By Chris Carmichael Founder and Head Coach of CTS

All right, you’ve crossed the finish line at one of your big goal events for the year. Maybe it was the Leadville 100 or Steamboat Gravel last weekend. Maybe it was one of the Belgian Waffle Rides, or Gravel Worlds, or maybe it’s still to come, like Rebecca’s Private Idaho (September 5). Almost as soon as riders wipe the sweat and grime off their faces, they’re asking about how they can go faster at the same event next year. This is part of the appeal for events that feature the same course year after year. No matter where you finished in the standings, you can always return and race the course to better your personal performance. So, if you have roughly 12 months from this year’s finish to next year’s start, here’s what you can do to go faster next time.

Step 1: Mental and Physical Recovery

Even if you are fired up to beat this year’s finish time, your body and brain need a break after months of regimented training and heightened focus. And, of course, there’s the fact that goal events like those mentioned above leave you physically exhausted and beat up. I typically recommend very light activity during the two weeks following major goal events, unless an athlete has subsequent events closely following the goal event. If SBT GRVL, for instance, was your big event for the year, then short and easy recovery rides for 2 weeks is a good way to physically recover and achieve a mental break. Use this time to catch up on some of the work, family, and relationship priorities you put on the back burner as you focused on your event.

Step 2: Order a new bike if you plan on getting one

A new bike is not going to be the key to going faster next time, but considering supply chain issues in the cycling industry, if you want a new bike for any reason, order it now. If possible, keep your current bike until you have the new one in hand. One challenge some riders had this year was that they sold their mountain or gravel bike when they ordered a new one, and then shipping delays left them without a bike and scrambling to find a loaner or substitute so they could keep training. The same goes for major equipment upgrades, like a new suspension fork, new wheelset, or a new component group. Pre-COVID it wasn’t necessary to think so far ahead for equipment needs, but these days it’s wise to have a set of cycling consumables (cassette, chain, brake pads, cleats, maybe even helmet, shoes, and apparel) on hand so you’re not at the mercy of back-orders.

Step 3: Maintain fitness with unstructured training

After taking it easy for about two weeks, it’s time to start training again. At this point, though, the primary goal is to maintain the fitness you worked so hard to gain. You want to avoid substantial detraining because fitness is easier to lose than it is to gain. Fortunately, sports science is on your side this time; reducing your training workload by up to 50% for several weeks will only result in a loss of 5-10% of your current fitness level. I typically recommend 3-4 weeks of unstructured rides. Unstructured doesn’t mean optional, though. Consistency is still crucial; you can just take a break from structured interval workouts.

For context, reducing workload by 70% results in a 15-20% loss of fitness, which is what we typically see in athletes who take a prolonged break in the fall. While it’s not the end of the world, regaining 20% of your fitness can take months, and the total timeline to lose and then regain that fitness can span 4-5 months. It’s hard to make significant improvement from year to year if you spend a third of the year just losing fitness and getting back to where you started.

Step 4: Figure out your Performance Opportunities

While you’re doing those unstructured rides, think about where you can gain the time you’re looking for in next year’s event. These are your Performance Opportunities. You can go faster on the big climb by improving your sustainable power at lactate threshold and – perhaps more important – your time to exhaustion at that intensity. You can work on your anaerobic capacity to stay on the gas longer to have a better start.  Also, look into opportunities to upgrade your starting position (for some events you can earn preferential start corral positions through results in other races, volunteer work, or donations to non-profits). If you struggled to stay in a strong group on the flat or windy sections, hone your group riding skills. And if you wasted a bunch of time in aid stations, create a better plan for getting in and out of stations faster. CTS supported nearly 100 athletes last weekend between the Leadville 100 MTB and SBT GRVL events in Colorado, and it was great to see athletes executing good aid station efficiency skills throughout the weekend.

Step 5: Start 2022 at a higher Chronic Training Load than you started 2021.

This is a generalized recommendation that might not be appropriate for every athlete, but a goal you could set for the rest of 2021 is to keep your Chronic Training Load (CTL) from dropping below your starting point from the beginning of the year. CTL doesn’t address specificity (it doesn’t indicate the type of training you’ve been doing, just the average Training Stress Score from the previous 42 days). Starting January 2022 at a higher CTL than January 2021 means you have the capacity to handle a higher training workload right from the beginning of the year. That means you have the opportunity to build to higher peak fitness later in the year.

Obviously, this is a very simplistic way of evaluating whether you are “better than last January”. A more nuanced goal for the end of the year would be to target improvements in specific aspects of your aerobic or anaerobic performance, which in some cases can result in a reduction in CTL but an increase in a more event-specific component of fitness. But as a more general recommendation, retaining or increasing CTL gives athletes a more specific goal than “avoid detraining”.

NOTE: Keeping your fitness is important for athletes over 40, and really important for Grand Masters cyclists over 60. Grand Masters are fighting normal consequences of aging that reduce VO2 max and make retaining or building new muscle mass more difficult, among other changes. You can improve fitness and go faster next year because there is still room between where you are now and your maximum potential (even as that potential gradually declines). But you have some challenges young athletes can overcome more easily, so do yourself a favor and stay on it!

Step 6: Build other events into your 2022 training calendar

Poorer-than-expected 2021 race performance is one of the consequences we’re noticing from the cancelled 2020 competition season. At the pro cycling level, performance (as measured by race speeds during major one-day races and Grand Tours) doesn’t seem to have dropped, but in amateur cycling, triathlon, and ultrarunning competitions we’re noticing that the lack of racing was more detrimental to year-over-year performance than we anticipated. Some athletes did a lot more training, but the racing intensity they missed out on made a difference. With that in mind, it’s important to schedule preparation or B- and C-races into your 2022 training calendar so you can achieve those all-important fitness bumps. They are also opportunities to practice those skills or tactics you identified as Performance Opportunities.

On top of these 6 steps you obviously need a solid training plan for 2022. As a coach I’m going to naturally recommend working with a professional coach if you want to improve your event performance from 2021 to 2022. I’ll go a step further and recommend you start working with a coach now; waiting until you know you have an entry means a significantly shorter training runway and even if you don’t get into your goal event you’ll be able to pivot to another event more easily.

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