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Breaking your event down
Before devising a training plan, it is of paramount importance to analyse the event you are targeting. I always begin my relationship with new coaching clients by asking the following:
While it is perfectly possible to train for an event in a general fashion if it forms a small part of your season, an increasing number of riders are targeting one specific event as their season highlight. If this is the case, it is always best to ask the above questions in order to ensure you are training smart and not wasting time on sessions that aren’t relevant to your goal.
Setting a goal
Once you have worked through the above questions, you can then look to formulate your goals. Typical ones are along the lines of:
And so on. There are two main observations here. Firstly, never put yourself down or feel intimidated by other riders – finishing a sportive is a huge personal achievement, so if your goal is to finish, then go with that – never use the phrase “I just want to finish”. Secondly, avoid setting a goal that is judged by another’s performance i.e. “I want to beat my mate”, as their training is beyond your control and therefore you cannot control the outcome.
What I always recommend, is that any goal you do set yourself is realistic (there are plenty of mnemonics to use such as SMART goals but I prefer to keep things simple) bearing in mind the following:
The danger with setting an unrealistic goal is that you will never be able to achieve it and as a result you will feel as though you have failed, even if you have done exceptionally well given the circumstances.
Identifying what you need to work on
So once you have set a realistic goal in accordance with the above, it is time to get down to the nitty gritty of formulating your plan, and to do this you will need to work out what you need to improve. For a sportive rider this is likely to be focused on your “fitness” and your weight. The weight issue is beyond the scope of this article, other than to say that if you eat well and train hard, your weight will largely take care of itself, so we’ll be focusing on your cycling “fitness”.
Fitness and specificity
Fitness is a tricky term to pin down, but for the purposes of this post and the next, we will be looking at fitness in the sense of your specific event as analysed above. Taking a typical fictional sportive as an example, we have a 100km route with a mix of flat, short and longer climbs and some technical descents. There is little demand here for crit like sprints out of corners or road racing sprints for bonuses, so this should also be kept in mind.
Our specific fitness requirements therefore break down in easy to understand terms as follows:
In addition to these fitness based skills, I am a big believer in working on your riding skills during training in addition to the pure fitness focused work. For a typical sportive I would suggest that you also work on:
So with these specific items in mind, post two of the series will cover the plan itself, with a focus on how to structure your training and what sessions to utilise in order to help you smash your goals.
As a quick recap, In Part 1 of this post we discussed targeting an event, breaking it down, setting a goal, identifying the areas you need to work on and the concepts of specific fitness. In Part 2, we will build on this to help you formulate a training plan that will make the best use of your time and set you on your way to smashing your chosen goal!
The following is worked on the basis that you have a minimum of 12 weeks within which to focus your training, as this is a realistic time frame for achieving tangible results. If you have more time available prior to your goal event, then great, follow the principles outlined below and focus on your FTP and distance building in the early stages. If you have less time available, then don’t panic as substantial improvements are possible, you’ll just need to ensure that you don’t get carried away during your goal setting.
Scheduling and Timetable
I cannot overstate the importance of taking the time to produce a physical training plan. Firstly, it provides you with an opportunity to focus your mind on your goal and devise a well thought out map of your next month’s training (as opposed to just making it up as you go along). Secondly, it provides you with an accurate historical record of your training to date and your improvements over the course of time. And thirdly, it will help provide you with the impetus to get off the sofa and on to the bike when your goal event seems so far away.
Your first step should be to work out your time available to train each week and work out what blocks that time is split up into. How many hours a week you can dedicate and how many days a week you can get out, will largely depend on your schedule and other commitments, but as a guide line, I always aim to get my client’s on the bike three to four days a week (up to five or six days for those pursuing high end goals), depending on their riding background to date. These three to four sessions ensure that the riders have ample time on the bike to tick off the core components of their training plan, while also leaving adequate time aside for proper recovery.
If you work a fixed 9-5 and have a fairly regular routine then that makes things much easier as you can generally assess and schedule your month on a standard weekly pattern. However, if you work shifts or have a variable schedule outside of work, then things can be a bit more tricky and you will likely need to sit down at least once a month to work out how much time you have. Currently I coach a doctor who has a highly variable schedule owing to his shift patterns, so once a month he will send me a breakdown of how his month is looking and I will program from there, with mid month changes often occurring as his schedule develops. The major take away point here, is that any schedule can be accommodated with planning, so as long as you take the time to work things out, you will still be able to produce a schedule for yourself.
An example schedule might look something like this:
That gives us a total usable time of 8-9 hours a week, which is plenty to make some serious improvements in sportive performance. We’ll now have a look at how best to use that time, with the three fitness concepts identified in Post 1 in mind. It is important to keep in mind that while for ease of reference I am separating the concepts, in reality they all interrelate to the extent that every session you do will touch on each.
Covering the Distance
Two factors need to be considered before planning your strategy here:
Sticking with our previously mentioned 100km sportive, you will need to assess how much distance you are currently covering and factor that in to your training.
Of the sessions available in our sample week above, the Sunday 3-5 hour session is obviously our most useful, as it provides you with ample time to spend on the bike in order to get into the realms of the 100km distance.
If you are currently covering 50km in your longest ride, then I would suggest building up your distance slowly by 5k per week for three weeks, followed by a fourth recovery week which sees you back off the distance to your week two level. Repeating this process for 12 weeks will see you do the following – Month 1 – 50, 55, 60, 55, Month 2 – 60, 65, 70, 65, Month 3 – 70, 75, 80, 75, with a maximum distance covered of 80km during training. If you have additional time, then you may wish to complete another month or two of this schedule, bringing you up to your event distance. If you choose to do this you should keep a careful eye on your fatigue levels, as you do not want the weekly long ride to exhaust you to the extent that the rest of the week’s sessions are carried out a sub-par level. If you notice that your recovery from the long ride is taking a particularly long time, then I would suggest backing things up and readjusting your distance accordingly.
If you are targeting a medal time for the event (or a similar goal) and are already comfortable with the distance, then you have two options. Firstly, you can keep your long rides within the realms of 100km, while focusing on performing intervals and other quality work during these rides, or secondly, you can build your distance past that level in order to ensure that on the day of your event you are entirely comfortable. Which you choose to do largely depends on you as a rider, though I tend to recommend that riders mix both strategies, building the distance up to around 20% past their goal, while also including some quality intervals. In addition to this ride our medal time riders should make use of the Saturday time in order to enable them to benefit from the training effect of well planned back to back riding sessions (an example of which is contained below).
These sessions are also the perfect opportunity to practice the riding skills mentioned in Post 1, which not only ensures that the maximum benefit is extracted from your time on the bike, it is also provides a welcome focus when your attention is wandering on a long ride.
In simple to understand terms, your “threshold” is the point at which you are fully utilising your aerobic energy system (which is capable of producing endless quantities of work), without entering in to the anaerobic energy system (which produces waste products that result in the “burn” feeling in your muscles). Improving your threshold is therefore vital for riders who are looking to improve their ability to ride for several hours at a high output and is the key to improving your performance during sportives. There are a wide variety of methods of measuring your threshold and ways of training to improve it, whether they be power, heart rate or perceived exertion based. A detailed discussion of these is therefore beyond the scope of this article, however in broad terms, during training, power users should be looking at riding at approximately 85-95% of their FTP, heart rate users should be looking at 80-90% of their max heart rate and riders using perceived exertion should be looking at something in the 7/10 range.
Unfortunately, improving your threshold is notoriously difficult as it requires you to carry out relatively long efforts at a sustained output, which many riders find difficult. However, the improvements are well worth the suffering, so I would suggest earmarking your Tuesday and Thursday sessions as threshold focused sessions.
Tuesday – with two hours available, I would recommend that our rider focuses on a road or turbo session that sees them aiming to keep a high output within the lower end parameters mentioned above, for the duration. Chaingangs or club runs can be a great way to achieve the goals of this session, however you should resist the urge to hammer every hill and coast the downhills to recover, as we are aiming for a consistent output which will demand that your body produces relatively large amounts of power for a long duration. This is another great opportunity to focus on your group riding and other technical skills, so make the most of the opportunity.
Thursday – with one hour available, I would recommend that riders use this session for a turbo based 2×20. This is the gold standard threshold session, which is completed as follows:
The 2×20 is very hard work, demanding riders to hold an uninterrupted high power output for two long duration intervals, but the power gains speak for themselves over time, so stick with it and watch your output improve!
Ability to Produce Higher Power When Required and Recover Quickly
With your distance and threshold training taken care of, the final aspect to focus on is your anaerobic energy system, which is responsible for the high output bursts that riders are required to produce in order to tackle some of the brutal climbs we have here in the UK. However before progressing, it is important to recognise that anaerobic fitness is not there to paper over the cracks of missing the above sessions, so while it may feel like you are doing great work by smashing out a 30 min session of 5×5 min intervals, these will do little for your ability to hold a high output over long distances, so they should only be used in conjunction with the work detailed above and not in substitute, or to the detriment, of that work.
The perfect opportunity to work on this area in the early phases of your plan is during your long Sunday ride as a block of short intervals (3 to 5 intervals of 3-5 mins is ample). As you progress through your plan and near your target event, then dependent on your goal (this is mainly aimed at those looking for a medal time, rather than those looking to finish the event who would be better off using the time to focus on their threshold work), you may also wish to utilise the Saturday session as a mix of longer threshold type intervals along with shorter anaerobic intervals of this nature. Doing this in conjunction with the long Sunday ride will produce superb results for those who have sufficient training under their belts, but for those in the early stages, it may be a step too far, so as with everything, it is important that you keep a close eye on your recovery and fatigue levels.
Recovery is often overlooked by riders who are keen to start making gains and want to throw themselves headlong into a training plan, however caution needs to be urged for several reasons. Firstly, the body needs to have adequate recovery time in order to adapt to the training you have performed and transfer this into performance gains, secondly, failure to give your body adequate opportunity to recover can result in injuries which lead to enforced time off the bike. It is therefore vital that you programme sufficient recovery time in your plan and resist the temptation to go too hard too soon.
So to conclude, we have the following example plans for our two riders:
Rider A – Goal of finishing the 100km Sportive
Rider B – Goal of finishing the 100km Sportive with a gold medal time
I hope the above has been helpful and will equip you with the tools needed to build yourself a functional training plan. If you would like to discuss any aspect of training or the coaching services I offer in more detail, then please do not hesitate to get in touch with me via my contact details below.
Robert Cartledge is a personal trainer, cycling coach and owner of Le Domestique Tours (www.ledomestiquetours.co.uk), with a wealth of experience that has seen him personally complete and coach riders for a wide range of endurance and ultra endurance cycling events including sportives, multi-day events such as the Raid Pyrenean and Le Domestique Tours’ own King of the Mountains and the Race Across America. If you are interested in speaking to Robert either about the tours offered by Le Domestique Tours or his coaching services, then he can be contacted via http://www.ledomestiquetours.co.uk/contact/, twitter @ledomtours and facebook.com/ledomtours
Food Not Gels – Mixing the Berries by Rob Cartlege, Le Domestique Tours
Why Chia Seeds? The answer should really be why not! Not only are they gluten/grain free naturally, but one tablespoon of Chia Seedshas more calcium than a glass of milk, more Omega-3s than Salmon, and more antioxidants than blueberries. They add an extra punch of energy to this food not gels recipe and also a nice bit of crunch, so it just doesn’t feel like your eating Aeroplane Jelly on the bike.
Tips & Hints
The Marmotte sportive is one of the best known annual assaults on the Alps, with cyclists tackling a 174.4 km route while notching up in excess of 5000m of climbing via the Col du Glandon, Col du Télégraph, Col du Galibier and the most famous of them all, Alpe d’Huez.
With this route staying fixed for over 30 years, the Marmotte differs to events such as the Etape, by providing many tens of thousands of cyclists with a chance to test themselves against the clock on a consistent course. Conditions differ each year, yet this route stays constant, so how should one go about training for and riding such an event? Well that’s what I’ll attempt to answer here.
Now whether you “just ride”, design your own training plans for yourself or even have a coach who plans sessions for you, the first step when working out your training is to set some goals. Do you just want to finish regardless of time, do you want to set a gold medal time or are you riding the Marmotte as part of the Le Trophée de l’Oisans? Working out your goal at this stage and assessing whether it is realistic (i.e. based on your experience level, time available to train etc etc), is vital, so ensure you do this before embarking on a training plan.
With your goal in hand you must then decide how to focus your training plan and this can only be done by assessing the requirements of your goal event. I’ll list a couple of attributes below and then discuss their relevance to the Marmotte:
1. Ability to out sprint your friends on a club run
2. Ability to hold a high but steady power output for long periods
3. Ability to drop your mates on one of your local climbs in the UK
So which one is most relevant to the Marmotte? I’d have a guess that a good number of you would guess at number 3, however I’m afraid that is not the case.
1. While it is great to out sprint your mates to the coffee shop, the Marmotte requires measured efforts over the course of a full day in the saddle. In addition it is unlikely that you will need to launch a killer attack on the Galibier to gap the rider closest to you (much as you’d love to live out that TdF fantasy you are probably best off not doing it during the Marmotte).
2. Kerching, this is what we are looking for as I explain in detail below.
3. This certainly isn’t going to do you any harm, but I’m afraid your local 1km/19% hill doesn’t hold much comparison with the 21.3k climb of the Glandon (never mind what is to come later in the day), so short sharp hill efforts aren’t really going to cut the mustard.
“Tempo”, “FTP” or “Threshold”
This is what we are really getting at with number two, i.e. your ability to hold a consistently high power output for long periods of time. This concept can be referred to as any of the above terms, with Tempo being a traditional term that you have likely heard the commentators use while watching the TdF, while FTP (functional threshold power) and threshold tend to be used by those who train with a power meter or by heart rate (from now on I’ll group this concept into the word “threshold” to save my word count).
To understand these concepts we’ll take a quick deviation to discuss the three energy systems:
1. ATP-CP – this energy system provides explosive maximal output for very short periods of time. It is rarely used in cycling, with the only real example of its predominant use being a standing start in a track event.
2. Anaerobic – this is predominantly used for high output, short duration (around 20 seconds to 2 mins) efforts. Waste products from the anaerobic system contribute to the acute “burn” feeling that you have no doubt experienced in your leg muscles causing you to slow down. This is the system you are predominantly taxing when you you go for point 3 above on those short steep climbs.
3. Aerobic – this is the predominant system used in endurance cycling and can in theory go on forever if enough fuel and oxygen are provided. There are no waste products from the aerobic system meaning that work doesn’t produce that burning feeling. This is the predominant system during endurance cycling.
It is important to understand that these systems never work in isolation, however as endurance cyclists, the vast majority of our output is governed by the aerobic energy system. Threshold is therefore referring to the very top end of your aerobic energy system’s output, at the point just shy of the anaerobic system taking over the main body of work, as this is where the maximum output can be obtained with the minimum of time or waste product limitations of the other systems.
So why the focus on threshold for the Marmotte? Well, we know that the Marmotte climbs are an hour plus in length even for a highly competent rider, so we cannot rely on our anaerobic or ATP CP abilities to get us through. We can therefore equally determine that our aerobic system is going to be taking the vast majority of the workload and that we should therefore focus on ensuring this is as efficient as it can be, as this will maximise our power output. Threshold builds into this as being the highest output within that energy system, so it is this that we should seek to improve in order to maximise our speed for the least cost.
No shortcuts for hard work – the 2X20
Now unfortunately, raising one’s threshold is not an easy task that can be completed by banging out a series of short sharp intervals that leave you dying on the handlebars. Threshold can only be raised by spending comparatively long periods of time at or close to it in training. You must therefore learn to embrace the concept of the long interval, with the infamous 2×20 being a core of this type of training.
The reason the 2×20 has become such a popular session is that the 20 minute intervals are long enough to tax your aerobic system, without leading to the tedium, pain and boredom of an uninterrupted hour on the turbo. How a 2×20 session would pan out is as follows:
0-10 mins – warm up from cold to full working level
10-30 mins – first interval aiming for a consistent level of output at or just below the limit of your capability
30-35 mins – spin out
35-55 mins – second interval again aiming for a consistent level of output at or just below the limit of your capability
55-65 – warm down
So the first 20 acts as your introduction, ending with you feeling taxed but within the realms of comfort. The 5 min spin allows you to recover some of your exertions, but isn’t sufficient for a full recovery, meaning you start the second 20 with a pre fatigued system. There’s no way around it, a 2×20 done properly will hurt and will leave you suffering, however it will work wonders for your threshold power when built into a programme focussed on such gains. In addition to the 2×20, sessions such as the 1×30, 2×30, 3×20 and so on can also be programmed to great effect.
The importance of the long ride
Climbing the Glandon, Télégraph, Galibier and Alpe aside, the Marmotte is also an incredible long ride, with over 170km in the saddle. As a result, riders cannot afford to solely focus on threshold sessions, but must also make time for a weekly long ride in order to adapt to spending many hours in the saddle. This not only gives you a mental and training boost, it also readies your body (particularly your knees) for the challenge ahead. While of course life can get in the way, it is of paramount importance that you build up your ride distance over the winter, spring and early summer to ensure that you are working towards that goal distance. The sooner you start this process the better you will be come next July.
Opinion is split on whether riding the full distance of any long distance event is wise, with opponents arguing that any good that comes out of such a ride is tempered by the additional recovery time required in the aftermath. It is also largely depends on the person, as some like to know that they can at least do the distance before hand even, if they can’t replicate the climbing. For me this is a personal choice and one which is fed into by your personal goals, but if you have the time available and are a suitable length of time out from the Marmotte, I believe completing the distance can give you a mental boost that will make all the difference on the day.
Finally, if you cannot stomach solo riding or would like an intermediate goal to help keep you motivated over the winter, then sign up to some reliability rides, sportives or an early season training camp. Each option will help motivate you and you’ll find that your distance numbers accumulate very easily.
Patience and stringing things together
Caution must be urged when entering into a new training programme and particularly when engaging in dedicated threshold sessions, as they are extremely taxing on your system and you therefore must ensure you build in adequate recovery time. For a fairly new or occasional rider, this may mean programming no more than one such session a week in the early stages, whereas an experienced rider may be able to get away with two or even three sessions a week. The best advice is to listen to your body and programme accordingly – don’t make the mistake of pushing too hard too early and risking injury. Equally, don’t expect miracles, your handwork will pay off, but it will take time.
Building up mileage over the course of weeks is far better than jumping in at the deep end, so unless you have been riding regularly prior to signing up for the Marmotte, don’t make the mistake of taking on too much at once. Increase the distance of your weekly long ride by no more than 5-10% a week and ensure that every month you back things off slightly to give your body a chance to recover.
This leads on to my other major point which is that the Marmotte is many months away and in order to make any long term improvement (particularly in your threshold power), you need to build a series of weeks and months of consistent training. Slap dash weeks of six days off the bike followed by a really hard or long ride, will make achieving consistent gains very difficult and will do your motivation levels no good, so while it may be unavoidable at times, attempting to put together solid blocks of training is by far the best strategy.
This is where a written training plan comes in to its own as you can record your progress alongside planning your sessions on the bike to ensure you are maximising your enjoyment and improvements. The written plan also has great benefits to motivation, making it far less easy to convince yourself not to ride on that Wednesday in January when you don’t quite fancy it.
These thoughts are some way off at the moment, but huge gains on the day can be made by riding smart. Many riders will tear off up the valley road on route to the Glandon and use the flat section between it and the Télégraph as a pseudo time trial, but this strategy is likely to result in them blowing up not long after. Recognise the fact that those 174km will require you to withhold in the early and mid stages in order to finish, so by moderating your efforts early in the day you will leave enough in the tank for the latter stages. In addition, though I am by no means suggesting that you race down the descents, the masterclasses that we offer on our Mallorca training camps will provide you with the skills to descend safely and in a relaxed and comfortable fashion. This will ensure you aren’t wasting energy on the descents by being tense or scared, while also nudging up your average speed (which could prove vital towards the latter stages).
Bourg to Glandon – find a group that are riding at an entirely comfortable pace for you and stick with them using the drafting effect to best use to shield you. Once on the Glandon ride at a pace that feels completely comfortable. You shouldn’t be anywhere close to full exertion at this point and should ensure your fluid and energy intake is high.
Glandon descent – take it steady, being particularly careful on the initial narrow sections towards the top. Try to flow and avoid death gripping the handlebars and brakes as this will make the bike skittish and unpleasant to ride.
Valley section to the base of the Télégraph – find a group riding steady and stick with them. This section can be tempting to race, but you’ll need that energy later on so take things steady and take on more energy and fluids.
Base of the Telegraph to Col du Galibier – this is a long stretch and one in which you will likely begin to dig deep particularly as you near the higher slopes of the Galibier. Focus on holding a steady rhythm and accept the fact that you will be on this section for several hours. Ensuring your energy levels are topped up is vital as is avoiding dehydration if the weather is hot.
Col du Galibier to Bourg – the upper sections are again technical, with the road widening as you lose height. Be particularly careful where the road rejoins the tunnel road as this corner can be a bottleneck. Use the following section to ensure your energy intake is high and your fluid intake is good. Be careful in the tunnels further down, being particularly careful to assess other riders around you as their mistakes may cause you to fall. The final valley road section to Bourg is straightforward (head wind notwithstanding) but again don’t overdo it.
Bourg to Alpe d’Huez – by this point you will probably be calling up everything you have from the engine room, so just do your best to keep on turning the pedals. Though the temptation to stop may be extremely high, I would avoid doing so at all costs as it is incredibly difficult to get going again. Counting off the hairpins in your head helps to break down the climb into manageable chunks and the support on the hill should give you a much needed boost.
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