Ready for the First Races of the Year?: How to know and why not to race too soon

This article is for people who haven’t trained as well as they might have for the new season. It is also for anyone with underprepared friends. Good friends won’t encourage the undertrained to race or do hard club rides. Read on to find out why.

Racing is just around the corner. Excitement mounts. You are talking with your buddies about carpools and team tactics. If you had a good winter plan and you stuck to it, you are strong, fast, and ready to join the fray. But what if, like many riders, you haven’t trained as much as you had hoped? What if you haven’t really started yet? Should you jump in and start racing?

Sure you meant to start training, but something kept you off the bike or kept you from sticking to your plan. Maybe you got sick or had to care for a relative and then didn’t feel like starting. Perhaps your spouse decided to remodel the house. Perchance your bike was messed up. Maybe Puxatony Phil indicated that we had another six weeks of winter, so you didn’t expect racing to start so soon.

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The reasons for not training don’t matter. At least a few of your competitors kept up their training by riding the trainer or the rollers when it was cold or rainy. They found the hours in their busy days. They stayed motivated after that illness. One way or another, at least a few people you’ll be racing against this season have developed a solid base and will have built intensity for a month or two before the first race. They are ready. You are not.

Race judges aren’t interested in explanations or excuses and neither are teammates who need support. They only care how well you can ride and how fast. If you can comfortably keep up with the competition, the decision to start racing is easy no matter how much or how little you have trained. Go for it! If you are the sort of aerobic monster who easily finishes races with the leaders even when you are not ready to call yourself “fit,” there’s no reason not to race. If you don’t have that luck, think about when to start competing.

Functional Threshold Power and Race Readiness

Functional Threshold Power (FTP) is the highest power that a rider can sustain for one hour. It’s close to the lactate threshold (LT) power. FTP is a key determinant of race readiness. Riding more than a few watts above FTP or LT, brings fatigue much quicker than riding an easier pace. Riders who must go above FTP to stick with a group fatigue much quicker than the stronger ones, and the tired will slide to the back and then off the back shortly.

Additionally, riding above FTP until exhaustion, means finishing the race tired. You will then require several recovery days before resuming high-quality training.

A Fork in Your Road

Depending on your fitness at the start of the season, the decision to race or skip the first events can make or a break your season and possibly your racing career. A rider with good aerobic power compared to the competition races primarily in his or her endurance zones (zones 2 and 3 in the most common zone system), with a few relatively short sprints or efforts near or above FTP. That makes the race a great training ride and requires only a day or two for full recovery.

A strong rider who races on the weekend can be ready to train again by Monday or Tuesday. He or she can get in a few good training days and still have time to rest before the following weekend. This allows for increasing fitness as the racing season progresses.

A racer who lacks aerobic power compared to the competition and struggles to keep up gets tired enough to delay quality training several days after a race. If he or she rests up for another race a week later, beneficial training cannot be scheduled between the events. Instead of strengthening as the season progresses, this rider either trains when tired, leading to over-training, or waits for recovery after each race and gradually detrains as the season progresses. The rider who races when overtrained or detrained likely feels that he or she lacks what it takes. In reality poor timing victimizes him or her. This rider likely loses motivation for future racing, even if he or she has the potential to be competitive.

Two major factors can lead to a short and humbling season: starting racing without adequate fitness and lacking the ability recover quickly from hard efforts. Training a few more weeks or months before starting to race can set the same rider up for a season of great performances. That’s why it is so important to delay the start of racing until you are adequately prepared. Additionally, don’t encourage friends to race before they are physically ready.

How Much Training is Enough?

“One size fits all” training plans don’t really fit anyone. Training plans should be tailored to the available time and specific situations. However, as a general rule racers in at least their second seasons can usually race well after a month or so of recuperation and then four months of training following their last races of the previous season.

In the plans I write, the four months of training usually include two months of aerobic endurance, and two months of intervals of gradually increasing intensity and decreasing length. After the base training is done, another 3-6 weeks of racing or race-like, high-intensity riding brings on in-season fitness. I’ll use other sequences with certain riders depending on their history and needs, but I have seen riders following this sort of plan win at the national and international level many times over many years.

Aerobic endurance training means riding every other day or more often, almost entirely below 80% of maximum heart rate or 90% of FTP. Weekly hours build up gradually from whatever the rider can tolerate at the start of training, adding a half hour to an hour per week until available time is filled. “Tolerate” doesn’t mean just being able to finish the time. It means finishing with enough left in the tank to be able to repeat the session a day or two later with equal enthusiasm, effort and speed.

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The weekly hours needed for success vary from rider to rider and district to district. The time also increases with category. Anyone starting out should be aiming to build up to at least eight hours per week on the bike, including at least one ride of three hours or longer. This doesn’t mean you should give up on racing if you can’t make these hours, but you should definitely be looking for ways to rearrange your life to allow for more training.

The first month of intervals can be done at about 95% of FTP or of LT heart rate, for 10-20 minutes per interval with 5-10 minutes rest between. Do intervals twice per week on non-consecutive days and stop doing intervals for the day when it becomes harder to sustain the effort or when you have done three efforts.

The second month of intervals can be done at FTP or LT heart rate, for 5-10 minutes per interval with 5-10 minutes rest between. Do intervals twice per week on non-consecutive days, but stop doing intervals when it becomes harder to sustain the effort or when you have completed six efforts.

The high-intensity that brings on race legs should also be limited to two non-consecutive days per week but can be structured—such as VO2 max intervals and sprints—or unstructured efforts, as on a club ride or training race.

The training blocks can be shortened if the rider needs to be ready for a certain race and the calendar doesn’t allow for a full five-month resting and training period. Don’t go too short though, because that won’t have you fit enough to get faster though the season.

Again, the goal is simply to be able to finish races mostly in zones 2 and 3 with bursts of harder effort. A rider with great aerobic talent may get to that point a month or two sooner than the four-month standard plan. A rider with great bike handling skills and drafting ability might be able to safely ride a flat road race or easy crit below FTP on very little training. Individual characteristics and the nature of the first races of the year definitely affect how much training is required before racing starts, but I would never recommend racing on less than six-weeks of consistent training.

More Benefits of Training

Training improves recovery as well as speed. Training makes you faster and improves endurance, so any given effort requires a smaller fraction of capacity, meaning you have less to recover from, so recover sooner. Similarly, training causes changes within muscles such that they sustain less damage while generating the same power over the course of a race. Training also speeds recovery by causing changes within muscles (e.g. increased capillary density) that allow the body to more quickly refuel and repair depleted and damaged tissues.

Riding hard with inadequate training makes muscles sore. It makes people tired so they need naps and are not motivated for more training in the following days. The same ride leaves a better-trained rider fired up and hungry to repeat the experience the next day. Riders should avoid racing until they have trained enough to recover quickly from whatever racing they choose to do. If you can race and then do high-quality training again a day or two later, you are fit enough to get stronger while racing.

Instructions: 3-, 2- and 1-Month Plans

If you don’t have time to rest and then train for four months before your first races, you’ll have to shorten the off-season plan. If you’ve been racing a bunch, doing cyclocross say, take at least 10 days very easy before starting to train for road season. Then, if you have three months to train, do a month of aerobic endurance, a month of long, sub-threshold intervals and a month of threshold intervals before you start racing. Plan to race conservatively in the first few events until you are sure of your strength.

If you have two months to train after resting and before your first races, follow the same sequence as above, but doing three weeks each of aerobic endurance, sub-threshold intervals and threshold intervals. Again be conservative in your first few races. If you have only one month to train before your first scheduled races, and you’ve actually taken some time off the bike, modify your race plans. Choose a later first race and then follow one of the longer preparation plans described above.


As you start racing after a compressed training season, or a normal-length one, plan to do some testing. See if you are strong enough to race well. You don’t need to win your first race to call yourself ready to race again the next week, but you do need to be able to finish without being exhausted. If you do, hooray! Switch to in-season training. If not, plan to train a while longer before you race again.

The same person that is capable of racing at an elite level can seem to be not at all suited to racing if racing is undertaken with inadequate training. If you are getting close to racing season and you may not have trained adequately, consider being patient, doing your homework and delaying the start of competition. Encourage your friends to do the same. You will both appreciate the decision.

Scott Saifer, M.S. and the coaches of Wenzel Coaching help their clients analyze their individual situations and customize their training plans to help them reach their goals. We also help them identify and adjust unrealistic goals. We work with riders of all levels and abilities, from aspiring pros and Senior Games riders to riders who just want to be fit or complete the local rides. Inquire about working with Scott.

This article first appeared in ROAD Magazine in the March, 2015 issue.

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