Trends in endurance training come and go, and long and easy workouts for building aerobic endurance are back in fashion. We’re talking 2+ hours at Zone 2 or even Zone 1. Long easy rides work wonderfully if you have the time available to do them. The more the pendulum swings back in favor of recommending long, slow, easy endurance rides for all cyclists, the more we come back to the question: should athletes train hard during the off-season?
When endurance athletes finish their competition or event season, they typically take 2-6 weeks of a “transition period”. During this time, unstructured “ride as you feel” days replace structured workouts. At the same time, weekly training volume (in hours and/or miles) decreases. Other activities off the bike – or in different cycling disciplines – are encouraged. We consider this “deloading”or “detraining”, in contrast to loading phases when training workload increases.
Organized vs. Structured Training
After the deloading phase or transition period, it’s time to get back to ‘organized’ training. This doesn’t necessarily mean ‘structured’ training, however, in the sense that structured training incorporates intervals and specific time-at-intensity objectives.
Organized training can have looser parameters that serve as guideposts for intensity and duration. For instance, coaches may prescribe broader weekly goals like ‘8 hours on the bike with one hour at FTP’ without specifying how those hours or time at FTP should be scheduled across the week. The athlete could ride three times or five times during the week. They could do all the FTP time during one day or spread it out.
The training strategy above is useful for maintaining aerobic conditioning and power at FTP while providing athletes with greater flexibility and a break from structured interval training. And it doesn’t need to be FTP work. For many Time-Crunched Athletes, coaches prescribe time at Tempo intensity, which is a challenging aerobic effort that is sub-threshold. Either minimizes the loss of fitness and eases the shift back to structured training, which is characterized by specific time-at-intensity objectives and scheduled bouts of workload and rest.
Base Building vs. Interval Training
Once it’s time to get back to structured training, which is typically late fall or early winter for summertime competitors, the question is whether the initial training period should be “hard” or “easy”? This is the classic conflict between “base building vs. interval training” in the winter.
I railed against long periods of winter base training for years, most notably in “The Time-Crunched Cyclist”. In 2009, that book played a role in swinging the pendulum toward high intensity interval training throughout the year. And for athletes who have limited training time, I still believe multiple, shorter build periods throughout the year are better than one long, gradual build. However, more than a decade after the original “Time-Crunched Cyclist” book, I have a more nuanced view of “easy vs. hard” training.
It isn’t an all-or-nothing question of whether cyclists should spend the winter riding in Zone 2 or doing high-intensity interval training. It’s a question of what training is most appropriate and effective several months before your goal events. This can lead to multiple strategies for winter training. Two of the most common are presented below.
Strategy #1: Least Specific to Most Specific
The traditional endurance training periodization models started with long periods of easy aerobic base building work because the endpoint was high-intensity racing. The aerobic foundation was necessary for supporting high performance, but it was less event-specific than the VO2 max and anaerobic capacity work done much closer to the competition period.
With more athletes focusing on gran fondos and ultra-distance gravel events, particularly in the age-group categories, aerobic endurance and Functional Threshold Power are more event-specific than VO2 max and anaerobic capacity. This lends itself more toward the annual periodization popularized in ultrarunning, which focuses on VO2 max work early, farthest from the goal event. The result is an increased aerobic capacity that can then be used to boost FTP. Then, as goal events approach, athletes can focus on extending the time-to-exhaustion (TTE) at FTP, which also increases the power and speed they can sustain at an endurance pace.
So, if you’re wondering whether to focus on high-intensity intervals or long endurance rides, examine the demands of your goal events. If you’re training for criteriums, XC MTB, or track, then winter is a good time to build aerobic endurance. (This still may require interval work for time-crunched cyclists.) If you are training for ultradistance cycling events, the winter may be a good time for high-intensity training so you can focus on event-specific work closer to your events.
Strategy #2: Train your weakness first
Another winter training option is to train weaknesses far out from your event and train strengths as the event approaches. For many experienced cyclists, aerobic endurance is not your limiting factor. You could ride all day at a moderate pace without much trouble. And you could probably get up and do it again tomorrow. But perhaps you have little to no sprint power or limited ability to repeat hard efforts. Or your FTP is a high percentage of your power at VO2 max because your VO2 max is relatively low.
Whether they are event-specific or not, improving any of your weaknesses requires time. As your event approaches, you’re going to focus training on optimizing your strengths. Consequently, the best time to concentrate training workload on your weaknesses is further out from your event.
In some cases, training your weakness in the winter requires high intensity efforts. If you want to be a better sprinter next season, your winter training may be harder than riders who are building base aerobic fitness. On the other hand, if you are transitioning from short, high intensity racing like criteriums and short track MTB to 150-mile gravel races, your weakness may be the lack of experience spending long hours in the saddle. Not the aerobic endurance, necessarily, but the riding position, pacing habits, and nutrition strategies to ride powerfully for 6+ hours.
Cyclists should also consider strength training when looking to address weaknesses. Training proper movement patterns (as discussed in this Trainright Podcast) can help set the stage for further strength development and power output later on the bike.
The fall and winter are incredibly valuable for athletes aiming for high performance goals the following summer. You have the uninterrupted opportunity to focus training blocks on aspects of fitness and performance – including strength training – that will get less attention during the height of your preparation and competition periods. Generalized aerobic conditioning is important. However, most age group and Time-Crunched Cyclists will achieve more meaningful improvements from addressing weaknesses and/or training the least event-specific aspects of performance further from their goal events.