Three weeks, twenty-one days. How much can you improve your fitness in three weeks? If you gave yourself a three-week training camp, how many more watts would you produce at the end of it? How much fitter would you become? How much body fat would you lose? How much could your bike handling skills improve?
Those questions were proposed to me by a client when he decided to create his own three-week training camp. He was between jobs and had the opportunity to ride for a solid three weeks, and he wanted to see how much he could improve if he trained as much as possible in three weeks. Naturally, he wanted to ride six hours a day, his own Tour de France, but I talked him out of it, and we came up with a better plan that gave him rest days, long days, short intense days that focused on specific areas of fitness that needed improvement, and those long rides he wanted. I knew this plan would bring him more improvement than doing his own little Tour de France and drilling it every day for three weeks.
The first part of the plan was to tackle his weakness (short, anaerobic-type efforts) in the first ten days so he would be relatively fresh, have tons of energy to attack the workouts, and give his body complete recovery between workouts. The second part of the plan was to get in a solid block of six-hour rides to satisfy his inner pro cyclist. The third and final part of his training camp was four wicked days in a row of “pro” training so that he’d be completely blown at the end of the three weeks. He would rest the week following the end of the “camp.”
With the plan in place, the first step was to test his current fitness to find out exactly where he was so we could quantify exactly how much he might improve from the three weeks of hard training. Instead of testing him on the trainer or doing a lactate ramp test, I decided to have him test on his local hill climb (about twenty-five minutes), which would give him something to test against through the rest of the year, not just in three weeks. A power meter makes testing so much simpler than it used to be; just make sure the power meter is working, warm up well, and go hammer up that climb. That’s all there is to it, which really puts the testing back in the hands (legs) of the rider. They can test at any time they choose.
For those of you who don’t have a twenty-minute climb in your back yard, you can always do a twenty-minute time trial and let that be your benchmark to which you compare yourself every couple of months. Remember, you’ll need to subtract about 5% off of the average wattage from your test to give you close to what you can do for an hour, which is your functional threshold power (FTP).
My client averaged 249 watts for 24:33 minutes up the climb; you can see his test chart below.
After his test I set up a series of workouts that allowed him to get in good hard efforts with some rest days scattered between. The best kind of training is block training, which is training as hard as you possibly can until you can’t do it anymore (usually about four days) and then resting until you can train again to your maximum. Unfortunately for us working stiffs, that means possibly using our weekends as rest days, and doing three- and four-hour rides during the week just isn’t going to happen. So while block training is the best way to maximize your training and adaptation cycles, it’s not for everyone.
My client’s first block went like this:
Monday: VO2Max work. 7 x 3 minutes at 115-120% of FTP with 3 minutes rest between each effort, followed by 60 minutes of sweet-spot training at 88-93% of FTP.
Tuesday: Anaerobic capacity workout. 6 x 2 minutes, 6 x 1 minute, 6 x 30 seconds. Rest for 2 minutes between each. Do 10 hill repeats, each 1 minute long with 5 minutes of rest. Finish with 30 minutes at sweet spot.
Wednesday: FTP workout. 3 x 20 minutes at 95-103% of FTP, 10 x 1-minute fast pedaling intervals, and finish with another 60 minutes of sweet spot.
Thursday: Climbing workout. Hit the local climb and do 3 repeats of it, the first time at tempo pace and the second and third times at FTP. Rest for 15 minutes between each. Finish with 2 hours of endurance riding.
Friday: Rest day.
Saturday: One hour easy spinning.
This block definitely had him tired on Friday; he even admitted to being happy to have a rest day. Notice how the most intense workouts came first, when he was fresh. After those were two threshold workouts, and while stressful (riding at FTP is always stressful), the intensity was low enough to be doable. On the last day of his block, when he was already tired, repeats of a tough climb are perfect because climbing doesn’t require any great mental effort; you either get up the climb or you fall over. Either way you’re guaranteed a great workout.
A quick phone call on Saturday morning determined that my client needed another easy day of training before he’d be able to embark on his second block of training. This is a critical thing that every athlete (that’s you) needs to be honest with yourself about. A coach certainly helps give you an objective viewpoint, but you have to be honest about how tired you are and realistically assess whether or not you can do the workout. One of the best ways I’ve found to get athletes to do this is by having them track their soreness (on a scale of one to ten), the number of hours they sleep each night, and the level of overall stress in their lives. It’s easiest to do this with an online training log like TrainingPeaks so you can graph your measurements over time and easily correlate them to your training and racing performance.
The importance of rest days and rest weeks cannot be overstated. This down time is critical to your success. I know many of you out there have read this a hundred times over, but it’s worth saying again: rest days and rest weeks are when your body heals from the training stress and rebuilds itself stronger than before. Rest days should be exactly what they sound like: rest days. Relax, read, catch up on your knitting and scrapbooking, surf the Internet, and generally be a couch potato. If your weekends are anything like mine, it’s not easy to really rest, especially if you have kids, grass to mow, chores to do, etc. Many times a day at the office can give you more physical rest than weekends do.
My athlete’s next block of training was only three days long because of the cumulative fatigue I knew would be setting in. Even with two days of rest, a hard three-day block was going to put him back in the hurt locker. In this block the emphasis was on shorter efforts, and the first day in the block was a double day, with a hard morning session and a hard afternoon session. Double days can be very beneficial, giving you two very intense workouts that emphasize high quality work at a very high intensity. When you do these, make sure to do the most intense workout in the morning so the quality of the evening workout won’t suffer. I’m a big fan of these double days and try to schedule them for my athletes whenever possible.
The second block of training looked like this:
Sunday morning: 15 hill repeats, each about 2 minutes long with plenty of rest between each one to emphasize high wattage numbers in each repeat. Try for 135% of FTP on each one and complete all 15 of them, even if your watts are below your goal. The work here is critical. While the watts are important as a goal, you’ll still get training benefits from completing them all.
Sunday afternoon: Sprints. Do 12 small-ring sprints and then 12 big-ring sprints. The small-ring sprints should be only about 75m long, spinning at over 130rpm at the finish of each. The big-ring sprints should be from about 20mph and at least 200m each. Be sure to rest plenty between each one.
Monday: 7 x 3 minutes at 115-120% of FTP with 3 minutes rest between each effort, followed by 60 minutes of sweet-spot training at 88-93% of FTP.
Tuesday: My famous (or is it dreaded?) bit-of-everything workout. Do 3 x 1-minute fast pedaling. Then do 4 sprints in big ring (53:15) from 22mph with two gear shifts to 14 and then to 13. Rest for 3-4 minutes between each. Then do 4 x 12 minutes just above threshold (about 100-105% of FTP). Do your best to hold it there! Rest for 5 minutes between each. Finish with 4 x 2 minutes on the flats, 2 minutes on, 1 minute off. Try to hold at 115-125% of FTP on each effort. Finish with endurance pace for 60 minutes.
Wednesday: Rest and 1 hour easy.
Thursday: Rest and 1 hour easy.
After the second block of training was complete, we could move into the second phase of my athlete’s training plan to satisfy his inner pro cyclist and give him a boost aerobically and in his muscular endurance. I’ve learned over the years of coaching all levels of athletes, from masters to pros to category 5s, that the riders who are consistently able to get in three to four big long rides each month progress faster and further than the riders that don’t. I define a big long ride as one that is at least an hour longer than your normal long ride and that leaves your muscles very fatigued from the sheer amount of pedaling done. A long ride may or may not contain some hard threshold efforts, but the ride is long and tough enough that your legs are toast when you get back. No muscle cramping is allowed, mind you, but if those muscles start to get that familiar cramping twinge (threatening to cramp), that’s the way to finish a ride. When you finish a ride and are just starting to get those little signs of imminent lock-up, that means you fatigued the muscles to their muscular endurance limit, but not so far as to create massive muscular trauma and damage. These kinds of rides are critical to forcing your body to adapt and give muscles more endurance, which in turn helps with increasing your aerobic capacity and FTP.
So, for the next three days I had my client do six-hour back-to-back rides in which he got to pretend to be a real pro cyclist.
On Monday of the final week of his training camp, my client was cooked from the intensity of the previous two weeks and three days of long rides, so we planned that he rest on Tuesday and ride easy on Wednesday and Thursday. These three rest days weren’t going to be enough rest, but he wanted to finish the three-week training camp totally crushed and not wanting more. Taking three rest days meant that instead of finishing with four wicked hard “pro” workouts, he was going to be able to do only three, but this compromise was needed to make those three days highly effective instead of him struggling to get them done.
The final three days looked like this:
Friday: 2200kj of work with steady aerobic riding first. Ride about 3 hours with some endurance and tempo, then do as follows: 15-minute effort with watts at 88-94% of FTP and 1 x 5-minute blast at 380 watts. Then do 8 x 2-minute hill repeats at 110-125% FTP (set your power meter on average power and record the hills in interval mode), resting for a solid 4 minutes between each. Stop the hills when you can’t maintain 15% less watts than what your second hill watts were. For example, if your first hill watts averaged 650 and your second averaged 640, stop the hills when your average drops below 550. Then do 15 minutes <100 watts. Then do 3 x 3 minutes on, 3 minutes off as hard as you can go. See what watts you can do. Do a couple more if you’re still within 15% after the third one. Finish with 30 minutes of endurance riding for a cool-down.
Saturday: 20-minute warm-up with 4 x 1-minute fast pedals. Then do 6 x 2 minutes flat out on a flattish road with full recovery (about 4 minutes at endurance pace). Then do 6 x 30 seconds with a hard sprint at the start and full recovery (about 3 minutes). Cruise easy for 20 minutes, then do 6 small-ring sprints for 75m (start from 10mph 39:16, 39:17 only and wind it out 135rpm), then 6 big-ring sprints for 250m (start from 18mph, 53:16, 53;15, 53:14; wind it out). Ride at sweet spot to your local climb; do your best and finish with two repeats up the climb at tempo/sweet spot pace, resting for 5-10 minutes between.
Sunday: The final day of the three-week training block. Time to motor pace for 3 hours. Just ride behind the bike and get in a solid hard three hours of riding. If you can’t find someone to motor pace you, find the toughest group ride to go on and hang on for dear life. Your job is to push yourself hard today and finish the three weeks tired and ready for a break.
This final day concluded my client’s three-week block. Finishing it with motor pacing or a hard group ride is perfect, since it forces you to ride harder than you want. It’s always a challenge at the end of a hard training build to push yourself, so riding in a hard group ride or motor pacing is a great option.
So how much did my client improve in three weeks of training? After a nice rest week when he rode very easy for an hour and took some days completely off, it was time to go back to the climb and bust out his best effort. He did the same warm-up and then went up the climb as hard as he could. This time he averaged 268 watts and cut 2 minutes and 24 seconds off his time for a time of 22:09. This means he gained almost 20 watts and cut over 2 minutes off his time up the climb! That’s impressive.
My athlete was able to improve by nearly 8% in his functional threshold power. This is definitely significant and will make a difference in his next cyclocross season. Everyone is different, and you might not see a gain like this one, but the next time you think you can string a three-week block of training together, give it a serious effort and see what you can accomplish.
If you’d like expert advice about how to improve this season, plus professional support while you do so, contact us today! Your success is our goal; it’s the reason we do what we do.
Hunter Allen 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. Hunter can be contacted directly through PeaksCoachingGroup.com.