Boosting Your Late-Season Cycling Performance

Since the introduction of professional cyclists into the Olympic Games in 1996, Olympic years have offered a new challenge for coaches. When we were sending amateurs, the entire season was built around winning Olympic medals; whereas now, athletes have to compete at their best to fulfill pro team obligations, make the team, and then peak again to compete for medals. Peaking twice in a single season takes planning and attention to detail, but with a healthy dose of each, you can kickstart the second half of your season and have some great races in the closing weeks of summer.

The Problem

Truly peak performance doesn’t last very long. Lance Armstrong can remain at his best for around seven weeks, and that’s nearly twice as long as most amateur racers can sustain a peak. The depth of your aerobic conditioning is the most important factor in determining how long you can race at full strength, because it’s the erosion of your aerobic fitness, not your top-end speed and power, that’s ends up holding you back. Alternating between recovery rides and high-intensity interval workouts, training criteriums, and races leaves little time to devote to your aerobic base during the racing season, so even with all the hours you’re riding, you’re losing part of your fitness.

The Solutions

1. Stop Racing

You don’t have to end your season prematurely, just sit out about 2-3 weekends of racing. Select a two-week period so that it ends about four weeks prior to your second goal event of the season. During these two weeks, you’re going to revisit the aerobic training that occupied the majority of your riding time several months ago, during the Preparation Period. At this point in the season, though, you only have to provide a brief stimulus to this weary energy system to breathe a whole new life into it. Two weeks of focused aerobic endurance training should provide the boost you need to support your high-intensity, race-specific workouts in preparation for your late-season goal.

One of the big mistakes you can make is trying to stretch your peak performance too far, but you get addicted to feeling fast and powerful. You spend all year trying to get to this time when you can dance effortlessly on the pedals, and since you know it’s not going to last forever, you try to hang on to that feeling just as long as you can. You also fear if you take the time to revisit your aerobic engine, like I recommend, you might not regain the form you had before. On the other hand, if it works (and it does), you’ll actually extend the number of weeks you get to perform in top condition.

2. Ride Tempo For One Week

Your goal is to deliver a significant overload to your aerobic engine in a relatively short amount of time. This is not meant to be a two-week vacation from the racing season; it’s a very important chunk of hard work that will pay off when your rivals’ performances are tailing off later in the season. Rather than just going out and riding long hours at a moderate pace, increase the impact of two to three hour rides by adding Tempo workouts during your weekday training sessions. During a Tempo interval, your cadence should be relatively low (70-75 rpm), your power should be relatively high (about 20% below your 10-minute maximum sustainable power), and you should hold that power and cadence steady for the entire interval.

A Category 3 or Masters racer should accumulate about 120-150 minutes of Tempo during the first week of this two-week period, though that doesn’t mean you should try to complete all of it in one ride. You’re better off completing one 40- to 50-minute Tempo Interval during two- to three-hour long endurance rides on each of three training days (3 x 40 = 120). It’s even all right to do Tempo workouts on back-to-back days, although you should be prepared for your heart rate, but not power, to be slightly (3-6 beats) depressed from fatigue during the second day’s workout. Cat 4-5 racers should accumulate 75-120 minutes of Tempo, and Cat 1-2 racers should get in 180-210 minutes. The sample weeks below illustrate two ways a Cat 3 or Masters rider might structure the first week of this brief training period.

Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday
Rest Day 1:30 EnduranceMiles40 min Tempo 2:00 Endurance Miles 2:00 EnduranceMiles40 min Tempo 1:00 RecoveryMiles 3:00-4:00 EnduranceMiles40 min Tempo 3:00-4:00 Endurance Miles
Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday
Rest Day 1:30 EnduranceMiles40 min Tempo 2:00 EnduranceMiles40 min Tempo 1:00 RecoveryMiles 2:00 Endurance Miles 3:00-4:00 EnduranceMiles40 min Tempo 3:00-4:00 Endurance Miles

3. Ride SteadyState For One Week

During the Foundation and Preparation Periods in the winter and spring, you did long blocks of Tempo training before moving on to the shorter and harder intervals in SteadyState workouts. At this point of the year, we’re moving from one to the other more quickly because you don’t need a great deal of stimulus to provide the boost your aerobic engine needs.

Your training schedule during the second week of your mid-season tune-up may look very similar to the first week, except the Tempo workouts should be replaced by SteadyState Intervals. These intervals are shorter (10-20 minutes), and they’re usually arranged into a set of three intervals separated by 10-15 minutes of active recovery. The intensity level is increased from Tempo to about 10% below your 10-minute maximum sustainable power output. You’re going to be riding hard during the intervals, but not quite as hard as time trial pace. Riding close to, but below your lactate threshold (LT) power output means you’re applying a huge load to your aerobic engine without causing the additional fatigue that comes from training above LT. This is especially important because you want to be fresh enough to have a high quality SteadyState workout at the end of the week.

Category 3 and Masters racers should aim for three SteadyState workouts during the week, each with three 10- to 15-minute intervals. Category 4-5 racers should do the same number of workouts, but reduce the load to three 8- to 12- minute intervals. A Category 1-2 racer should be able to handle SteadyState workouts consisting of 15- to 20-minute intervals.

4. Rest, Then Ramp Up

When you perform this mid-season tune-up correctly, it should take less than a week of rest and active recovery to feel fresh and ready to ramp back up into Specialization Period Training. If you’re still tired and sluggish by Thursday or Friday of the following week, you may have applied too heavy a load, either through volume or intensity, during the tune-up weeks. Taking a little more time to recover is going to be better than getting antsy and pushing ahead too soon.

Once you’ve recovered from revisiting your aerobic conditioning, it’s time to get back into fast group rides, training races, and workouts that develop your power at lactate threshold and above. Now that you have a revitalized aerobic engine to support the training load ahead, you’re on your way to achieving your late season goals.