Smart weekly training for maximum performance

Using your zones as part of a weekly training plan

This is a sponsored post in association with A1 Coaching.


Now you’ve learned about testing your threshold and setting your training zones, what does this mean for your weekly training programme?

If used properly it means that you will no longer be riding like the ‘headless chicken’, with no specific purpose or focus. It also means you won’t have to choose between your job, your partner and cycling, because you can get more performance on less time.

Cycling needn’t mean a lifestyle redesign

It is important for all of us to grasp that amateur cycling shouldn’t be about lifestyle redesign. We cycle for fun but enjoy the challenge of competition or fast sportives or gran fondos. As coaches in daily contact with numerous clients, we’re constantly mindful of our clients’ need to balance their training with family and work commitments, and have constantly found that this is possible with the right training formula.

When this system is highly refined it’s possible to be a top domestic rider while working 40 hours a week and having a family – if you know the system.

Therefore, in this post I want to share with you what a typical one-week training plan looks like for a time-crunched athlete and explain the rationale behind each workout.

Intensity is key to effective training.

Intensity is key to effective training

Intensity vs duration

In order for us to make a physiological adaptation – to get fitter – we need training stress. Training stress comes from the combination of duration and intensity of exercise. Some of us can ride 15-plus hours per week. However, for the vast majority of us, our weekly duration is anchored – or should be for the sake of a more balanced lifestyle.

Unfortunately, for decades duration has been touted as the key prescription for increased fitness levels. This still persists in many circles and, on a club ride, anyone who shows ambition to train at an intensity above zone 1 in the autumn and early winter is likely to be ridiculed as a ‘winter racer’, ‘December champion’, or similar.

It’s been ingrained into the cycling psyche that intensity and intervals are taboo in the winter. We’re told that if we attempt to train hard we’ll burn out mid-season. A wall of trepidation is built to shelter those who want to train at 90w all through the cold weather.

However, the guys who champion long slow miles are the same guys you find in the car park after a cold, wet event in March discussing how they only managed to hang onto the group for 10 of the 60-mile race. They seem surprised they aren’t in the winning move because they’ve completed their training the way they were told – they kept intensity down all winter. So, what went wrong?

Cycling should fit round work and home life, and you can train up in less than eight hours per week

Science has debunked some traditional wisdoms

Some of the traditional wisdoms are based on presumptions that have now been debunked by science.

For example, tradition dictates that one must ride slowly for prolonged periods (‘long slow distance’) to develop mitochondria – the powerhouse of cells where carbohydrate, protein and fat is processed by oxygen and energy is produced. However, we now know that mitochondria production can be increased threefold by interspersing periods of high intensity training into long, slow miles. This is great news for us time-crunched athletes.

Therefore, when training duration is limited – let’s say to eight hours per week – intensity is the variable we must exploit in order to manipulate weekly accumulated training stress.

In other words, the added intensity compensates for the shortcoming in duration and trains differing aspects of our physiological systems.

A sample week

This sample training is similar to a training week you’ll find in A1’s 12-Week Winter Training Plan. For the purpose of this sample, I outline each day separately and the coach’s comments provide the rationale for the type of training prescribed in each session.

Most of the sessions will involve ‘intervals’. These are periods of hard effort followed by a period of recovery. The reason for intervals is that they allow for more time at higher zones. For example, it would be impossible to ride for 15 minutes at zone 5 but you could probably do six intervals of three minutes with periods of recovery in between. In this way you can get 18 minutes overall in Z5 – quite a good session!

Along with intervals, each session includes a:

  • WU – Warm up: designed to get blood flowing and raise one’s core body temperature.
  • MS – Main set: the core training prescription in the workout which is designed to induce a unique physiological response.
  • WD – Warm down which gently allows the body to return to a pre-exercise state and facilitates the clearance of metabolic waste products generated during rigorous activity

Monday is typically a rest and recovery day and I’ll discuss this key topic at length in the last post of this series. This brings us to Tuesday:

 WU 12 mins Z1 gradually increasing to high Z3; 3 min Z1
 MS  60 mins Z2 with 3 sets of 1 min z5, 1 min z1, 8 mins Z4. Recovery 5 mins between sets
WD  15 min. Z1/2, cadence 90 rpm
 Coach comments Unfortunately these intervals are very nasty. They are designed to make your body produce lactic acid, and then function before it has cleared from your muscles. The good news is that it gets better from here on.
 WU  10 mins Z1 gradually increasing to high Z3; 3 min. Z1
 MS  60 mins Z2 with a 10 sec. sprint every 10 mins
 WD  10 mins Z1, cadence 90 rpm
  Coach comments This is a base-building sprint session. After each 10-second sprint your focus is getting straight back into your endurance zone. For these sprints I really need you to focus. They aren’t about just going through the motions. You need to hit each sprint hard and commit 100% to it. Absolute commitment will deliver massive gains and adaptations beyond just 90% commitment.
 WU 10 mins Z1 increasing cadence from 70 rpm to 110 rpm
 MS 1hr Z2 to include 3 x 7 mins intervals. Each interval: 4 mins Z4 at 50-60rpm; straight into the 3 mins Z5 at100+ rpm.5 mins recovery between efforts
 WD  5 mins Z1
  Coach comments This is a low/high cadence drill. The low cadence portion of the session should be performed at Z4 intensity while the higher cadence portion is a little bit harder and should be performed at the lower end of Z5. The transition from low cadence to high cadence can feel unnatural initially but this is a great session that will mimic the demands of going over a sharp climb (where you’ll have high torque and low cadence) which is followed by a drag (higher cadence, lower torque).
 WU  5 mins Z1 @ 80rpm
MS  20 Mins Z1 @ 80-100rpm
 WD  5 mins Z1 @ 80rpm
  Coach comments Active recovery day. Today’s session is about going as slow as you can. The goal of this session is to recover from previous sessions and ensure you are fully recovered to tackle the prescribed training this weekend.
 WU 10 mins progressing from Z1 to Upper Z2
 MS 3 hours upper Z2
 WD 10 mins regressing from Z2 to Lower Z1
  Coach comments Endurance training is the foundation of our fitness. Poor compliance with endurance sessions will mean later harder training will be ineffective. This session is a no-frills-or-thrills basic endurance ride. Get on your bike and sit in endurance zone 2 for the specified duration at a cadence range of 75-90rpm. This session might seem easy but the aerobic efficiency gains that can be made by training at this intensity are huge, so don’t neglect it.
 WU 10 mins Z1 increasing cadence from 80 to 120 RPM
 MS 60 mins to include 4×2.5 mins @ upper Z5/ lower Z6; 5 mins. recovery time
WD  5 mins Z1
  Coach comments This is an aerobic capacity session (VO2 max). The goal is to increase our aerobic efficiency when operating at maximal capacity. The interval portion of this session can be as short as 30 seconds or as long as 5 minutes. Regardless of how long the interval is the goal is to carry out the interval at close to your maximum capacity for the duration of the interval. There are huge benefits to training at this intensity but it is physiologically taxing so be sure to recovery adequately afterwards.

This is what a week of approximately eight hours looks like, with each session having a specific purpose – no ‘headless chicken’ riding.

I urge you to take action based on these principles and recommendations. You should no longer be pulling on your cycling gear without a plan of action – each session should have a specific physiological target.

This is just one week but, in the next blog, I will look at annual planning and target setting, and the ‘periodisation’ of training into specific periods based on the demands and timing of your target event.