Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Next Level

Peaks Coaching Group Scott Moninger

What’s the next level? What does that mean and how do you get there? Everyone is always talking about the next level and that they are going to "the next level." What exactly is the next level that they're referring to? Do you want to have more endurance? Do you want a higher FTP? Do you want more "matches" in your matchbox? Or do you just want more of everything!

Well, of course it’s that last one. “Sir, can you just give me more of everything, please?” But really, can you have more of everything at the same time, or should you just focus on improving one area and then another and then another until finally you have more of everything? The question is of course really about improvement and making sure you go faster on a bicycle. The challenge is how to go faster on a bicycle.

Once you have established that you want to improve, you need to consider what is more important for you to improve in. If you want to take yourself to the next level, that means really improving in every part of your fitness. When we examine the overall picture of fitness, it’s really your threshold power that holds you back from that next level. If George Hincapie could all of a sudden go to the next level and now crack out 450 watts at FTP, versus his norm of 420, then I would say that he’s at the next level. Does this mean his sprint has also improved or that his ability to go hard on short steep hills has improved?  Probably not, but maybe now that his FTP has increased so much, he won’t ever be in a position in which he needs to do a sprint as he is winning solo off the front.   This was the case with a masters athlete that I coached last year.  He had focused on improving his sprint and vo2 max power, which did improve and now he was more competitive in his masters category, but still wasn’t winning races in a dominating fashion and occasionally still being pipped at the line by his archrival. The solution was to ‘go to the next level’.  I had him focus on improving his FTP solely and not worrying about his sprint or Vo2 or any other specific area of fitness.  He increased the amount of training he did by 15-20%, (which was a struggle for a masters rider with family, work, etc.) and he did more sub-threshold and threshold intervals than he had ever wanted to do.   This focused effort of nearly 3 months working in one area made a difference as his FTP went up more than 30 watts that season over previous seasons.  With this 30 watt increase in FTP, he no longer needed to contend in sprint finishes or worry about short hills, as he just simply rode away from everyone that he competed against.  So, how do you get there?  What training should you do in order to make that quantum leap?  To push yourself farther than you have gone and make it to ‘the next level’.

The first thing that has to be done is focus on improving your threshold power as that is what determines the ‘level’ that you are riding in.   The average speed of a category 4 race is determined by the collective average threshold power of riders in the peloton and that is a lower power to weight ratio than the Category 3 riders, etc.  So basically if you want to ride in the Category 3 peloton and you are now a Category 4 racer, then you need to increase your threshold power to at least the median of all the racers in the Category 3 pack. When your threshold has improved to the new level, you can then tune the engine so to speak with shorter, harder intervals that give you more race specific qualities.  Here are four key things that you need to do in order to go to the next level.

  1. Increase your overall training stress by 15-20%.  This is something that many masters and category racers overlook.   So many of us are time constrained that it’s impossible to get in a ride longer than 2 hours each day and even on the weekend.  If you want to go to the next level though, you are going to have to figure out how to squeeze it in….. and doing (2) separate rides in one day is not going to do it.   You have to get in (2) big rides each month and preferably (3) big rides.  Rides that are at least 5-6 hours long that force you to dig deep near the end, so that when you reach home, you are tired and your muscles are quivering(not cramping though) from the fatigue.   This is the #1 thing you can do and you cannot skip this step if you want to go to the next level, no matter if you are a pro or a recreational cyclist, you have to increase the miles, hours, and overall volume of training stress in order to challenge your cardiovascular and muscular system enough to create positive adaptations for the future.  Those longer rides enhance your endurance and there is no substitute for them.   I have listened to countless stories of riders talking about how they just can’t improve any more no matter how many intervals they do or how many group rides they ride in, yet they never do rides that are 5 hours or longer.

  2. Focus on doing longer intervals at or very near your functional threshold power (FTP).   You are going to need to do at least 40-60 minutes of work from 91-105% of your FTP three days a week and then bump it up from there.  After 3 weeks of riding at this level, you need to increase the amount of time spent at or near FTP to 60-90 minutes, where one session a week will be a long ride and have nearly 90 minutes of riding at your FTP.  Start out with (3) x 10minutes at 105% of FTP and build up so that you are doing (3) x 30minutes at 100% of FTP, with lots of little steps in between. If you get too tired to ride right at your FTP, then lower the wattages down to your ‘sweet-spot’ wattage, 88-93% of FTP and continue from there.  You’ll still get plenty of training stress and as long as you can maintain at least 88% or so, then you should be training intensely enough to get improvements in your threshold.

  3. REST between sessions.   Give yourself a rest day between each training day.  If you are really serious and want to improve your FTP, then you will need a rest day between each workout.   This is another important step because if you are doing intervals and don’t hit any numbers each day, then you won’t be receiving the same benefits either!   The beauty of your power meter is that you have a goal wattage to hold in each interval, so you know you are training correctly.  The power meter also tells you when you can’t do the work and that is equally important to know.   If you head out to do a threshold workout and you can’t hit your goal wattages,  and then give yourself some  rest (endurance pace) and try again in 20 minutes.   If you still can’t hit them, it’s time to go home and rest up for another try the next day.

  4. Quality and Quantity counts.   You want to hit those intervals and at the same time you need to also get in a much larger quantity of intervals/work in the legs. Most of the time you are going to emphasize quality over quantity, because if you can’t physically produce the wattages at your threshold power, then you are not straining your systems enough to improve.  For example, you could do (4) x 10 minutes at threshold power with 10 minute rests between each and still get in a total of 40 minutes at threshold , which is better than doing (2) x 20 and the first effort is at FTP, but the second one you can only eek out 85% of ftp.  So, for certain focus on the quality first and if you start to fatigue, shorten the interval length (no shorter than 10 minutes though) in order to still hit the goal wattages.   As you get stronger and stronger, you’ll be able to do more and more intervals and lengthen the total amount of work done at threshold, and eventually you’ll be doing (3) x 30minutes or even (1) x 60 minutes and (1) x 30 minutes.  In that last interval set of each workout, remind yourself that it’s ‘this’ one that really counts. It’s always the last hill repeat, the last interval, the last week of your  build cycle that really makes the difference.  So dig deep in that last effort in order to really get the most out of the effort.    The intervals themselves and how you execute them are also important. If you start too hard in the effort, then you won’t be able to maintain your threshold pace or higher for the entire effort.  If you start too easy, you are cheating yourself of precious training strain.  So, proper pacing is critical to success when doing all intervals, especially threshold ones.  I recommend that you start out quickly to get up to speed, but no need to sprint, then immediately settle in on your threshold pace or 10-15 higher .   Hold this pace until the last minute or so of the effort and then bring up your pace by 10-20% and push hard to the very end.  This gives you a ‘double peak’ shape in your downloaded power file with a peak of wattage in the beginning and then another peak at the end.  This is the ideal pacing strategy for a time trial, threshold interval and many other intervals as well.
The next level isn’t as easy as just doing some random intervals, riding 50 more miles each week or by focusing on one specific energy system alone. It’s the combination of all of these things done in a rational, progressive manner that allows you to overload your lactate threshold system and then when you rest, it improves to give you a higher threshold power.  It does take time and do at least three months of highly focused training on your threshold before expecting any significant gains.   There will be days when you are tired and there’ll be days when you are doubting whether the training is working or even worth it.  You have to have faith and push through these days as if we only trained on the days that we felt great, then not much training would get done at all.   The next level is there, and you can get there if you work for it with an intelligent and focused plan.


If you would like to use this plan,  Hunter has built this plan to be uploaded into your TrainingPeaks account.   Purchase it here.

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


  1. Hunter,

    Reference 3) above.

    When you say rest between does that mean no riding or is easy riding ok?

    Also I find it is hard to keep the weekly TSS average up without doing back to back days early in the week and the same on the weekend. Thoughts or ideas?


  2. Thanks for reading, Trevor! Rest means full rest, off the bike. Stretching or yoga class is fine. I would rather you take the full day off to recover as much as you can.

    That’s the hardest part, doing enough TSS. There is no other solution than doing exactly what you are doing. It’s not an easy plan and challenges you in many ways. Follow it and do your best, and you’ll be at the next level!


  3. Hello. I read a study recently stating that greater improvements made by blocking at least 50% of interval sessions into the first week of a 4-5wk cycle. Thn spread the remaining intervals days over the rest of the "hard" weeks prior to the recovery week. Any thoughts?

  4. Sorry, Skatebomb, I haven’t read that study. Can you point me to it? Not sure what they might mean by "blocking."


  5. My bad, Hunter. The idea is actually in the book "High-Performance Training for Sports".

  6. Hi Hunter,

    In your The Next Level training plan, you suggested on Day 2 to do 3x10mins at FTP and 5-10mins rest in between.

    Can you define rest? Complete stop or z1 peddling?

  7. Hi Lukman! Rest is zone 1: less than 56% of FTP. Thanks for reading!

  8. Hi Hunter
    Is it me or does it seem this approach is vastly different than the approach you prescribe in the What to Do Next: A VO2Max Intensive Plan article.... both are about how to get to the next level of FTP gains, but very different training. Why is that?

  9. Thanks for reading, Marcos! You are correct: they are different. Because they're each meant for different people or different times. The Next Level is for those who have been stuck at the same level for a long time and are fed up with it; they're ready to up their hours, push harder than ever, and do what it takes to get to the next level. The VO2Max intensive is made for those who already have a super solid base of FTP work with a high FTP and want to up their FTP and VO2Max. The volume of VO2Max intervals can give you a short-term boost in your FTP, and that’s the real goal of the VO2Max intensive program. Hope this helps!

  10. I saw one of your youtube videos last night and read your book. This is one of the best reads I have found on increasing FTP which is key focus for me this season. What phase for Triathlon should I start working on building FTP? Base 2/3/Build 1/2?

  11. Sorry if I am peoducing duplicate comments here. This kind of training seems to be rather unconventional. If you substract the z1 rides from your the next level-plan you are left with something like 9-11h and a training frequency of only 3 times a week. While I am still able to mantain a highish TSS I especially find the very low training frequency irritating. I understand the idea of going into the threshold work as fresh as possible nevertheless there must be a reason most programs feature a significantly higher training frequency and microcycles of 3 or even more consecutive days? What are the downsides of this kind of training?

  12. Hi Hunter, i follow the Next Level Program of yours and (starting 7 week now)
    i see great results. Is it possible to repeat the program after a break and when is the ideal season to start it again during the year ...after the winter base training, maybe?
    Is it wise to do after the VO2 Max intensive plan or wait for the next year?
    Thanks in advance

  13. Hi John -- that’s great to read! I am glad to hear you are doing well and seeing great results. Outstanding! Yes, you can reuse the plan later when you like. I would do it after you have done my Winter Program and then the first 8 weeks of the Threshold Improvement plan. That will give you a very solid foundation of fitness to build on, and you’ll be ready for the next level.

    The VO2Max intensive is designed to do during the season, normally in the April/May/June/July time range. If you are racing cyclocross this year, you could do the VO2Max intensive this season; otherwise wait till next year. Hope this helps!


  14. I am just about to start this program. I got the program from training peaks, and added it to my calendar. I've estimated the weekly TSS (for the first 8 weeks) and it seems my CTL will have a downward trend. So i am now at 80 CTL and by week 8 i will be around 65.

    Should I make some of the recovery rides in zone 2 to raise the TSS, should I add another long ride during the week, or should I leave it like it is?

  15. Hi Sircyclealot

    Great question and good thinking ahead.
    1) Add in (3) x 15minutes at FTP on one day during the weekend
    2) Lengthen 1 weekend ride to 4-5 hours.
    3) If needed, you can also increase time for one day during week to an additional hour or two. If you do this, then I would make sure it’s some solid tempo work with bursts in there to keep the legs moving.

    Hope this helps!
    Go for it!

  16. Hunter,

    I definitely need to do some solid work to push my FTP up and like the idea of really focusing on threshold efforts. But as a masters athlete (43), should I be concerned about losing VO2Max if I'm only doing FTP work? There's been a lot of talk lately about 'use it or lose it' with masters athletes, if you don't regularly do at least some VO2Max work, you lose it pretty quickly. Thanks.

  17. J Walker - You definitely need to incorporate VO2 workouts into your regime, along with sprinting and anaerobic work too. Do them all. The trick is how to plan them in effectively and just the right amount. ;-)
    Have a look at my pre-built training plans on


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