of periodization is not for the faint of heart, but provides excellent insight into the hows and whys of designing a plan.
No matter your fitness level, there are a few things that should be a part of your plan:
- First, you should schedule an active recovery day every week. If you are over 50, you may benefit from one every 4-5 days as the body takes a bit longer to recover as it ages. Active recovery does not mean, “sit on the sofa, watch 13 episodes of your favorite TV show and eat bon-bons.” Rather, it is a day when you should engage in a recovery activity such as yoga, an easy swim or a walk to help your muscles recover.
- Second, you should organize your training so that every 3-4 weeks you have a rest week. A rest week is involves decreasing your mileage and the difficulty of your rides to allow the body time to recover and grow stronger before you begin your next training block. Once again, if you are younger, you may feel great taking a rest week every 4 weeks, while older riders may need one every 3 weeks. The best way to know is to listen to your body. If after 3 weeks you are starting to feel run down, don’t push it for another 7 days. Being over-trained is far more detrimental to increasing your strength as a rider than being slightly under-trained. Signs of over-training may include: elevated resting heart rate, insomnia, irritability, depression and increased soreness that does not diminish.
- Additionally, one other thing to “plan” is your nutrition. While I am not an advocate of programming food into a plan, I find that it is important that your food intake matches your effort level. In simple terms, you should be eating clean, nutritious food everyday, but when you are on a rest week or a week with fewer miles, you should adjust your intake accordingly. This is the best way to avoid weight gain. Remember, you should be eating to train, not training so that you can eat.
As far as workout specifics, I advocate designing a plan that alternates hard and easier efforts. For example, because there are a few hilly days on the Empire State Ride, you will want to incorporate a fair amount of hill riding into your week. One way to do this is to do one day that is a long hilly ride, follow it with a day of flatter riding in zone 2 and then do a day of progressive climbing. (See my previous blog on heart rate zones.)
Progressive climbing is a series of intervals where you push over the tops of the climbs working your heart into zones 3+ and even low zone 4, and then recover for a brief period in high zone 2. These may be done as repeats up a long climb or along a hilly route. You may follow this with an Active Rest day.
Other types of training that you may add are cadence work and lactate threshold work. While the latter should wait until you have had at least 3-4 weeks of road riding in, cadence work may be done at any time. The best way is to perform cadence exercises is to keep your chain in the smallest front chainring you have. This will “force” your legs to have to increase cadence to keep your speed up, especially on slight downhills or when riding with a tailwind.
Lactate threshold work is the holy grail of training. This type of training pushes your heart to become more efficient at a lower heart rate, and thereby helps to stave off that dead leg feeling you get when you have been riding too long in too high of a heart rate zone. This training is taxing on your body, especially if you are a newer cyclist, and therefore should be done in moderation. You can start small with 10 minute intervals at the pace just below LT, or lactate threshold. If you have not been tested in a lab, you can approximate your LT from your heart rate test. It is that razor fine point right between the pace you are able to ride for hours and one that you can sustain for only a few minutes. An easy way to approximate it is the “talk test.” If you can talk comfortably, you are not quite at LT. Various lab tests have been able to pair LT nicely with that point at which talk becomes inconsistent.
LT training should be done sparingly until you have had sufficient outdoor riding as too much will quickly result in over-training.
So, in synopsis, a simple weeklong training plan may be as follows:
- Saturday : Long zone 2 ride (2-3hours)
- Sunday: Hilly ride
- Monday: Active Recovery
- Tuesday: LT or high zone 2 intervals (depending on fitness)
- Wednesday: 1 hour in zone 2
- Thursday: Progressive climbing intervals
- Friday: Cadence drills
This is just a framework to give you a brief idea of how to plan hard versus recovery efforts. Of course, depending on your schedule, the length and days of your long rides may change. As you progress through the 3-4 weeks before each rest week, add a few more miles or hours to your riding. For example, you might begin with 12 hours and add two each week until you reach rest week. As your fitness increases and the days grow longer you are then able to add a few more hours as your personal schedule allows.
While you won’t need to do the full distance of the Empire State Ride in any one training week, the key to success is putting in consistent training. Pre-planning your training allows you to keep track of how much you are riding as well as how you are feeling. You are then able to adjust your training accordingly. If you need an extra active recovery day, take one. If your hill workouts are kicking your butt and you are exhausted the next day, add in an easy day between longer, more difficult rides. Having a training plan also makes you accountable to something written and you will be less likely to ride aimlessly around hoping to magically get fit just by pedaling.