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Four Powerful Keys to Winter Training

by Hunter Allen

Peaks Coaching Group

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Hunter Allen writes:

What you do this winter can really make or break your season in the coming year. Winter training is different for everyone since we live in different areas of the world and while some people spend a solid five months indoors, others can ride outside year round. However, there are some vital components to creating a very good winter training program and of course a power meter has a lot to do with it. Before you embark on your official winter training plan, you have to make sure you are well rested and recovered from the long season. Hopefully you have taken a couple weeks off and also given yourself at least two weeks of easy cross-training as this is essential to re-charging your physical and mental battery. 

Once you are rested, re-charged and ready to go, then your winter should contain at least these four important components: Focused indoor training workout, solid workouts in the “Sweet-Spot”, a cross-training routine and balanced rest period. These four components combine to provide you with a strong winter program that can give you one of the best winter’s ever. Let’s expand on each point, so that you can use them to your advantage.

In most of the US, the winter is quite cold and some of it is going to be spent on the indoor trainer. For all you southern California readers out there, keep on reading and try to incorporate some of these workouts into your routine as well. Even though most of us all love riding our bikes outside, the indoor trainer can provide some really great workouts, since there are no real distractions. 

No cars, no wind, no hills, no dogs, all things that can get in the way of focused session are not a worry on the indoor trainer. Once you have committed yourself to the indoor trainer and doing some workouts on it, then what workouts should you do? There are two basic types of workouts that I prescribe to my athletes in the winter. Almost all of the workouts that my athletes do in the winter are some permutation of these two basic types: Cadence based and ‘Sweet Spot’. 

Cadence based workouts typically do not stress the cardiovascular system, but are more focused on improving the muscular system and can range from high rpm efforts emphasizing neuromuscular power to very slow rpm efforts emphasizing muscular strength. What is the purpose of cadence based workouts and why should you do them this winter? The higher cadence workouts help to ensure that you maintain your ability to quickly contract and relax your muscles over the winter, which is a very important skill in cycling.

By training your neuromuscular power, you can help to keep that critical ability to quickly change your cadence throughout winter and also enhance it. The indoor workouts for these are relatively simple and can also easily be done outside.  One of my favorites is just simply one minute fast pedaling intervals, where you pedal over 110rpm for one minute and then pedal at your self-selected (normal) cadence for a minute and then repeat. This is a great ‘leg burner’, but does not get the heart rate too high and therefore push your training into more an anaerobic zone. 

On the other side of the coin, lower cadence workouts are also great to do in the winter because they can enhance your muscular strength, which can help you to sprint with more peak wattages and also help you to push a bigger gear into the wind, in a time trial or up a steep climb. Muscular strength workouts are based around hard, but short intervals done in the biggest gear you can manage at a low rpm. Many people have long believed the myth that riding for hours in a big gear at a slow rpm will increase their muscular strength and consequently make them more ‘powerful’. However, this only makes you good at riding in a big gear at slow rpm’s! 

Riding at 50rpm for hours on end is just not creating enough muscular stress in order to strengthen the muscles. You can think of this analogy: If you are trying to bench press in a weight room 200lbs, then you need to start at 150lbs and build up to it with low reps, high sets and the most weight you can lift. You have to use heavier and heavier weights to stress the muscle in order for it adapt. 

Now, if you lifted 100lbs, but one million times, you would never adapt to lift 200lbs one time. This is similar in this ‘big gear’ myth in that when you are pedaling at 50rpm for hours on end, it’s just like lifting 100lbs for a million reps. While 100lbs (metaphorically speaking) is more than your normal pedaling force of 80lbs, it’s just not enough stress on the muscles to get them to strengthen. 

In order to increase your muscular strength on the bike, then you need to do hard, short bursts of effort in a big gear. For example, put your chain in the 53:12 gear and slow down to about 8-10mph, then while you stay seated, tighten your abdominals, grip your handlebars tightly and then with all your force, turn that gear over until you reach 80rpm. Once you have reached 80rpm, then the amount of force you are putting on the cranks has reduced to a point at which it’s just not enough stress to create muscular strength improvements. You should plan on doing about twenty of these power bursts in a session in order to create enough of an overload to achieve some benefits.

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The second type of training that I prescribe to my athletes in the winter is called ‘Sweet Spot’ training (SST). When you ride just below your functional threshold power (FTP), approximately 88-93% of your FTP, you are said to be riding in your ‘Sweet Spot’. Why is it called the ‘sweet spot’? Well, if you examine the graphic below in Figure 1, you can see that when you are in this area of intensity, the level of physiological strain (read-amount of pain!) is relatively low, while the maximum duration (read-time) that you can stay in this area is quite high. As well, you can see that your increase in FTP is greatest in this area, so training in your ‘sweet spot’ really gives you a tremendous ‘bang for your buck’.

When you do SST, start out with 15-30 minute efforts and gradually build up to 60-120 minute efforts if you can. These efforts are not easy ones, but you will get a tremendous cardiovascular benefit from doing them this winter. Make sure to do at least one to two sessions per week like this and you’ll see a big difference in your FTP come February.

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Cross-training is another key to winter success that I believe in. One of the most important cross-training exercises you can do this winter is some type of core abdominal exercises combined with stretching. A Pilates or yoga class can really help you to develop some strong abdominals which in turn help you to transfer energy from your upper body into your legs and also help to protect your back from injury as well. A yoga class can help lengthen your muscles to put more suppleness in your muscles and also help to prevent injury. If you can, take a class a week or do a video, and that will be enough to make a difference.

For cardio-vascular work, I recommend doing some mountain biking, hiking, trail running, roller blading and also cross-country skiing if you have the snow! Just keep it fun and not too intense, as cross-training is supposed to enhance your cycling and not cause injury or major cardiovascular stress. One caution about starting a new exercise ... take it easy for the first 2 weeks. I once had a client that was very fit, and decided to just go out and run 10 miles in the first day of cross-training. Needless to say, he was barely able to walk for the next two weeks and inadvertently pulled a muscle which forced him to take three weeks off completely. So, just be careful and break yourself in slowly when you start doing a new exercise. Cross-training is great to do in the off-season, since we don’t really move our muscles in multiple planes on the bicycle, and it provides some great muscular and cardiovascular stimulus.

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The final component of a successful winter program is rest. It doesn’t sound like it’s that big of a deal, but too much training in the winter will make you a “January Star”. It is great to train hard in the winter, as that is the key to really pushing yourself to the next level for the coming year, but if you constantly train hard in the winter, then you’ll peak in January. The key to increasing your FTP this winter and making that your new ‘normal’ fitness level is that you only train intensely for two days in a row. After two intense days, give yourself a rest and then come back again to training. Every other week, make sure that you give yourself two days of easy training after two hard days, so that you can keep your battery charged.

Your goal this winter is to never let your ‘batteries’ charge go below 97%. With two days of hard training, your battery will be a 97%, so a day off or day of easy training will allow it to re-charge back to 100%. That way you can balance hard training with proper rest, enter into the season fresh and strong, while at the same time you haven’t turned into one of those rides that wins all of the January rides!

These four components of winter training all combine successfully to ensure that you will create your best winter of training ever. A proper winter program will push up your FTP to the next level, maintain your ability to change cadences and arrive at the start of the season with a fresh mind and ready body for a strong and long season! Be sure to keep your focus this winter as the winter really is the time for you to rise to the next level and make this a breakthrough season!

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