Monday, December 31, 2012

Winter Bike Training - Planning a Season

Lined up on the start line when the gun went off, by the time I got clipped into the pedals I was at the back of the pack already, gapped by the peleton racing down the open road ahead of me. This jarred me out of my comfort zone and I had to dig deep to close the gap. The first several kilometers were spent hanging near the back in an effort to stay out of the wind as much as possible. But it was more of a cross wind than a head wind and I found myself working harder than I wanted at this early stage in the race. Meanwhile, at the front, a young rider from the Elite category, Derek Snider, was putting his stamp on the race early causing frequent surges as the peleton fought to match his attacks. With the usual surges at the front at every corner and hill, life at the back of the peleton was proving to be more difficult than I was comfortable with. I moved up in an effort to minimize the "accordion effect" which helped a little but that first hour was a lot of work.

Into the second lap I took the race into my own hands and attacked off the front ahead of the gravel section. I expected my move to be matched by at least a one or two others but the entire pack let me go, not seeing me as a threat. For four or five kilometers, I was given a leash of about 500 meters. I maintained a  steady Threshold effort to stay ahead, hoping that eventually I would be joined by one or two others. It was a fairly hard pace but at least it was MY pace and towards the end of the gravel section I was joined by Snider. The pace increased for 2 or 3 minutes until we were joined by 6 or 7 additional riders. With 9 riders strong, a rotation was quickly organized and for the remainder of the race until about a kilometer to go, I alternated between a low threshold and above threshold effort as I switched between drafting off the pack and taking my turn at the front.Approaching the finish line, the pace increased until with less than 500 meters to go it was an all-out sprint to the finish. I gave it everything I had and crossed the line with nothing left.


The above scenario describes a typical road race. The first half of the race is hard but manageable at somewhere around low Threshold effort but with frequent anaerobic surges. Somewhere during the second half of the race, the attacks begin. Now the pace goes above above threshold for 2-3 minutes as the attack is made or matched. If a successful attack is made then the pace alternates between mid-Threshold and above Threshold as one alternates between taking turns at the front and recovering in the draft with recovery time dependent on how many are in the break. The fewer riders in the break, the less recovery time. Finally, there is the all-out sprint to the finish line.

So how does one train for the above scenario? Well, for certain, a good deal of Threshold riding is required. In addition, there are frequent surges with recovery done at Threshold. There are extended VO2 max efforts of 2-3 minutes or more with recovery again at Threshold. And there are extended efforts alternating between just over Threshold and just under. Finally, there is the all-out sprint to the finish.

What would a training workout for the above scenario look like? Here's a stab:

10 minwarm up
40 minlow Threshold with 20 s surge every 3 minsimulate first half of a road race
5 minrecoverymental break because the trainer is mentally hard
5 minlow Thresholdback to race pace
3 minVO2 Maxsimulate an attack
12 minover/unders - alternate between 1 min above Threshold and 1 min below Thresholdsimulate taking turns at the front of a 2-man break
5 mincool down

80 min TOTAL

Even though it's only 80 min, the above workout is hard. One doesn't just jump into the above workout. "You can't get there from here!" Rather, one needs to train to be able to do the above workout. The workout becomes the training goal.

Case study

So if you can't get there from here, how do you get there? The answer is that you structure your training schedule around achieving your target workout. The above scenario describes my Winter bike training goal which I'll use as a case study in designing a Winter bike training program.

The above workout becomes the key workout that would be executed in the weeks leading up to the first road race of the season. I've kept it short purposely to minimize time spent on the trainer yet sufficiently hard to induce a good training effect. Importantly, it is specific to the demands of road racing. The demands of a time trial or a shorter triathlon/duathlon would be simpler. In those cases, the key workout would centre around time spent at Threshold. The demands of a longer triathlon/duathlon or road race would have a large endurance factor but still, the key workout in a Winter training program would revolve around time spent at Threshold or, preferably, sweet spot (more on this below).

A training schedule should be structured around key workouts. The key workouts are "what gets you there from here". Typically, one can manage 2 or 3 key workouts per week at most. All other workouts are structured around the key workouts.

Three principles that should be adhered to when planning a training schedule are:
  1. Consistency
  2. Progressive Overload
  3. Specificity

Consistency (weekly)

Consistency of training provides the foundation upon which fitness is built. For me, the best way to achieve consistency is with a weekly schedule that follows the same pattern. The routine of the weekly schedule helps in making the workouts easier. When I know that Wednesdays are a key workout day, I can prepare mentally for the workout and "just do it" without giving it much thought. Routine and good habits can be amazingly powerful in this regard.

Key workouts

The first thing I do when designing a schedule is pick my key workout days. For example, this Winter, my key workout days are Wed and Sat. I'm training two sports this Winter, running and cycling, so I've split my two key workouts between running and cycling. Wednesday is my key run workout day and Saturday my key cycling workout day.

Recovery "workouts"

The next most important workouts are recovery workouts. Recovery is the other side of the stimulus/response coin. While key workouts provide the stimulus for the body to adapt by getting stronger, the body gets stronger in response during recovery. "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger" but only if you give yourself adequate recovery. What constitutes "adequate" is highly individual; finding just the right amount of recovery is largely a matter of trial and error. Recovery can be either a very easy workout (e.g. very light spin) or complete rest and again depends on the individual as well as current training load. I prefer an easy workout for recovery but have had times during a heavy training load where I've felt the need for complete rest.

Moderate workouts

Once key workouts and recovery have been scheduled, "moderately intense" workouts can be scheduled in the intervening days. While a focus on key workouts will get you partway there, our sport of choice (whether cycling, running, duathlon, or triathlon) are mostly aerobic and, as such, the higher the training load the higher the fitness. Or, as is often espoused on the various training forums from Slowtwitch to the Wattage group, "more is more". Basically, what this means is that the more you train, the better you'll perform. It's been my experience that one can get a lot of mileage, so to speak, from just training a lot. As such, these "moderate" workouts are important. I tend to not worry to much about the intensity at which I execute these other workouts. Rather, I'll take what my body gives me, always keeping in mind when my key workouts are and making sure I save enough back for those.

A typical week

Putting it all together, after penciling in my key workouts, recovery and moderate workouts, my typical training week from now until Spring, will look something like this (Note: I've not included my runs in order to try and keep things simple):

Mondayrecovery workout or rest day60' light spin, 30' jog or rest 
Tuesdaymoderate workout20' x 2 @ high Tempo - low Threshold
Wednesdaykey workout (run)20' x 2 @ high Tempo - low Threshold
Thursdayrecovery workout or rest day60' light spin, 30' jog or rest
Fridaymoderate workout20' x 2 @ high Tempo - low Threshold
Saturdaykey workout (bike)see schedule
Sundayrecovery or easy60 min light spin or rest

In addition to bike training, my schedule also has to accommodate run training. Hence, Thursday's bike workout is recovery because it follows a particularly tough run workout. Melding run training with bike training can make the weekly schedule a bit more complicated but not overly so. The focus on key workout days is to put forward a solid effort whether that's on the bike or the run or both. The focus on recovery days should be on recovery whether that's following a key bike workout of a key run workout. The moderate intensity/duration workouts tend to be done more according to how you feel. If you're feeling good, give a little extra. Feeling a little fatigued, go easier.

Progressive Overload (blocks)

The principle of progressive overload goes back to Ancient Greece and the story of Milo of Croton. Milo was a 6th century BC wrestler who was renowned for great strength. It is said he developed his strength by lifting a bull daily from when it was a newborn calf. As the calf grew into a bull so Milo's strength grew.

Simply put, progressive overload is "start with what you can do and as you get stronger add more". There a really only two ways to add more. One way is to make the workout harder (e.g. more weight, more watts, faster lap times, etc). The second way is to do it for longer or more often. We'll use both in designing my Winter bike training schedule, starting with the weekly key workout.

Key workout

The key workout for the scenario above is basically a 40 minute Threshold set followed by a 20 minute Threshold set. Progressive overload is achieved by making each set progressively harder. The first set is made harder by throwing in a 20 second anaerobic surge every 3 minutes. The second set is made harder, first by throwing in a 3 minute VO2 max interval and then by finishing the set with over/unders. To attempt to jump right in with the workout would be akin to Milo attempting to lift a fully grown bull having never lifted the calf. Rather, my schedule will start with two 20 minute intervals and become progressively harder through adding "more" each week.

By starting with two 20 minute intervals, I'm already partway towards my ultimate goal because the second interval in the ultimate goal is a 20 minute interval. So I'll start by pushing out the first 20 minute interval, adding more each week until I'm at 40 minutes while at the same time throwing in some 20-s anaerobic surges. At the same time, I'll make the second interval progressively harder by adding a VO2 max interval at the 5 minute mark followed by one or moreover/unders (i.e. 1 minute above Threshold followed by 1 minute below Threshold). Each week, I'll make that second 20 minute interval harder by extending the duration of the VO2 max interval as well as the number of over/unders.

If I had a second key bike workout to give, I'd supplement that first key workout by doing something more specific. For example, I might focus on a set of over/unders, a set at Threshold with surges, or a set of VO2 max intervals. But since that second key workout is a run workout (at least until March), that option is off the table.

Moderate workouts

In addition to making the key workout progressively harder, progressive overload is also achieved by progressively adding "more" time on the trainer during each 3-week "block". For example, up until New Year's, I've been doing fairly unstructured training of about 3 bike workouts per week. Starting in January, my schedule adds an extra bike training day per week for a total of four (see training schedule below). After 3 weeks, an extra "spin" is added on Mondays to bring my weekly bike workouts to five. Six weeks into my schedule and that extra "spin" becomes a moderate 20' x 2 workout. And 9 weeks into my schedule, another easy spin is added on Thursdays to bring my weekly bike workout total to six. By that point, I'll also be finished with my run training and so my key run workout will become a second key bike workout.


In addition to recovery from key workouts, it is also desirable to include some recovery from the progressive increase in training load. It typically takes from 4-6 weeks for the body to adapt to a training stimulus. Thus, most training schedules will build in a "recovery week" at the end of a 3, 4, or 6-week block. Alan Couzens refers to this as the unloading period. On the Wattage group, they call it "coming up for air". As with recovery days and recovery workouts, recovery weeks are specific to the individual and a matter of trial and error. Personally, I like to schedule a semi-recovery week at 3 weeks and a more focussed recovery week at 6 weeks. Thus, my training "blocks" are 6 weeks long but with a mini-recovery built in at 3 weeks. How much recovery I take at the 3 week point depends on how I feel.


Specificity refers to tailoring your training towards your target event. In the somewhat complex scenario that we started with, the target event was a cycling road race and the ultimate key workout a fairly complex workout involving different intensities and energy systems. The key point here is that the ultimate goal of training is to prepare yourself for your target event. As such, your key workouts should become to more and more resemble the demands of your target event. To "get there from here", we generally start with workouts we can achieve now and structure the workouts to more and more resemble our target event as much as is feasible. This is a strategy not unlike that used by the renowned running coach Renato Canova. This article, well worth reading, discusses Canova's approach.
"This method has led to a 2:03 marathon (Moses Mosop), a world championship (Abel Kirui), and the third-fastest half marathon in history (Florence Kiplagat) in just the last year and a half." 
In the world of long distance triathlon or long gran fondos where endurance or the ability to comfortably complete a long distance bike leg is the key, a similar strategy to that used by Canova can be applied. Start with shorter, harder intervals. As you get closer to your target event, the workouts become longer and slower. Whereas a more traditional training approach involves easier workouts that get progressively harder, this "reverse periodization" approach involves workouts that start out harder and get easier (in terms of intensity) but more specific (i.e. longer) as the target event is approached. The added appeal of this reverse periodization approach is that it is conducive to Winter training. Rather than having to do 3-4 hour trainer workouts to traing for an Ironman event or Gran Fondo, for example, you can keep the workouts short but intense until it's time to move outdoors and longer rider become much more palatable. Using this approach last year, I took my longest trainer ride of 2.5 hours to Florida where I logged over 1,000 km in two weeks, including 2 rides at 160+ km. Reverse periodization works!

Putting it all together

In my case study, I started with a race-specific key workout I'd like to be able to achieve (specificity). I then put together a weekly schedule oriented around my key workouts (consistency). Finally, I made each workout progressively harder in such a way as to form a bridge towards my ultimate key workout (progressive overload). The resulting 12-week Winter bike training schedule is shown below.

Additional Notes

This is a Winter bike training schedule. My run training is not shown and the schedule has been setup within certain constraints, the most notable being an aversion to time on the trainer. Once the switch to Daylight-savings time arrives, and it becomes more feasible to ride outdoors, my training schedule will change towards becoming even more "specific" towards my target event, as should yours. In my next blog, I intend to cover how to know when you are making progress.

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