3 things that winners do in the winter.

Over the years, I usually teach fall camps and teach power seminars around the world, I have been able to ride with many different cyclists and teach to diverse groups ranging from Gold medal winning Olympians and their coaches to beginning cyclists that have never used a power meter.  Teaching to diverse groups is always a challenge, but at the same time forces me to teach with clarity, focus and patience.  A common question that I get in the “fall” of each year in my seminars and camps is: “I really want to improve this winter, what are 3 things I can do to really make a difference.”  A broad and general question of course, and the great thing about being a cycling coach is that pretty much the answer to every question begins with, “It depends……”. There are many factors that go into improvement and lots of things that affect improvement, so there is no easy answer.   We are each highly individual and respond differently to different training stimulus along with having different goals at different parts of the year.   So, before I can answer a broad question, I have to dig a little deeper and learn more about the athlete, their goals, time constraints and strengths and weaknesses.  These basics create the foundation of my answers and from there, I can build actionable answers for the athlete.  Thinking of the basics of cycling is where we all have to start in order to improve and therefore let’s consider three solid, basic, fundamentals that can help you or any cyclist this winter to improve and make the 2024 season great.

Cycling is an aerobic sport and this means you will need to have the highest output of wattage possible in order to give yourself the chance to be successful(you can be the strongest person in the peloton and still lose!).   The higher your FTP, the fitter you are, and more likely you will be to succeed in your given event.  For that big Gran Fondo in March or that first long road race of the year in April, you WILL do better if your FTP is higher than it is now.  So, first and foremost, you must always consider doing everything you can to improve your FTP.   That’s the number one thing you can do this winter to improve your chances for more success in 2024.   What does that practically mean though?  What kind of workouts should you do, how often and when?  The answer to these questions have more to do with when your season will begin and how far away your first race is from now and beyond the scope of this article.  Right now, though, this December, and you need to be riding in your Tempo and Sweet-Spot/Sub-Threshold power levels.  These zones fall between 76-90% with Sweet-Spot/Sub-Threshold between 88-93%.  Start out with intervals at the 20 minute mark and your intensity around 85% of your FTP, and then build the time and intensity until you can do at least 45minutes at 93% of your FTP.  It’s perfectly fine to break these into smaller portions, but don’t do anything less than 20minutes as that will give you enough time at that intensity to make sure you are improving your aerobic fitness. I really like doing 30 minute efforts at Sweet-Spot as they are challenging both physically and mentally and I can just complete the 30 minutes with enough mental games.    This workout should be done at least twice each week in December and increasing to three times a week in January and February.  Again, the main goal is increasing your aerobic fitness/FTP and if you can do that, then you’ll be on the way to creating an excellent 2015 season. 

Big Gear intervals. Yup, that’s number two.  Once a week, I want you to work on “applicable strength”.   This means strength that you can apply to making the bike go faster and not strength that will help you squat a piano on your back or carry a couch up 8 flights of stairs.  It also is NOT about pushing a big gear for 30 minutes.  It’s not even doing it for one minute!  This type of big gear work is not increasing your muscular strength and just makes you better at pushing a marginally harder gear in a slower than normal cadence, but not really helping your on-the-bike strength.  This is done by slowing your speed down to 5-8mph, putting the bike in a 53:13 gear, gripping the handlebars tightly, tightening your abdominals, and while staying seated the entire time, exploding with force on the pedals and getting that gear to 85-90rpm.  You will grunt and strain and think you might rip the handlebars right off the stem, but eventually you’ll get to 85-90rpm start feeling  the “burn”.  Then it’s over.  That’s it.  Not long, but with lots of strength.   The effort has been completed and now you are ready to recover those muscles for another “feat of strength”, so give yourself at least 3-4 minutes between each effort.   These are very similar to “standing starts” in Track Racing and I was privy to a “standing start” practice/training session with the top sprinter on the New Zealand track team this past month and he was doing almost identical efforts as the above.  He did them for 45minutes with solid 5minutes of rest between each to make sure he could get the maximum effort out in each.   Here, the effort must be in Quadrant II of the Quadrant Analysis chart, see figure 2.  This means that you are putting out maximum force with lower cadence and once you cross over into a faster cadence(over 90rpm), then you are no longer in the correct quadrant.

Long rides when its nice out. That’s #3. Every time from now till April, if it’s nice out (and you live in a normally cold area), then go for a long ride.  Throw away the training plan for that day (or even better, integrate it into a long ride) and go for a 4-5-6 hour ride.  You don’t know when the next nice day will be, so you need to get in those long rides in order to increase your endurance and aerobic efficiency.  It’s the long rides that will take you to the next level of fitness with a higher FTP and more fatigue resistance and unfortunately this is no short cut.  You have to get out there and put in the longer miles.  I have talked to many master riders over the years and when they have gotten “stuck” at a certain wattage for their threshold, they always ask how they can get to the next level and why they are “stuck” there.  The answer is the same for all and that is: Longer rides!  You don’t think Jens Voigt’s FTP is 460watts because he only rode for 2 hours day do you?  No, if you want an FTP higher than 250 watts than you are going to have to do AT LEAST (2) rides a month that are longer than 5 hours. What should you do in these rides?  I would make sure that the majority of the ride is in the Zone 2-endurance range, but then also be sure to get in one solid section of 45minutes at your Sweet Spot and also do 20 fast pedaling efforts at 110rpm+ for one minute each resting a minute between them.  The goal is to come home tired like you finished a long ride, but not crushed like you “barely” finished a long ride.  It’s just that simple(and difficult).   Longer rides increase the stress on the aerobic and muscular system and that in turn causes it to adapt and get stronger which results in a higher FTP.  Nothing can substitute a long ride and this is a key for you to increase your FTP this coming season.  Even if your longest race is 2 hours, you still have to ride big long rides if you want to improve your FTP above that 250Watt “Glass ceiling”. 

That’s it , those are the three things you need to do to improve for this winter.  They also apply to just about everyone and in the coaching world is hard to do, but if you only did those three things, you would be moving in the right direction and toward a very strong 2024.  With regards to training with power, you have to remind yourself that these ideas came from the “demands of the event” first, then wattage based workouts were born from them. While you don’t a specific focus of wattages for the big gear intervals, you have a quadrant that you need to adhere to in order to ensure you are training properly. Use your power meter to train to the demand of your events, use your power meter to help guide your individual sessions, use your power meter to hone in on your training zones and then analyze the data afterward to make sure you are on track for new peaks!

Hunter Allen has online training programs available at www.shoppeaks.com  including the most popular “Next Level” plan.  Check out the e-book on Plyometrics as well at his site, which makes a difference and could be your “4th” ingredient to help you this winter. You can contact Hunter and his coaches directly www.PeaksCoachingGroup.com for personal coaching, camps and speaking engagements.

Four Keys to Powerful Winter Training

What you do this winter can really make or break your season in the coming year. Winter training is different for everyone since we live in different areas of the world; some of us spend a solid five months indoors while others can ride outside year round.

There are some vital components to creating a very good winter training program no matter where you live, and of course a power meter has a lot to do with it.

Before you embark on your official winter training plan, though, you’ve got to make sure you’re well rested and recovered from the long season. Hopefully you’ve taken a couple of weeks off and given yourself at least two weeks of easy cross-training; this is essential to recharging your physical and mental batteries.

Once you’re rested, recharged, and ready to go, your winter should contain the following four important components: 

  1. Focused indoor training workouts
  2. Solid workouts at your sweet spot
  3. A cross-training routine
  4. Balanced rest periods

These four components combine to create a strong winter program that can give you one of your best winters ever. I’ll expand on each point so you can use them all to the best advantage.

In most of the United States, the winter is quite cold, which means we will spend at least some of it on the indoor trainer. (All you southern California readers out there, don’t stop reading; just try to incorporate some of these workouts into your outdoor routine.) Even though most of us love riding our bikes outside, the indoor trainer can provide some really great workouts with no real distractions: no cars, no wind, no hills, no dogs. All the things that can get in the way of a focused session aren’t problems on the indoor trainer.

INDOOR TRAINING

Now that you’re resigned and committed to the indoor trainer, what workouts should you do? There are two basic types of workouts I prescribe to my athletes in the winter: cadence-based workouts and sweet spot workouts. Almost all the workouts my athletes do during this season are some permutation of these two basic types. Cadence-based workouts emphasize cadence changes first, with power and heart rate of second and tertiary importance. Cadence workouts typically do not stress the cardiovascular system but are more focused on improving the muscular system. They can range from high rpm efforts emphasizing neuromuscular power to very slow rpm efforts emphasizing muscular strength.

What is the purpose of cadence-based workouts and why should you do them this winter? The higher cadence workouts help you maintain your ability to quickly contract and relax your muscles, which is a very important skill in cycling. By training your neuromuscular power throughout the winter, you can keep the critical ability to quickly change your cadence and even enhance it.

This type of indoor workout is relatively simple and can also easily be done either indoors or outside. One of my favorites is one-minute fast-pedaling intervals, where you pedal over 110 rpm for one minute and then pedal at your self-selected (normal) cadence for a minute and then repeat. This is a great leg burner, but it doesn’t get the heart rate too high and therefore push your training into more of an anaerobic zone.

On the other side of the coin, lower cadence workouts are also great to do in the winter because they can enhance your muscular strength, which can in turn help you to sprint with more peak wattages and push a bigger gear into the wind in a time trial or up a steep climb. Muscular strength workouts are based around hard but short intervals done in the biggest gear you can manage at low rpm. Many people believe the myth that riding for hours in a big gear at slow rpm will increase muscular strength and make them more powerful, but this only makes you good at riding in a big gear at slow rpm! Riding at 50 rpm for hours on end just doesn’t create enough muscular stress to strengthen the muscles.

Consider this analogy: If you’re trying to bench press 200 pounds in the weight room, you need to start at 150 pounds and build up to it with low reps, high sets, and the most weight you can lift. You have to use heavier and heavier weights to stress the muscle in order for it to adapt. If you lifted 100 pounds one million times, you would never adapt to lifting 200 pounds one time. The “big gear” myth is similar; when you pedal at 50 rpm for hours on end, it’s just like lifting 100 pounds for a million reps. While 100 pounds (metaphorically speaking) is more than your normal pedaling force of 80 pounds, it’s just not enough stress on the muscles to get them to strengthen. In order to increase your muscular strength on the bike, you need to do hard, short bursts of effort in a big gear. For example, put your chain in the 53:12 gear and slow down to about 8-10 mph, then (staying seated) tighten your abdominals, grip your handlebars tightly, and with all your might turn that gear over until you reach 80 rpm. Once you reach 80 rpm, the amount of force you’re putting on the cranks has reduced to a point at which it’s just not enough stress to create muscular strength improvements. You should plan on doing about twenty of these power bursts in a session to create enough of an overload to achieve some benefit.

SWEET SPOT

The second type of training I prescribe to my athletes in the winter is called sweet spot training (SST). When you ride just below your functional threshold power (FTP) at approximately 88-93% of your FTP, you are riding in your sweet spot. Why is it called the sweet spot? As shown on the chart below, when you’re in this area of intensity, the level of physiological strain (read: amount of pain) is relatively low, while the maximum duration (read: time) that you can stay in this area is quite high. You can also see that your increase in FTP is greatest in this area, so training in your sweet spot really gives you a tremendous bang for your buck.

When you do SST, start out with 15- to 30-minute efforts and gradually build up to 60- to 120-minute efforts if you can. These efforts aren’t easy ones, but you’ll get a tremendous cardiovascular benefit from them. Make sure to do at least one to two sessions each week, and you’ll see a big difference in your FTP come February.

CROSS TRAINING

Cross-training is another key to winter success. One of the most important cross-training exercises you can do this winter is some type of core abdominal exercises combined with stretching. A Pilates or yoga class can really help you develop strong abdominals, which in turn help you transfer energy from your upper body to your legs and protect your back from injury. If you can, take a class or do a video every week; that will be enough to make a difference. For cardiovascular work, I recommend doing some mountain biking, hiking, trail running, roller blading, and cross-country skiing (if you have the snow). Just keep it fun and not too intense, as cross-training is supposed to enhance your cycling, not cause injury or major cardiovascular stress. Cross-training is great to do in the off-season, since we don’t really move our muscles in multiple planes on the bicycle, and will provide some great muscular and cardiovascular stimulus.

A word of caution about starting any new exercise: take it easy for the first two weeks. I once had a client who was very fit and decided to go out and run ten miles in the first day of cross-training. Needless to say, he was barely able to walk for the next two weeks. He also inadvertently pulled a muscle, which forced him to take three weeks off from all training. So be careful and break yourself in slowly when you start a new exercise.

REST

The final component of a successful winter program is rest. It doesn’t sound like it’s that big of a deal, but too much training in the winter will make you a “January star.” It’s great to train hard in the winter, and it’s the key to really pushing yourself to the next level for the coming year, but if you constantly train hard in the winter, you’ll peak in January. The key to increasing your FTP this winter and making it your new normal fitness level is to train intensely for only two days in a row. After two intense days, give yourself a rest before coming back to training, except every other week give yourself two days of easy training after two hard days instead of resting so you can keep your battery charged. Your goal this winter is to never let your battery charge go below 97%. Two days of hard training will bring your battery down to 97%, and a day off or a day of easy training will allow it to recharge back to 100%. This way you can balance hard training with proper rest and enter the season fresh and strong, without turning into one of those riders that wins all the January rides!

These four components of winter training all combine successfully to ensure you create your best winter of training ever. A proper winter program will push your FTP up to the next level, maintain your ability to change cadences, and put you at the start of the season with a fresh mind and ready body for a strong and long season! Be sure to keep your focus this winter. This season really is the time for you to rise to the next level and make 2022 a breakthrough season! 

Hunter Allen is a USA Cycling Level 1 coach and former professional cyclist. He is the coauthor of Triathlon Training With Power, 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. Hunter can be contacted directly through PeaksCoachingGroup.com