In the 30 years or so I've spent racing bikes, the month of January has always stood out as the most dynamic, and perhaps most important of the season. In normal winters I would have two weeks off at the holidays to recover from cyclo-cross season and head somewhere warm for road racing in February or March. Some years I went to Europe after 'cross nationals and raced another six weeks without a break. Other years I attempted to be a year-round New Englander and spent two months Nordic skiing before I began structured road training in March. Wherever you live and however you do it, there's something about the winter solstice passing and days getting longer in January that says it's time to get serious. Serious can mean different things to different people, so before you throw a leg over the bike, you've got to decide what exactly it is you're going to get serious about. You gotta have a plan.
Designing your winter training plan is like building a bridge. You know where you are now, and you know where you want to be once the racing season starts. You need to come up with the infrastructure that's going to let you cross that gap. We can start that construction process by focusing on the endpoints first. Where exactly are you right now, and where exactly do you want to be?
Where you are now can vary dramatically depending where you live and when you stopped racing. For some, the road or mountain bike season might have ended in September or October, and you may not have touched the bike since. Others may have taken a short break and then started a pre-season period of endurance riding and time in the gym. Many of you likely had a full season of cyclocross that kept you very fit all fall — perhaps with a peak for Nationals in mid-January — followed by a few weeks completely off. However you got here, it's important to make a separation between what you've been doing and what you're about to start. Look back at your past three months of training specifically and the season as a whole, evaluate your progress, and put parentheses around the completed phases. You want to see the big pictures, and then make a clean break.
Next, look across the gorge and decide just how large that span is. Consider your local, regional, or national racing calendar and ask yourself a couple of important questions, working backwards: When do I want to peak and be in top form? When will I start racing? When will the weather and/or available daylight allow me to train outdoors? With answers to those questions you can then answer the most important one: how many weeks do I have between now and those points?
Let's assume that no matter what you've been doing this fall, you're starting your new program in January. Perhaps where you live, training outdoors on your bike will be difficult this time of year. Your racing season begins with training races in March, more important races in April, and you want to peak for a series of criteriums in May or perhaps a stage race in June or July. With this we've got the general outline of the structure we want to build, and now it's time to pour some concrete. You can shift this timetable forward or backward, depending on your individual situation, of course.
• First will be a pre-season that can last 2-6 weeks, consisting of crosstraining like Nordic skiing, running, gym work, and riding only when the weather's good. This phase is about staying fit and having fun, without worrying much about riding your bike. Enjoy many different activities and build your fitness as a whole. If you live in a warm climate where the racing starts early, or if you get lucky with a mild fall or winter, you might skip this phase altogether. The primary goal of this phase is to minimize fitness losses, refresh mentally, and work on any injury rehabilitation or structural imbalance and instability that needs to be addressed.
• Second will be a base cycle of four to eight weeks that will get you into February or even March. In this phase you'll cut back on crosstraining and ride your bike as much as possible, indoors and out. You can still lift to work on strength, health and well-being, and compensate for bad weather and limited daylight. Your on-the-bike training should be in the form of light intensity, tempo intervals of 15-30 minute blocks building up to 60-180 minutes total, and middle intensity, threshold intervals of 12-20 minute blocks, building up to 30-90 minutes total. The primary goal of this phase is to increase workload by increasing the duration of the work you do, not necessarily by trying to do the intervals at a higher power each week.
• Third will be a second base cycle of four to eight weeks that will take you to the end of your aerobic build up and into your early season events. This is where you hit the volume limits of the tempo and threshold intervals you'll need to be competitive during the season, and see the biggest increases in your power production. The primary goal of this phase is to increase workload by increasing the power output at repeated intensities and durations, with smaller increases from week to week in the durations themselves.
• Fourth will be an intensity period where you dramatically decrease the volume and increase the intensity, with a focus on submaximal anaerobic work capacity intervals and high intensity VO2max work. Sprint training, 1-minute, all-out intervals with full recovery, and 5-minute, supra-threshold intervals with partial recovery are all on tap for this month-long phase. The primary goal of this period is to increase anaerobic power, increase the size of your anaerobic gas tank, and raise threshold power with efforts above threshold, at VO2max.
• Fifth will be an in-season cycle where you add lots of racing, recover fully between events and workouts, and focus on fine-tuning and maintaining the fitness you have with as little as one workout per week, if at all. This phase lasts as long as you can keep good form rolling by racing, recovering, and occaisonally doing a maintenance workout to address any perceived weak spots in your form, or just to hold on to what you have.
This plan gives the basic data needed to build a map for passage from darkest winter to spring and summer fitness. There's obviously still much to consider: what do you do each day, how long should your workouts be, what should your intervals look like, what gearing should you use, etc. A variation on this I employ with increasing regularity is to move the intensity phase up between the first and second base phases, so that it precedes the first races of the season. I've found this allows many clients to be more prepared for early season races, is more compatible with available daylight and training hours, and keeps riders mentally fresh through what can be a long winter and spring.
With these options you can consider each segment of your season's training, and with future articles we will guide you through the training and racing to come.