We are always striving to reach higher levels of cycling performance than we’ve ever achieved before. And we all know this is easier said than done. How can we follow through on this goal? The key is to realize and accept that you’ll need to make some sacrifice and some change. If you're already training smart (or at least reasonably so), you’re ready for three areas of change that will help you smash your fitness and performance plateau.
Increase volume more than 20%
This is the hardest thing for most of us to accomplish because life tends to limit our time to train, but the investment will yield high returns. The key is to increase the volume by enough to really make a difference, and 20% is a great target. It sounds like a lot of time (and it is), but let’s break it down a little. A typical recreational rider, gran fondo participant, or category racer trains about 10-12 hours a week, which means that a 20% increase for these riders means training for roughly 12-14.5 hours a week. Most of us can actually find an extra 2-2.5 hours if we really want to.
It’s important to use the time well. I don’t recommend adding 15 minutes to every workout; to maximize your gains, add an hour to just two workouts each week.
Here are a few tips for making it count:
Increase time at threshold (or just below) by 25%
Threshold power is the single biggest contributor to cycling performance success. Don’t get me wrong; you still need to be able to power climb and surge and sprint to the finish, but building your threshold will give you the biggest possible bang for your buck. It’s also a great focus for the winter season.
Again, lets break down the numbers. Most analytical software programs can show “time in zone” analysis for power or heart rate. Take a look at your time in the zones. If you’re an average recreational cyclist, I bet it’ll be in the 10% range (if you group ride a lot, it may be a tad higher). Using the 10-12-hour total average, you’re probably working in your threshold zone about 1-1.5 hours a week. To increase that percentage by 25%, you’ll need to move your time in that zone up to 1.25-2 hours.
To get the best results, this extra time at threshold needs to be consecutive (accomplished as extended intervals). Here are some ways to get there:
Take a look at the chart below as an example of increasing time in SST zones. This athlete made a significant increase, resulting in a 30-watt improvement in threshold from the same period the year before.
Remember when you were young(er) and you went to practice? In team sports like basketball or football, you go to practices and spend upward of 70-80% of your time focused on improving your skills. Now you train, right? What’s the difference?
One of my observations from my years of coaching is that cyclists approach our sport in a unique way as we balance skills and fitness. Think about it. In team sports like basketball or football, you go to practices and spend upward of 70-80% of your time focused on improving your skills, with the rest of the time spent on building fitness. This is even more evident in skill sports like golf, where skill practice can claim as much as 90% of the focus.
Now think about your cycling training. How much time do you spend on improving skills? Sure, you could say racing a lot is skill building in itself, but that’s like saying Peyton Manning is a great quarterback because he plays in a lot of football games.
So how does a competitive cyclist practice? Well, I’ve been to very few towns that don’t offer Tuesday night racing, Wednesday night worlds, or Thursday night throw-down. The problem is that we tend to use these races as ways to improve our fitness instead of using them as “practice.” If you really want to improve your racing, you need to start practicing in these events and stop focusing on winning. Yes, you read that right: practice at the practice race and accept not trying to win it.
Once you’ve accept that mindset, here are two skills to practice in these races.
Staying Up Front
The Problem: Too many racers do not learn how to ride at the front of the peloton and thus spend a lot of energy and effort being in the wrong spot in the peloton.
The Drill: One of the things everyone new to racing (or looking to improve in racing) needs to learn is how to stay at the front of the peloton. This is both a skill and an art, and it can only be learned in “practice.”
The drill is simple: focus on staying within the first ten to twelve riders in the peloton. Don’t stress breaks and attacks; just totally focus on staying up front in that top-ten range. The best advice here is to pay close attention to position, as it is typically your focus that defeats you and drops you back. Don’t try to win the race; this drill is too much work for that, but it’s a skill that will serve you well once built.
Comments: I’m not saying you should always race at the front of the peloton, but you need the skill to be there when you need to be there.
The Problem: Too many riders execute attacks too hard and quickly find themselves alone, only to be caught in two or three minutes and then struggle to hold the group.
The Drill: This drill is focused on helping you make early, mid, and late race breaks (not necessarily the winning move). It was designed for riders who train with power, but it also translates well to perceived exertion. The goal is to learn to make moves that take a few riders with you (or drop the ones struggling) without burning up your matchbook and leaving you alone off the front. It’s simple to understand. They are laid out in specific target numbers and effort goals, you don’t need to be this exact but try to be close. Here are the steps:
1. Attack. Have a place early in the race where you plan to attack. When you get to your spot, hit it and attack! Punch it hard for 10 seconds, then settle into it and drive it at 70% of your max 1-minute power. To get away at this power, you need to select a good spot to execute.
2. Establish. Once you’ve hit it hard for the first 30 seconds as above, now settle in for 3 minutes at 80% of your max 5-minute power. Use this pace to establish the break. Some (maybe all) will jump over to you. If you can, work with a few riders, but keep this pace; don’t get sucked into going harder.
3. Stick it. Now that you’re established, settle into a pace at 90% of your max 60-minute power till you get caught. Use other riders and try to get them established at this pace. This will move you down the road at a solid pace but not at a full break pace.
Comments: This is tough to do at times, but the point is to learn to attack and run the break. Try talking to those with you and focus on executing the drill. Don’t get too wrapped up in exact numbers; the idea is to just learn to feel the process of the break. As you practice this, you’ll slowly make each step stronger as you learn the pacing and in the end it will look more like an 80/90/100% drill. Repeat this drill multiple times in a race.
Staying up front and the 70/80/90 attack are both crucial in cycling. Learning how to execute them will lead to knowing when to execute them.