planning and nailing your peak by hunter allen

Planning and Nailing your Peak

For Hunter Allen–nailing your peak–is the holy grail of training and racing. When done right–you’re flyin’. When missed–your competitors are.

By PCG Founder & Coach Hunter Allen

We all have the best intentions leading into the off-season, and at the end of a big season it’s important to have that down time to recharge the battery. It’s a critical part of making your next season even better; if you come into next season with only a 90% charge in the battery, you’ll never make that next leap in fitness. 

A critical thing to examine for next year is whether or not the training you did this year was effective. If you made the improvements you wanted to make, it was definitely effective, but if you didn’t make those gains, you need to change something for next year.

One of the easiest ways to make a change is to plan out your peak and how you’re going to get to that peak. If you don’t plan for success, you’re planning for failure.

How do you plan a season? What should you take into consideration when training with a power meter? There isn’t enough space here to go into much detail, but I have five key factors to consider in your planning for next year.

Power Training Success Factor 1: Lock in your “A” priority events.

Take time to look at your calendar and think about all the races or events you did this year, which ones you want to do next year, and which races are your top priorities. Make sure to pick more than one “A” priority event, and make sure there are plenty of races around the top “A” race so you’ll be able to take advantage of your peak fitness.

I once had an athlete who was determined to win a particular race on June 9, so I did everything to put him on peak form for this race. Unfortunately he flatted in the first five miles of the race and couldn’t get back to the peloton, and it ended up being a huge waste of the six months leading up to the race because there weren’t any other races within eight hours’ drive of his home for the next five weeks. He had the best form of his life and nowhere but the Tuesday night world championships to use it.

I recommend picking an event that suits your strengths and weaknesses well and that also has other events close to the same time frame in order to take advantage of your great form.

Once you determine when you want your peak, you can begin to work backward from there to establish the different macro cycles of training that you’ll be doing.

Macro cycles are the phases of training that you’ll focus on for four to six weeks at a time in order to build a well-rounded level of fitness in which you can create a peak of form. Using a power meter helps you determine the optimal training load you can handle each week throughout your build and rest cycles. I use training stress score (TSS) to establish those training loads and more accurately predict needed training loads each week, along with helping to determine length and intensity of rides.

Power Training Success Factor 2: Know your strengths and weaknesses.

Every six weeks you should be doing a power profile test, which tests your best efforts at 5 seconds, 1 minute, 5 minutes, and 20 minutes. Each of these relate to different energy systems in the body (neuromuscular power, anaerobic capacity, VO2Max, and functional threshold power [FTP], respectively) and will change at different times and in relation to each other.

When your fitness improves, it isn’t necessarily true that your sprint will improve with your FTP or that your anaerobic capacity will improve when your sprint does. This makes it critical that you test them on a regular basis so you’ll be able to clearly understand which physiological energy system is changing and by how much.

Clearly understanding your strengths and weaknesses determines the type of training that you will be doing within each micro cycle (two to three week periods) and will also help you determine if your weakness is a barrier to success. For example, if your goal for next year is the Tour of Gila, you’ll need to be able to climb very well, which means that you’ll want the highest FTP you can achieve and that sprinting really might not be that important to your overall success. However, let’s say that in your power profile testing you’ve learned that your sprint (5-second test) is the weakest of your energy systems and your FTP is the strongest (even though we always want it to improve). Should you then spend all of your time training your sprint? No, that probably won’t help you to win the Tour of Gila, and I would bet that even if you trained your sprint ten hours a week, you wouldn’t see much improvement, as it tends to be more of a genetic limiter than one that can be improved through training.

The bottom line is that you absolutely need to know for certain which are your true strengths and true weaknesses, and as long as you test these regularly, you’ll know when these systems change after each training macro cycle; this will help keep you on track for your peak and make you aware of your racing tactical limitations.

Power Training Success Factor 3: Understand your secondary limiters.

Along with understanding your gross strengths and weaknesses (whether or not you have a strong aerobic or anaerobic ability), you also need to understand how quickly you fatigue within these systems.

Some riders may have a tremendous initial “snap” when they sprint but fatigue quickly after a mere 100 meters of sprinting. Other riders might not have an incredible snap but are more “diesel engines” when it comes to closing gaps and chasing down breakaways, hardly seeming to fatigue at all, no matter the time or distance. The ability to “diesel” means you have more fatigue resistance than other riders and that fatigue resistance can be a part of each of your energy systems.

A sprinter like Robbie McEwen, who has an incredible snap, wins races by coming out of the draft with less than 100 meters to go since he has poor fatigue resistance, whereas a sprinter like Alessandro Petacchi needs to start his sprint from 250-300 meters out so he can take advantage of his strong fatigue resistance in the last 50m as others are fading. Robbie McEwen probably can do about 1800 watts for 5 seconds but then only holds 1000 for 10 seconds and then at 20 seconds is down to 850 watts, whereas Petacchi starts out with 1500 watts, fatigues to 1300 watts by 10 seconds, and still is cranking out 1100 watts at 20 seconds. Petacchi’s fatigue resistance will help him determine his sprint strategy and the types of training he needs to do in order to improve his snap.

The fatigue profiling test is similar to the power profile test but extends each time period on either side of the test periods. So for your sprint, make sure you test your 5 seconds, 10 seconds and 20 seconds, and for your anaerobic capacity test your 30 seconds, 1 minute, and 2 minutes. As you test your fatigue resistance at VO2Max, you should test your 3-minute, 5-minute and 8-minute ability. Finally, you should consider your fatigue resistance at FTP, testing your 20-minute, 60-minute, and 90-minute best efforts to clearly understand whether you are true diesel (strongly fatigue resistant) or not (poorly fatigue resistant).

How do you use this increased knowledge of your physiology? By knowing your secondary limiters, you have another area to focus on in your training to help improve those limiters and give you more tactical racing options to use during your races.

Power Training Success Factor 4: Plan in your rest days and rest weeks.

Each week you should have a rest day, when you either stay off the bike completely or ride embarrassingly slow. This is absolutely a critical factor for success, and so many riders just don’t do it. Your body needs to recover, recharge, and rebuild for the next day of hard training, and a day of very easy riding or complete rest is the only way to do it.

This is the easiest part of training and an important one. Many cyclists ride a little too hard on their easy days for them to be truly rest days, so when you do ride easy, go slow and use your power meter as your governor. Your power should be under 56% of your FTP about 90% of the time, but if you have to do 400 watts to get up a hill without falling over, then do the 400 watts, but maybe you’ll want to select a different route for your next easy ride.

In addition to rest days, you’ll also want to schedule rest weeks throughout your plan for next year, since it is in the rest weeks when your body gets stronger from all the hard training.

The great thing about planning in rest weeks and then sticking to them is that you force yourself to recharge your battery whether you feel like it or not. Even though you might not feel like you need a rest week and want to keep pushing through, you could end up compromising your immune system or possibly compromising your next hard build cycle. Scheduling in those rest weeks will control your overall training stress, as well, and prevent you from overtraining.

How much rest do you need in a rest week? I suggest looking at your training stress score chart to see how many TSS points you accumulate during a normal week of training and then figure half that amount of TSS for your rest week. For example, if your normal week is between 700 and 800 TSS, somewhere between 350-400 TSS for a rest week would be plenty, and it’s fine to do less.

Power Training Success Factor 5: Build the plan and do your best to stick to it.

While this seems relatively simple, it’s often quite hard to actually create, implement, and then keep to a plan throughout the season. Life does interfere. It’s one of the more challenging parts of cycling (or any activity you’re committed to) and has to be worked around the rest of your life.

When you build a training plan, you always work backward from the goal date, which begins to define your rest weeks and specific training weeks when you focus on your primary and secondary limiters and your power foundation. Your power foundation is really the foundation of aerobic work that you lay down in order to be ready for the more specific work needed later. This is not base training, which is easy riding at endurance pace for hours on end; your power foundation is built on riding more intensely (tempo pace) and for shorter periods of time.

In this day and age, we all have less and less time to train, and only the pros or Category 1 riders have time to ride an easy 5 hours every day for months on end. If we did that, our threshold power would likely decrease from lack of intensity. What I like most about riding at tempo (76-90% of your FTP) is that it creates just enough stress on your aerobic system to maintain fitness while being tough enough to keep those muscles engaged in pedaling hard on the bike. This dual strain keeps your cardiovascular system primed for later work and also makes sure you have the needed muscular endurance to do the longer rides on the weekends and later in the year.

If you want to go to the next level, you have to do a long ride (4-6 hours) at least once and preferably twice a month to achieve the needed cardiovascular and muscular strain to improve. Your power foundation phase should last for a solid 8 weeks before starting to focus on your primary and secondary limiters. I recommend for most people that this power foundation phase occur from December to February, depending on when you are planning on peaking. After this phase you should make sure your plan begins to incorporate specific limiters, even if you do them just once a week while continuing your work right at FTP. As you get closer and closer to your peak fitness, you’ll work to improve your shorter anaerobic efforts, as your body will adapt much quicker to them than to longer aerobic efforts.

One common mistake that many people make is “stacking” workouts when they miss them, so avoid this if you can. If you miss a Tuesday workout, don’t try to push everything back a day so you still get in the workouts. It’s better to just move along to the Wednesday workout than to worry too much about missing Tuesday. The only exception to this is when the Tuesday workout addressed a key limiter to success; in that case, substitute the Tuesday workout for Wednesday and just forget about the Wednesday one.

There are many factors that help you to succeed in cycling, and many books have been written about them, but it’s my hope that this article will inspire you to take some time right now to follow these five steps and plan for your success.

Make a plan. Plan for success and use your power meter to help you stay on target. If you don’t know you’re improving, or if you don’t know your strengths and weaknesses, how will you improve? How will you reach your goal, no matter how large or how small? A carpenter doesn’t tell the guys one day to show up with a ton of wood, throw things together, and end up with a perfect house. Every carpenter starts with a blueprint, a plan, a way to make sure he’s building the house correctly.

Once that plan is established, every once in a while situations come along that have to be adapted to. That’s normal, but we always come back to the master plan. We plan for success in the rest of our lives, and we should do the same in cycling. Measure your results accurately and consistently, and you’ll know when to make changes to your training plan so that you do achieve the best possible benefits a training plan can give you. 

Hunter Allen is a is a USA Cycling Level 1 coach and former professional cyclist. He is the coauthor of “Training and Racing with a Power Meter” and “Cutting-Edge Cycling,” co-developer of TrainingPeaks’ WKO software, and CEO and founder of Peaks Coaching Group. He and his coaches create custom training plans for all levels of athletes.