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How to properly train for a hilly road race

This is the third of a three-part series by Joe Friel, co-founder of TrainingPeaks.com and author of The Cyclist’s Training Bible. In this series, Joe goes over how to train specifically for your upcoming event, whether it’s a time trial, criterium, or a road/stage race. We end the series with how to prepare for a hilly road race.

Organizing your training relative to time in order to achieve peak performance is called “periodization.” I described this six-period concept in detail in my book, The Cyclist’s Training Bible. In this article I’d like to examine the most important time in your multi-week periodization plan — the block that starts seven weeks before the race and ends three weeks before. This is the brief time when your race fitness is brought to its highest level of the season.

Let’s take a brief look at this critical five-week period as you train for a hilly road race at which your goal is to podium. To be successful, there are three key abilities to focus on in this block of time — anaerobic endurance, muscular endurance, and sprint power.

Anaerobic endurance

The podium selection group will likely be determined during a two- or three-minute episode on a hill. This selection is likely to occur late in the race, although there may well be attempts at forming a successful break earlier. For higher category races, these preliminary attempts are unlikely to succeed unless the strongest teams are represented. Such is the nature of road racing.

Deciding when to burn a match to join such a breakaway attempt is a completely different discussion that has to do with your or your team’s strategy and individual tactics. Our purpose here is look at how you can build the fitness to make such a key move when you determine the time is right and then turn it into a podium position. It all comes down to anaerobic endurance, muscular endurance and sprint power.

Making the key move to join or form a break is dependent on anaerobic endurance. As mentioned, the key moves that cause these breaks almost always occur on a hill in such a race and in order to make it happen require that you go deeply anaerobic for a short period of time — generally two to three minutes. During this brief acceleration, a gap will form and the “rope will be broken.” The peloton will decide, for whatever reason, to let the break go. At this point, muscular endurance is the ability that drives you on.

I’ll come back to anaerobic endurance shortly, but let’s first examine the more basic ability of muscular endurance for road racing.

Muscular endurance

Muscular endurance (ME) was developed starting late in the Base period and continued into the Build period. These workouts are what time trialists thrive on — long, steady intervals done at or just below the anaerobic threshold (also sometimes called the functional or lactate threshold) with short recoveries. For a refresher on how to do these ME workouts, refer to my first article in this series on training for a time trial.

But for now let’s get back to anaerobic endurance (AE) training.

Your AE training should have started in the first week of the Build period, about 12 weeks before the A-priority race, with one or two of these sessions done weekly. This involves five intervals that are about three minutes long done at an intensity well above your anaerobic threshold. Using a heart rate monitor and my zone system, this is zone 5b (note: HR is slow to respond so you will need to guess intensity for the first minute or so of each interval). If using a power meter, you’ll be in zone 5 at 106 percent to 120 percent of FTP. For those who prefer to train based strictly on RPE (Rating of Perceived Exertion), using a 0 (low) to 10 (high) scale the intervals are done at about 9. Recover for three minutes after such a three-minute interval.

In weeks seven to three before the race — the critical time — the AE workout changes slightly. Now they are done on a hill, especially one that is similar to the hill on which you expect the key selection move to made in the race. Each interval now starts with an anaerobic capacity effort for about 20 seconds before settling in to the same intensity described above.

Anaerobic capacity can’t be measured with a heart rate monitor because your pulse changes too slowly. A power meter and achieving power zone 6 can be useful here, but watching the head unit on your handlebars is not the best way to ride in such a situation. This is when RPE should be relied on. For the first 20 seconds of each three-minute AE interval, get out of the saddle and burn a match at RPE 10. Then sit down and continue the climb at HRZ5b, PZ5 or RPE 9, just as before. Continue to recover for three minutes after each three-minute interval. As before, do five such intervals in the workout.

Another change that occurs now is when in the workout you do the AE interval portion. In the critical five-week period, training should be very much like the race. In the race, assuming the key selection move will come in the latter half, there will be some fatigue. You are unlikely to have fresh legs. You must prepare for that situation. Whereas in the first few weeks of the Build period AE intervals were done early in the workout, now the time to do them is near the end of a workout, especially one that was challenging. A great time for this is after a fast group ride or even following a weekend crit. Of course, a hilly B- or C-priority race on the weekend could be substituted for the intervals.

During the critical time I recommend a weekly ME session and two AE workouts. Some riders may be able to handle three AE workouts. One of the AE interval sessions could follow the ME workout portion.

Sprint power

The AE workout is what will get you into the break. That is followed by the muscular endurance portion that maintains the break as the group rotates. This then brings you to the finish line where it all comes down to a sprint — or perhaps another long AE effort if sprinting isn’t your strength. All of this again requires tactical planning on your part.

So let’s say you intend to bring it down to a sprint to the finish line. Since sprinters are largely “born” and not “made,” you probably aren’t going to become hugely powerful now. But a normally less powerful sprinter can beat a wattage freak if he or she is less fatigued. That means putting in several long and hard rides that include ME and AE portions as described above. The end of these workouts is the time to work on your sprint. It will more than likely come down to 8-16 high-torque/cadence pedal revolutions. Do two or three such maximal efforts with very long recoveries (3-5 minutes) following your AE intervals. A power meter is a great tool here to see how much power you can produce when tired.

Inevitable fatigue

During the five weeks of the critical block you are more than likely going to need a break from training. While the focus is on some combination of intensity and long, fast rides, chronic fatigue will begin to appear. This may occur at any time in the five weeks. At this time when it has become apparent that you are very tired, you must take a break from training to allow your body to adapt to the stresses you’ve been applying. Such a break to recover and rejuvenate typically takes three to five days. During this time do only short and easy rides. When feeling fresh it’s time to start the hard workouts again.

If you’ve consistently followed a training plan similar to what is described here followed by a taper or Peak period so as to remove fatigue, you should come into your A race well prepared and have a great performance.

Editor’s Note: Joe Friel is a co-founder of TrainingPeaks.com and is the author of several books on training for endurance athletes, including The Cyclist’s Training Bible.

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