Top athletes have clear targets.
Preparing in the Spring gives you a 12 -week headstart on the rest of the racers in your club.
Are you going to keep hanging off the pack, or is this the year that you set your foot down and up the game?
Daily, I remind myself of this quote from Tim Grover (Michael Jordan’s coach):
“All men are created equal. Some work harder in the pre-season.” – Emmitt Smith
Determine Your Goals
Your goals determine your focus.
Your focus dictates what habits you must incorporate for the next 6-12 weeks.
Each one of the four sections below should get 6-8 weeks of primary focus. Of course, depending on your time restraints, you can overlap them some.
For example, your 6-week stretch might use 3-speed workouts and one endurance workout every week. Or you might hit the gym three times and still have time for two long-distance rides.
If time is short, focus on developing one skill at a time. Granted, this focus might mean taking 2-3 years to reach your initial goals, but even Jim Miller — coach for Kristin Armstrong (winner of three Olympic Gold medals) — says that it takes seven years to develop most professional cyclists.
The spoils go to the dedicated.
What is the one thing you can do that will make the most significant impact on your performance?
Pick Your Fitness Goal:
- Increase Strength – In a 2010 study, strength training was determined to improve cycling economy (producing more power with lower oxygen requirements) by 5%. That’s the difference riding 50 miles in 2 hours or riding 50 miles in 2 hours and 10 minutes. Pretty significant.
- Increase Endurance – This is the core of every serious cyclist’s training plan. Over 80% of your performance is dependent on your aerobic metabolism. Long rides in the saddle are the only way to improve that. Sure you can focus on HIIT training and be ok on the club rides. But if you want to be at the top, time in the saddle is a must — or so one argument goes.
- Increase Climbing Ability – Hills are where legends are born. It requires increased power and decreased weight. Bottom line is you’ve got to lose weight and practice climbing more hills.
- Increase Speed – Getting dropped is maddening. For the racer, consistent sprint wins deliver the racing contracts. The good news is, you can see faster times in as little as six weeks of training.
Pick A Goal, and then click or scroll down to get my preseason workout plan.
Regardless of your goal, keep these tips in mind:
- Don’t Overtrain
- Crosstraining=Enjoyment & Injury Prevention
These workouts are geared for the road rider but work equally as well for the mountain cyclist.
When Does The Cycling Season Start?
The real question is: how much time do YOU have to train before your buddies smear your butt on the asphalt like a bug on a windshield?
The cycling season is going to vary with your location. The World Tour starts with a race in Austrailia called The Tour Down Under in January. If your budget allows, you can slip across the ocean and do the BUPA challenge tour as part of the event.
However, for US racers, the USA cycling calendar is an excellent way to judge the cycling season for your location. Choosing your state gives you a concrete idea of when the earliest races will be.
In most of the temperate US locations, the road racing picks up full-speed in March or April and runs until September or October.
In October and November, the road racing tends to die off, but the cyclocross and mountain bike sports continue for several more weeks, with several mountain bike races dotted sparsely through the snowy winter months.
Depending on what races you wish to compete in, your preseason will likely last from October 1st to April 1st.As your fitness comes into the calendar in January, it is a smart strategy to choose 4 races that you will commit to. Plan your year around training for them with 2 “recovery” weeks prior to the races.
(You can race more frequently, of course, but most elite athletes choose 2-4 races that they train all year for.)
That is a pretty significant window to recover from the season and begin focusing on your weight loss and strength training for the next year.
As cyclists, it is easy to want to skip the gym.
Looking at the local club ride, we all have skinny chests, at least some version of a beer belly, and massive quads.
Are we willing to settle for this?
I hope not.
Strength training decreases injury: It doesn’t even have to be a high-impact strength training program (although I am a fan of weights.) In this study, plyometric exercises reduced ACL injuries, and core strength is one of the most reliable indicators of injury susceptibility.
The best strength training plan is going to measure for imbalances in the body, and then seek to correct and “balance” those specific weaknesses. Do you have a weak left side? Which muscle in particular? Identifying and correcting each area of imbalance is the foundation of an injury-free season.
Cycling can overemphasize the Quadricep muscles. Strength training plans for cyclists should focus on strengthening the:
- Inner thighs
Strength training improves performance: In one of the most exciting studies, trained cyclists and runners were subjected to 10 weeks of weight training, three times per week. At the end of this period, they were 30% stronger and could cycle an added 14 minutes at 80% VO2Max before fatiguing.
Those are impressive gains for about 30 hours of work.
Time in the gym means you can take your riding partners to school.
The Strength-Building Workout:
There are vast resources out there that teach you how to perform each exercise (clicking on the images below takes you to a demonstration video.)
I like to keep my workout simple so that I can fit it in on the way home from work.
Wall Squats: Since I struggle with a nagging knee injury, this one is more important for me. Excellent for injury prevention as well as building those stabilizing muscles that help increase power
Excellent for injury prevention as well as building those stabilizing muscles that help increase power
- Squat against a wall for 1 minute.
- Repeat five times.
If you can’t-do 1 minute at a time, perform more sets until you reach the 5-minute mark.
Once you can achieve 5 minutes easily, begin adding dumbbells in each hand.
Hip Bridge With Squeeze: The bridge is critical for those of us with desk jobs to undo the damage of sitting.
This variation of the hip bridge uses a small towel or foam pillow between the legs to help you squeeze them together isometrically. This squeeze strengthens the inner thighs.
- Perform the hip bridge with the pillow between your knees
- Squeeze as hard as you can for 30 seconds.
- Repeat ten times.
*Caution: this exercise may need added padding around the upper neck and can pop ribs out of place if you try to force the bride (seen it happen in yoga class. Not pretty.)
Walking Lunges: Glutes + inner and outer thighs. Well-rounded Burn.
Lunges are your best friend at correcting imbalances. Make sure to keep your knee from going past your toes and maintain an upright body posture. Use Dumbbells for a better workout.
- Lunge (with weights, if possible)
- Repeat 25 times per side (50 steps)
As a bonus, extend your “lunge leg” at a 30-degree angle. You end up doing more of a “zig-zag” pattern with this, but it helps you hit those glutes a little harder.
One Legged Wobble Board: How trashed are your legs?
I believe that some imbalances come from our lack of neuromuscular connection. This exercise ferrets out tiny imbalances that bulk strengthening exercises will miss.
Standing on a wobble board, on one leg, with my eyes closed, for one minute, is one of the hardest challenges I have ever completed.
- Start by working with a wobble board
- Progress to Wobble Board with one leg
- Progress to Wobble Board with closed eyes and both legs
- Progress to Wobble board with closed eyes and one leg
Goal: 1 minute per leg.
Core Workout: Your core dictates your strength
Think of a weak, limp, noodle trying to ride up the side of a mountain.
You, with a weak core, are no different.
A strong core is like a strong carbon fiber bike frame; it allows you to deliver peak power when it matters most.
A powerful core is the fulcrum all of the other muscles work off of. Until you build a powerful core, the rest of your training is also going to be lackluster.
I try to do 10 minutes of core every day and take one day that is 100% core.
For me, core workouts are about variety: Planks, crunches, kettlebell swings, exercise ball twists, yoga poses… I encourage you to pick several workout videos on youtube and make them a weekly habit.
Squats with a Squat Rack: Massive booty gains
The lunges hit your glutes pretty well but hit them again by slipping into the power rack and doing a few more reps.
- 10 reps
- Repeat five times
After I’ve done everything above, I sometimes also hit the hamstring and leg extension machines. Great ways to add a little more strength training to these core muscles.
You can see that I am huge on volume. Bring a wheelchair for when you are done.
An ideal sequence includes two leg days and one core/upper body day a week.
This is where you must start. Every. Damn. Year.
We call it LSD: Long – Steady – Distance
Back when I was racing, Base miles were the priority. Come December I was (supposed to be) on that trainer and grinding them out.
Frankly, I dreaded base miles. It was 3 hours of suffering in the cold, three times a week. My refusal to put in a solid base every year was undoubtedly the reason my cycling career never progressed.
Why Base Matters: The argument for establishing a strong base of mileage is that the time in the saddle improves your energy efficiency, increases mitochondrial production, builds capillaries and increases VO2 Max. The bigger the bottom, the higher of a “mountain” of performance you can then build onto that.
However, there is increasing debate on the validity of spending hours in the saddle, merely to build a base. Sure, for the professional athlete who must ride 150 miles before sprinting to the finish line, excessive time in the saddle makes sense. The same could be argued for the Ultra-distance amateur.
However, mitochondria, vascular development, and VO2 Max can all be increased with shorter, more intense, workouts (we’ll talk more about those below), rendering these long sessions less useful.
In many regards, these long, “slower,” sessions is a strategy for professional athletes to make incremental growth without overtraining. However, we’re seeing more semi-pro athletes transition to shorter, harder workout sessions.
Between working a full-time job and chasing kids, there is little chance of an average bloke like you or I overtraining.
The bottom line is, few of us will ever complete races that last over 3 hours. Most of us just need to increase our lactate threshold so that we can maintain the pace.
I am still a fan of frequent 3-hour+ workouts as a way of
- learning how to manage your body’s energy needs on longer rides
- pushing the mental endurance of a long workout session, and,
- pushing your body into profound glycogen depletion
The Endurance Workout Plan:
Get two to three, 2-hour “tempo rides” in every week. I like to complete these at 80% maximum effort on a flatter course (very similar to how your train for time trials). After your warmup, you want to go right to the point of lactate “burn” and then maintain that level of “burning sensation” in your legs until the 2-hour ride is over. We’re pushing the lactate threshold, here, and increasing your ability to hang on at high speeds. This is also a good workout to do on the trainer.
Add, one, 3-hour ride in per month in at a 70% Maximum effort to push your endurance length. If you still feel fresh at the 2.5- hour mark, increase the tempo to 80% Maximum effort to ensure that you get the full value of the workout in.
How To “Hack” this workout: Go faster for shorter periods.
In the old days, we were required to get as many steady-state miles in as possible. Coach wanted us to have at least a couple thousand miles in between December and March. I’m honestly not sure who sets that baseline. But for me, that was enough mileage to get past my specific knee problems and start working on my hardcore drills.
To this day, I maintain a similar approach to my preseason training. But the science says that a faster, shorter, workout is going to deliver better results.
During the Tour de France, the hills are where fans line the race and dress in costumes. Heroes climb these mountains and leave their mark.
Anyone can go fast on the flats, but hills are where you become a god.
The key of hill climbing is your power-to-weight ratio. You want to remove as much excess weight as possible while gaining power. So your keys are weight loss and power drills.
Hill Climbing Workout
To get better at climbing hills, you must, well, climb hills. Many hills.
- Option A: With mountains and other large hills, you can climb all day. These are the best workouts, as they keep your legs under indescribable pressure for hours. Pace yourself, stay in the saddle and climb smartly.
- Option B: If you have very few hills, you need to find the biggest one and ride it over and over. Boring, but its the only way to get good at it.
- Option C: Our countryside has many, rolling hills. I choose a route with the tallest hills I can find and ride them over and over. I can climb 1500 feet in 15 minutes on this route, and it provides a relentless course that lets me climb, over and over.
- Option D: On a trainer, shift into a high gear that slows you to a 40-60 cadence and suffers for 2 minutes. Recover and repeat.
Losing weight is every bit as important as drilling the hills. Many cyclists have extraordinary results by practicing a low-carb, high-protein diet, and some are going almost entirely vegan (fruit makes an excellent carb source for rides!). Whatever you choose, you need plenty of vegetables(5-7 servings) and measured calories (every elite athlete weighs their intake).
Speed is what determines whether you ride with the peloton or ride alone, off the back, in pain.
The good news is that speed is easy to add. Six to Eight weeks of speed workouts can deliver remarkable gains. I am always amazed at how much my numbers improve over just a few weeks of racing.
To increase speed, you go into the red and hold it for as long as you can. This workout differs from endurance training where you go near the “red line” and then maintain that at tempo.
Here, we are spinning as hard and fast as we can into the pain, recovering, and repeating.
Speed Workout Plan
Most of us use pyramid interval drills or a Tabata-styled drill.
This workout is best performed on a trainer or mostly flat terrain.
(Interval = 90+ cadence with high gear)
Sprint Workout 1
- Warmup 5-10 Minutes
- Interval 5 Minutes
- Recover 2 Minutes
- Interval 4 Minutes
- Recover 2 Minutes
- Interval 3 Minutes
- Recover 2 Minutes
- Interval 2 Minutes
- Cooldown 10 minutes
Sprint Workout 2
- Warmup 5-10 Minutes
- Interval for 60 seconds
- Recover 30 Seconds
- Repeat 10-15 times
- Cooldown 10 minutes
The Importance Of Routine
The number 1 rule about routines is to make a simple one that you know you can stick with.
All too often, we set these insane goals like “go to the gym every day and do an hour-long workout.”
Pshaaaaaw. Who are we kidding?
Short timeframes work for me. So I might start off with, “Ride 30 minutes 3 days a week.”
A 20 or 30-minute ride is super convenient to squeeze in. I tend to ride harder on these efforts to compensate for the shortened workout window.
The result is a short, fast workout that fits my lifestyle with minimal modifications.
You aren’t going to get fit in one bike ride. You find increased fitness through consistency. And a 30-minute workout is long enough to be useful and yet short enough to maintain consistency.
All of the professionals use a routine to stay at the top of their game.
Be ok with starting out slow in the early season. You don’t want to injure yourself and have to sit out the season.
The critical thing is that you ride.
Speed can come later. Get sweaty, but don’t overdo it.
Listen to your body, and use the first few weeks of every season to prepare for what is to come.
We all want an “8-step guide to starting your year off right.”
There are hundreds of guides you can read.
But the #1 most important thing is to train with intensity. Study after study shows that intense training with a solid recovery plan is going to win every time.
During the season, I incorporate at least one speed drill, one tempo drill and one hill workout every week.
I go out for a Tuesday night ride and hang off the back of the local racing boys. Or I set a timer and push as hard as I can for 2 minutes. Recover for a moment. And Repeat.
For the hill drills, I like to either find one long hill and ride up and down it a few times, or just go on the hilliest route. We have a pretty good stretch of hills by us, and if I do it as an out-and-back, I quickly get six make-you-wanna-puke- hill climbs in.
Go On Vacation
Setting up your own “bike camp” is a killer way to have fun and get some specific training in. Call up the buddies and book an Airbnb someplace where it warm and hilly. Ride. Drink Coffee. Repeat.
It’s a luxury that most of us don’t feel we can afford but can reap dividends not only in our health but also in creating one of the most memorable vacations, ever.
An even more beneficial trip would be one of the cycling-specific training camps dotting the lower half of the country. This gives you the VIP treatment of coaches, massage therapists, and even a team chef. You’ll take away tips you can use the entire year.
I’ve already talked about weight lifting, but for me, cross training is as relevant now, as ever.
For me, it is my crappy right knee, and my bum left shoulder blade that appreciates the added attention.
Crosstraining means incorporating yoga, wall squats, and weight lifting into my week. We didn’t talk about Yoga, but I feel years younger after practicing it for 90 days.
Imbalances are a funny thing. They creep up on you and ruin the entire year. You get an IT band that just won’t settle down. And pretty soon you start being identified as the “rider with a bad IT band.”
All along, maybe you just needed to do some extra lunges and foam roller time with that leg to correct an imbalance.
The pre-season is also an excellent time to take up gravel riding, cyclocross or mountain biking. These events typically occur in areas with more trees and you can stay warm while still getting the miles in. Plus, they do wonders for your bike handling skills.
Listen To Your Body
I’m a big fan of listening.
I’m not a big fan of waiting for the body to recover.
So I don’t wait. I find something else to do.
We cyclists get a little too addicted to our sport.
But the goal for 99% of us is full-body health.
So pull out the stretchy bands. Call up the friends and go for a hike. Try some hot yoga.
There’s a lot we can learn from these other disciplines.