Toolbox: Smashing the Fitness Plateau
The New Year often brings new resolutions. For most cyclists, at least one of those resolutions involves reaching higher levels of performance than we’ve ever achieved before. This is easier said than done, but it is possible to push through the cycling fitness plateau to achieve this lofty resolution.
The key is to realize and accept that we’ll need to make some sacrifice and some change. If you are already training smart (or at least reasonably so), you’re ready for three areas of change that will help you smash your fitness and performance plateau.
Increase volume more than 20%
This is the hardest thing for most of us to accomplish because life tends to limit our time to train, but the investment will yield high returns. The key is to increase the volume by enough to really make a difference, and 20% is a great target. It sounds like a lot of time (and it is), but let’s break it down a little. A typical recreational rider, gran fondo participant, or category racer trains about 10-12 hours a week, which means that a 20% increase for these riders means training for roughly 12-14.5 hours a week. Most of us can actually find an extra 2-2.5 hours if we really want to.
It’s important to use the time well. I don’t recommend adding 15 minutes to every workout; to maximize your gains, add an hour to just two workouts each week.
Here are a few tips for making it count:
• Ride to your group ride. I know, this means you might be a little more tired for the ride itself, but leaving the house early and riding down is a great way to pick up time, because most of us can get up a little earlier. If you don’t have the time to ride home afterward, make a deal with someone to drive you home. This is an easy way to add an hour of ride time each week.
• Pull a double. Pick one day a week to ride the trainer early in the morning for an hour, then complete your regular workout later in the day. This is another way to gain time simply by getting up a little earlier.
Increase time at threshold (or just below) by 25%
Threshold power is the single biggest contributor to cycling performance success. Don’t get me wrong; you still need to be able to power climb, surge and sprint to the finish, but building your threshold will give you the biggest possible bang for your buck. It’s also a great focus for the winter season.
Again, lets break down the numbers. Most analytical software programs can show “time in zone” analysis for power or heart rate. Take a look at your time in zone. If you’re an average recreational cyclist, I bet it’ll be in the 10% range (if you group ride a lot, it may be a tad higher). Using the 10-12 hour total training average, you’re probably working in your threshold training zone about 1-1.5 hours a week. To increase that percentage by 25%, you’ll need to move your time in zone up to 1.25-2 hours.
To get the best results, this extra time at threshold needs to be consecutive (accomplished as extended intervals). Here are some ways to get there:
• Add more sweet spot training (SST) in December, January, and possibly February. Sweet spot means extended intervals ranging from 15-60 minutes of riding at about 90% of your threshold (88-93%, to be specific). SST gives us most of the benefits of pure threshold work with a lot less fatigue, so we can do more in a week or month. The classic target is 2 x 20-minute intervals, but you can expand that to be 3 x 15 minutes, 2 x 25 minutes, and 4 x 15 minutes (or 3 x 20 minutes). An hour of SST in a single workout is a good goal for most recreational cyclists, and you can complete up to four of this type of workouts each week.
• Plan your progressive workouts. It surprises me how many people do not have a training plan. Ad hoc training is fine if you’re just getting in some exercise, but if you really want to improve, you’ll need to make your workouts progressively harder; this will keep your body overreaching and adapting. Plan your weekly SST load to give yourself a target.
• Progress to threshold work. In your mid to late base training, start building your time at true threshold (95-105% of your tested threshold). And then start the process over!
Take a look at the chart above as an example of increasing time in SST zones. This athlete made a significant increase, resulting in a 30-watt improvement in threshold from the same period the year before.
Rest 10% more
I know there might seem to be a certain hypocrisy here, but let me explain. Resting can be a challenge for a lot of recreational cyclists. If this is going to be your breakthrough year, you need to train hard and rest hard. We’ve already covered the train hard part; now let’s focus on the rest.
Here are some tips:
• Sleep 10% more. One of the simplest ways to pick up rest is just going to bed a little earlier. Set a target to get to bed 15-30 minutes earlier each night to supercharge your rest.
• Change your Monday or Friday. These two days re typical rest days for many cyclists, but we tend to fill them with high-stress activities. Pick one of the two and make it a no-stress rest day. Change your life schedule, if you can, to focus this day on lowering your stress and recovering.
• Stop going too hard. Every pro cyclist will tell you to train hard when you’re going hard and train easy when you’re going easy. Too many cyclists get caught between, however, particularly if they’re group riding. On your hard training days give it your max effort, but for endurance training or group rides, slow down 10% and enjoy it more.
Breaking through a plateau is not easy. It takes some sacrifice. Use these tips to make 2016 your best season ever, and let us know how it goes!
About Tim Cusick
Tim Cusick is a USA Cycling Coach and Master Coach with Peaks Coaching Group. Tim has been coaching for over 10 years, focusing on training and racing with power data. You can reach Tim for comments at [email protected] , and check out Tim and the entire Peaks Coaching Group for more information on coaching services, camps, and products.
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