Are you looking to increase your fitness and bring your cycling to the next level but not sure where to start? this article will give you the jump start you need to start training productively and consistently.
Athletic training in general follows 4 main principles, I will explain how these can be adapted to suit cycling training specifically. These principles are:
This may be the most important active aspect of developing a training program, in order to progress you need to expose your body to new, progressively more difficult stimuli for it to adapt to. There are a few ways you can achieve progressive overload in cycling, the most common ways are increasing duration and increasing intensity. Each method has its purposes and there are times when one is more beneficial to the other, but for beginning cyclists, it is usually more beneficial to err on the side of more duration rather than intensity.
You should look at your training as specific periods where each smaller period is encompassed by the next larger period. If you are familiar with gym training at all, the typical terms for these periods from largest to smallest are macro, meso, and micro cycle. I typically use the nomenclature of season, block, and week when working with athletes because it is more intuitive and I find it easier to visualize a training plan when thinking of it in these terms. You should have a training week (micro cycle) composed of several rides and workouts, several training weeks are in a training block (meso cycle), and finally several training blocks in a season (macro cycle). Below is a sample section of a training plan from TrainingPeaks; we can visualize the training weeks by the tall grey rectangles, the training blocks by the colored lines at the bottom grouping weeks together, and for the sake of this explanation, the collection of the 4 training blocks below represents a training season.
You may have noticed on the example above that within a training block, the weeks will get progressively taller over the course of 3 weeks, this is the representation of the progression. You should think of your training blocks consisting of several training weeks that get progressively more difficult somehow before coming back to a significantly easier, recovery period (this will be explained in the next section). How you go about making the weeks more difficult will be determined by your goals, types of workouts you are doing, current fitness, and how far away from your goal event you are.
Going Longer vs. Going Harder
It may be difficult for you to determine whether you should make your workouts harder or longer, and it's a very open topic with one major exception. When it comes to making significant general cardiovascular fitness gains, riding at a fairly easy endurance intensity, often referred to as zone 2 in the typical HR zones and power zones, or zone 1 in the 3 zone polarized model, doing more is always better than going harder. If you are able to adequately recover from the ride, more of this easy endurance riding is universally better.
What about harder rides? if you are doing interval days or steady state effort days that are significantly harder than a simple endurance ride, there are reasons to go longer and reasons to go harder, its all up to what your goals for that block are. I prefer more beginner athletes and athletes early in the season to try and go longer. The goal is to keep the power, heart rate, or instantaneous rate of perceived exertion more or less the same throughout the training block, but each subsequent workout will add additional time at that intensity. Once you become a little more advanced in your training or you are getting closer to your goal event, you will want to focus more heavily on increasing the intensity rather than the duration. Making each subsequent workout harder will elicit adaptations to allow you to produce more power at that given heart rate or RPE. While as going longer doesn't necessarily make you stronger in the literal sense, it is beneficial for increasing the phycological toughness of the athlete, and it allows for changes in the metabolism that allows you to ride closer to your maximum for longer. Without going to deep into the science behind it (this will be covered in a future article), this is why some athletes may be able to only ride at their FTP or threshold heart rate for 20 minutes, while others may be able to extend it for more than an hour.
I said progressive overload is the most important active aspect of training because it is constantly changing and you are actively performing workouts, but recovery is the most important aspect of training. Unfortunately many athletes neglect adequate recovery, some completely unwittingly and some because they think they just don't need it, but these athletes could unlock a whole new level of fitness if they just take the time to relax and recover every once in a while. The consistent overload and progression you achieve throughout your training block is, by definition, breaking down your body. You are stressing your body to the point where at the end of a block it is unable to cope with the stress you are putting it through and it will continue to get weaker if you continue to to push yourself. By taking a rest week you allow your body to "super-compensate" from this stress. In other words, you will likely get weaker and more tired/fatigued throughout your active training weeks, but after taking a proper rest week, you should begin the first week of your next block stronger than you started the first week of the previous block.
Using the same sample TrainingPeaks plan as before, I drew 2 hypothetical lines to help visualize this supercompensation idea. The black line is a rough generalization of fitness or strength, as you progress through the working portion of your block, you accumulate fatigue and stress which makes you weaker. You don't actually adapt from this stress until you let your body recover and the second portion of the black line represents the supercompensation. If you look at the red line, you can see the 1st week of Base 2 is slightly higher than the first week of Base 1. This is due to increased fitness allowing you to do more work at your new baseline, as well as continuing the progression over time.
This one is a little more simple and easily understood than the last few, obviously if you are training for cycling you wouldn't want to go for a run every day and expect to get better on the bike. Similarly, you need to tailor your training towards your specific goals and schedule. Although this is a simple concept, it can be the hardest to properly implement because it requires a deep understanding of the specific event/ discipline you are training for, taking into account other forms of exercise you may do, taking into account work and life stress, and many more confounding variables to your training. This principle is what drives many people to hire a coach, letting someone else figure out all the minute details takes some of that stress off the athlete.
How can you make your training specific? the two most extreme examples of this I can give are ultra endurance gravel events vs track events. If you are training for track races under 5 minutes long, you don't necessarily want to be out doing 4,5 or 6 hour rides, its not necessarily beneficial to your specific goals. Likewise, an athlete training for a 200 mile race will not be able to make it just riding a few hours a week doing hard sprints and nothing else. You need to figure out what it is your goal event requires of you, and focus on those aspects. Additionally, you can work on your own specific strengths and/or weaknesses. Maybe you want to be a road race sprinter, you may not want to train exclusively on your 4-6 minute power because you aren't planning on going for breakaways, you want to focus on maximum force production sprint efforts and further emphasize your strength.
Individualization closely resembles specificity, but it is more about you personally as an individual athlete. If specialization tells you that you should ride long and not do super short efforts for a 200 mile race, individualization would be how much can you personally ride. This is a function of your available time, mental and physical resources, recoverable volume/ intensity, etc. Just because your professional racer is doing a certain workout doesn't mean it'll benefit you, or that you can even complete it at all. Similarly, you may take my advice of more endurance riding is almost better and just go straight into riding 20 hours a week. Is it possible for you to ride 20 hours a week, possibly. But it will not likely be the best course of action for you if you've spent the last year only riding 6 hours a week, you wont personally be able to recover from each ride before the next and you'll dig yourself into a hole very quickly.
Interested in trying a plan that puts all of this into practice? Check out my Intro to Structured Training plan on TrainingPeaks. Gain fitness while learning firsthand how these principles work in real life.