Training

Sweet Spot training for cyclists: How to maximize your time and gains

Sweet Spot is between high zone 3 and low zone 4. It's where you get the most bang for your training buck.

It has been 15 years since I wrote the original Sweet Spot article and it is always nice to hear how many athletes have benefitting from adding it to their training. For those of you new to the concept, this article explains how to get the most out of your training time with Sweet Spot.

First, what is Sweet Spot?

Technically, the Sweet Spot is located between high zone 3 and low zone 4, between 84 to 97 percent of your Functional Threshold Power (FTP). It’s called the Sweet Spot because it is hard effort to illicit physiological gains but not so hard as to require multiple days of recovery afterward.

For riders who aren’t using a power meter, I’d call Sweet Spot “medium hard.” Sweet Spot is just below your 40k time trial race pace, but harder than a traditional tempo workout.

The underlying principle of Sweet Spot training is a balanced amount of intensity and volume. Sweet Spot elicits more adaptations than tempo but less than threshold work. The tradeoff is the key element because day to day you can achieve more positive physiological adaptations by Sweet Spotting than with threshold or tempo work because you can recover faster. This means you can repeat and achieve similar wattages day after day with more frequency than full-on threshold workouts.

The end result? Better training by being able to build a bigger ‘base’ in a more time efficient manner. Ultimately the bigger one’s aerobic base the higher one’s power output can be later on in the annual training plan.

Sweet Spot is a great ‘bang for your buck’ training zone. Photo: Frank Overton / FasCat Coaching

Sweet Spot metrics: TSS, kJs, CTL, and wattage

Wattage is the easiest way to make sure you’re hitting the Sweet Spot, either during a ride or afterwards when you are analyzing your data. When at your computer, select the duration you were Sweet Spotting and verify the average and normalized power was in fact at Sweet Spot wattages.

Training Stress Score (TSS) is the ultimate way to measure the benefit of Sweet Spot aside from directly measuring or testing your power at threshold. By Sweet Spotting, you are looking to achieve a large TSS at the end of the day. Many computer like those from Garmin, Wahoo, and Stages, have a TSS field you can add to a screen to track in real time.

Kilojoules, of kJs, are a cumulative measurement of energy expended. kJs are good, but TSS is better, because it is personalized on your FTP.

For tracking your TSS from day to day, tools like TrainingPeaks and Today’s Plan show Chronic Training Load (CTL). During a build phase where the goal is to raise your CTL, there’s nothing better than Sweet Spot.

Your Chronic Training Load minus your Acute Training Load is your Training Stress Balance. When we talk about peaking for an event, we are talking about raising up your CTL as high as possible, then reducing your ATL through tapering. This means a high TSB; you are now fit and fresh.

Now that you’ve got the acronyms out of the way, let’s look at how to make you fast with different ways to  Sweet Spot.

Group ride Sweet Spot

Ride on the front in the wind, and take longer, more frequent pulls. Do work. Be aggressive. While all this is going on, use your power meter to confirm that you are indeed Sweet Spottin’, whether by looking at average 3sec power, lap power for the duration you are trying to work in the Sweet Spot, real time TSS or all the above.

Climbing Sweet Spot

If you live in hilly or mountainous regions, go climb! Long climbs are an excellent way to hit Sweet Spot power. Plus, climbing offers a lot more freedom and motivation than structured intervals, but with the same results.  Don’t live near mighty mountains? Do repeats on the hills you have.

Sweet Spot can be done in many ways and in many places, but climbing is one of the most enjoyable. Photo: Getty Images

Keeping up Sweet Spot

I call this the ‘ride with stronger riders Sweet Spot.’ Meaning, Cat. 3s ride with the 1/2s; girls ride with the boys; masters with the young guns. Pros? Go motorpace. Riding with stronger riders makes you stronger, and often times it is because you are pushing Sweet Spot watts. Download and analyze your power file to be sure.

Race Sweet Spot

Perhaps you are using a race for training and aren’t interested in the usual strategy of “sitting in and waiting for the move.” Make the race hard and go off the front early. Ride the break at Sweet Spot wattages. The longer the break, the bigger the training effect. Or you could call it “work for your teammate Sweet Spot.” So what if you get caught or dropped! Nothing risked, nothing gained and maybe you will be so good at Sweet Spotting that you’ll take yourself all the way to line for the W. You never know till you try.

For stage race Sweet Spotting – it’s the cumulative effect of 3 to 5 days or more of “hard racing”. A stage race like the Tour of the Gila or Mt Hood with plenty of climbing is a great example. Even seven days of Superweek racing will bring your form up because most of the criteriums come in at Sweet Spot wattage for the race as a whole. In 2012, FasCat athlete Timmy Duggan rode the front of the Tour of California, Sweet Spotting nearly every stage for Peter Sagan. Seven days later, he won the U.S. Pro national championship and the coveted jersey.

Mountain Bike Sweet Spot

Choose challenging terrain and focus on having fun but going fast and working hard. The normalized power for a two-hour mountain bike race is at the upper end of the athlete’s Sweet Spot wattage.

Motorpacing Sweet Spot

This is the ultimate in my opinion. Try it; you’ll go fast. One hour once a week at Sweet Spot wattages over rolling terrain will turn you into a Watt Monster! Note that this is not a steady state workout. You need to carry your momentum up and over the hills with big watts and recover on the downhills. When you download your file, the normalized power for a super hard motor-pacing session should come in at quality sweet spot wattages.

Structured Sweet Spot

For those looking for more structure or are targeting a race with a key climb or time trial duration, a Sweet Spot workout can be written similar to traditional threshold workouts. Sometimes having the duration and wattage to target is reassuring for athletes. For example, you could do something one of these:

4 x 15 min On, 10 min Off
Total work = 60 minutes

2 x 20 min On, 5 min Off
Total work = 40 minutes

Sweet Spot for the win

Sweet Spot training and the workouts above are a fantastic way to build a huge aerobic engine at any point in the year. In my experience as an athlete and a coach, a large aerobic foundation should be your number one priority over the winter and in the season building towards an A race. There are several areas of your training you’ll need to address afterward, like race-specific intervals, but starting with the “big base” will increase your performance. The bigger base you can build, the faster you will be.