Toolbox: Avoiding Common Training Plan Mistakes
November brings early sunsets, cold nights, lots of leaf blowing, and, for most cyclists in the northern hemisphere, the time to focus on their annual plan. Planning is excellent and critical to success, but make sure you avoid some common training plan mistakes that can send you off the rails.
Training plan for Trek-Segafredo in Australia
A lot of cyclists try to leverage the high volume of information and how-tos on the Internet to build their own training plan. It seems easy enough, right? Grab a calendar or readily available planner, set some goals, start filling in the details, and knock it out.
Well, as someone who does a lot of consulting sessions with athletes, I have noticed in the last few years a significant uptick in consulting sessions with people who have reached a certain point in executing their homemade plan but aren’t getting the results they want. While I’m glad to help athletes in that situation, you don’t need to find yourself there. I’m going to share some of the common planning mistakes I see.
Plan Too Long
In my observation, this is the most common mistake. As cyclists, we are part “junkyard dog,” and we tend to associate more work with more gain. This concept has its place, of course, and can support some great improvements, but it’s often taken to the extreme and produces negative effects. You typically won’t need more than 20-24 weeks of structured training to compete successfully in your “A” event or season, depending on your training maturity. I frequently see people planning structured training for 30+ weeks in preparation for events and/or a season, and this creates high chronic fatigue, both physically and mentally.
Plan tip: To determine when to begin your structured training, count back from your main event date 20 weeks if you’ve been training seriously for 3 or more years, and 24 weeks if you’ve been training seriously for 1-3 years. Does this mean you should be lying on the couch and relaxing before your plan kicks off? No. Do some cross training, maintain aerobic fitness with unstructured aerobic riding, or try other aerobic sports and strength training (functional and/or strength resistance).
Lack of Focus on Consistency and Rhythm
In the pursuit of building the ultimate training plan, it’s easy to focus on the latest and greatest training modality or technique. In my observation, this often comes at the price of training consistency, which to me is one of the most important parts of a plan. To maximize adaptation, your body wants a blend of consistency in the rhythm of training. You will get better results with simple but well-scheduled workouts than with constantly trying the newest breakthrough workout.
Plan tip: Think of consistency as both an acute and a chronic rhythm. The acute rhythm is a training cycle that’s typically four weeks, containing three weeks of training and one week of rest. It’s extremely important that you build a certain amount of consistency into these cycles. How? Start with your workout frequency; you’re better off training four to six days a week than doing one weekday workout and cramming everything into the weekend. Try to develop a schedule that features at least four days of similar workouts.
Chronic consistency can be a little tricky to explain. You want your acute training cycles to focus on a specific type of training, but once you start putting those cycles in order and forming macrocycles, you want to change each cycle in a progressive format, building on the system focus.
No Planned Test or Milestones
Why do you want an annual training plan? To get results, of course! Yet I see a lot of plans without planned testing time points. In my training plans, I not only schedule tests every four to six weeks (depending on the plan), but I also place specific milestones or target outcomes of those tests right in the plan. What’s a milestone? A milestone is a tracked data point that allows me to confirm I am progressing toward my plan goals.
Plan tip: Once the goal is stated and the plan is written, drop in milestones. Let’s say you’re an athlete training with power and want to win your state championship road race. To accomplish this, you’ve determined that you’ll need to raise your functional threshold power (FTP) to 335 watts. To find your starting FTP, test a few days before you start your plan. Let’s say your starting FTP is 295. Now plot a target for each test in your training plan as you move toward your big events. For example, you could set a goal of a flat five-watt increase per training cycle, or maybe you expect some cycles to gain more than others. Record these targets in your plan as your milestones.
Milestones are motivational and informative about your progress. Power is an easy milestone, but what if you don’t train with power? Power meters weren’t around back in my race days, and I used the simplest test out there: I had a marked course of 52 miles that I rode as hard as i could and recorded my time. I knew I needed to do the course in under 2:15 to be fit enough to race well. My time for that course was my milestone. Your milestones will hold you accountable to your plan and also notify you if your plan needs to be tweaked.
Build Period is too Long
In the classic language of linear periodization, the period before we race is typically called the build period, and it features a litany of higher-intensity intervals. As I review annual plans, I constantly see this period being too long, which has significant negative impact. Once you start intensity training, most of the gains occur in three to five weeks; after that you’re doing a lot of work and generating a lot of physical and mental fatigue for little gain in performance. On top of that, the “half life” of exercise is about eight weeks (in other words, the effect of the exercise you do today lasts about eight weeks), so there is no reason your build period should ever be longer than eight weeks.
Plan tip: Depending on how you schedule your training cycles, try shortening your build phase to three to five weeks total and focus on high-quality interval work during this phase. This suggestion might make you nervous, but it can really help you peak better and achieve better results.
I hope these tips help as you build your plan. I’ll leave you with one final piece of advice: consider hiring a good coach or starting with a premade plan built by a qualified coach.
Why? Expertise matters. Timing, rhythm, progression, and specificity are crucial to success in achieving your goals. Most people try to do it on their own for a year or two, then hire a coach or buy a plan, but if you think about it, that approach is backward. You’ll save a lot of time, trial, and error by working with a coach for a few years and then, if you’re comfortable with it, writing your own plans.
Tim Cusick is the TrainingPeaks WKO4 Product Development Leader, specializing in data analytics and performance metrics for endurance athletes. In addition to his role with TrainingPeaks, Tim is also Head Coach at Velocious Cycling Adventures. You can reach Tim for comments at [email protected] . To learn more about TrainingPeaks and WKO4 visit us at TrainingPeaks.com.