What kind of workouts are best to do during the pre-competition phase — also called the build phase — of training? Good question. First, let’s delve into what goes on during this period, and why it’s important to optimize your training during the build phase to meet your cycling race goals.
Pre-Competitive Preparation (Build) Phase
The goal of this phase is to prepare you for your specific race requirements. These requirements — race time and intensity — are quite different for a mountain bike cross country racer (with an event that lasts around 1.5 to 2 hours), a road racer (with a single-day event that lasts between 2 and 4 hours), and an endurance racer (with a single-day event that lasts between 5 and 12 hours).
An athlete that has minimal conditioning has different requirements for this phase of training than an athlete that is highly conditioned. For the purposes of this article, let’s assume you have a high level of general and specific preparation fitness. Some coaches would say you have a solid base and good early build fitness, which will allow you to slip seamlessly into the build phase.
For optimal results, use the block periodization method to plan for your build phase. The chart below illustrates the interrelationship between training volume and training intensity. Notice how training volume is reduced and intensity begins to increase during the Pre-Competitive/Specific Preparation Build Phases. Don’t hesitate to use more than one block within this phase, such as Pre-Competitive 1, 2, 3, and 4. As a coach, how many blocks I use depends on the race schedule and needs of the individual athlete. You can also treat your lower-priority races as training events, just don’t try to go easy during training races — go there to race and use the event to prepare.
General Strategies for the Pre-Competitive Phase
Some racers feel really good and fast during this phase, so they might be tempted to add more intensity or volume. Others get fearful they aren’t doing enough, so they do the same. Whatever you do, resist this temptation.
The majority of riders do best with two to three breakthrough, or stressful, workouts each week. Rare is the athlete that can successfully handle four such workouts. I define a ‘stressful workout’ as having long duration (relative to the key race), high intensity (at threshold or above), or a combination of both.
Most riders do well with two weeks of higher volume and intensity, followed by one week of recovery with lower volume and intensity. Others are better served by one week on followed by one week of recovery. Don’t be afraid to use a combination of weekly loads that maximize your fitness gains, even if that is different than what others do.
3 Key Weekly Workouts for Cyclists
As you might imagine, the key workouts that are best suited for your racing goal will depend on your specific event’s demands. But for a good rough guide, here are three weekly key workouts that MTB, road, and endurance riders can use during the build phase. In all cases, your goal is to train, in measured doses, for the physical and mental demands needed for racing so you can peak for your big event.
Training for Mountain Bike Cross-Country Races
This event may last some 1.5 to 2 hours and often requires climbing ability that lasts around 20 minutes, with higher efforts interspersed to clear obstacles or to pass a competitor. There is often no recovery during these events due to the technical nature of descending. Three key workouts you should be doing each week may include:
- Long ride: For experienced riders, a long ride of 2.5 to 3 hours builds plenty of event endurance. This ride can be a race or a spirited group ride. Aim to ride courses similar to your key race. Include some intensity at all training zones.
- Workout 1: Threshold intervals. I prefer this ride be done on a dirt road or on a road bike so you can control intensity. After a good warm-up, do 5 to 8 repeats of 3 to 4 minutes at threshold power or heart rate (Zone 4 or 4-5a) with 1-minute recoveries. With a conservative start at the beginning, you can increase the number of reps per workout as the weeks progress. This format, rather than 20-minutes sustained, typically yields a higher average power output for the work segments.
- Workout 2: Because your weekly long ride likely includes efforts in the 2- to 3-minute range, make the third workout Miracle Intervals. These short, very high effort intervals with long recoveries serve many purposes — getting you off the start line in a good starting position on the single track is one such purpose.
Training for Road Races
For a road race close to the 2-hour mark, you can use the recommendations in the mountain bike section. For longer races that last some 3 to 4 hours, things change:
- Long ride: Keep a long ride of 4 to 5 hours, completed at least once during each two- or three-week block of the pre-competitive cycle. It can be a mixed intensity ride at all zones or a ride that is mostly sub-threshold. Which strategy you use depends on how well you recover.
- Workout 1: The ability to generate high, sustained power efforts above lactate threshold for around 3 minutes is often the make or break intensity for road racing. A classic workout to train this ability is 5 to 7 repeats of 3 minutes at power levels of 106 to 120 percent of threshold, or Zone 5b for those using heart rate. Recover for 3 minutes between each work interval.
- Workout 2: You can use the threshold intervals (Workout 1) from the cross country section, or a variation that uses heart rate and a power meter in tandem. Heart rate is the cap for intensity, so produce as much power as possible during the last half of the interval time without exceeding the top end of your lactate threshold. I like work bouts in the 5- to 6-minute range and recovery intervals of easy spinning at Zone 1 intensity for about 2 minutes. Think “most speed, least cost.”
Training for Endurance Races
The race time in this category is broad at 5 to 12 hours. On the top end, this includes events like LoToJa or the Leadville 100 Mountain Bike Race. Your three key weekly workouts can include:
- Long ride: Split the long ride between two days, back-to-back. The combined duration of the two days should total some 50- to 100-percent of the race distance. For example, if you think your key event will take 10 hours then your two-day combination might be 3 hours on Saturday and 5 hours on Sunday. Put the longer ride second and make it mostly aerobic (Zones 1 to 2) with very limited time at higher zones.
- Workout 1: The first day of the weekend, Saturday in the example, includes more intensity. Endurance riders benefit by increasing power just below lactate threshold or in the tempo zone (Zone 3). The intensity time can be a random accumulation of 20 to 60 minutes of tempo time or more structured intervals. The intervals can be split into two or more sets within the workout. For example, 5 repeats at 4 minutes long, with 1-minute recoveries, completed two or three times within the ride. Separate sets by 10 minutes or more.
- Workout 2: Placed well away from the weekend, at mid-week, this workout can be either threshold intervals or Miracle Intervals, both previously mentioned. You can also alternate these workouts every other week.
To get the most out of this training block, it is important to get enough recovery to generate the power and speed needed to improve fitness. You will know you are not getting enough recovery by one or more indicators. Examples include poor sleep, reduced power output for a heart rate “cost” that is either too high or too low, legs that feel heavy, and a crabby-pants attitude. I’m not kidding about that last one, and it is often the first clue that you’re not getting enough recovery.
Work on the areas of fitness that have limited your success in the past, while maintaining your strengths. By being a keen observer of numbers (like speed, heart rate, and power) and the more subtle indicators, you can make the necessary adjustments to your training that will deliver peak performance.