pre-made training plans

Mistakes Cyclists Make with Apps and Pre-Made Training Plans

Whether you are new to cycling or have been riding for decades, there are multiple ways to get started with a structured training plan. Personal coaching is rarely an athlete’s first experience with structured training, even though we wish it was. Rather, it’s more common to start with a pre-made training plan from a book, magazine or website, or a semi-custom training plan found in a growing number of cycling training apps. And although some athletes experience good outcomes, many struggle and achieve disappointing results because of the following common mistakes.

Mistake: Overestimating Available Time

When athletes select a training plan they often overestimate the number of weekly hours they have available for training. Instead of using a realistic number, they select a plan based on their desired training availability. The mistake is thinking that committing to a 12-hour-per-week training plan will create the incentive to make that time available.

What is more likely is that you’ll unsustainably shoehorn training into your already-busy personal and professional calendar for a few weeks. Then something will break down. Your family or spouse will revolt. Your boss or employees will point out that your work is slipping. You’ll start missing workouts to keep the peace and your job. Besides deviating from the plan, the whole scenario creates lifestyle stress that must be accounted for in your overall stress:rest balance.

A better way:

Be conservative when selecting a training plan, whether it’s based on volume by time, mileage, or workload (i.e, weekly Training Stress Score). Consistency is one of the best things training plans encourage. Following a plan that might be light in terms of training hours, but is a plan you can execute week after week, is better than overextending yourself, skipping workouts, and increasing lifestyle stress. Plus, extending endurance rides is an easy way to add on to pre-made training plans if have extra time.

Mistake: Using Inaccurate Training Zones

Training plans and apps use a variety of schemes to prescribe intensity levels for workouts. The simplest version is Rating of Perceived Exertion, which uses either the 6-20 Borg scale or a 1-10 scale of how hard you feel you’re exercising (higher number = harder). Plans that use heart rate or power output require a test so you can enter a value into an equation and calculate heart rate and/or power training zones. The most common values for cyclists are Functional Threshold Power and Heart Rate, which can be established through an 8-minute test, a 20-minute test, and a ramp test. Many athletes inadvertently use inaccurate data to establish training zones. As a result, they may end up training too hard or not hard enough.

How do athletes get inaccurate FTP and FTHR values? Many times, it’s because they don’t actually perform the test. Some pull a modeled value that Strava or Training Peaks calculated from previous rides. It might be correct, or it’s just a reflection of your recent riding behaviors. Or they use an old FTP value, like the highest FTP value they achieved at the height of the season last year. Others guess because they’re eager to get started and don’t want to wait to schedule an FTP test once they’re rested. Or, they execute the test right away, without resting from prior training, which affects the test results. And then there’s the fact that FTP tests are a learned skill. Inexperienced athletes sometimes go too hard in the beginning and slow so dramatically that it skews the test result.

A better way:

The end of a rest week is a better time to take an FTP or FTHR test. Not only are you rested and fresh, but it’s a protocol you can repeat before future tests to make the results more comparable. When we coach athletes, we don’t take test results at face value, and neither should you. In the weeks after adjusting power or heart rate zones, training performances should confirm whether the zones are correct. For instance, when an athlete tests poorly and ends up with zones that are too low, their RPE during key workouts may be lower than expected.

Mistake: Understating your weight

This mistake is specific to indoor cycling apps, which use bodyweight and FTP to calibrate the resistance an athlete experiences while using a smart trainer. For athletes not using a smart trainer, inaccurate weights affect the speed of the rider’s avatar in the app. Although there is a lot of handwringing about malicious weight doping (cheating in esports competitions by saying you weigh less than you do), I think a more common error is for non-competitors to enter their goal weight rather their current weight. It’s aspirational, or wishful thinking, but it’s also affecting your workouts and integrating inaccurate data into your overall training record.

A better way:

Use your accurate, current weight across all your training apps. However, your bodyweight may fluctuate plus or minus five pounds from day to day, based on hydration status, glycogen storage, hormonal changes, and other factors. Only change the weight in the app once you have gained or lost more than 5 pounds and maintained that gain/loss for at least a week.

Mistake: Plowing forward when you should rest

Although promoting consistency is a good thing, pre-made training plans and apps can also encourage athletes to plow forward despite signs they need more rest. Some AI-assisted plans attempt to adjust future workouts based on training data from previous sessions and information from wearable sensors. These auto-adjustments will improve over time, but they will always depend on the accuracy of the data being input. Right now, there are still several potential failure points in using sensor data alone to adjust future training.

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A better way:

Neither a training plan nor an app knows you as well as you do. One of the best things you can do is to learn how your body responds to stress and fatigue. This is particularly important because lifestyle stress, illness, and anxiety can all increase your need for rest and recovery, but they can be difficult for sensors to detect and account for. This is an area where working with a coach can be invaluable. Your coach can maintain an objective view on how you are responding to the combination of training and lifestyle stresses and help you adjust your stressors accordingly.

Mistake: Failing to input subjective feedback

Athletes using pre-made training plans and apps frequently fail to upload training data. They may mark workouts “done as planned”, but don’t upload or attach the power/HR/GPS file from the session. Although we don’t know how well they executed the prescribed workout, at least we know what it was. When athletes fail to record subjective feedback, however, they and future coaches miss out on valuable context. Subjective feedback – how you felt during the workout, your mood, etc. – is where you find the early signs of both progress and fatigue.

A better way:

Even if you’re skeptical about the value of subjective feedback in your training record, commit to writing it out for a full month. Then go back and look through your comments. You will almost certainly find something insightful that you can carry forward into future training. A season or years’ worth of subjective feedback can provide critical information about how to schedule your next season. When new athletes sign up for personal coaching, having access to prior training and comments gives us a trove of information about how you respond to training, stress, and recovery.

Final Word

I’d love it if all athletes worked with personal coaches, but until that day comes, I want athletes using pre-made plans and cycling apps to get the most out of their training. The best things you can do to help yourself are to train consistently (even more important than the specifics of any particular workout), sleep 7-9 hours a night, consume adequate total calories to support your total daily caloric expenditure, and reduce lifestyle stress as much as possible. If you do those things while following a reasonably well-structured training plan, your fitness is very likely to improve. To take your fitness and performance to the next level, or to keep your progress going in the face of adversity, get yourself a professional coach.

By Jim Rutberg,
CTS Pro Coach, co-author of “Ride Inside“, “The Time-Crunched Cyclist”, and “Training Essentials for Ultrarunning

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Comments 2

  1. Thanks for the content. Within the 4th week of the year, your advice and analysis is timely. Of the three disciplines, I find cycling training plans (prepared and downloaded, purchased, and coach-subscribed) the most challenging to select and find adequate actionable outcomes that can be understood by competitive cyclist.

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