By Chris Carmichael, Founder and Head Coach CTS
The middle of spring can be a tricky time for cyclists. Early-season events are drawing to a close and the summer racing season is on the horizon. As a result, it’s time to shift from building fitness for the season to optimizing performance for specific events. Here’s how to change your training so you’re ready to achieve your goals.
Annual Periodization Plan
Goal-oriented training for cycling typically follows periodization plan that focuses on the least event-specific areas of fitness first, and then progressively narrows the focus to the most event-specific areas. There are multiple ways to arrange training periods, based on the weekly training hours available to an athlete, their experience level, and the type and number of events they are preparing for.
The most basic version of a periodization plan is an annual plan that builds to one period of peak performance. Such a plan commonly starts with a long period of base aerobic training. At CTS we sometimes refer to this as the Foundation Period, and it can last 2-4 months. Training intensity is kept generally low (Zone 2, Endurance Miles) for athletes who have 8-10+ hours/week to train. Moderate-intensity aerobic intervals are included to increase training workload for Time-Crunched Cyclists (≤ 8 hours/week for training).
The build phase – or Preparation Period – follows and entails an increase in intensity. This typically includes long intervals at Tempo, SweetSpot, and Functional Threshold Power. This can be thought of as the time to stack the basic physiological building blocks that will be used to create race-specific power. Building a big aerobic engine requires repetition by way of training blocks featuring a high volume of time-at-intensity. This doesn’t leave a lot of time or energy for race-specific workouts, so training races and low-priority competitions are included to address specificity.
The Specialization Period then sharpens generalized fitness and focuses training to meet the specific demands of a goal event(s). This is when that big aerobic engine gets tuned for peak performance. It is important to remember that tuning means losing performance in some areas to gain it in others. As a result, some of the less event-specific components of your fitness may fade. For instance, if you are tuning your training for criterium racing, your aerobic endurance may diminish a bit when you focus your training on short, high-intensity intervals.
Some periodization plans separate out the Peak or Race Period from the Specialization Period. Others include peaking, tapering, and performance at goal events in the Specialization Period. Regardless, you can only maintain peak fitness for a limited time. After goal events are completed, athletes take a Transition Period, a time of reduced training load and unstructured training to recover and prepare for the next season.
How to Shift from Preparation to Specialization Training
To be successful, the shift from Preparation to Specialization training needs to be noticeable and significant. Athletes sometimes make the mistake of taking half-steps instead of committing to the Specialization Period. This is “bird in the hand” thinking, in that they don’t want to give up any of their current, albeit generalized, fitness in pursuit of more specific gains. Unfortunately, for many bike racers and cyclists looking for speed, this thinking limits their opportunity to develop speed, repeatability, and the power to win. To achieve your goals and reach new heights of performance, take the following steps as you shift from Preparation to Specialization:
Identify Race-Specific Demands/Intensities
You must know the demands of your goal event to address those demands in your training. In a general sense, this is relatively simple. For instance, short, high intensity events like criteriums, short-track and cross-country mountain bike races, and even short road races, feature repeated short maximum-intensity efforts separated by limited recovery.
To tailor the general principles of event demands to your personal training, you must go a step further. With a coach or through examining your own data, you want to determine durations and power outputs for efforts that mean the difference between staying in the peloton and getting dropped, maintaining position or losing ground, or creating potentially race-winning selections. These power outputs and durations will be specific to the length of your events, the category you’re racing in, the technical aspects of the course.
Reduce Duration as Intensity Increases
Particularly for athletes focusing on improving speed and repeatability, the move to the Specialization Period will mean more short, maximum intensity intervals and fewer long, sustainable intervals. When looking at training data, Normalized Power for individual workouts may increase, but daily Training Stress Score may decrease.