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VeloNews Training Plan, part 1: The fundamentals

Trevor Connor / Updated
Get ready to get really fast. Let the training begin. Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com

The snow hasn’t melted, and the air still bites on our rides. But the racing season will be here before you know it. Now is the time to start gearing up for your favorite races, and we have the tools to make it your fastest season ever. The VeloNews Plan is the best, most comprehensive training guide we’ve ever published. Cheer up — spring is almost here. And you’re going to be really fast.

Two of my favorite books on training — both written by highly successful and well-known coaches — explain what is and isn’t important for successful training. One book states that having a coach and a plan is critical. The other says that what’s least important is — you guessed it — a coach and a plan. Unfortunately, that’s the reality with physiological training in the modern era. For every philosophy on training, there is a contradictory movement that, in some cases, is just as successful. Within this world of competing ideologies and science, the only sure thing is that there is no such thing as a perfect plan. So, what is really required for successful training? I’ll throw my take into the mix and say what’s most important is understanding — the how, why, and purpose of your training.

For the VeloNews Plan, we’ve deliberately stayed away from providing a plan that spells out what to do on Monday and what to do on Tuesday, and so forth. Instead, we focus on helping you understand your training. For those of you who believe the plan is most important, we have a basic template you can follow. For the rest of you, we break down the elements and key concepts of a training program to allow you to better understand the purpose of training, evaluate your existing plan, and/or work with your coach to refine how your approach your regimen.

Let’s take a look at our plan’s key organizational concepts. Once you’re ready to make your plan, check out Part 2 of the training plan.

Time to overload

There are many principles in the world of training physiology, but the overload principle is at the root of them all.

It simply states that to improve, we must stress our bodies with a training load that’s beyond what we can normally handle. Then we must rest so that our bodies can rebuild, adapt, and achieve a higher level — called super-compensation. No matter if your plan is old-school or cutting-edge, it must incorporate periods of overload and then recovery. If you learn only one thing from this article, make sure you understand the benefits of working in cycles of stress and rest. (Too many of us forget the rest part.)

In the endurance world, the level of stress is often referred to as training stress and is measured by a training stress score (TSS), invented by Hunter Allen and Dr. Andy Coggan. TSS can help assess your overload and rest.

Tip 1: I tell my athletes, “Be as intense in your recovery as you are in your training.” Your recovery must be commensurate to your overload, or else the body will not rebuild and you’ll end up weaker.

Targeting with zones

Overloading doesn’t just apply to your muscles. It’s possible to target an overload to one or two of your body’s energy systems, such as your anaerobic power or aerobic endurance systems.

In fact, the current most popular training method, block periodization, centers around training in short two- to eight-week specialized blocks that target only a few systems at a time. Many studies have shown that we get less out of training when we try to target all energy systems at once. A 2012 study on cyclists in Norway saw greater gains in those who employed a block-periodized approach.

On the bike, we improve these energy systems by training in zones. As a rule of thumb, training in each zone stresses one or two energy systems while minimally impacting others.

Tip 2: Harder is not always better. If you only do intervals and group rides, you may build great anaerobic and lactate threshold systems. But your aerobic endurance will suffer.

All effective training zone models center on two key metabolic events that occur as we increase our intensity. The two events are commonly called thresholds.

The higher threshold, often called the anaerobic or lactate threshold, represents the highest power or heart rate that can be sustained aerobically. The lower threshold, called the aerobic threshold, is the point where blood lactate levels begin to rise. It is the point at which we begin to recruit fast-twitch muscle fibers.

Many physiologists use three zones, delineated by the two thresholds. In reality, our physiological zones overlap, so for training purposes, most coaches and training systems identify more. Here are rough divisions of a basic five-zone model:

Zone 1 – Training below aerobic threshold. Target: aerobic endurance
Zone 2 – Aerobic threshold. Target: aerobic endurance and fatigue resistance
Zone 3 – e range between the thresholds. Target: lactate clearance
Zone 4 – Lactate threshold. Target: maximal sustainable power
Zone 5 – This zone is often broken down further into such things as VO2max, anaerobic capacity, and anaerobic strength. Target: anaerobic pathways and maximal capacities.

Finding your zones

It’s important to determine both heart rate and power zones, if you have a power meter. The best training approaches use both.

Tip 3: I prefer my athletes do their longer endurance rides by heart rate so they can monitor physiological responses, and short interval work by power since heart rate is slow to respond. Watching heart rate relative to power can tell you a lot about what’s going on in your body.

A lactate test in a respected physiology lab is the best way to identify your zones. It’s worth the money and, if necessary, the travel. However, if you must test yourself and you have a power meter, we recommend the following protocol, which is nearly identical to the test developed by Hunter Allen and published in his book on training with power:

Warm-up: 30-45 minutes
5-second test: Do three to four all-out 5-second sprints, separated by 2 minutes. Rest 3-4 minutes.
5-minute test: Do a 5-minute time trial, preferably on a climb. Rest 10-15 minutes.
20-minute test: Do a 20-minute time trial on a road with minimal traffic. Rest 10 minutes.
1-minute test: Do a 1-minute effort.

Each of the tests should be treated like a race. The 5-second effort is a good estimate of your anaerobic strength. The 1-minute test shows your anaerobic capacity, the 5-minute test gives your VO2max power, and the 20-minute test is an estimate of your anaerobic threshold or functional threshold power (FTP), if you multiply it by 0.95.

Even if you undergo a proper lab test, do the road test within a week to compare results. Then repeat the test about every six weeks to monitor changes.

The disadvantage of this test protocol is that it only really measures zones 4 and above. But as a general guideline, your aerobic threshold is 85 percent of your anaerobic threshold. Here are the approximate zones expressed as a percentage of FTP:

Zone 1: <78% | Zone 2: 78-86% | Zone 3: 87-94% | Zone 4: 95-101% | Zone 5: >101%

Find your volume

The last thing to do before starting your training plan is to determine your volume.

Start by adding up your total volume and typical weekly volume from the previous year. As a rule of thumb, you should never increase your volume more than 10-15 percent year-to-year.

Build your season

Periodization is just a fancy term for dividing your training season into periods of specialized training focused on a few energy systems. For our plan, we chose a simplified version of Vladimir Issurin’s block periodization, which is currently one of the popular periodization strategies in cycling.

The plan consists of four phases, or mesocycles. These include a base phase focused on building aerobic endurance; a high-stress build phase designed to hone race form; a race/peak phase when the athlete backs down and focuses on racing; and, finally, a rest and “rebase” phase. These phases can be repeated as many as seven times over the course of a season.

Click to enlarge

Periodize your overload

The overload principle is the foundation of proper periodization. It takes approximately three to six weeks to build a proper overload, and another one to three weeks to recover. Therefore, our mesocycles (and microcycles) tend to be three to six weeks in length.

If you look at the three in-season phases, the build phase is designed to accumulate a high training stress to overload the energy systems critical for race form. During the race/peak phase you should drop your weekly training stress significantly to allow recovery and a super-compensation. Finally, the rest phase allows the body to fully recover and adapt before repeating the full cycle.

In our plan, the 12-week base phase is far and away the longest block, but is divided into three shorter blocks, or microcycles. Each microcycle is designed to finish with a high TSS week followed by a week of recovery. Remember: overload, compensate, repeat.

As your fitness improves, your average weekly TSS should go up. But what’s important is its relative level — is it above or below what your body can handle.

Time your cycles

Athletes commonly train too hard in November. Then, they hit their best numbers on a group ride in February and burn out by May. Effective training isn’t just about getting strong. It’s about getting strong at the right time.

Race form only lasts about nine weeks before it starts to fall off. Peak form lasts for an even shorter time — only a few weeks.

One of the advantages of block periodization is that you can repeat the mesocycles many times across the season. This allows for multiple peaks. Each time you repeat the blocks, it takes less time to hit your stride.

A well-designed plan times the race/peak phase with a key event. Following the event, there is a rest, and then the cycle repeats for the next race.

A good season plan centers on the timing of your race form. To do this, start by picking your target events. It takes about nine weeks to go from base form to peak form. So, count back nine weeks from your first target event to determine when to finish base training.

Base training targets energy systems that are slow to adapt. It can take several months, especially if you’re new to cycling. So, count back another 12 to 14 weeks to determine when to start base training.

After your first peak, repeating the phases from rest to peak can take as few as four to six weeks.

Marcel Kittel undergoes a VO2max test at the Bakala Academy. Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com

When to race

While you want to line up your race/peak phase with important races, that doesn’t mean you only race in that phase. In fact, you can race in any phase. Just remember to choose realistic goals.

Racing at the end of your base phase can be a great way to start your transition into race form, but you likely aren’t going to win. Use those races for training.

The bulk of your racing should be done during your build phase and your race/peak phase. While your best chance to win is in the latter phase, that doesn’t mean you can’t seek a result during the build phase.

Periodize your energy systems

A key tenant of periodization is targeting only a few aspects of your form at a time. The concern is that you may lose what you gained in one area as you focus on the next.

Fortunately, once an aspect of your form (and the corresponding energy system) has been developed, it takes significantly less work to maintain it. Regular repetition of short blocks ensures you never go too long without doing focused work in any one area.

These two facts allow for very specialized training of a few targets during each phase without having to worry about losing form.

The question is: What are the areas to target?

Our plan focuses on energy systems. We chose to target energy systems instead of types of work because our bodies don’t know the difference between sprinting and time trials. They simply respond to the call to produce the energy required for the activity. Physiologically, the energy system is what we overload and help adapt — not time trial form.

The major issue with this approach is that energy systems don’t fit as nicely into training methods. Most workouts (sprints, threshold intervals, etc.) stress multiple systems.

Tip 4: A TSS score doesn’t indicate which energy systems are stressed. It’s simply a measure of total stress. One of your most important responsibilities as an athlete is to make sure you are generating TSS with the right types of training and not just seek a high score through any means.

So, when deciding what to target, it can be important to combine energy systems that tend to get stressed together. For example, threshold work tends to also work our aerobic endurance system. So it makes sense to target lactate threshold and endurance together.

Likewise, top-end work such as VO2max intervals and sprints, while great for building our high-energy systems, also tend to work our lower energy systems. So, they are great during the season to build race form as well as to maintain the endurance honed during the base phase.

We defined seven energy systems for our plan:

Aerobic endurance (E): This is the system we rely on for pure non-fatiguing aerobic work. It is defined by the efficiency and strength of our slow-twitch muscle fibers and our heart’s ability to deliver oxygenated blood. This system is maximally stressed at around 65 percent of our maximum heart rate. So, producing sufficient TSS doesn’t take intense work, just lots of time in zones 1 and some in zone 2.

Aerobic threshold (AeT): While this is a subset of aerobic endurance, many pros have found benefits trying to train right at their aerobic threshold for several hours at a time. It raises the maximal power they can ride at without producing considerable fatigue. For road racers and, particularly, stage racers, this is a critical and often overlooked energy system. Imagine being able to spend three hours in a fast-paced peloton and finishing just as fresh as you started.

Intra-threshold/lactate clearance (C): In the scientific literature, the range between our two thresholds is simply called our “threshold.” In this range, our bodies can achieve a steady state for a time but will ultimately fatigue. In the struggle to maintain balance, our bodies will rely on multiple energy systems. It makes training in this range controversial.

Steven Seiler, Ph.D. considers this area “no man’s land,” claiming it provides no additional gains over lower intensity aerobic endurance work and leads to burnout.

Dr. Andrew Coggan, however, refers to it as “sweet spot training” because of its ability to target many energy systems. And since it doesn’t produce the same damage as high-intensity intervals, sweet spot work can be done on multiple days in a row, producing a much greater training stress.

A few things are certain: We maximize our lactate clearance and fat burning in this range. We also spend a fair amount of time racing between the thresholds. So, at least some time training there seems warranted.

Anaerobic/lactate threshold (T): Training our lactate threshold is so fundamental to endurance sports it’s been given over 20 different names and definitions — FTP, VT2, MLSS, and the list goes on. All are some variation on the maximum power we can produce in an aerobic steady state. More importantly, if you want a result, you’re going to have to spend a lot of time racing at that wattage. So, you need to spend substantial time training it.

Tip 5: Our anaerobic and aerobic thresholds tend to improve and detrain with one another. Training one helps the other. ey also take the longest to see substantial gains, making them good targets for your pre-season training.

Aerobic capacity/VO2max (I): We can still produce more power aerobically beyond our lactate threshold — we just can’t maintain a steady state. Our VO2max is simply our biggest aerobic output. A lab can help you find your VO2max power, but a 5-minute all-out effort is a good estimate. A major adaptation of training this system is to teach typically anaerobic muscle fibers to work aerobically.

Anaerobic capacity (AC)/strength (S): Any work above VO2max is done entirely through anaerobic pathways. While cycling is an aerobic sport, you only need to spend that last few kilometers of a race trying to stay at the front of the field to understand the value of a well-developed anaerobic energy system.

Neuromuscular recruitment (N): The ability to recruit your muscles in a synchronized firing pattern affects both your efficiency and economy, so you require less energy to produce the same power. Training neuromuscular recruitment aids all your energy systems.

Now that you’ve learned the fundamentals of training, it’s time to build your own training plan.

For that, see Part 2 >>

For more training expertise, check out the VeloNews Fast Talk podcast. Fast Talk is available on all your favorite podcast services, including iTunesStitcherGoogle Play, and Soundcloud.

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