So you've got a new bike and have been riding it for a little while, and you're thinking, "I really want to race this thing. I should start training. I wonder what people are doing these days to get ready to race." Well, I'll try to lead you through the process of getting something set up on your own.
This article is intended to be an intro to the very basics of cycling training. There are whole books on the topic, so there's no way that we can cover many of the finer details, but you should be able to get a good start at getting a little more organized about your training.
A training plan for cycling can easily be summarized as a roadmap for training, no matter how simple or detailed. A surprising number of racers don't have any type of training plan. Some people will just ride whenever and show up to race day hoping for the best. That's fine, but it's not how you're going to maximize your results.
Goal Setting: What Do You Want To Achieve?
This is step one and gives direction to your training plan. Do you want to finish a bike race, gran fondo, century or brevet? Set a personal best time on the local trail? Hit a target number of weekly miles? Just get into better shape? Beat Joe Sprintmaster in the local group ride?
Having three to five long-term goals is ideal for most people. It's enough to give solid direction on your training but not so much that it's distracting. Keep your goals realistic and measurable. If you can finish a 10-mile road ride in 30 minutes, your goal could be to finish it 27 minutes by such and such a date.
Set short-term goals that allow progressive improvement toward your long-term goals -- landmarks along the way.
Example: I want to get upgraded to a Category 3 USAC road racer or Expert category XC racer by the end of the year. I need to earn enough points or place well in enough races to get bumped up. I'll start training in December for eight hours per week. By March I want to start training for 10 hours per week. In April I want to be able to finish my regular training loop in 45 minutes or less. Once the race season starts I need to enter enough races to start accumulating points and getting race experience. By the end of the year, hopefully I've done well enough to get that upgrade.
Don't be afraid to fail. Failure is necessary on the road to success. You won't always have good days -- it's just how things go. You need to keep moving forward, adjust your methods, adjust your goals if necessary, and keep at it. If failure is not risked, then the goal isn't worth setting.
Identify Your Limiters
Weaknesses that limit your overall performance the most are "limiters." Identifying your limiters is a good way to determine what your goals should be, especially the short-term goals. Maybe you're really fast on the flats but don't get up the hills all that well. You could set a goal of being a better climber and set aside training days for working on climbing.
Some people will say, "I need to improve everything," but there is always something that needs more improvement than others. While "I need to improve everything" is okay if you're just starting out, it should become quickly evident that you're better at some aspects of riding a bike than others.
Identifying limiters is usually pretty simple, especially if you ride with other people. If other people are consistently faster on certain parts of a ride, that's probably a weak spot for you.
Another way to identify them is to figure out what part of riding you simply struggle with. Maybe it's hard for you to push a really hard pace for two minutes or for 10 minutes. Training to improve these intervals of intensity would be important. Two to 10 minutes is a typical time frame in road races where the pace surges for the finish, and you need to be able to keep up if you wish to finish well.
To keep it simple, I'm going to separate the zones into three categories, though many training systems have more training zones (five to eight is pretty typical).
The Aerobic Zone
The aerobic system is the sustainable energy metabolism range that allows one to keep riding for long periods of time without excessive fatigue. The aerobic zone is the most important to train in bicycle racing. It is always used and is where you should spend the majority of training time (training time, not necessarily training rides). Training specifically targeted at this zone is commonly referred to as developing a base, since a good aerobic system is the base for the rest of your training. Without an adequate base, you can't effectively train the other systems; you'll just tire out too quickly.
The Anaerobic Zone
The anaerobic zone includes the shorter, moderate-to-hard intensity efforts. These efforts range from two to 60 minutes. The shorter the duration, the harder the effort and the more this system is incorporated. The anaerobic system tires much more quickly than the aerobic system. The aerobic system is still active during the useage of the anaerobic system, thus the wide range of times that utilizes the anaerobic system.
The Maximal Zone
The maximal zone is limited to one minute and under -- efforts likes sprints, hole shots, and other hard accelerations. Most of these efforts are under 30 seconds and use massive amounts of energy in a short amount of time. Maximal efforts place a lot of lactic acid and fatigue into the muscles.
Training the anaerobic zone and the maximal zone are done through interval training. This means you vary your levels of intensity during a training ride to target these zones. You might do a 90-minute ride but only spend 10 minutes in the harder training zones. This could be something like five repetitions of 2-minute intervals with 4-minute rests between the intervals. The rest of the time is warming up, cooling down and training the aerobic system.
Many people refer to hard efforts as "burning matches." This metaphor describes the principle that performing efforts in the maximal zone or longer durations in the anaerobic zone results in enough fatigue that an extended recovery period is required. Your heart rate will be high after such efforts, and your legs will probably feel fatigued.
"Running out of matches" means that you may come to a point where you want/need to make another hard effort but you're simply not able to. Training the anaerobic and maximal zones creates more meaningful matches and can add more matches to the matchbook. Having a good aerobic base means you may be able to make equally effective efforts as when not having a good base and without the need to burn a match at all.
How Do I Start Putting All This into a Plan
I wrote about the three zones in the order that I did because that's the order in which you should train them. The reason? You need to have a good aerobic system to train the anaerobic system, and you need a good anaerobic system to train the max effort system. Technically, you can jump ahead, but it will not give you the greatest benefits for your training time.
Think of training in the aerobic zone (base training) as training to train. Not having a good base increases your chance of injury and also reduces the ability to train the anaerobic system. For example, if your aerobic system is well-trained, you might be able to do eight to 10 repetitions of 5-minute anaerobic intervals, but with a bad base you can only get four of them in; the next four reps you're just sucking wind and not getting much benefit and may not be able to hold the desired intensity for the duration of the interval.
Styles of Training Plans
This is where you decide how serious and/or detailed you want your training plan to be. For some people, they set their goals and then just plan to ride more and see how that works out. Many will set a certain number of hours or miles to complete during a week. This is reasonable if you're just starting out, as it takes awhile for your body to get used to being on a bike. Usually you don't write these down since you just have riding days and non-riding days. The idea here is "ride, ride, ride" to get better at riding.
The next tier would be to designate easy and hard days. This starts adding goals to individual rides. Maybe on Saturday you have a long, easy ride and then Sunday you have a slightly shorter but harder ride. Monday is a day off, Tuesday is a short intense ride and so on.
At this stage it's probably easiest to set a repetitive weekly training schedule, so you ride the same days each week with the same workouts each week and gradually start doing them faster or longer as your fitness increases. The downside to this style of training is that you will tend to plateau, meaning you'll start to see less benefits from your training quicker than another style of training that I'll cover soon.
Eventually you can start adding details to the individual workouts. So a hard aerobic/endurance day might be three hours of a hard-but-sustainable pace. A hard anaerobic day would be a 90-minute ride with eight repetitions of 5-minute anaerobic efforts with five minutes in between each rep.
Rest is very important, since resting is when the body recuperates and strengthens itself for increased training loads. This can include recovery days, where you ride at a very easy, very slow pace. This helps clear lactic acid built up from prior training. You could also have a rest day, too, which is completely staying off the bike altogether.
The previous styles of training are reasonable options for people that have traditional ideas of in-season and out-of season thinking, like in most high school sports. This means that you might do some activities that don't let you get out of shape but you're not spending the whole year training for just one sport. These styles of training plans are intended for more short-term fitness gains, in terms of increasing your fitness (because of plateauing), but a are quite convenient and much easier to apply and create a plan for.
Finally, we arrive at periodization style training plans. These are often quite complicated compared to other training plan styles and take considerably more time to plan and develop, but they offer up better increases in fitness. With periodization, you vary training loads over longer periods of time to minimize plateauing and achieve more consistent growth in overall fitness. This is like piecing together a puzzle, as every day gets planned out individually and in detail.
This concept is pretty complex and more difficult to set up; even if you've done it a few times it still takes a fair amount of time just because there's more to consider. There's a full book about it written by Joel Friel, called The Cyclist's Training Bible. I recommend reading the book if you want a firm understanding of periodization training for cycling, but I'll cover the basics.
Periodization is separated into different training phases, and some of the phases are even split into different levels. I'll try to keep it simple and just keep to the bigger phase designations.
A typical phase duration (period) is three to four weeks (depending on how quickly you fatigue and recover), with two to three weeks of hard training, and then one rest/recovery week. I will use 4-week periods below, as that is most common.
The Base Phase
The base phase is when you establish a strong aerobic engine. This phase is ideally three periods (12 weeks) long. This is the go-to phase for the off-season, as it creates the least amount of long-term fatigue. You may include some anaerobic training, but the vast majority of riding should be in the aerobic training zone.
The Build Phase
The build phase is when you will start working the anaerobic and max effort zones. This is usually 10-14 weeks before a race or event for which you are planning to peak (do your absolute best). Here you would also include less important races/events that will be considered training days, with the goal being to do well in the primary event. The build phase is usually two periods long.
If you don't have one particular event you wish to peak for, but you want to do pretty well in all of them, you would stay in this phase instead of moving to the peak phase. Of course, everyone wants to do well in all of their races, but there may be one or two during the season that you want to do especially well in, like a championship event.
The Peak Phase
The peak phase is a delicate timing game. You're going to lose some fitness during this time in hopes that your body will be exceptionally well-rested for the big day. This phase is typically only one to two weeks long, and your goal is to maintain fitness but decrease long-term fatigue built up from the training leading up to this point.
Before this phase, you might have taken a day or two to recover for an event; this phase is simply a longer duration of focusing on recovery. It's a bit of a balancing act that you get better at over time as you learn how your body adapts to training stresses and how quickly it recovers.
The Transition Phase
The transition phase is a few weeks after a peak phase where you take time to physically and mentally prepare for future training. If you don't train the better part of the year, this may be when you switch off the training mode and start riding for fun or doing the other activities that you enjoy.
While having an organized training plan is important, keep in mind that you still want to keep the sport fun -- at least most of the time. There might be a few days of training where you just have to get it done. What you don't want to do is train so much that you start hating the sport and just get completely burned out and turned off altogether.
Over-training is another big concern. This is when long-term fatigue has built up to levels where your body simply is no longer functioning at the level that it should. This is characterized by constant fatigue and consistent soreness. Often you'll have a poorer attitude than normal, and you're more vulnerable to illness. While it may seem counter-intuitive, there is a point where training too much actually creates negative results and decreases your fitness. Rest is very important to reducing the risk of becoming over-trained.
Personalizing your training plan is also necessary. Every person's body is unique and responds differently to training and other daily stresses. We also have different things going on in life that we need to plan around, whether it's work, family, other passions and so on.
Getting a coach is also a good option. A coach will help you maximize your efforts and save you the time of having less-effective workouts and spending the time to develop your own training plans.
As you can see, there are many options for starting to get more serious about your training. Just keep it as simple as you need to, keep it fun, and keep at it.