Thursday, November 6, 2014

Off-Season Training: It's Time to Get Your Homework Done!

October and November signal the start of the off-season for many athletes and a key period of time for cyclists. It means time for relaxing, catching up with chores around the house, making deposits into your spouse’s emotional bank account, doing some things you haven’t had time for earlier in the year, and more casual riding. I highly recommend to almost all my athletes that they take down time in October or November to recharge their batteries—not just physical batteries, but also mental/emotional batteries. “Emotion creates motion,” as my good friend Tom Coleman at Wobblenaught says. Emotion is key to motivating yourself for peak performances throughout the year, and just like your muscles, tendons, and ligaments, your head and heart need a break, too. One of the keys to a successful off-season is the proper amount of rest to recharge the batteries and then just the right amount of training to improve your key limiter(s), all while making sure your batteries don’t de-charge too much.

Think about it from this perspective: Each of us has a battery (or is a battery, according to the movie The Matrix) that’s at 100% full charge when you’re rested and completely recovered from any training. This usually happens around the first of the year for most people, as they’ve had reduced training volume since October and a couple of weeks with hit-and-miss training over the holidays. A fully charged battery in the off-season allows you to train hard and “de-charge” your battery, but only to 97%, unlike the rest of the year. During race season we run our batteries down to 87% or so, and like a rechargeable cell phone battery they recharge back to 93% without getting fully recharged in season, since as soon as we get to 93% we go racing again. However, one of the secrets to a successful season is not just getting your battery recharged but also getting it charged, training hard during the winter without ever going below a 97% charge, and always recharging to 100% each week. If you look at your off-season training from this perspective, you’ll find that indeed you can train quite hard in the off-season and keep a fresh mental outlook while avoiding the tendency to become a “January star.”

So what does this all mean for your off-season training? It means a couple of things. First, it means you can use your power meter to train very specifically this winter and in just the right amounts to turn one of your weaknesses into a strength, improve your fitness a notch, and/or completely take your fitness to the next level. I believe that in every cyclist’s career there is that one off-season in which we really gave it our best, and that off-season is what catapulted us from one category to the next (and even beyond) the following season. There was one winter in particular that I trained harder and smarter than I ever had before; I got up early, lifted weights, ran up the local mountain every couple of days, rode my mountain bike every day, and really pushed it. I always did my training in blocks: trained hard for 3-4 days, then took a break and let my battery recharge to 100% again. This is actually a highly effective way to manage the off-season, as it allows us to keep our chronic training load (CTL) slowly building throughout the winter without a large negative impact on our training stress balance (TSB).

The next thing this secret of success tells us about the off-season is that by laying down a good winter training plan, we can have a more consistent and successful season. The athletes who train smart and hard in the winter have a more complete season for the entire season. When I see an athlete with lots of ups and downs throughout the season, it usually means he didn’t put in the proper off-season training necessary to carry him throughout the full season. I’m not talking about lots of long base miles; I think that’s great for pros but somewhat unrealistic for most of us trying to balance work, family, cycling, etc. No, what I’m talking about is more intense rides on the trainer or out on the road that are focused, strong, and relatively short. You don’t have to do three-hour rides in the freezing cold if you want to make next year your best season ever; a really focused hour to hour-and-a-half session on the trainer with plenty of intervals is really all you need. Now, if you do this every day, you’ll be a January star for certain, but if you sprinkle in these hard workouts with some other workouts that just emphasize more muscular work, you’ll be able to maintain and improve your functional threshold power (FTP) and keep that battery charged.

Here is a sample week of workouts (based on an FTP of 250 watts) that might help you better understand what I mean. These are from one of my online winter training plans, which contain the same workouts I give to my personal athletes.

Monday: 1.25 hours, fast pedaling drills

WU: Warm up for 15 minutes.

MS: Do 5 minutes fast with cadence in 90-95 range, then do 10 x 1-minute-on-1-minute-off high pedaling cadence efforts. Cadence should be over 105 for “on,” 85 for “off.” Don’t worry about heart rate, just cadence. Then do 5 minutes easy, then 2 x 5-minute efforts trying to get your watts to 255 and hold there. Keep cadence at 100 rpm. Don’t worry about speed. This is about improving your cadence at LT, not about going the fastest. Build it up so you don’t blow. Rest for 3 minutes between each. Finish with 6 more 1-minute-on-and-off cadence drills at 105 and 85.

CD: Cool down for 15 minutes.

Tuesday: 1 hour, easy trainer spin

WU: Warm up for 15 minutes.

MS: Use the small ring for the first 30 minutes, with cadence in the 100+ range. In the second 30 minutes, use the same gear but at more of a normal cadence, and every 2 minutes punch it for 8 seconds and go to two gears harder. Take a fast cadence and make those legs feel a short burn and then recover. This shouldn’t really give you high heart rates or watts, but it will be overall tough on the legs.

CD: Cool down for 15 minutes.

Wednesday: .5 hour, one-legged pedaling efforts

WU: Warm up for 20 minutes.

MS: Start out with 5 minutes of fast pedaling, with cadence over 105. Spin those legs! Then do 5 minutes easy, followed by 20 one-legged pedaling efforts, alternating legs for one minute each leg, for a total of 20 minutes. Focus on smoothing out the stroke with no dead spots. Cadence is lower for these; 53:17, 16, 15.

CD: Ride for at least 15 minutes spinning 90-100rpm to cool down. The legs should feel balanced now!

Thursday: 1.67 hours, threshold work

WU: Warm up for 15 minutes.

MS: Do 2 x 20 minutes and just hammer these. See what you can do for 20 minutes. Try for the highest wattage you can do. Rest for 10 minutes after each set. Then do 14 efforts for 1 minute in the small ring with cadence of 120, pedaling easy for 1 minute between each effort. Finish with 2 x 5 minutes with watts at 250-265, resting 5 minutes between each.

CD: Cool down for 15 minutes.

Friday: 1.5 hours, sub-threshold work and a pyramid

WU: Warm up for 15 minutes.

MS: Do 2 x 20 minutes at SUB-LT (around 230-240 watts). Rest for 10 minutes after each. Then do a pyramid:

    1 minute super hard at 290 watts.
    Rest for 2 minutes.
    2 minutes a touch easier at 280 watts.
    Rest for 2 minutes.
    3 minutes a little more easy but still as hard as you can, around 275 watts.
    Rest for 2 minutes.
    4 minutes at 250 watts. Make this a strong one!
    2 minutes easy.
    3 minutes at 260 watts.
    Rest for 2 minutes.
    2 minutes at 245 watts.
    Rest for 2 minutes.
    1 minute way hard, 390+ watts.

It always astounds me when athletes call up at the beginning of the off-season to put their coaching on hold for the winter. They just don’t get it! The off-season is where you do your homework, make gains in your FTP, lose that stubborn extra five pounds, and work on the holes in your power profile so the season to come is even more consistent and successful. Success doesn’t just happen. You have to make a plan, write down your goals, and then take action to make those goals a reality. That thought isn’t new or mind-blowing, I know, but when you apply it to your off-season plans, it will hopefully make you rethink your off-season and resolve to make it your best ever!

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  

Article originally published in Road Magazine.