Understanding training phases and how to use it best for your preparation
Spring has sprung in the southern hemisphere, and we are set for beautiful sun rises, and long rides out on our bikes. With spring and summer come a calendar full of races and events. Some might be important events for you, or even “bucket list” events. Some might count towards championships, and others you might want to do just for the fun of it. Do you have a training plan to help you achieve your cycling goals for these events and races? Let me help you unpack the structure of a good training plan, and help you plan and put together an effective program.
Training phases refer to parts of training blocks that build onto each other. Usually, the phases follow on each other, and normally it’s better to complete, or start with one phase before going onto the next one. This also depends on the athlete, his/her fitness levels, and where he/she is in terms of the racing calendar. So, some people might not need to do much endurance training, and some others would not be able to proceed unless they have done significant endurance training. The decision to determine where you are in terms of fitness, experience and goals, is very important. If you are unsure and need help, consult with a coach.
Any training plan designed to prepare an athlete for an endurance event should have a big component of, yes, you guessed it, endurance training. Endurance is the foundation of fitness. Endurance is the ability to sustained prolonged exercise (or competition) at a moderate intensity. The effect of having a good endurance base (some people call it “Base Training”) is that our bodies’ cardiovascular system works well, and is developing even better. You have developed pathways for oxygen and blood to flow to the muscles that need it when you start working hard. It’s almost like you installed the infrastructure to train. The railway lines, or roads, or the cell phone networks. You cannot push your body if those systems are not in place or working well. With a good endurance base your body can work for long periods of time, and your body can recover in good time from long or hard efforts. Remember that recovery is part of training, and if you cannot recover well, your training will lag behind. Endurance training is therefore a critical phase in your training, as it prepares your body for training, and in doing so, builds your capacity to train and to recover. Most of your endurance training is done in the first blocks of training, but although later you might spend fewer hours on endurance training, it never disappears from the plan. Also note that even events that are relatively shorter in duration (such as mountain bike XCO races or certain track cycling events) also need a very good endurance base, especially in the beginning of training, or if you have been off the bike for a while.
Strength training follows shortly on endurance training. Once your body has become accustomed to training (by means of endurance training), you can start with strength training. Again, based on many assumptions, we need to strengthen our bodies in order for it to benefit from the adaptation. According to the website www.fitnesshealth101.com, “The term "strength training" can be used to broadly describe an exercise type that is designed to increase lean muscle tissue and improve muscular strength and endurance”. In other words, strength training is done to improve the muscles’ ability to move, lift or push. It is usually done by means of resistance type movements, but is definitely not limited to gym work, or heavy weights. Strength training can be done on the bike (heavy gear, slow cadence workouts), at your home (body weight type workouts), or obviously in gym. The importance of strength training for cyclists is that it allows us to train the whole body as well, and not only the legs. Core and stability can be vastly improved by means of strength training, resulting in an ability to sit upright for longer on the bike. Strength training therefore not only benefits us in terms of stronger legs, but also contributes to other parts of our preparation.
Once we have started to develop our bodies for training, and we start to get stronger because of a strength training component in our plan, we can now start applying the benefits. We do this through power workouts, and increasing the intensity. Power is, according to the website www.topendsports.com, “Sports Definition: the ability to exert a maximal force in as short a time as possible, as in accelerating, jumping and throwing implements. While strength is the maximal force you can apply against a load, power is proportional to the speed at which you can apply this maximal force.” So in simpler terms, power is the ability to apply the strength you have developed. Power= force x speed. Where a typically strength workout would focus on form, weight and increasing load, a typical power workout would focus on repeats, max reps and so on. Power workouts give our bodies the ability to work at a very high rate, and the ability to repeat those hard efforts. If you are interested in a very scientific approach, you could have yourself tested to get values for anaerobic threshold, lactate and max power. These values are expressed in terms of watts produced at a certain heart rate, and how much lactate acid your body produces at this point. One can then train and measure against these values over time.
The next phase of training is intensity, or threshold. This is a very hard phase of training, and we do not spend a lot of time in this phase due to the fact that is it so hard and it takes longer to recover from it (remember the importance of endurance phase?). Intensity training focus on very hard efforts. This could be power intervals (repeated max efforts, hill repeats, pyramid intervals and the like), and it could be speed intervals (max cadence sets, spin ups and so on). When properly done, intensity sessions “sharpens the blade”. It really intensifies your training, and the effect is that you push very hard, recover, and push again. It helps you not only to survive big hills, but actually to be able to attack them and maintain a decent pace up and over the hills. The type of intensity training you do must also be aligned with your type of race. Some races require short, hard efforts, and some require longer efforts. Try to replicate what you need in the race with your training. Another advantage of intensity training is that it gives us feedback about our bodies, and we can use that feedback very effectively in the race. If, for example you are used to do a workout of 5 x 2 min max effort, with 1 min rest between efforts, you know that you can sustain that. So in your race, you know that you can attack, or counter attack with 5 x 2 min efforts with short rest between. You know how hard you can push your body.
Recovery is often overlooked as a phase of training. Yet, it only makes sense that if you push your body, it needs time to recover and adapt to a stronger level. Recovery therefore is just as important as any phase of training, if not the most important one. Many top athletes struggle reaching their very top form, or they suffer from constant illness. This can often be ascribed to under recovery. Their bodies are so beaten up and tired, that they seldom recover and adapt to a stronger state. Many accounts of athletes making a strong comeback after sickness or absence site long periods of recovery as the reason, or a restructured training plan providing for more rest. Recovery fits into weekly training sessions, but also in longer periods. One would typically have 3 weeks of building up, or increasing training, and the 4th week will be a recovery week. Training frequency and intensity remain the same, but the weekly hours will be greatly reduced.
Putting it all together in a training plan is not simple. Start with how many hours per week you have available for training, and when your most important races will take place. Remember to add other events as well, so that you do not focus on one event only. As a (very) general guideline, approximately 60% to 80% of your available training time should be allocated to Endurance training. As discussed above, start adding Strength training after a few weeks of Endurance training. Remember to provide ample time for recovery. On a weekly basis, that should be at least 2 to 3 days recovery (active or passive recovery) in the first few weeks of training. Later on you could have 1 or 2 days recovery. Plan your weeks so that you have 3 of progression (longer, heavier or more intense), and then 1 week recovery. During this week, you maintain the frequency (how many times you train per week), but reduce the total weekly hours by 50%. Plan your training so that the intensity phase is closest to your target event.
When deciding how long you should spend in a certain phase, think where your biggest improvement should be. You should spend most of your training time in a phase or phases that would address that situation. Some people want to lose weight and “get fit”. In that case, you need to get a good endurance base (4 to 5 rides a week, increasing in duration every week), and then soon start doing strength training. You want to then keep strength training part of your plan for a longer period of time, at least 2 months. If you are an experienced cyclist and your area of improvement is more complicated, consult with a coach or another professional in the sports industry. You may be at risk of injury due to over extending yourself too soon.
Progression is an important part of your training plan. Every week and month should build on the previous week in terms of hours or intensity. At the same time, one should monitor or record your own progress. Too much too soon could lead to injuries. A general guideline is to use resting heart rate as an indicator of recovery and general health.
Understanding training phases, and how it fits into our training plan, helps us to train with purpose. We know how each phase fits into the bigger picture, and how it ultimately helps us have better race results.
*Please note that the above article is written only as a guideline and it is based on many assumptions. Athletes differ in terms of so many aspects that it is difficult to write an article that is 100% applicable to all athletes out there. For this reason, this article could stand to be corrected in some instances. The purpose of the article is to provide basic insight into training phases. It is not a scientific document, and it is not intended to be used as a reference at all. For more specific information, or a training plan developed for you, please feel free to contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org. Article written by Marcel van der Poll, UCI Level 2 Coach.