Winter is a tough time for cyclists given the reduced daylight hours, colder weather and component-destroying conditions.
Even so, it’s still possible to get around these limitations by putting together a well thought out, purposeful and time-efficient training programme specifically designed for this part of the year.
Here are five steps to creating a winter training plan for cyclists looking to build a solid foundation of fitness for the coming year.
Do some testing
The first step in creating any plan is to understand where it is you’re starting from.
By conducting some simple testing using the training tools you have available, whether that’s a heart rate monitor, power meter or smart trainer, you’re able to get a clear picture of where your fitness is right now.
Good testing options include functional threshold heart rate (FTP) and maximum heart rate tests if you’re training with a heart rate monitor; a power profile test (where you would typically perform a maximal effort at 5 second, 1 minute, 5 minute and 20 minute durations over a series of days) if you have a power meter on hand; or even looking into blood lactate analysis and/or VO2 Max testing, if you want to take a more scientific approach.
Testing your current fitness will mean you’re able to establish appropriate training intensity zones for your current capabilities, as well as set benchmarks to measure against later on.
Plan your goals and objectives
The next step is to decide on your goals and objectives for the winter period, in order to plan your training effectively.
These goals can be fitness related, performance-based, or a mixture of the two. A fitness-based objective such as achieving a particular threshold power or VO2 Max value, or even a more performance-based objective such as a time on a virtual segment, work particularly well.
Using the popular S.M.A.R.T approach to make them Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound can be really helpful when setting meaningful goals.
Alongside these goals, you’ll also want to set appropriate objectives to measure your progress along the way. These will help to ensure you’re constantly heading in the right direction towards where you ultimately want to end up.
These objectives could be a target threshold power improvement by the halfway stage of your training if you’re building towards a hilly event, or perhaps a VO2 Max improvement of 5 per cent after an eight-week training period to improve your fat burning capabilities and overall aerobic endurance for longer or multi-day rides/races.
Understand the purpose
As we’ve just alluded to, the adaptations you’ll want to see over the winter will depend on what your goals are and the demands of the events you’re preparing for, but most cyclists will want to focus on improving their aerobic capacity as a priority.
As an endurance athlete, you want to have as strong an aerobic energy system as possible. This will allow you to ride at higher power outputs for longer without the anaerobic energy system (used for shorter, more explosive efforts) causing fatigue.
It also offers greater potential for you to raise other key performance indicators such as your anaerobic threshold, i.e. the point at which lactate begins to accumulate in the muscles and blood.
What’s more, you’ll also have a stronger foundation to build on top of if and when it’s appropriate to focus on improving your anaerobic energy production too, which will be necessary for shorter, higher intensity efforts such as sprinting and making attacks.
Building your aerobic capacity with lower intensity rides around zone two (using heart rate or power), longer ‘muscular endurance’ blocks of perhaps 15 to 20 minutes each at lower cadences of around 60 to 80RPM, as well as interval training close to intensities that work on VO2 Max (e.g. the popular 30 seconds on/15 seconds off workout) will be ideal for the task.
Schedule your workouts
The next step in creating your plan is to work backwards and schedule the training sessions that will inch you forward towards your goals.
What you’re looking for here is a wide variety of workouts that fulfil the purpose outlined above. This will keep training interesting, motivating and result in greater adaptations since the body responds better when it’s challenged in different ways.
For the more structured workouts in your programme, indoor training apps such as Zwift are ideal for getting high-quality sessions done in a very time-efficient manner.
Using ERG mode on a smart trainer, where the power is set at a prescribed output for your session (or the intervals within it), and avoiding interruptions from traffic can really help with hitting the numbers necessary to achieve the desired improvements.
At the same time, one great tip is to have a dedicated winter training bike that you’re happy to ride outdoors in bad conditions. Having the right equipment — including a cost-effective bike with mudguards and puncture-resistant tyres — can go a long way to keeping your motivation intact through winter.
After all, you’re far more likely to get out onto the road or trail if you’re not too worried about wearing out expensive parts or having to meticulously clean the bike after your ride.
Feedback and adjustments
Finally, it’s important to constantly adjust your plan as you go based on how you’re responding to the workouts and how much time and energy you realistically have available. Making tweaks and iterations will help ensure you’re not leaving any fitness on the table – or worse, risk overtraining and burnout.
Busy riders often underestimate the impact of stress external to training (such as work and family pressures) and the extent to which they can negatively affect athletic performance, so always stay on the conservative side and don’t be too wedded to what you originally planned at the outset.
In addition, leaving feedback on your key workouts, whether in a diary or as comments on your Strava file, will help you to avoid making the same mistakes in the future and guide you towards the right training approach to take further down the line.