8 musts for a killer off-season cycling training plan
Take some time off your bike
Seriously. Getting off your bike and doing other activities is going to set you up better for your upcoming season as opposed to never giving it a break. Depending on your race schedule (if you haven’t heard, Cross is here), you need to find a time to relax and refocus before you begin your off-season cycling training.
You’ve probably been on your bike for the better part of this year. It’s okay to take a week or two or three to rest. Resting is entirely individual. Ask yourself how you're feeling at the end of the season. Are you burnt out? Does your body want to rest? How often were you sick or injured over the season?
This helps prevent burnout, clears your mind, and allows your body to do different movements. You likely have some underactive and overactive muscles from doing the same movement every day for the past nine months. Do you have any nagging pains? Now’s a good time to get checked out.
This is also a great opportunity to try different activities like running, hiking, swimming, cross-country skiing, and lifting weights. Keep it unstructured and fun. The past year has been about hitting certain numbers for a specific length of time. Let your body simply do what it’s meant to do without marking it with a number.
Equally important, use this break to experiment with bike positions, new saddles or shoes, or your nutrition. Cyclists will use the small break and the off-season to experiment with their nutrition. For example, some will try new gels, sports drinks, and work on losing fat. When losing weight, performance can be impacted so the off-season is the best time to use weight if that’s a goal. That way, if your performance does suffer, it’s not during a key event.
How’s your training-life balance? It’s likely tipped the scales favoring your cycling training. Now’s a great time to see friends and family you may have blown off during the season. And your headspace. Take time to address any mental stressors in your life. Journaling, meditating, and seeing a licensed professional can help with stress you’re dealing with that isn’t physical.
You want to be off your bike long enough that you’re itching to get back on it. It’s like the first time you had coffee and how energized you felt. Now it takes maybe a few more cups to get that same feeling. If you were to quit coffee for a month and drank it again, you’d get that same first-cup energy. The same goes for taking time off the bike. As they say, “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” Your off-season cycling training will thank you.
Analyze your season
Have you been tracking your activities throughout the season? If not, start now. TrainingPeaks is a robust workout tracker that I use to track all of my workouts and build out my Annual Training Plan. If you geek out on numbers, TrainingPeaks and its offshoot, WKO5, has a slew of graphs you can customize to track and analyze your metrics.
How did your races go?
Were there ones you were particularly proud of? Why? What did you do that made the race go well? Were you able to repeat that throughout the season? Did you notice if a certain pre-race workout or food helped with your performance on race day? Make note of all the good things that went well.
Now, go through the races where you struggled. What happened? Were your legs feeling good until the final sprint and you lost it? Were you able to keep up with the pack until the final climb? Can you find patterns in your races where you didn’t perform as planned? Did you continually lose in the sprint? Did you continually drop off the pack up climbs? Were you continually getting passed during time trials?
In “The Cyclist’s Training Bible,” Joe Friel says there are essentially three limiters: climbing, time trialing, and sprinting. If your weakness is climbing, you need to improve your anaerobic endurance or muscular endurance. If your limiter is time trailing, then you need to improve your muscular endurance. Finally, if sprinting is your weakness, then you need to improve your sprint power.
Also, ask yourself if you met the goals you set at the beginning of the season. Did you make any? I hope you did. Did you achieve them? Why or why not? And be honest. Look outside of the race itself: did your life take a turn? Did you have family, career, or life issues? No one needs to know why you did or didn’t meet your goals, unless you have a coach, and they’re there to help you, not judge.
Write down your strengths and weaknesses from the season so when you go to develop your next season’s plan, these are at the forefront of your mind.
Set off-season cycling training goals and objectives
After you review your previous season, it’s time to start thinking about next season. If the idea of planning for next season is getting you into a tizzy, then take more time off the bike. Come back when you’re excited and motivated to crush next year’s goals.
Now that you’ve assessed your strengths and weaknesses, goals achieved and missed, and any key metrics (did your 5 sec, 1 min, 5 min, 10 min, 20 min power improve or weaken?), you’re ready to create off-season cycling training goals and objectives.
This starts with working backward.
Find and determine your “A Races” or events.
These are the most important races/events for you. You want the best results in these races. All of your training adds up to this event. That being said, you won’t have more than three A Races in an entire year. It’s not possible to be in race form consistently throughout the year. You need to recover from hard training, otherwise, you’ll overtrain and that will lead to severe issues.
Once you decide on your 1-3 A Race(s)/events, pick a goal for it. For example, “Come in first place at the Senior State Road Race Championship.” Okay, that was my 2019 goal. Let’s pretend that was my only goal for the season. Everything I do throughout the off-season going into the race season prepares me to win the Senior State Road Race Championship.
Then, you work backward.
Find the date of the race and enter that into your TrainingPeaks accounts as a race. If you’re using their Annual Training Plan system, it will automatically calculate the Base, Build, and Peak phases for you. If your event is August 22nd, 2020, you have 51 weeks until the race. That’s a long time from now which means you have the means to adequately prepare your body to win that race.
We pick smaller objectives in order to maintain velocity toward that goal. What’s the course look like? Who do you think your competitors will be? What weaknesses did you find over the past season that need to be improved to reach your goal? All of this matters in developing your off-season cycling training program.
Say it’s a hilly race and hill-climbing showed to be a weakness of yours. You’d create several small objectives throughout the year to demonstrate you’re getting stronger and are on track to reach your goal. This could be aiming for a certain FTP by a specific date. This leads me to setting S.M.A.R.T goals.
Don’t set arbitrary goals like, “I want to be faster.” Broad goals without a plan are just dreams. We all want to be faster, but the ones who actually become faster made a plan. And it starts with S.M.A.R.T goals. S.M.A.R.T goals are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and timely.
Make your goal specific. You should be able to answer the Who, What, When, Where, and Why.
Make your goal measurable with numbers, be it a date, power/heart rate numbers, or time. You should be able to track and measure the progress.
Create an achievable goal that’s hard enough to force yourself to grow, but realistic enough that you can actually obtain it with hard work. A lot of people want to be the fastest person in the world, but is that realistic?
Is your goal relevant to your life and the big picture? Develop a goal that makes sense for you. Don’t do it to impress others or for external validation. Do it because it makes sense to you.
Set a date. Having a deadline puts pressure on you to achieve your goal.
You should create around 3 S.M.A.R.T objectives leading up to your A race. Something like this for my example A race would go:
Increase my FTP by 7% by 2/20/2020
PR Deer Creek High Grade Climb by 10 minutes by 5/20/2020
Podium Mt. Evans Hill Climb on July 27th, 2020
These three separate objectives will show that I’m improving my climbing and there’s enough time between the three goals and the main event to allow for adjustments and reflection. Within these S.M.A.R.T objectives, you need to take it a step further and create a plan that will help you achieve these goals. This is where working with a Coach is useful but if you’re a self-coached athlete, the next step is creating a plan.
Create a Plan
Creating a plan to achieve your goals is a little intimidating which is why some folks hire a coach to help them. It’s hard to see the forest through the trees sometimes and coaches provide a big-picture perspective.
If you plan to do this on your own, I suggest finding an app to track your workouts, events, and goals. I use TrainingPeaks and it drastically changed the way I train. I use their Annual Training Plan Calendar to determine my weekly training volume based on Training Stress Score up to my target event. I’ll write about this in-depth in another article as it’s involved enough to elicit its own blog.
While many of us wish we were Pros, we aren’t. That means we have full-time jobs outside of training for events. Be realistic with your time. How much time per week can you actually dedicate to training? Find that number. Some weeks will require more or fewer hours depending on what phase you’re in (Base vs. Build vs. Race vs. Peak) or how you’re feeling.
Working backward from your event, build in rest as you build your weekly training. Typically, athletes will use either a 3 or 4-week recovery cycle. For example, if they’re on a 3-week recovery cycle, they’ll have two weeks of progressive overload (each week is harder than the previous) and then a recovery week in the third week. Or, if they’re on a 4-week recovery cycle, they’ll have three weeks of progressive overload and then recover in the fourth week. Mind you, this isn’t the only way to create an off-season cycling training program, but it’s the most popular.
Another factor to keep in mind is creating an off-season cycling training plan that is more challenging than the previous year. This will ensure you’re challenging your body and forcing it to become stronger. Joe Friel recommends increasing your Training Stress Score (TSS) by 10%. If you don’t use TSS in your training, determine another metric you can increase - maybe that’s hours or intensity.
It’s important to have structured workouts in your off-season cycling training plan to stay on track toward your goal. If your goal is winning a hill climb, you need to focus on improving your muscular endurance. This is usually seen in a workout with a specific time in your heart rate or power zone 3 with a short recovery.
The off-season is not a time to only do “base miles.” When you ride slow and easy, your body adapts, which means you’ll become increasingly slower. At the same time, if you’re constantly doing VO2 Max Intervals over the winter, you’ll probably be burned out by the time racing starts. It’s a fine line between detraining and overtraining.
Essentially, you want a few hard workouts and a few easy workouts in your week. If you allow your body to rest between the really hard workouts, you’ll likely get better results than if you’re always going at zone 3 or 4.
Make sure to take note of your off-season cycling training objectives and add the dates within TrainingPeaks or a similar system. It’s important to keep those dates at the forefront when you’re developing your plan.
The transition between taking a break and your off-season is a good time to do some crosstraining, which you totally continue into your off-season cycling training as well. The goal of cross-training is balancing out your muscles (and body) to improve your fitness in your main sport. It also helps prevent repetitive use injury.
I thoroughly enjoy and recommend incorporating strength training especially during the off-season, but I also think it’s important to continue through your cycling season. Strength training will strengthen your bones and muscles that cycling cannot. It will also correct (if done properly) any imbalances within your body.
This is another crosstraining practice I highly recommend and incorporate for myself throughout the season. Yoga and stretching will help keep overactive muscles loose, like your hip flexors for example. When you have tight hip flexors, you get loads of issues throughout your body.
Foam rolling is also beneficial because it’s essentially a massage. When you release knots in your body, it’s going to perform better.
Track your workouts
What gets measured, gets managed. If you want to see results, you need to track your workouts.
As I said before, I use TrainingPeaks. I build out my Annual Training Plan within the system. I guesstimate how many TSS a workout will create based off of previous workouts similar to it. I track my TSS, my Fatigue, Fitness, and Form as I progress through the week. I also track my resting heart rate and how I feel in the morning before a workout. The system allows you to enter in metrics, which helps me figure out why I’m tired sometimes or why a workout didn’t go as planned.
If I miss a workout, the box turns red. If I don’t stick to what was planned by either cutting the time short or going way over, the box turns orange or yellow. When I complete the workout as planned, it’s green. I have my Garmin connected to TrainingPeaks so I don’t have to manually enter in workouts.
Within each box, I can view my heart rate and power throughout the workout. TrainingPeaks provides a ton of data insights. If you’re not into that, that’s fine. It’s still important to track your workouts and leave notes afterward. This way, you can go back and see how things were going. Are you taking it too easy? Are you pushing yourself too hard? You want to progressively overload your body, but you don’t want to push it into overtraining as that can sideline you a lot longer than a rest week.
Do mental training too
You’re only as strong as your mind. Training your mental toughness - as in, how you deal with challenges and stressors - takes practice and it isn’t something you do overnight. I’ve written an article about building mental toughness as an athlete that’s worth reading. Here’s an overview:
Set Performance Goals
Performance goals are intrinsically-motivated and involve comparing an older version of yourself to your current self, such as achieving a new personal best. During your off-season cycling training, focus on PR’s, not what others are doing.
Are you your own worst enemy? I know I am. When you catch yourself berating yourself for missing a target or not being “fast enough,” focus on your fives senses instead. This will take self-discipline, but try it: What do you see, hear, taste, feel, or smell? Staying present helps quiet our minds.
When you think about your A Race/Event, visualize the outcome you hope to achieve. Start doing this every time you get on the bike. Think about what it’ll feel like and look like as you cross the finish line.
Practice looking at mistakes as data
We’re human. We make mistakes. We fail. It happens. Start looking at shortcomings as data and not a judgment on you as a person.
Seek to fail
You won’t know what you’re capable of if you never experiment. You can make it a game: “What can I do to fail this time?”
Develop a pre-event routine that psychs you up
Having a routine that gets you excited will be more encouraging than fretting about race day.
Create intrinsically motivating factors
Ask yourself “why.” Everyone has a reason for doing what they do. When you’re losing motivation, ask yourself why you’re doing this thing.
Find someone to keep you accountable
This can be a friend, family member, or a coach. Having to be accountable to another person that isn’t yourself will help you achieve your goals. The pressure they’ll inadvertently put on you when they ask, “How’s training going?” may be enough to kick you into gear. Or knowing that they’ll ask you or expect you to show up to a ride will put that positive pressure to show up.
Friends, family, and coaches are also there to motivate you. If you’re not motivating yourself, having someone else by your side through your off-season cycling training will help keep you keeping on.
This can mean joining a club or team and RSVP’ing to their rides. You can ask your friend who you know will hound you about your training. You can make a public announcement on social media about your goals.
Or, you can hire a coach. Hiring a coach is an investment in your health. When you work with a coach, we develop a program to strengthen your bones and muscles and increase your cardio endurance. When you consistently work out, you’ll become a healthier version of you.
A cycling coach will be able to keep you consistent, especially when you’re paying them. If you paid for a monthly plan – and if you’re anything like me – then you’re showing up for what you paid. Working with a cycling coach is available to beginners and pros alike. You don’t have to be on your way to the Giro Rosa to justify hiring someone to help you get to the next level.
Make your off-season cycling training productive and you’ll come back into race season ready to win. If you need help in any of this, please feel free to drop me a line: email@example.com