Planning Your Season: The Basics
There’s an old saying that failing to plan is planning to fail. How does planning apply to your cycling season, whether that might be racing, building up to a challenge like a long sportif, or maybe juggling several disciplines like mountain bike and road racing in the same year?
Season planning has certainly changed in recent times, with many cyclists now competing year-round and across different disciplines. This presents both challenges and opportunities from a performance perspective. For example, one challenge is being able to do it all without burning out. Another is being able to adapt between the different disciplines and their different skillsets. The opportunities might include improving your bike handling skills by learning a new discipline, or to developing a physiological ability that one discipline just doesn’t require. In this regard a couple of classic examples come to mind: the triathlete who is brilliant at steady state time trial efforts but struggles to handle the pace changes in cycling races where anaerobic power is required, or the mountain biker who is great at mashing a big gear at low cadence uphill (high torque) but cannot spin fast enough under power to realise their full potential on the track. Adapting between some of the extremes can certainly be challenging.
Back to planning your season: how do you start creating a plan and incorporate all the different things you might wish to do across the year? A common way to start is to write down a list of all the events you want to enter, and then prioritise them. Working backwards from your goal events you can then create a plan. But there’s a couple more things you need to work out before filling in the details.
The first thing is to evaluate what the demands of your event are. For example, how long does it go for? A short 15min race requires a very different training plan to one that lasts for 3-4 hours. Does your target event involve lots of hills, steady state efforts, sprinting or something else? What technical skills will you need – this includes things like cornering, cadence requirements, riding in a peloton, riding in a time trial position, or off-road skills such as negotiating jumps, rock gardens, drop-offs and logs.
Test Your Current Abilities:
Next you need to test where you are at. It’s hard to make a sensible plan if you don’t know how your current fitness and skill level measure up against what you want to be able to do. Do you have some areas of weakness that might prevent you from performing your target event at your best? Are you already strong in some of the attributes you require? As an individual, do you need some group rides and races in the mix to keep you motivated, or do you prefer training on your own? Do you need some skills coaching to improve in a couple of areas? We’re all different and these unique things are important to consider and incorporate into your training program.
Once you know where you want to go and where your own fitness and skills are at, you ready to start to put some details into your plan. Most athletes benefit from some structure in their training over a longer period like a race season (this is known as periodisation). This helps them to build up their fitness and skills in a systematic manner, allowing time for some things which take longer to develop (for example aerobic power) and helping you to include some of the things that are often forgotten (like the technical skills that might cause you to lose a race if they aren’t as good as your competitors).
Classically the periods of your season are broken down into base, build and peak phases, although many athletes have so many important events on their calendars that this can look rather different in the current era. The base phase is more general in nature and runs for 6-12 weeks. The aim is to build your aerobic capacity, address any strength deficits in the gym and work on those technical skills. The build phase is shorter, and here the intensity and specificity of your training starts to approach that required of your main event. The peaking process is shorter still and looks at the highest intensity or fastest speed work relevant to your event. A key part of the plan is to clearly identify which days and weeks are prioritised for rest and recovery, and which period is for tapering to freshen up for your major event(s).
A key part of planning is to optimise the training load - not too much, not too little, but just right. The "Goldilocks Zone" in other words. Here an external perspective from a coach is invaluable at helping you apply enough load and balance this with enough recovery to improve and not destroy yourself.
Once you have set up your overall plan, set some intermediate goals so that you can test yourself along the way. Are you on track? Do you need to re-adjust your training because things aren’t adapting in the direction your desire? Monitoring and having a flexible mindset to adjust based on how things are changing is key to getting the best performance.
As I always say, the only thing certain about a good plan is that it will change - for everyone, every season. Why? Because everyone has this thing called life that gets in the way of your best laid plans – your best mates wedding, an illness, an assignment due, a deadline at work that keeps you working later for a week. So set up your plan and be prepared to adapt it based on what life throws at you along the way. Find enjoyment in the process and the results will follow.