How do you Train to Win the Giro d’Italia?
Updated: May 29
Have you ever wondered how a grand tour contender trains to win one of the big tours, like the Giro d’Italia that is currently underway? What can we learn from their training approach?
If you investigate the science about best training practices, most studies compare interval training regimes to try and answer the question “do these intervals work better than those ones?”. Unfortunately, these studies are short term (running over several weeks only), and as a result we have very little science about how professionals train over an entire season to achieve their personal best results…. until recently. A group of Italian and Spanish scientists published the data from three of the top 5 finishers in the Giro d’Italia between 2015 and 2018 (Gallo et al 2022). This paper outlines the 6-month training and racing build up for three of the world’s best grand tour riders as they prepared to tackle the lap of Italy.
How did they train? Did they all do it the same way, & what, if anything, can we learn that might help our own training programs?
What are the Event Demands in a Grand Tour?
To understand their training regimes better, it helps to define exactly what they were training for! All 3 grand tours (of Italy, France & Spain) involve 21 days of racing (around 100hr of race time) with only 2 rest days along the way. In this year’s Giro, riders will tackle almost 3500km, 51,400 vertical metres of climbing and burn through something like 5000kJ for the harder stages. It’s an incredible test of endurance and involves cycling far greater distances than most amateurs, who might take 3 months to ride the same distance as these guys will in ride in just 3 weeks. The General Classification (GC) or overall winner needs to climb and time trial well for durations of 20-60mins at a time, day after day, across multiple mountains each stage, and avoid mishap on flatter or windy stages or the narrow Italian streets.
What are the Physical Characteristics of a GC Rider?
Our three GC riders whose data was analysed were in their mid-twenties (25, 26 and 27 years old) and weighed between 57-64kg. Their VO2max was, as you would expect, high (80-82ml.min.kg-1). For those interested in their results for the common 20min “FTP” test, the athletes were able to produce 6.4 to 6.6 W.kg-1 for 20min (that is world class!) and their record 20min power levels under conditions of fatigue (defined as >45kJ.kg-1 of work already performed) was unchanged for 2 of the 3 riders, and for the third rider showed marginal loss compared to their all-time best.
As a cycle coach power loss under conditions of significant fatigue is one of the data measurements I use to evaluate the strength of your aerobic system and your ability to produce a winning effort at the pointy end of a race. These guys simply did not fatigue – there was no power loss! The ability to produce high power under conditions of fatigue has been shown to be one of the key characteristics of professional road cyclists (Leo et al 2021) – they just keep putting out high power levels all day long! It is one of the major differences between amateurs and professionals.
Training Regimes of Grand Tour Podium Riders
How did they train? One of the striking differences between professional and amateur road cyclists is training volume. The three riders averaged between 15-20hrs/wk for almost 6 months (numbers rounded). The highest volume week ranged from 28 to 34hrs, and the easiest or lowest volume week ranged from 1.5 to 4.5hrs. Unloading the body was clearly just as important to the world’s best as it is for any of us.
Training intensity might surprise some readers. Overall, around 90% of their training was low intensity (Zone 1 in the 3-zone physiology model of training zones). Most of their high intensity work came in racing, in which each rider competed almost exclusively in multi-day stage races before the Giro (17 to 29 race days from January to May). This resulted in around 10% of race volume being in Zone 3 (intensity above threshold power).
Given that there is a good deal of research supporting high intensity training over low intensity, why then did our Giro hopefuls spend so much time at low intensities?
There are probably several reasons why high-volume low-intensity training was preferred by GC contenders. First and perhaps most obviously, they have huge distances to cover over the three weeks of racing so they need more volume compared to amateurs who may race one or two days per week. It is very hard, both physically and mentally, to train at or above threshold for the required volume week in and week out! Secondly, low-intensity high-volume training likely improves fatigue resistance by stimulating the aerobic capacity of slow twitch muscle fibres, making our mitochondria (the energy factory in your muscle cells) become very efficient at burning fat aerobically to fuel your effort. This builds fatigue resistance and aerobic power for the ultra-long three-week tour and prevents you from needing to tap into the anaerobic system (which produces acid and lactate) as frequently during the race.
Another reason that high intensity training wasn’t used for the entire 6-month build is that whilst high intensity intervals produce some rapid gains in a few short weeks, continuing to push high intensity efforts over a longer time frame leads to no further improvement!
Lastly, 2 of the 3 riders prepared for the tour by incorporating 2 altitude training camps in their training blocks. Altitude training involves living and training at high altitude for 2-4 weeks using low intensity aerobic endurance rides, which further skews their time in zone analysis towards more low intensity work. It’s important to note that the training volume for these riders wasn’t simply “more” than their competitors – most professional racers who compete in the grand tours ride similar volumes and are likely already at the human capacity for training load.
What did all three riders do in common?
They used massive volumes of endurance riding and used stage races as their “high intensity training blocks”. Can you use this strategy in your training? Definitely! After developing some aerobic base, using races to build fitness and form is a great idea, especially since we all tend to push ourselves harder in a race than when training alone. An alternative is to train with mates to motivate and push each other in training efforts.
What did they do differently to each other?
Two riders used 2 altitude training camps before the Giro and raced more than the third rider. Altitude camps are tricky and expensive to arrange for an amateur and are recommended only once you have exhausted all possible improvements at sea level.
Tapering strategy before the Giro also varied and was rather different to amateur racers. Best practice in the scientific literature for a taper involves a reduction in volume of 40-60% for 7-14 days prior to the major race whilst maintaining some higher intensity work (Basquet et al 2007). None of the GC contenders adopted this approach, perhaps because this literature wasn’t based on grand tour riders. In terms of maintaining the high intensity work, two of the riders competed in a stage race just before the Giro. They also completed an altitude training camp at low intensity prior to this shorter stage race to stimulate haematological adaptations (i.e. use the low oxygen at altitude to stimulate the body to produce more red blood cells and thus carry more oxygen). In terms of volume all three riders had far more modest reductions in volume in the 2 weeks leading into the Giro than the science recommends.
Is there a takeaway message in here for amateur cyclists?
Probably a couple, but one is to notice that the 3 cyclists produced similar outstanding results with different preparation strategies, suggesting that the rider and their coach had spent time analysing what works best for them as an individual. As a result, trying to emulate someone else’s training program and expecting the same results in your own performance is unrealistic. Lastly, the volume required and thus the focus on low intensity work is different as the demands of a 3-week tour are very different to an amateur race. This alone indicates that amateur racers require a different approach in training, but using the racing block strategy of the professionals to work on intensity is an excellent idea. Hope to see you entered at your next local race!
Bosquet L et al (2007): Effects of Tapering on Performance: A Meta-Analysis. Med & Sci in Sports & Exercise 39:1358-1365.
Gallo G et al (2022): How do world class top 5 Giro d'Italia finishers train? A qualitative multiple case study. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 32:1738–1746.
Leo P et al (2021): Power Proﬁling, Workload Characteristics, and Race Performance of U23 and Professional Cyclists During the Multistage Race Tour of the Alps. Intl Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance 16: 1089-1095.