For cyclists short on training time, here’s some good news: there is a way to get faster with less than 10 hours of training per week. You don’t need to limit yourself to criteriums or time trials, either. In an average of an hour of training per day, you can get yourself into race shape for a 100-mile road race. Here’s how.
Get Into Your Sweet Spot
The biggest challenge for amateur cyclists facing a Century is its duration. Thus, time becomes the most important aspect of training as you approach race day. Assuming you’ve been training less than 10 hours per week, you might be used to high-intensity intervals that target your Sweet Spot, Threshold, and VO2max training zones. But for a 100-mile race, it is your sustained power that is most important.
The best way to increase your sustained power is to increase your FTP and aerobic engine. There are many different schools of thought on how to best achieve this, with the two most popular methods being Polarized Training and Sweetspot Training. One study found that a few rounds of 30-second intervals were enough to significantly increase fitness in just 90 minutes of riding per week.
Polarized training often requires higher training volume, so in this article, we’re going to focus on Sweet Spot training, which emphasizes sustained power intervals just below FTP. Sweet Spot training allows you to achieve a higher Training Stress Score® compared to other training approaches and is more sustainable than Threshold or VO2max training.
Up the Intensity
Defined as the idea that your workouts need to increase in difficulty in order for you to improve, progressive overload is a principle used in a variety of exercise and training models. Every workout you do puts a certain amount of stress on your body, and with that stress comes adaptation (given that you’re resting adequately). After a certain amount of training, your body will have fully adapted to a given stimulus and will cease to improve without an increase in exercise stress.
When training for a Century, the principle of progressive overload can be applied to your longest ride of the week, the duration of intervals, or your weekly TSS®. Since your training volume stays the same (i.e., 10 hours), you must increase the intensity of your rides or the duration of your intervals in order to improve your fitness and FTP.
A good example of this can be found in my 12wk Fondo Preparation Plan. In this four-week block, I use progressive overload to increase weekly TSS®, intensity and duration of Sweet Spot intervals, and duration of weekend Zone 2 rides.
Focus on Race-Specific Training
To make the most out of your 10 hours per week, avoid junk miles and limit your intervals to those which will help you most in your target event. Junk miles are typically miles that are too easy and very choppy — when your power is low, you’re distracted or talking, or you’re sitting on the bike but hardly pedaling. This can happen on city streets, a long descent, or in the draft of a group ride. Of course, cycling is fun, and there is a time and a place for group rides and long descents. But when your time is extremely limited, you want every pedal stroke to count.
This idea can be applied to your interval selection as well. There are a million and one different interval sessions that you can do, but given limited training time, focus on interval sessions that most directly apply to your goal.
For example, if your goal race is a 100-mile flat gravel race, focus on long Sweet Spot intervals for the rough sections and headwind stretches, and steady Zone 2 rides which get you more comfortable on the pedals for hours at a time. On the other hand, if your goal event is a 100-mile mountainous Fondo, research the length and expected duration of each climb. If you’re expecting 30-minute climbs on race day, then prepare with 2×20-minute Sweet Spot intervals to get used to that level and duration of intensity.
Take Baby Steps, Not Giant Leaps
When it comes to progressive overload, it’s important to remember that small weekly increases in your training load (5-10%) are best for increasing fitness and avoiding burnout. Going from 5 hours per week to 15 hours per week of training, for example, is a recipe for disaster, injury, and burnout. Whether it’s weekly volume, your Saturday Zone 2 ride, or the power target for Tuesday’s intervals, you should never increase last week’s number by more than 10% without a coach’s consultation. Always remember that a coach can help you craft a well-balanced training plan that will lead you to your goals without leaving you injured or demotivated.
Gibala, M.J. et al. (2012, January 30). Physiological adaptations to low-volume, high-intensity interval training in health and disease. Retrieved from https://physoc.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1113/jphysiol.2011.224725
McArdle, W. D., Katch, F. I., & Katch, V. L. Exercise Physiology: Nutrition, Energy, and Human Performance. Baltimore, MD: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2010.