Friday, August 24, 2012

Planning Out Your Macro Cycle: Part 1

It's far too early to start training for next year, but it's not too early for planning to start training for next year.    This may be especially true for those of us felled by injury or poor results, or by a bad case of familial / work obligations.  Generally, I feel this way every year--why didn't I build the wattage cottage I wished I had hoped to build this year?

That question leads to either despair or hope.  And hope leads to rethinking your approach to off-season training:  What if I buy Powercranks?  What if I make time for 20 hours a week building a base?  What if I work on my strengths rather than my weaknesses?  What if I try Y, where I've been trying X?   What if...?

Whatever you try, you'll probably want to start thinking about the big picture, the October to March calendar, and what you want to accomplish over the six months of the year in which there is no road racing.

I've sometimes wondered if it is actually possible to build anything over six months months that is sustainable over the next four months.  It's very hard to measure that kind of thing.  Your typical study on the benefits of a training protocol, a supplement, training intervention X runs like this:

Test group does X intervention (say, rides Powercranks) twice weekly for six weeks. at end of six weeks sees G% gains over X intervention at start AND over control group at end of six weeks.

This is scientific for a couple of reasons.  First, there is a true comparison.  The test group on, say, Powercranks, gets to look at their own performance at the start of the intervention, and they also get to compare results with the other cyclists, who did everything exactly the same as the test group except ride Powercranks.  And they get to isolate the effect of the intervention--in this example, Powercranks.  It works because of ceteris paribus--the assumption of all other things being equal.

Of course, that's a big assumption.  Typical test groups for cycling studies are less than 30 people, which is a very small number.  If the test was done on 10,000, it would be a lot more reliable.  Also, there are tons of omitted variables in testing that are not addressed--for example, the testing conditions can vary hugely.  I recall reading a study on cadence and pedal stroke that was done on a stationary exercise bike--the kind with the big flat pedals found in exercise clubs.  If you've ever been forced to ride one of things, you will agree that the feeling of pedalling on those machines is erratic and bears very little resemblance to the feeling of pedalling on your own, fitted bike.

Still, scientific studies of the type shown above are one of the few reliable resources for us.

We can also rely on the advice of coaches and the recommendations of top cyclists who tell us, as Lance did, and now Wiggins does, that they're riding six hours a day in the mountains of Tenerife.  There are four reasons never to trust advice from a pro or a coach of pros:

You are not a pro
Pro athletes in no way resemble you or I, in that what works for them will not work for us.  Yes, I know, you are tremendously gifted.  Near the top of the Cat 4 sprint at Dawg Days.  Good for you.  Just try riding your bike for 30 hours a week in the Alps and then see what happens.  You'll lose your job and alienate your family, and your body will fall apart.

You are not training for pro-length races
Remember Joe Dombroski?  He used to race here.  He didn't win many races here since going to Bontrager.  Do you know why?  Because Joe, despite being in the top pros in America at distance over 80 miles and up mountains, isn't the best MABRA bike racer on level, 25 mile courses.  The physiological requirements of a Cat 4 crit are very different from the requirements of the Tour de France.  Train for your races, even if pros and their coaches tell you otherwise.

You are not on drugs, and pros are (or were)
Remember Chris Carmichael?  He put out a lot of advice on how to become like Lance.  Remember Allen Lim?  He told us how dumping water on his head fueled Floyd's winning solo break on stage 17 of the 2006 Tour de France--this was before we learned that testosterone and blood transfusions were involved.   David Millar recalls pros hammering out miles in the days leading up to races--not for the reasons of fitness, as they claimed, but to lower their hematocrit to a legal level.  Drugs have destroyed a decade's worth of Tour results, but they've also now put into question the methods of training from the past decade.

Pros hide their training secrets
Pros aren't paid to go fast--they're paid to go faster than everyone else.  You won't find pros giving away training secrets.  Sure, they'll tell you how hard they worked and how much time they spend on the bike, but that's just to either make the case that hard work rather than natural ability or drug use enabled their success.  And everyone knows that time spent on the bike leads to speed; they just don't know when and how to be on the bike.  That's the secret you'll never get from guys like Tim Kerrison of Sky.

I bring this up because, by reputation, pros spend the base period riding for insane mileage.  That's what we're told, and there's probably some truth to it.  There are also, certainly, a lot of hidden elements to their training.  But here's a question the amateur should consider when planning his mesocycle:  should I set up a schedule that maximizes (a) my Grand Tour potential or (b) my Cat 3 crit skills--what I'll call Dawg Days potential?

There are several reasons to choose to maximize your Dawg Days potential.  One is based on the realistic assumption that you'll never race in a Grand Tour.  Another is based the probability that your body is almost certainly better suited to Dawg Days.  And, lastly, because training to maximize your Dawg Days potential is actually more healthy and possible, and more fruitful.

You will win more races if you train for Dawg Days rather than for Le Tour.

So how do you do that?

Well, most of the answer is unknown, partly because coaches spout a lot of nonsense based on the reasons I've already stated.  We can, however, create a broad plan that allows some flexibility in training, and sets goals for the kinds of races we want to win.


  1. The first thing you'll want to do, then, is to get an accurate understanding of what physical capabilities you'll need to win the races you want to win next year.  
  2. Then you'll need to see where you stand in relation to what you'll need--what project managers call a "gap analysis"--that is, the gap between where you are and where you want to be.  This will require you looking at Watts/kilogram or, if you don't have a power meter, speed at a particular heart rate.
  3. Then you'll need to create mesocycles--6-8 week training periods--where you try to erase these gaps.  
Forget about base building.  Forget about spending the winter in your small ring.  Forget about FTP.  Think about what it takes to win:  not only your FTP, but also your sprint and your other critical power intervals, as Hunter Allen calls them.

Next entry I'll try to provide some examples of what's required to win in different races in MABRA--in crits, time trials, and road races.  Then I'll provide some examples of typical performance "gaps" riders discover.  And then I'll look at how to plan out your off season to address the different kinds of performance gaps.

Keep in mind that some performance gaps can't be closed.  You'll never be able to have a 400w FTP.  The good thing about local racing is that to win or do well, you probably won't need it to achieve some success.

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