How do I become a Fitter, Faster, Better Cyclist or Runner: the longer term plan?
Once you get into your sport more and more you may start to think about goals that are further in the future. For example you may have done some competitions this year and think it would be good to see whether you can do better next year. To meet these longer term goals it is a good idea to make a longer term plan for success.
By reviewing your recent training and racing over a year or more you can put together what we call a phased plan, which may span a few months, a year, or more to address areas that are important. By putting together a systematic and structured plan in this way you give yourself the best chance of making big gains in fitness and reaching more challenging future goals.
As I mentioned in Chapter 1: the basic principles of training for sport are simple. Your body will adapt to whatever situation you place it in.
The longer term plan, what is often known as a phased plan, is a series of steps, known as phases, to address particular shorter term goals that fit together to build your fitness for a bigger event. It works just like the things described in Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 but several times in succession.
In developing the plan it is good to keep a few things in mind:
It is generally accepted that it takes 6 to 8 weeks to make a physiological change so it is best to work on one or two things for that period of time;
If you stop working on something you are likely to get worse at it so it is best to include all important elements of fitness and skills throughout the plan; changing the emphasis to target the particular phase goal. For example, if you are trying to build up your endurance by doing longer training sessions, include a few short intervals, maybe every other week, so you don’t lose your ability to do short hard efforts;
It is important to include sufficient recovery in the plan, so varying each phase to include both hard and easy periods is a good idea;
It is most effective to work on only one or two compatible areas in any phase and in fact it can be counterproductive to combine some types of training such as heavy weights and aerobic volume close together (this seems tricky and often require compromise, but it can be worked out by leaving a rest period of say 24 hours after heavy gym sessions);
You can only change a certain amount in any given period, so accept this and don’t over do it. Doing too much will make you much worse so it is best to be on the safe side. Set challenging but achievable targets and build your fitness over time.
There are many ways to success so just because some people say you should do it a certain way doesn’t mean your way is wrong. The trick is determining what is needed for your success;
The key thing is determining and defining what is needed for success in a specific and measurable way. It is then much easier to plan and train against measurable short term goals.
What do you want to do? What is your goal?
A good first step is to review the past year or years, if you have a training diary or other training history you can look at that. Look at the positives:
What did you find exciting?
What made you happy?
What was a great achievement?
What did you enjoy and would like to do again but maybe a bit better?
Look for challenges that excite and interest you.
Spend time on this, make it realistic but challenging, there is no limit but it is important to remember that the harder the target the more sacrifices you may have to make in other aspects of your life. This can be more the case with the longer-term plan as your sport becomes a bigger part of your life.
The next steps are very much like working towards a short-term goal so you may see some similarities to earlier chapters. It is important to spend some time and make sure there is as much detail and forethought as possible.
When you are happy with your goal it is good to spend some time thinking about how good it will be when you achieve it and how success will make the undoubted set backs and efforts worth it. Sometimes it is good to discuss it with a close and non-judgemental friend who can support you as you go along. You may also want to consider spending some time with a coach to get their views either as a one off review and planning session or to provide you with support over the course of your training. Since this will be a significant investment of your time, it makes sense to get as much constructive input and information as possible.
This process also helps you understand the implications of what you are planning and gives a feel for how well it fits with your life. If things don’t seem right it is good to have a rethink now rather than have regrets in a few months time when it is hard to change things.
I find it useful to make a list of weeks for the year, I sometimes use a spreadsheet for this and sometimes use the ATP planner in TrainingPeaks, which also gives a nice idea for periodisation of training volume in either 3 or 4 week cycles.
Then I add in the events and assign priorities, making a note of the goals for each of the most important events. Having all this information on one page makes it easier to get an overall feeling for the plan and get an initial view of how things might work and what might need adjusting.
The next step is much the same as in Chapter 1: you need a bit more detail of how you are going to be successful in achieving your goals. The only difference is that you have differing goals for each phase of your training now.
That means you need to know as accurately as possible where you are now and where you hope to be at the start of each phase, including your recent training history (maybe over the last 6 months) and compare it to where you want to be so you can decide what changes you need.
Once you have defined your goal so now you need to know what changes you need to make to get there; it is very important that you know as accurately as possible where you are now and you particular strengths and weaknesses.
Note: A lot of people seem to forget this and I make no excuse for repeating it here. You may have been a great athlete in the past but it is where you are now that counts. You can’t start from anywhere else and it is worth spending a bit of time thinking about this. You can’t start from where you want to be if it is different from your present condition and if you try to, you are asking for trouble and almost certainly doomed to an unhappy time.
For example, you may have been able to train for 10 to 15 hours each week including a hard interval session and a weekend race but if you have had a significant amount of time off, you are not likely to be able to start where you left off. Memory is also very unreliable to don’t rely too much on what you think you were capable of and get depressed, make your best guess of the principles that will work for you and make a new start.
Next I break the year into phases. Each phase will be a block of training that has the objective of meeting a particular goal. Each phase goal is based on a particular need for improvement to meet the overall goal and builds on the previous phase.
Given that it takes 6 to 8 weeks to make a change it is a good idea to use periods of 6 or 8 weeks for each phase. What I do is look at the training year with the events included and fit phases of 6 to 8 weeks around that.
Another approach that can be nice to fit roughly with the calendar year is to use 3 or 4 week phases and use two phases for each physiological change. In this case you can use a 2 or 3 week build up of training load followed by 1 week recovery during each phase, making the second phase of each pair a little harder than the first.
I then add the phases into the training year plan and think about what goals to associate with each phase. In this process it is important to consider that overall fitness will increase over the training year and therefore planning lots of long hard sessions early in the year may not be a good idea. Traditionally the first phases focus on building training volume at low intensity to develop good overall fitness, building intensity later on.
There are many ways to train though and it is sometimes good to consider the main areas of weakness first. I have recently been putting together a plan based on developing short-term speed/power (for 2 to 3 minutes) with a plan to increase volume from that higher base; which is also a plan that can work.
Remember that your body will adapt to whatever situation you place it in and the goal of your plan is to build your fitness to meet your goals. Therefore think carefully about what you need to be better at and how you can best meet your particular targets.
You should now have a good framework for the year, your main events, a breakdown of phases and an idea of what you want to focus on during each phase.
Remember it is important to work out how you will measure your progress, both towards your overall goals and during each phase. In this way you can understand how things are going, what is working and what isn’t so that you can make changes to your plan if necessary.
The table shows an example plan for a cyclist who wants to ride a 10 mile time trial in under 25 minutes. The plan starts in January to build general fitness and has two periods of racing 10 mile time trials with an interim block of longer time trials that will build aerobic fitness and speed endurance. If you are a runner, this may equate to 5km and 1/2 marathon races.
You will need some measure of how hard you are working during easier and harder workouts as well as during races. The best tools nowadays are power meters, for both running and cycling, however these can be expensive. Heart rate monitors, combined with GPS are also great tools, which can either work on on a separate computer/watch or using a telephone App.
However, if you don’t have a heart rate monitor or power meter you can work with how you feel, which can work really well and is surprisingly very accurate and effective. Base your training on how you feel for a 10 mile time trial or 5km race and then work harder for faster efforts and less hard for other efforts. If you look on the internet for Relative Perceived Exertion (RPE) you will find tables describing relative levels of effort and these are quite accurate methods of training, in fact, going by feel can be at least as good as using a meter because it teaches you to be in tune with your body.
If you refer back to Chapter 4 and the section talking about heart rate zones you will see that a heart rate of 90% of your maximum heart rate relates to a race of about 1 hour. Since the aim is to complete the race in 25 minutes you can expect to make an effort at something a little above 90% of your maximum heart rate. This will be individual but if you do race-pace training at 92% of your maximum heart rate and see how that goes before making adjustments it should work.
If you look at the table you will see that the plan is based on 6 phases:
Build 1: in this phase you are getting your body used to training so that when you start doing harder work you will be able to recover by having easier days. Build up gradually and use your heart rate in the lower training zones. Bear in mind that it is best to do some harder training in all phases so including some harder work in one of your rides is a good idea. You can do things like 4 x 5 minutes at 80% to 90% of your maximum heart rate with 2 minutes easy pedalling between each or 12 x 1 minute above race pace with 1 to 2 minutes between each effort.
Build intensity: in this phase you are continuing the process you started in phase 1 but making it a bit harder. Use similar sessions, two harder sessions per week this time with one faster than race-pace and one slower and longer, like 1 hour at 80% maximum heart rate.
Build intensity 2: is a further progression in which you do more efforts in each of your harder training session and have less recovery between each effort. During this phase you should notice that you are going faster at any given heart rate. Remember to do some of your sessions at an easy pace so you keep your fitness in all training zones. Also it is very important to recover properly; remember the earlier chapters that explain how your body breaks down with training and adapts as it recovers?
Race 1: during this phase you can get used to racing, get back in touch with your club mates and rivals to give yourself motivation and start to see how well you have improved.
Longer time trial efforts: are a good way of building your aerobic fitness (your heart and lung fitness). It is often hard to do this sort of effort outside a race situation and therefore this section is included to give a boost to fitness that will pay dividends in the second race period.
Race 2: is the main race period in which you will meet your targets. Everything is now in place so you can focus on doing your best. Make sure you are adequately rested before the races and have a good routine in place to ensure you are focused to perform at your best.
Have fun and please let me know what you think.