Mark Your Calendar – Planning for Performance
Aspiring elite bike racers must prepare for success over several years. Elite-level performance requires numerous specific skills and aspects of fitness, each of which takes time to develop. Some, such as aerobic power or descending skills, will develop gradually over several years and will last even if they are not specifically practiced for a few months. Others, such as tolerance for working above the lactate threshold, will develop in a few weeks, and will fade again about as quickly if not practiced.
Late summer or early fall is the time for road racers to be picking their key races for the following season and planning their winter and spring training, but you can’t develop an effective plan unless you know how long you’ll need to devote to different elements of your training. Waiting until racing season to start training or practicing skills won’t work. You must start sooner, but how much sooner? Knowing the duration of training needed allows a rider or coach to decide when to commence each aspect of training.
Getting Ready for the Season
No matter how well you train, physiological change takes time. The body and brain need to be challenged, and need to recover and respond. That cycle must be repeated over an extended period to achieve desired changes in fitness or skills. Understanding the time courses of such responses allows riders and coaches to develop training plans that not only make riders stronger, but also bring them to peak form at the right time for the racing season or for particularly important races.
Any training plan should start with goals. Planning starts with identification of key races and special training opportunities like camps and practice races. Once you have put these on your calendar, mark the day you need to start training as well. Most riders will do well with four months of base building and non-racing preparation before their first, less important races. Three to six weeks of racing or hard club riding on top of that base will bring on the first peak.
Most riders do best by doing their supra-threshold and VO2-max work on competitive club rides and training races since that allows sharpening of pack-riding skills along with high-end fitness. The hard work can also be done as structured solo training if a rider already has excellent pack skills.
Once you have determined the date you will start training, mark your post-season recovery period on your calendar as well. After a hard season, you’ll need roughly one month of recuperation before starting serious training. After an easier season or for new riders, a ten-day rest break is enough to set the stage for consistent training over the following several months.
Some riders will need longer or shorter preparation periods before a seasonal peak. If you’ve trained for a few years you may know your own response pattern and be able to adjust these guidelines. If you don’t have that information, figure that you should count back six months from your first important races of next year. That’s when you start your recuperation so you’ll be ready to train at the right time. Five months before the first key races, start your endurance base training. Three months out, start your transition to racing intensity with a month or so of long, sub-threshold intervals. Two month before the first key races you’ll be ready to start a one-month period of lactate-threshold work to prepare the body for above-threshold, race-pace and VO2-max work. A few weeks of that will bring you to your first good form. A taper then brings on a peak
The Peak Clock
If your most important races are not within a couple of months of the start of racing in your district or if your last important races are more than three months after the first training races, think about delaying the start of racing.
Once riders start making all out efforts to the point of fatigue once or more per week, the peak clock starts ticking. Hard riding on top of a good base brings on a peak. No one can hold a peak forever. Once the peak hits, it will last for a limited time.
Peak durations vary. Some underprepared riders will use up a peak in a single race. These riders are not ready to recover from the intensity of a very hard race. If the first race of the season is too hard, they become so fatigued that they are unable to train for a few weeks, during which time they lose fitness just when they should be sharpening it. Then they need to train up again for a couple of months to find good form.
Riders who are well prepared and are doing hard one-day races on the weekends or mid-week training races commonly peak for six to ten weeks. Riders who are much stronger aerobically than the competition can race at the same intensity at which they do endurance training, allowing them to win without triggering a peak. Such riders can race well for many months in a row.
Unless you are an aerobic monster, figure your peak will last six to ten weeks. Examine your panned racing calendar to see if one six-to-ten week block will cover all your important races. If not, you’ll need to plan for a split season with a rebuilding period worked in. Figure a minimal rebuild of three to four weeks will buy you one or two extra weeks of good racing. A two-month rebuild might get you four weeks. Making a plan for a long racing season with a series of small rebuilds and peaks can get complicated. A good coach will help.
You won’t race your best in the middle of period of hard training. Research supports the value of a “taper”, a period of reduced training volume with maintained or slightly reduced intensity for one to four weeks before an important event. Mark your calendar with the start of the taper for your most important events. You can’t taper for every race in a busy season. That would mean simply training less, losing fitness and ending your peak early. Plan to train through the less important races to maintain fitness, and to taper for the big events.
Fitness is Not Enough
Just being physically fit will not win you any races. You also need skills: Pack handling, cornering, gear choice, eating, drinking, race tactics, drafting, climbing and descending all contribute to racing success. The ability to spin over 90 rpm or ride the drops for most of a race can make the difference between winning and losing. Take every opportunity to work on these things when such practice is compatible with your physiological training plans. For instance, you can work on cornering, riding the drops or spinning on aerobic endurance training rides, but you don’t want to be practicing in a fast group until your body is ready for riding fast. Being ready means being able to recover and train again, at least lightly, the next day.
Other than training too hard or with too little volume, being overweight is probably the single most common stumbling block for road racers. (Visit https://www.wenzelcoaching.com/blog/cycling-body-weight-chart/ for an easy to read weight vs. height chart for bike racers.)
Many riders are heavier than the ideal for their goals but wait so long to start losing that they can’t get to race weight without eating little enough to compromise performance. Then they erroneously conclude that they lose power below a certain weight when the truth is that they lose power when they eat too little and drop weight too quickly. I’m not saying that riders don’t lose power when they get too light, but that many riders overestimate that weight threshold.
Very heavy people might lose two pounds per week without adversely affecting exercise capacity, but as they approach ideal weight, the rate at which they can keep losing while eating enough for recovery will decreases. Within 20 pounds of racing weight, few riders can lose more than one pound per week and maintain performance. In the final ten pounds, the limit typically falls to a half pound per week. With these numbers in mind and knowing your current and target weight, you can figure out when you need to get serious about your diet if you want to be at a good weight when racing starts. Mark your calendar.
Special Event Preparation: Time Trials, Heat and Altitude
You can be fit and have great racing skills and still fail miserably if you are not prepared for the specific challenges of particular races.
If your racing season will include time trials, either as stand-alone races or as parts of stage races, practice your time-trial position year round. If that’s not convenient, at the very least count back six weeks from each TT and start riding the TT bike once per week then. Six weeks is long enough to get your muscles trained to make good power in a lower position, and long enough to discover and correct fit problems. If you are changing road bikes or getting a fitting, allow three weeks before racing for the body to adjust and to get used to new shift levers, pedals or wheels.
Success in time trials also requires knowing your ideal pace and being able to stick to it. To dial them in you’ll need to do some practice TTs. Once you have identified any time trials in your race schedule, mark your calendar to show the start of training on the TT bike and the dates of your practice TTs.
If you live and train in an area that is cooler than where you’ll race, prepare for that. Mark your calendar to start your heat adjustment a month before your first hot race.
It’s not so important to ride in heat as it is get extensive exposure to heat. Overdressing in training decreases training quality and can be unhealthy. Overdressing in daily life and at work just enough to sweat a little most of the time will have you prepared to race in hotter weather after three to four weeks.
Suffering and humiliation are in store for riders who live at sea level and race at high altitude without adjustment time. Exposure to the thinner air at altitude causes myriad physiological changes, including at least: an increase in urine formation and decrease in blood plasma volume during the first few days at altitude; a lasting change in the strength with which hemoglobin in red blood cells binds oxygen starting after a few days; and a gradual increase in hematocrit – the percentage of the blood that is actually made up of oxygen-carrying red cells – starting after 12 days of altitude exposure and continuing over several more weeks.
The body’s first response to altitude, starting about 18 hours after arrival, is increased urine formation, resulting in dehydration even if you take in extra fluid. Dehydration impairs oxygen delivery and heat dissipation so performance is better immediately on arrival than it is for several days beginning about at roughly18 hours of altitude exposure. When the oxygen binding strength of hemoglobin changes after a few days, performance improves again, surpassing what you could do just after arrival by approximately the fourth day.
The differences in performance depending on duration of altitude exposure are so large that riders who routinely win races at sea level will finish mid-pack above 6000 feet (2000 meters) without adjustment time. When you are scheduling your higher-altitude races, mark your calendar for arrival at altitude at least 4 days before the event if at all possible. If you can’t arrive that early, plan to arrive at the last possible moment but certainly less than 18 hours before the race. If you can afford it, use an altitude tent or visit altitude multiple times in the months before your high-altitude race to increase your hematocrit. The tent can also be used to “arrive at altitude” the needed four days early. Full acclimatization to altitude takes at least three weeks.
If you live at altitude but plan to race closer to sea level, do as much of your training as possible at lower altitude. The muscles of people who live and train at altitude all the time are never challenged to use large amounts of oxygen. As a result, they develop the ability to use small amounts of oxygen efficiently, but not the power that comes from utilizing all the oxygen that will be available closer to sea level.
A Few More Response Times
Besides the responses to training, heat, altitude and diet that you will need to allow for in making your training and nutrition plan, there are a few more predictable response times to know about that will help you adjust training in some specific circumstances.
Training when deeply glycogen depleted will be ineffective, and will delay replenishment of glycogen. If you become depleted, it’s better to take it easy until you are at least partially recharged. After a deep bonk, a body needs about 72 hours for full recovery. Avoid bonking, but plan to take two lighter training days if you do bonk.
Training when electrolytes are imbalanced or you are dehydrated similarly delays the next high-quality training session, and takes roughly 72 hours to correct. Avoid becoming dehydrated or electrolyte depleted, but plan to take a few easy days if you do.
Illnesses, even mild ones, will decrease lactate threshold heart rate by several beats and power by as much as 25%. Training at normal heart rates or powers during the recovery period will mean training at higher relative intensity than training at the same heart rate or power when you’ve not recently been sick. You also won’t race well during that period.
Recovery of LT power and heart rate after an illness takes longer than you would expect, typically two to three weeks. To avoid disappointing training results and possible overtraining, don’t train hard or race for at least a week after an illness, and preferably longer. If you do train hard during the three weeks after an illness, pay attention to how you feel as well as heart rate and power. Back off if you feel you are working harder than normal for the power or heart rate. To help maintain motivation after an illness, mark your calendar with the date on which you hope to return to normal training.
Full recovery from serious overtraining takes many months and is not predictable. Don’t get overtrained, but if you do, be patient. Plan to do only easy training for several months and play the return to harder training and racing by ear.
Knowledge Leads to Power
Knowing how many weeks or months you will need to train to reach peak form allows you to schedule appropriately the start of different aspects of training. Start base training five months before your ‘A’ race. Start riding the TT bike six weeks before a time trial. Start heat adjustment a month before hot races. Knowing these sorts of things takes the guesswork out of making a training schedule. If you follow a schedule based on such knowledge, you’ll be on your way to joining the ranks of successful racers.
This article first appeared in ROAD Magazine in late 2014