What's Cool In Road Cycling

The Fast Group Training Ride: Hammer For Performance

Toolbox: Summer season is in full swing, and the local fast group training rides are moving into high speed. What’s the best way to approach these local hammer sessions, both for training and for performance?

Solo Training for Greg Van Avermaet

Over the past couple of years, I have noticed a definitive pattern emerging of annual or seasonal training that I thought would make for some interesting analysis. I call it the “fast group ride” pattern, and it’s defined by two clear stages: a winter/spring base stage and a summer perform stage. The stages are defined by their training approach. The well-disciplined, structured winter training program focuses on the core principles of training, such as progression and specificity, and then once the days get longer and the local fast group rides get rolling, the work transitions into a less-structured focus on group rides. Let’s look a little deeper at each phase.

Structured Winter Base and Build
With an increased access to coaching, training plans, and quality training information, more and more riders use the winter season to execute structured training programs, and online riding platforms like Zwift have made this even easier. These programs typically contain 3–5 days of structured training rides that follow a general periodized approach. There are variations such as HIIT or polarized, but the workout process is structured, ranging from targeted endurance work to highly specific intervals.

Summer Perform
This is the stage that riders take their hard-earned based fitness and throw down at the local group rides. Doing well in the local group rides is a big performance goal for many of us. Sure, people still strap on a number to race or sign up for that bucket list event, but showing up at the local ride and throwing it down with our buddies is, well, just plain fun. It’s common for riders to do 2-4 group rides a week.

So how does each phase affect your training? And what are the pros and cons of both the structured and unstructured format?

Parkhotel Valkenburg Team group training in Spain

Structured Training
Structured training can be defined at two levels. At the high level, it is a training plan featuring both micro and macro cycles that schedules the rhythm and progression of training load and content, so the calendars are the structure. At the daily level, it refers to the idea that the workouts are structured, typically featuring endurance or interval work that is patterned into the calendar. There are typically 2-3 harder interval workouts and 2-3 endurance workouts per week, depending on the time and season.

Let’s review the pro and cons of the structured training system.

● Controlled progression – By structuring both the calendar and the workouts in a well-devised plan, the athlete can ensure adherence to the classic progression principle of exercise by manipulating both load and intensity.

● Targeted – You control the pattern and the content, so structured training allows you to specifically target the types of fitness or performance you want.

● Metabolic Response – The bulk of training improvement comes from the fact that the exercise stimulus results in a specific metabolic response (an oversimplification, but true), which typically results in a better aerobic system response when compared to unstructured (more on that later).

● Motivation – For most of us, the process gets old pretty quickly. Most riders have the mental discipline to follow a plan for about 8-12 weeks before a bit of process stagnation sets in.

● Training Stagnation – Sometimes training plans move a little too slowly in their progression, which can lead to training stagnation and a plateau of performance

Unstructured Training
Unstructured training is defined by the way you want to ride today. This type of training is more about enjoying the moment and current motivation than about a specific response. Unstructured training typically features 2-4 group rides a week and some solo rides with easy endurance and/or hard surges. There is little specific pattern to the training outside of what day of the week the group ride is held.

CCC group training

● Variability – Unstructured training and group rides better mimic the real world of cycling, encouraging riders to mix up and vary the efforts.

● Speed – You get fast, at least for a while! The higher pace demands of group riding help improve speed via specific fitness.

● Fun and Motivating – This type of training is fun, and mixing it up with your local friends helps get you on the bike more frequently and riding harder than you might alone.

● Lacks Specificity – You are what you ride. The challenge of the group ride is that as the speeds pick up in the late spring and you ride harder, you don’t control the output; when the group goes hard, you go hard. Now, the hidden benefit here is that you get faster at first (4-8 weeks into faster group rides) as you rev up your anaerobic system and specifically adapt to the demands of the group ride, but at the cost of losing your aerobic fitness and, at some point, needing to rebuild it (see structured training).

● Aerobic Fitness Decline – The biggest con of long-term unstructured training/fast group rides is that you switch your energy load/fuel source from more aerobic to more anaerobic, shifting the fuel demand from fats to carbs. Some of this is good, but over time, it leads to a reduction in aerobic capability, often seen as a decreasing threshold and/or stamina.

Which training method would I recommend? Well, for the average rider, I recommend both. I’m a big fan of building group rides into your training strategy to get the best of both worlds. How? I’ll give you a few of my rules of blending.

Early Winter/Structured Training
Most winter training programs are around 12 weeks long. I would not add faster group rides (or something like online racing) for the first 6-8 weeks, but would instead focus on building aerobic base through endurance, tempo, and sweet spot training.

Late Winter/Structured Training
For the final 4-6 weeks of your winter training program, I recommend adding up to one group ride or online race per week, but no more. This will help bring up your speed and prepare you for the transition to spring groups rides or unstructured training.

Once spring comes along and you start joining the group rides, here are a few rules specifically for that time period.

● Limit the hard group rides to twice a week, and try to do them after a rest day. For the two fast rides, get after it! Make sure your hard days are hard.

● Incorporate one longer, disciplined endurance ride each week. This ride should be in the low endurance zone with steady pacing.

The key thing to remember is to keep it fun!

Women’s World champion Anna Van der Breggen training on her own

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