Training Priorities for Better Cycling Performance
Toolbox: It’s easy to become enamoured with the latest piece of training advice, or the new gadget adorning your team-mates machine, but which aspects of your cycling training are the most important according to the evidence? Many things have changed over the years.
Alejandro Valverde: A better rider now than 17 years ago?
I’ve been contributing to PEZ for well over 14 years. During that time I’ve transitioned from being a racer to a writer, but anyone who has followed my journey will know that I’ve always been a big fan of science, technology and innovation. Searching for new opportunities to realise more of my potential, and subsequently helping others to achieve more of theirs, is an enduring passion.
This passion has led me to explore many avenues. Long-time readers may remember my first experience of ‘bike-fitting’ in 2005. I was also an early adopter of power-based training. I felt like all my Christmases came at once when power meters became more affordable in the early 2000s.
I’ve explored a wide range of nutritional strategies, training methodologies and periodization techniques, but I’ve noted an interesting trend develop over the years, both in myself and other coaches I work with. The more we know, the more we realise we don’t know. The more complexity we discover, the more we recognise the importance of doing simple things, consistently well.
The Hype Cycle
The American research firm, Gartner, created a graphical representation of the five phases which typically characterise the emergence and subsequent maturation of new technologies. Futurist Roy Amara famously proclaimed that “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.” In the context of cycling, this could apply equally to the latest training ‘fads’ as to the equipment and devices we use.
In this vein, I was inspired by a presentation from one of sports science’s most highly respected researchers, Professor Stephen Seiler. A significant proportion of Stephen’s work has explored the training of endurance athletes (1). In particular, his investigations into the optimal distribution of training intensity make him a leading voice in the field of ‘polarised training’.
Stephen’s presentation was entitled the ‘Hierarchy of Endurance Training Needs’ (2). He explored the following question; based on the strength of the available evidence, and the effect, how should endurance athletes prioritise the types of training they engage in? Before presenting this hierarchy, he made a compelling point. Whatever type of training you do, the athlete’s first priority should be to stay healthy.
Barry Fudge, British Athletics’ Head of Endurance, suggests that Elite British runners lose 49 days of training per year due to injury, on average. Forget the nuances of periodisation for a moment. Imagine the benefit of an additional 49 days of quality training, or even 49 days of effective rest and recovery, instead of rehabilitation from injury. This is an area I’ve written about before, where I cited a study that followed a group of Australian track and field athletes over 5 years. The study concluded that training availability – simply completing the prescribed training sessions – was the major determinant of an athlete’s chance of success or failure. Once again, in our pursuit of optimisation, it’s easy to forget the basics.
What Type of Training Should I be Doing?
“Get to the point. What type of training should I be doing!” I hear you cry. Stephen provided a summary in a helpful graphic, reproduced below.
Many amateur cyclists have sought my advice to help them overcome plateaus in their performance. They are puzzled about why their progression has stalled, and they have often looked in all kinds of places to find an ‘edge’.
It’s easy to become enamoured with the training approaches taken by professional cyclists. It’s fun to talk about tapering, think about periodising our season for a big goal, mull over which day we should be doing intervals on, obsess over sweet-spot workouts and worry about our tapers.
However, even for world-class athletes, and likely more so for amateurs, it’s getting the basics right that is most important.
Have a look at Seiler’s pyramid. You may be surprised to find that many popular approaches have relatively little robust evidence to support them. Race-pace training: not very important unless the fundamentals are in place. Taper? Probably not worth thinking about. Fasted rides? Likely no point, unless you’ve already maxed out your training volume and have enough time to recover. Even periodization, the endurance coach favourite, is likely over-rated.
Volume & Frequency
How much are you riding? How frequently are you riding? Are structured interval sessions, with efforts above 87% of your peak heart rate (or the equivalent power), a regular part of your programme? Are you spending sufficient amounts of time at low-intensity (less than 78% peak heart rate) and minimising time in moderate intensity ‘no-man’s land’?
In terms of the distribution of these intensities, studies suggest that a ‘polarised’ approach, with up to 80% of your riding time spent in ‘Zone 1’, minimal amounts of time in ‘Zone 2’, and 10-15% of your training time in Zone 3, may be the most effective approach, even for well-trained, amateur cyclists: a mean age of 37, training 7-8 hours per week (1).
For many amateur riders, the principal limitations are the duration, frequency of their rides, and how well they can recover. Seiler’s hierarchy is a great summary, and it makes an important point.
As coaches and athletes it’s all too easy to get caught up in the hype of new approaches. I’m excited about developments in altitude training research. I’m intrigued by controlled carbohydrate sessions. Similarly, for time-poor cyclists, it’s tempting to look for short-cuts and ‘hacks’ to find improvement; trying to figure out your fast friend’s new approach from their Strava rides, or perhaps you justify a new bike purchase as the means to improve.
Enjoy the Ride
However, if optimal performance is your goal, and you truly want to explore the limits of your potential, consider your cycling training priorities. Ensure you’re riding frequently, progressively increase your capacity to ride further and harder, and it’s very likely you will improve. If you’ve maxed out your capacity for training and rest, then I encourage you to try to relax and make sure you’re enjoying the ride!
1. Seiler, S. (Retrieved 11/06/2017) ResearchGate profile; https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Stephen_Seiler
2. Seiler, S. (Retrieved 11/06/2017) Hierarchy of Endurance Training Needs; https://www.researchgate.net/publication/310725768_Seiler%27s_Hierarchy_of_Endurance_Training_Needs
3. Craig, M.N. et al. (2013) Six weeks of a polarized training-intensity distribution leads to greater physiological and performance adaptations than a threshold model in trained cyclists. Journal of Applied Physiology. 114 p. 461–471
James Hewitt is Sports Scientist and Performance Coach with HINTSA Performance based in Geneva, Switzerland. In a previous life he was an Elite racer but now focusses on avoiding caffeine overdose and helping other people achieve their goals. You can contact James through twitter @jamesphewitt and find out more at his website www.jameshewitt.net