Coach Frank Overton explains how to train specifically for an upcoming bike race

Now that summer is here, I am guessing just about all of the VeloNews readers are training for a goal event that’s coming up soon. You’ve prepared for months, meticulously laying down your “base;” performed intervals up the wazoo and participated in numerous group rides. Now what?

By Frank Overton

Now that summer is here, I am guessing just about all of the VeloNews readers are training for a goal event that’s coming up soon. You’ve prepared for months, meticulously laying down your “base;” performed intervals up the wazoo and participated in numerous group rides. Now what?

Now it is time to train specifically for the race or event you want to do well in. But what does it mean to train specifically? As a coach I like to:

  • identify the physiological demands of the athlete’s particular event and
  • design workouts that mimic the power demands of the event.

In other words, analyze when you have to go hard in the race and mimic the frequency, duration, and intensity of those efforts in your training. It’s sorta like scripting out the race for your training workout. Here are three workouts ideas each one for a criterium, a time trial and a road race.

Criterium Specific Training:

Let’s use your local criterium as an example: short term, bursty very hard anaerobic power rules the roost. To address the power demands of a criterium, a great all around anaerobic workout goes like this:

Zone 6: 4 x 1 min ON 1 min OFF. Conduct these 1 minuters as hard as you can go, “full gas.” You don’t need a power meter to feel what that’s like, but if you have one, you want to see average 1 minute power outputs 120 – 150 percent of your functional threshold power.

If 4 x 1 minute ON is too easy, add more reps and sets while taking 5 minutes in-between sets. Four sets of six is about the upper end of a single anaerobic workout. Add some sprint work to your training during a group ride or an actual criterium to completely dial in your criterium specific training.

Time Trial Specific Training:

On the other side of the physiological spectrum are the maximal steady state power demands of time trialing. Threshold power defines performance in the race of truth. To train specifically for your goal TT, start by looking at the results from last year. Say the winning time was 30 minutes flat. You can design a race specific TT workout by dividing the time it will take to finish the race by two.

30 minutes / 2 = 15 minutes. Therefore, Zone 4: 2 x 15 min On, 3 minutes OFF would be ultra specific training for this particular TT. As for intensity, go as hard as you can (just like a TT) and the duration will set you up for an uber specific TT workout. And of course, try to find an actual time trial before your important TT to iron out your pacing, warm up, and mental fortitude, not to mention your threshold power.

For hilly TT’s use course elevation profile, power data, and course reconnaissance to identify the power demands and durations it takes to go from the bottom to top of the hill(s) on the race course. Then throw these above threshold hills into your longer TT-specific threshold intervals. For a 30-minute TT with four thirty-second climbs, a specific workout would be as follows:

Zone 4: 2 x 15 min ON 3 min OFF w/ a 30 second effort (120 percent of your FTP) at minutes 5 and 10 during the 15-minute threshold interval. Sounds savage doesn’t it? Trust me though, it won’t be near as brutal during the actual TT if you’ve prepared specifically.

Road Race Specific Training:

Road races come in a variety of shapes and sizes and that’s why training specifically for a particular road race course can give you the upper hand. Start with the course’s elevation profile and historical results. If the race is dead flat, fast and has come down to a field sprint for the last five years in a row, dial in your sprint training. Not a sprinter? Don’t target such a race or adjust your goals and expectations accordingly.

If the race is 80 miles with three, five-minute hills @ 6-8 percent grades, work on your full gas 5-minute hill climbing.

An example workout would be to go out for 80-mile ride and perform three, five-minute intervals as hard as you can, with recovery periods spaced out like they are in the race. This may seem simple and it is; specificity doesn’t imply complexity.

VO2 Max intervals go a long way towards making the break, bridging to a promising move, or dancing up a climb. An example VO2 workout is as follows:

Zone 5: Two sets of 2 x 4 min ON, four minutes OFF, @ FULL GAS with eight minutes in-between sets

Take Stage 20 of this year’s Tour de France that finishes up Mont Ventoux: specific training to mimic the power demands of Stage 20 would be to ride 147 kilometers and roughly 2,000 kiloJoules in zones 2 & 3 over five uncategorized climbs, and then slam it up a 20k 7.6 percent average grade climb as hard as you can in your zone -4 threshold wattage.

Simple yes; easy to replicate in training? No, nearly impossible. But what does a Tour rider do? He uses the 2009 Dauphine Libere stage race as training for the Tour, because this year’s Stage 5 in the Dauphine takes a trip up the Ventoux. It doesn’t get any more specific than to race a stage race with a same decisive climb as training for a bigger stage race.

Race for the Ultimate Race Specific Training:

My final example of the ultimate way you can train specifically for your A races: RACE. That’s right, get out there and have fun doing what you love to do. Race in races like the ones you want to do well in. Enter time trials in preparation for the State 40k. Criterium enthusiasts should use a weekly crit series to practice your bike handling, cornering, pack position, surges, and of course your sprint. Go hard, experiment with tactics, take a chance on a flyer, and be aggressive. Conversely, if you are already doing that, try the opposite: sit in, stay up front, conserve energy and wait for the last lap surge or field sprint.

Road racers need to enter challenging road races and/or train on the course up the very same decisive climbs. Even racing a particular race year after year is specific because experience is highly useful. For stage races, start with two back to back hard workouts. Progress to racing Saturday and Sunday before moving on to an actual stage race. No matter what type of race you’d like to do well in, add a little specificity to your training to push your performance higher.

Frank Overton is the head cycling coach at FasCat Coaching, a cycling coaching company in Boulder, Colorado. His most recent articles for were on building a training plan for 2009 and what to do with your new power meter. For more power-based training tips please visit or Email Frank Overton