It's the number one question at every seminar I teach: How do I get started with a training plan? There is no simple answer to that question, which is why so many people ask it. However, there are some basic steps you have to follow with your power meter before you build a training plan. Let’s review those steps first and then dig into how to build a training plan.
When Dr. Coggan and I decided to write our book, Training and Racing with a Power Meter, we wanted our readers to be able to finish the book knowing the basic steps of using their power meter effectively. Since those steps are in the book, I won’t go into detail here about each one, but a quick review of them will be helpful.
The first step in effectively using your power meter is an easy one; all you need to do is ride your bike and collect data. Don’t change the way you ride; just collect your data for a couple of weeks in order to get a good understanding of how many watts you do up a hard hill, on a long climb, in a breakaway, etc. Once you’ve collected two or three weeks of data, you’ll need to do some testing. I recommend testing four different time periods representative of the four main training zones: your best five-second, one-minute, five-minute, and twenty-minute efforts (your neuromuscular, anaerobic capacity, VO2Max, and threshold power, respectively). Choose a nice day, get in a good warm-up, and choose a flat or steady climbing road with no stop signs and low traffic.
The twenty-minute effort is one of the most important tests to do. Take your average watts from that test and subtract 5% from it; use that as your functional threshold power (FTP). A normal FTP test is sixty minutes long, but the twenty-minute test can be substituted for it as long as you subtract at least 5% off the final value. FTP testing is important because it’s the next step in the process: setting up your training zones (our book contains detailed descriptions of each training zone and what they mean).
Just like anything else in life, the only way to improve an aspect of your training is to recognize you need to improve (test), understand what can be done better (power profile), set some goals, and develop a plan to improve. We can take the findings from our testing data, look at our season-long goals or even upcoming goals, and begin to focus on the steps needed to accomplish those goals.
So for the purpose of this article we need some goals so we can begin to develop a training plan. This is the final step before creating a training plan. Goals are the blueprints a homebuilder creates to make sure he builds the house just the way the owners envision it. Can you imagine buying a load of lumber and some nails, starting to hammer away, and building a house without a blueprint or plan? There’s no telling what you might end up with! Before any training plan can begin, goals must be set and decided upon.
Let’s look at a fictional athlete named Tommy Torque. Tommy wants to peak in mid-July to win the Masters Nationals road race, and he also wants to compete and podium in the time trial. Tommy isn’t concerned with any other races in the year; he only wants to do them to have fun, keep his mind and racing legs sharp, and gain the training effect. This is a great yet scary scenario for a coach to build a training plan for; it means building a plan up to one big peak of fitness in mid-July, which means his training can steadily ramp up higher and higher before a taper period, but it’s also scary because all the eggs are in one basket. This is bike racing, after all, and lots of things can and will happen. The airline might lose your bike. You might get a flat tire in the first mile of the race. You might miss your water bottle hand-up on that critical lap in the feed zone. Those risks, however, are Tommy’s. His coach needs to focus on coming up with the best training plan to put him in the right spot at the right time.
Stephen Covey, one of my favorite authors and speakers, says, “Begin with the end in mind.” That’s exactly where we start when we build a training plan: at the end. We have to work backward to develop the build and rest cycles in the training plan, since we only have so much time between now and Nationals. Working backward, we can build a plan with the traditional three weeks of work followed by one week of rest and include two weeks before Masters Nationals for the rest and taper weeks. I highly recommend doing this in an online training program like TrainingPeaks’ ATP planner, in an excel spreadsheet, or even on a dry erase calendar pinned to your wall. Work backward on your calendar to develop the different training micro-cycles (3:1 work and rest weeks), which will bring you back to your current week. Once there, you can begin to decide which phase of training you need to do in each 3:1 cycle. Not everyone needs or responds to a 3:1 training cycle (I’ve had athletes on a 1:1 or 5:1, etc.), but if you haven’t done a semi-organized training plan like this, a 3:1 ratio is a good place to start.
Once you’ve decided on your work-rest ratio, I recommend thinking about the training by addressing your weaknesses first and then working on the main necessary energy systems necessary for cycling. Tommy Torque has a moderate sprint (five-second best effort), a fair anaerobic capacity (his one-minute best is low), a very good VO2Max (five-minute best effort), and a very good FTP (his twenty-minute best is high), which bodes well for success in the time trial but might not help him as much in the road race as much. Since the Masters Nationals road race course is comprised of short hills, anaerobic capacity is a key determiner of success, along with FTP. Tommy’s FTP will keep him in the race near the front, but AC is the thing that puts him into position to win. With that in mind, he needs to spend at least one day a week working on this weakness, from now until eight weeks out from Nationals. At that point we’ll make sure he begins doing twice-a-week workouts with anaerobic capacity efforts intertwined with other time trial-specific workouts and FTP work. From March to May, it’s imperative that Tommy spends plenty of time working on his FTP, raising it as high as he can.
Since Tommy’s goal is a peak in mid-July, he shouldn’t be doing a tremendously hard early spring training plan, but May will be a key training month. Always think in eight-week blocks of training, since many training adaptations occur in eight-week cycles, so thinking backward from July really emphasizes the importance of a very strong May training block. FTP will be the main emphasis, as the aerobic system takes quite some time to improve and a big push in this area will provide great benefits in July.
With this rough sketch of a training plan for Tommy, all that’s left to do is filling in the blanks with the appropriate workouts each day. The daily workouts should be planned about three weeks in advance, since it’s hard to predict exactly what life will throw at Tommy throughout the season. If you plan out the daily workouts too far ahead, you’ll probably end up rewriting them later as life happens.
The contents of the actual workouts are far beyond the scope of this article, so I won’t go into that, but the composition of those workouts is very important. It’s key that you design your workouts to address correct training zones and do your best to adhere to them. Use the power training zones chart above to make sure you’re doing the correct wattages on your training rides. Focus on your efforts and make them count. It’s always the last couple of repetitions in an interval set that make the difference, so don’t give up!
Building a year-long training plan is no easy feat. Many books and articles have been written about doing it well, and I hope this article has given you some insight into the basic design of a training plan. A power meter will help you define your training dose much more easily and allow you to control that dose. Be sure to build up each week and keep the rate of training stress climbing, but not too fast. Nothing has really changed since the invention of new technology for training; we still have to use all the same periodization training principles that have been around for since Dr. Tudor Bompa wrote about them in 1968, but a power meter now quantifies that training stress.
As you review your goals, strengths, and weaknesses, make a plan to succeed and achieve those goals, however lofty or modest they may be. Your best season is right around the corner!
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 PeaksCoachingGroup.com.
Article originally published in Road Magazine.