Fitness: Time to up the tempo

Get those legs pumping to a different beat

If your winter training has gone well, you should have spent plenty of time riding at relatively low intensities and building your base fitness. But now that spring is here it’s important to start increasing the intensity.

Even if you haven’t covered all the miles you planned, including some shorter, harder rides in your training can really fast-track your fitness.

Tempo pace definitely isn’t sprinting, or even riding particularly hard, but nor is it riding steady state. For the scientifically minded, it equates to 75-85 percent of your maximal heart rate or 76-90 percent of your FTP (Functional Threshold Power).

Marc Laithwaite, of www.theendurancecoach.com, a level three coach with the Association of British Cycling Coaches, describes tempo pace (also called threshold pace) as ‘sustainable discomfort’.

“It’s the highest intensity you can sustain for a prolonged period of time,” he says. “It’s the hardest intensity where the majority of your energy is still provided by your aerobic system.”

Many riders, though, come out of their winter training and go straight into high intensity interval training rather than going through the vital transition of tempo work.

“Riders will spend the winter doing the bulk of their training at effort level one and two, and then, come the spring, leap straight into level four and five work in an attempt to get some speed,” says Laithwaite. He describes it as like building a house by laying great foundations, then building a roof straight on top without adding the intervening floors.

“It seems obvious,” he says, “but it’s imperative to prepare the body for what it’s actually going to be doing by replicating these demands in training.”

Key tempo

For a rider looking to post a great time in a hilly sportive, or wanting to break the hour for a 25-mile time trial, being able to produce a sustained tempo effort is key.

“Many riders can generate the power needed to climb a hill at a good speed or hit 40kph on the flat,” says Laithwaite, “but they simply can’t keep it going for long enough. They think the answer is to do shorter efforts at higher outputs, but all this means is that they’ll be able to go out harder before faltering as the hill or time trial goes on.”

This also applies to many sportive riders who think the key is training to go faster, when the real trick is training not to slow down.

“They need to work on holding the required output for what they want to achieve and build good economy at race pace,” says Laithwaite. To do this, he suggests a good starting point is to undertake groups of three 15-minute sessions at tempo pace, with three minutes of gently paced recovery in between the efforts.

As time goes on and your fitness at tempo pace increases, the length or number of the intervals can be increased and rest time reduced. Remember, the ultimate aim is to be able to sustain tempo pace intensity for an hour or more.

“One of the most common mistakes in tempo sessions is to go off way too hard,” says Laithwaite. “You need to be at the point where you’re working as hard as you can without the quality of your effort tailing off.”

This means your output shouldn’t drop throughout each effort, and your last effort should be as good as your first. “It’s a real knife edge balancing act,” he says, “and using a power meter makes it an awful lot easier.”

So to take your riding to the next level this year and see significant improvements in the results you post this season, now’s the time to begin training to up your tempo.

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