Around this time of year many cyclists start thinking about the goals for their season - attacking their longest sportive yet, entering a road race, riding a set distance in a certain time or reaching a new level of fitness.
Having goals is fantastic – but like many things in life, if you really want to achieve them, you need a plan.
This is where it sometimes gets a little hazy - we buy a calendar, plot the key events in, step back and have absolutely no idea what we need to do to get from the present condition to that which is required to hit the target.
Thankfully, there’s someone here to help bring us out of the fuzzy haze of dates and goals, and give us a clear idea how the two should interact. We spoke to Kerry Bircher, Head Coach at women's only coaching company Revolution Cycling to gather her advice on how to actually go about building up a training plan that will work…
Set Performance Centered Targets
Start at the beginning – Kerry explains: “The first thing you need to do is look at your goals. They need to be tangible, with time scales. If you don’t have a time scale, you can’t plan for it.
“Your goals should be things you can control. For example, if you say: ‘I want to win a race’ – you can’t control that, as you don’t know how else will be there. Instead, work to goals such as ‘ride 100 miles’, ‘ride a ten mile time trial in 25 minutes’."
Once you’ve got your long-term goal sorted, you can plan in markers – Kerry says: “Within the big performance goals, you can then add short and medium term goals. Such as 'by end of the year I want to ride ten miles in 25 minutes, so by July I want to do it in 26 minutes'. Or 'I want to ride 100 miles by the end of the year, so by May I should get up to 50, and by July I should get to 80 miles.'"
Create an annual plan around work, events and holidays
Most of us are quite good at setting goals – it's working out a game plan for achieving them that can be tough.
Kerry advocates using a year long outline: “I find what works is to have an annual plan - with peaks and troughs – what we call periodization. I start with a grid of 52 weeks, then first plan in any holidays, work commitments, where the client knows there won’t be time to train. For example, an accountant might be really busy in April at the end of the tax year, a parent might be busy over school holidays. I’d put in recovery weeks over these periods so they’re already planned for."
At this point, you’d also plan in your key events, and allow time to taper (take it easy) before them if necessary – for example for your number one goal event you might want an easy week beforehand, for a local race you’re using as training, you may want just one or two easier days.
Devise the focus at each time of year
Now you’ve got your key events and life commitments into a calendar – it's time to work out what to focus on and when.
This will depend upon your goals – but Kerry gives us a clear strategy for racers, and one for sportive riders as well as advice for beginners.
“For road racers, or time trialists, the first thing you increase when starting a training plan is volume. Then you start layering in intensity and keeping the volume steady. Then when you’re nearing your goal, looking to peak, you might drop your volume and up the intensity. In practice, this might be doing long, endurance rides in winter, adding in some intervals and hill reps come spring, then during summer many racers just maintain condition by competing a few times a week [if you're racing once a month or every few weeks, perhaps schedule in a few hard rides with friends or interval sessions in each week]."
This has long been the traditional approach – but its not one size fits all: “People who are training for sportives are a different breed - it’s almost the reverse of what a road racer does. They do their long steady rides in the summer – so why do base training in the winter?! In the winter they’ve got the opportunity to work on top end speed – hill reps or fast cadence - and change things up a bit before building up the miles during their season."
Regardless of goals – the pattern can always be imagined in a graph form and should look the same: “If your volume is up, intensity is down, when volume goes down, intensity goes up."
And what about beginners, taking on their first season of cycling? “For a beginner, it’s always going to be about gradually building up the volume, forget about the intensity initially."
Create Four Week Blocks
So – you know what your key focus needs to be during each of the seasons - what next? It’s time to plan a focus for each individual week.
Coach Kerry says: “Once you’ve got an overall theme sorted, then you start planning training blocks. Some people work well with 4 weeks ‘building’, 1 week as a ‘recovery week’. I find it works best with most women to have a three week ‘build’, and a one week ‘recovery week’ - planning the recovery week at a time when their monthly cycle makes them feel a bit off. For example a few days before their period, or over the first couple of days of their period – whenever they’re the most affected."
“Then you build the training up towards each rest week – the first two weeks will be moderate, then the third week will be an ‘overload’ week where you do the most in terms of volume or intensity - never try in increase both together. That way you really look forward to your recovery week."
And what happens then, total rest? No: “The recovery is relative to how much you're doing – but should be a drop in volume of about 30 percent."
Plan individual sessions
Once you know what the focus is of each block, when the load weeks are and when recovery comes, you can look to assign individual sessions that meet objectives. Make sure your objectives and sessions line up with your goals: “If you want to ride a hilly sportive or race, make sure you’re riding hills, if you want to win a sprint on the track, be practicing those short hard efforts."
Think off the bike
When planning your training, don’t think just about riding your bike – it’s important to keep up with a little conditioning and weight bearing exercise - Kerry says: “Traditionally we’d do a bit more weight training, core work or yoga over winter when muscle soreness won’t get in the way of events. For men, I’d reduce that a lot come summer, and I’d still reduce it for women, but I’d suggest keeping up with at least one load bearing session a week.
"That could be gym, weights, yoga, circuits, or even running. As women we struggle to maintain muscle mass, and cycling is non-weight bearing – it’s a case of use it or lose it and we risk things like osteoporosis in later life if we don’t keep it up. Just plan sensibly – don’t do Body Pump the day before a big event – do it the day after or three or four days before."
Prepare to adapt
Of course, we’re not all pro cyclists – sometimes life gets in the way, or we get ill. What do we do then? “It depends how much time you have had off – say you have a bad cold and had a week off, you would just go back a week in your plan, if it’s been two weeks go back two weeks. If its been several months, you go back to basics and build again."
Kerry advises us not to worry too much about time off – especially those with sportives or time trials in mind: “When you’ve had time off the bike, the thing that goes quickest is your top end speed – but aerobic conditioning stays with you for a long time. If you ride time trials or sportives you’re not going to lose that much. If you ride road races or track – be prepared to lose that top end sprint – but you will get it back relatively quickly so try not to worry."
Want to get started?
Kerry recommends a few resources to help you along the way:
Joe Friel – The Cyclist Training Bible here
Training Peaks – sign up for the free planning tool
Revolution Cycling offer everything from an overall ‘annual plan’ you can tailer using your own workouts, to session-by-session training schedules and 1-to-1 coaching – you can get in touch to discuss the options here.
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