Training: Get in shape for sportive season, part 3

Time to start stretching yourself ahead of your first big event

The peak phase of training has arrived at last and it’s time to start stretching yourself ahead of your first big event, says cycling coach Chris Ford. His final block of four-week exercise plans (see part 1 and part 2 for the previous plans) takes you right through to the days running up to your event and will include your longest rides yet, some extended high heart rate training and a chance to iron out any technique difficulties that might have been bothering you so far.

This is the very last push of preparation, the chance to build those vital elements of speed and strength and add to that bedrock of steady state riding you’ve been working so hard on. Whether you’re a newcomer to sportives, an enthusiastic veteran or a time-deprived minimalist, the key is to ride well, not just hard. It’s really important to keep your skills at the front of your mind as you get ready. Good luck!  

10 steps to hit your peak

1 Increase intensity

With eight weeks of incremental training from the first two parts of this training plan behind you, this is the time to put your body under increasing but managed stress. The new exercise plans below will do this, and the novice routine now includes Fartlek sessions. These flexible training rides allow you to set your own effort range, taking in short sprints, long, fast hillclimbs, short recoveries and so on. They’re a chance to test yourself and vary rides according to things you want to work on. They also let you focus on elements you enjoy!

2 Reset and refocus

In the final four weeks, switch your start point to now, putting any concerns over missed sessions or targets behind you. Take stock of how you feel, how you want to perform and what you can realistically do to get there. A lot can develop in this last four-week phase so if you’re feeling tired but not beaten on rides that are 60-70 percent of your final distance then you’re in good shape for success. Think of marathon runners, who won’t do a single 26-miler in the approach to an event. Their longest effort will be about 21 miles three weeks before the big day.

3 Hone pedalling technique

To realise your potential as an athlete your body must be efficient, working in harmony with the bike. For some riders there’s so much focus on fuel burning and energy production that pedalling is overlooked. Set up a tripod next to your turbo or rollers and video yourself. Play it back with the sound up. You should see a smooth flex and release of the ankles and hear a constant hum. If you see stiff ankles and hear a throbbing as the pedals pass the horizontal, you’re mashing not spinning. There’s time to sort this – see the previous feature.

4 Pack riding

If you’re part of a road club then riding in big groups is probably second nature. If not, now’s the time to ensure you can do it. In a big event you’ll be pedalling alongside hundreds, perhaps thousands, of veterans. They’ll know the etiquette and it’s this that keeps everyone safe. If you break the rules at 40mph in a tight group you could easily cause a major accident. Either go out with a local pack for a couple of evenings or find a club regular to talk you through the language, signs and accepted behaviour.

5 Sports physio or massage

This can be as much about prevention of injury as cure. At the start of this final phase a light session to loosen you up and identify any tight, imbalanced or weak spots can be really beneficial. The stresses on your legs and upper body can be greatly offset by an expert. Just don’t have an intense sports massage if you’ve never had one before, as they often use a lot of pressure to reach deep into the muscles. This can be a painful shock, so get them to start gently.

6 Bike maintenance

Just as a Formula 1 crew checks every bolt for tightness and every component for wear, do the same for your bike at least four weeks before the event. If left too late, a repair can be stressful and difficult to manage if it upsets the way the bike works or rides. Gear cables need time to stretch (and the outers compress) then be reset, checked and ridden several times to be certain there are no poor shifts. Also sort out new brake blocks, replacement of worn drivetrains or bar tape and so on.

7 Sitting comfortably?

You’ve probably tried chamois creams, Vaseline and a whole range of clothing. Shorts padding compresses and wears and can become rougher after multiple washes. Now’s the time to buy new kit and train in it to make sure it’s comfy. And if you’ve been riding with minimal spares or tubes but on the big day intend to put things in pockets, start now. Every big ride should feel the same as the real thing so you can identify any problems in advance.

8 Taper your training

Two weeks before the event, reduce training to ensure you go into the ride feeling your best. Of these two weeks, the first (week 12) is the final one in this training block. Week 13 should be a slimmed down version of week 12 with no rides over 50 percent of the final distance. If you’re tired in this period, cut down or cut out a session, leave the short, high heart rate intervals and go back to steady spinning at a low heart rate but high cadence. This encourages good technique and blood flow and keeps you fresh. Don’t stop completely; your system needs to work and prepare right up to the last few days.

9. Avoiding illness

When you’re under strain you can pick up colds and other viruses more easily. Nutrition and rest will help prevent this but supplements such as Vitamin D or multivitamins also boost the immune system. After cold or wet rides get a hot shower and plenty of antioxidants (fresh orange juice is ideal). Stay warm as you stretch. Physical and immune system strength aren’t the same; just because you’re riding at your peak, don’t put your body under too much stress.

10 Nutrition

You now really need to be hitting all your nutritional needs at the right times. Your target glycogen window for refuelling after exercise is 30 minutes, otherwise the muscles don’t recover as quickly or get as much benefit. You should already have a good post-ride routine but if it’s still a little flexible then get it fixed. A combination protein/carb drink is an effective way to take on fluids and nutrients but the focus must be on the nutrients straight after a ride. You can rehydrate over a period of hours once the fuel is in the muscles. 

Training plans

1) Novice

You started as a novice but by now should be feeling like a racing cyclist, with more energy in your legs than you might have imagined. This final phase of the training is going to focus that energy and give you a chance to test and stretch it. Over these final four weeks the aim is to keep building endurance and also increase the speed you can sustain throughout the ride. The new Fartlek sessions on Mondays are a flexible way to do this. Use them on your favourite hillclimbs or flat out sprints and see what kind of performance you can get out of your developing legs and cardiovascular system.

Week 2 (build): Up the long interval turbo and Sunday ride by 15 minutes.

Week 3 (push): Increase again by 15 minutes each.

Week 4 (recover): Return to level of week 1. If tired, miss the cross training.

2) Enthusiast

Take a critical look at how your performance has developed over the past eight weeks and use it to shape the plan below. By now you should have a feeling for what’s giving you the most benefit, what areas are still in need of work and what you want to get out of your final four-week phase. This suggested routine will guide you but you can always drop short intervals in favour of long ones to focus on sustained speed and effort rather than sprint ability, for example.

Week 2 (build): Increase the interval lengths by a minute in the Monday turbo session and add 30 minutes to the Saturday ride.

Week 3 (push): Decrease the recovery period in the intervals by a minute.

Week 4 (recover): Return to the level of week 1. Miss Thursday turbo session.

3) Minimalist

With limited time available, the final weeks are probably most challenging for the minimalist rider. If sessions have to be dropped then don’t beat yourself up; you need a positive attitude to get the most out of what you do have time for. Try to keep the long interval turbo session and one long ride, as they’ll help you maintain endurance and speed. Everything else is a bonus and will just help you be that bit quicker.

Week 2 (build): Increase the interval lengths by a minute in the Monday turbo session and add 30 minutes to the Saturday ride, if you can.

Week 3 (push): Decrease the recovery period in the intervals by a minute.

Week 4 (recover): Return to level of week 1. Miss Wednesday turbo session.

Understanding your training plan

Our training plans are built around a 12-week run-up to a major event. This is split into four-week phases: Pre, Early and Peak seasons. The increase in activity level happens like a wave, with the level going up over three weeks then dropping back for a recovery week, before moving to the next phase.

Intensity: In this final stage we continue to work at a range of intensity levels. At mid-intensity you are just below your anaerobic threshold – the point at which your heart and lungs can no longer keep up with the oxygen your muscles need to function properly. This can be tested scientifically, or you can aim to be working hard enough that conversations are possible but in short sentences only, and you are never getting ‘puffed out’ (starting to breathe or blow more rapidly to expel CO2). This is a sign of excessive CO2 production due to anaerobic activity. For the enthusiast plan we’ve given heart rate targets, which can be flexed by +/- 5% to give a usable range.

Fartlek sessions: A Fartlek starts with a 15-minute warm up of gradually increasing intensity to ensure that your muscles are working well, blood fl ow is good and joints are fl exible and ready for action. You then aim to keep heart rate high throughout the rest of the session, right up to the 15-minute warm down. How you do this is up to you and therein lies the fun and the challenge. Sprints on the flat; fast, seated climbs; sprinted standing climbs; 2-minute accelerations; a short sequence of 30-second hard efforts with 30-second breaks: everything is allowed.

Cross training: Cross training is any non-bike exercise and it’s important to ensure that this covers a wide range of muscle groups to keep you in overall good shape. The best activities will work your whole body, so aerobics, outdoor military fitness sessions or running (especially cross-country, with some good hills) are all excellent options.

Turbo trainer: Long interval sessions should start with a 10-15-minute warm up then go into 6-8 minutes at medium intensity, followed by an easy spin at low intensity for 4 minutes to recover. Short interval sessions are far more intense, starting with a minimum 15-minute warm up then going into a cycle of six 30-second flat out sprints with 4-minute rests between them. With all sessions, aim to maintain a good cadence of 80-100rpm and a smooth, steady cycling rhythm.

Flexible training: If time is limited, long workouts aren’t an option. Instead, find one hour a day you can use to raise your heart rate – a dog walk or extended ride home, say. Once a week try something more intense like a fast hill walk or lunchtime swim.

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