Build a Personalised Cycling Training Plan

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In my previous posts (check the list at the end of this post!) we have taken a long, detailed and lingering look (some may say far too long and detailed for the attention span of any sensible person!) into the wholesome and aspirational world of setting cycling training goals, deciding to follow some sort of structured training plan and understanding and setting your personal training zones.

The next logical step is, therefore, to create a personalised cycling training plan and this post will help you to do just that!

You could, of course, simply download one of the many free plans from the internet and many of these are great and fine but there are several advantages to the DIY approach.

Firstly, and probably most importantly any “off the peg” cycling training plan will be a sort of “one size fits all” effort and won’t take into consideration your personal schedule, the time you have available, the week you need to take of for that work conference or the weekend you can’t train because you are going to Sandra/Paul/Sharon/Dave’s wedding!

Also, making your own plan makes you much more accountable. You’ll understand what you are doing and why you are doing it and this in depth understanding is empowering and motivational. You are also far less likely to “fall off the wagon” if it’s a wagon you’ve made yourself with all of the special wagon–like touches that you like to see and experience in wagons………if you’re on someone else’s idea of your perfect wagon you are likely to have less of an invested commitment to staying on it.

That’s far too much of that wagon analogy!

So, building your own, you-shaped plan is rewarding, probably more motivational and you are probably more likely to stick to it.

But I really can’t be bothered/have the time/inclination to work all of this out

Fair enough. At least you are motivated to start with a training plan and that’s half the battle. In that case I would either recommend using an “off the peg” solution having first worked out your zones as discussed previously or, if you’re really keen, use a professional trainer either in person or via something like Training Peaks.

Bear in mind though that you will probably spend almost as much time trawling the internet looking for a ready made plan as you will reading through this post and then creating your own lovely, personalised one. DIY is a bit more fun too, yes, you have to engage your brain in a way that surfing for stuff doesn’t but it’s time and brain power well spent!

A cautionary word about being too serious

However, and this is a big however………do bear in mind that a professional coach and/or using a paid service like the aforementioned training peaks will do a better job than you and I can hope to do via this post and a bit of planning. It really depends on how pro you want to go and how far you want to dig into this. The DIY approach may be just a stepping stone on your journey towards the racing elite and pro coaching or it might be as far as you ever go – and any plan is better than random cycling around!

The other thing to point out is that, for us mere mortals, (yes probably you and definitely me) ……I’m really sorry to break the news but we aren’t pro cyclists and don’t need to/don’t have the time to/don’t have the sporting ability to train like pro cyclists. It can be possible to get ideas a bit above our station and start to take this all far too seriously.

Essentially, for the vast majority of us, cycling should be a fun, uplifting and life enhancing experience. That’s not to say that you can’t take your hobby seriously, or even very seriously indeed, but, as soon as you start to get too bogged down with schedules and plans, it can get a bit too easy for things to get a bit stressy, the recriminations start, we feel guilty about missed sessions or not doing enough. The point is there has to be a sensible balance. You can’t spend more time on your bike than with your loved ones – for me at least that’s not how my life rolls and I have enough stress and time pressures in other areas of my life to start piling them onto my cycling time as well.

Building your own cycle training plan

Ok, so that all said let’s get on with making a great personalised cycling plan! Firstly, we’re going to refer back to the concept of periodisation – broadly speaking, over a period of months this is the concept of building a good base of fitness and then building on that fitness followed by a tapering before the event to prevent fatigue. On a more detailed level this means putting the body under stress, allowing it to rest, build and repair and then putting it under a little more stress etc etc as fitness increases.

Let’s do this on three levels: We’ll start with a broad monthly overview, then look at the pattern of weekly training goals before working on daily sessions. But firstly we need to remind ourself what the goal is. You can’t get to where you are going without knowing where it is so you do definitely need to have a goal and a date for achieving that goal in mind. It might be a sportive in the future, a club event or a specific ride you want to achieve – in many ways it doesn’t really matter. Make it personal, set a date and write it in your diary/calendar/partner or spouses’s calendar/work schedule/tablet calendar or preferably in blood on your forehead so that you really won’t forget!

You will also need a method of recording your training plan and this could be an Excel spreadsheet, or calendar, or a simple pen and paper. We’re going to start with planning broad brush strokes and then fill in the weekly and daily details for three to four months so you need something that will accommodate this amount of info. You’ll also probably do one or two drafts before submitting your final neat work! Yes, it sounds like we’re back at school but a bit of old fashioned discipline and hard graft hurt no one so stop moaning, choose your method of attack and let battle commence!

The monthly cycling training plan

Ok, let’s start off by saying that we need to be looking at a reasonable time span of at least three months, maybe even four months which gives us plenty of time to build towards the goal. It would, of course be possible to create a training plan that was for more time than this and, depending upon your starting fitness level, you would use this either as base training ie getting your base level of fitness up to a reasonable starting point (maybe if you haven’t worked out or cycled before) or you could set a smaller interim goal and build up towards this before building again towards the final goal at the end.

So, we need to include three broad periods of training: base training, building and tapering. Let’s start of with the taper just before the goal/event and, as you will have been working pretty intensively for several weeks beforehand, we will put in two weeks of taper. Now, for the meat of the issue we need to have a “build” period preceded by a “base” period and, to keep things working well the base period needs to be proportionally longer than the build period – remember the analogy of building a good solid engine before adding the turbo charger boost from the last post?!

Looking at the build period first, it can be a good idea to split it into build 1 and build 2 sections with a recovery week in between so, with our 12 week example we are now looking at something like (working back from the goal): a two week taper, build 2 of two weeks, recovery week and build 1 of 3 weeks leaving us 4 weeks to start off working on base training. This is only an example and you could spread this out a little further or contract it a bit depending on your personal circumstances. You could also plan it so that the recovery week is maybe when you are away or have heavy work or family commitments – the point is that you can personalise this broad overview to fit in with your other commitments over this longer term.

If you want to be uber organised and look at maybe a six month period or more then you would look at incorporating some other maybe smaller peaks or goals into this overall rhythm. Remember that essentially you’re looking for a pattern where you have a longer period of base training preceding one or more build periods (with recovery weeks interspersed) followed by a good period of taper before the event/goal. Once you have ridden the event you should also include a period of recovery as well before getting into the next period of training.

You can see that, by approaching your training on a quarterly, half yearly or even yearly basis you are setting yourself up for success, motivating yourself and also, even at this broad overview level starting to create a plan that is personalised and fits you, your fitness levels, goals and aspirations, lifestyle and other commitments perfectly.

Planning week by week

Ok, now we have the broad shape of the plan in place we can start to look at each of these time periods and the details week by week.

“Base” training – The whole idea of base training is that you are setting the foundations or, to use our previous analogy, creating a good strong basic engine so that you can add the turbo charger and super fast petrol later on. It’s a bit like a pyramid where the base training sessions provide a wide and stable foundation to sit the narrower more sharply focussed sessions on top.

A majority of base training takes place in Zone 2 Endurance and is designed to teach your body to burn oxygen and to work anaerobically, burning fat more efficiently. It also conditions the body to being on the bike and is a good time to work on building muscle as well. In an ideal world you would train in zone two and gradually increase your distance and endurance over time but this can be extremely time consuming.

We need to start at a level that is comfortable and build up from this, consistency is key and pedalling technique and control of cadence are really important. It can also be a good idea to work at the top end of Zone 2 at a reasonably high cadence in order to enable shorter rides to be effective. This type of workout combined with lower effort longer rides work well in combination however some short sharp sprints interspersed with the low level work can be very effective and relieve some of the monotony!

By the end of the base period we should be able to be in the saddle for roughly the same amount of time as the final event. If this isn’t possible then it’s fine to be round about two thirds of the way there and then to build on the endurance elements as well as working on speed and power during the “build” phase. If this isn’t possible then it can be a good idea to elongate the base training period until this solid foundation of endurance is reached.

“Build” training – In many ways the most exciting and also the most exhausting phase! Firstly we need to remember that the body responds well to being put under stress and then having recovery and build time and then put under a little more stress etc etc. It’s really important during the build phase that we don’t go all out too soon and over do it but also that we also don’t put the body under enough stress and it doesn’t get fitter and stronger either!

As a general rule of thumb we should be aiming to increase our weekly training load by 10% each week during the build phase.

But how on earth do you measure “training load”? It seems a bit unmeasurable.

Well luckily there’s a really handy equation. (Hell, I hated those damn things at school!) Which goes a bit like:

Training Load = Time x Intensity

Even I sort of get that! Time is easily measured in minutes and we can measure the intensity of our training by the zone that we are training in so, for example…….

….a thirty minute session in zone 4 would mean that the training load is 30×4 because it’s Time multiplied by intensity so the answer is………..(runs to fetch calculator)…………..120!

120 what??

Well it doesn’t really matter as long as we measure it consistently. There is some scientific grounding in all of this and what we are actually doing is working out a TRIMP score (TRaining x IMPulse) which was an idea first used by Roger Bannister of 4 minute mile fame.

So, roughly speaking, during the build phases we want our weekly TRIMP score to increase by around 10% each week. It’s not madly scientific but if will give us some direction and focus when building out the daily sessions later on.

Recovery and taper periods – Let’s be radical here and suggest that during the recovery week you take a whole week off! Shock horror! You don’t have to but you should certainly be doing just Zone 1 rides, taking it very easy, having a massage and or doing cross training. During the taper periods you aren’t going to lose form but you could very easily tire yourself out before the big event so the idea is again to ride in zone 1 as much of possible, keep the legs turning over by working at a good cadence and keep things fresh. On recovery days you could again do cross training if you wish (yoga, swimming etc are all good compliments to cycling) but you should equally have some days of complete rest as well.

Planning day by day

So, having planned over a number of months in broad brush strokes and also looked at what we need to achieve in each period of training it’s now time to finally flesh out the plan with individual sessions.

Obviously it’s not really possible to do this if we haven’t got the overall view so, if you have skipped over the post to get to this point (naughty you!), then do go back and look at the broad overview as it’s only really possible to plan daily sessions within the context of the overall plan and goal at the end.

Firstly some sobering news…….apparently……..exercising two days a week will basically maintain the fitness you have, three times a week will allow you to see some slow improvements. Four times a week and you will see significant improvement and any more than this and you will be, well possible taking it far too seriously although your cycling improvement will be awesome!

Obviously, cycling 7 days a week isn’t a good idea as, no matter how fit you are the body does need rest and recovery days. It’s also not a good idea to try to ride six days a week if you have never done cycle training before but the main thrust of this information (I like thrusts of information!) is that the more you do it the better you will become.

No surprises there then!

But, you do need to build up and it’s far better to do several shorter sessions that one mega ride at the weekend. At the start of your training plan, during the base phase, it might well be a good idea to start with a low number of sessions per week and gradually increase. A sensible starting point would be to do two shorter sessions during the week and a longer session at the weekends. This is a nice sustainable pattern that could reasonably be ramped up to three shorter midweek sessions and a longer weekend ride as your fitness improves.

So, obviously, in all aspects of this it’s important to assess what your starting point is, probably take a step or two back from there and build onwards and upwards. Remember, looking at your over view plan, that you are in this for the long haul with a long term goal or goals in mind. Start steadily within your capacity. Gain some confidence and comfort before you start to stretch yourself a bit. There’s nothing worse than starting off at something too hard and then giving up. Be kind to yourself and be realistic. Start slowly and build in the 10% weekly increase during the build phases.

The other thing that you can now do as you consider your daily sessions is try to work out how they might fit into your regular schedule. In many ways the more inconvenient your training sessions are the less likely you are to do them so, if you can make them part of maybe your commute to work or use a session as transport to another regular event, then you are more likely to do them.

Similarly, getting into a habit is important as well and will help keep you on track. If you know that you always train on a Monday lunch time then you will always train on a Monday lunchtime. It will feel a bit odd for a start, in fact it apparently takes between 21 and 61 days to create a habit (do people really spend their time researching this sort of thing! I think it takes a much longer time to break a habit!) but once it’s ingrained in your schedule it becomes much easier to fit in.

On the other hand your schedule might be different each week in case weekly and monthly planning will be essential and it becomes even more important to put your cycle training into your diary. The important thing is that, as you plan, you work out a way of being accountable. Your cycle training has to become something that is part of what goes into your diary, it goes onto your “do it” list, goes into the calendar – you need to schedule time with yourself to do this!

Also it’s important that family/friends/work colleagues know that you are committed to cycle training time. Let them know in advance when you are going to be training and this has the double advantage of keeping you accountable to them for actually doing it and also making it easier for you to do as other people won’t be expecting anything else of you during those times.

Having scheduled the time you now need to plan the individual sessions. I will provide a whole bank of sessions with a link at the bottom of this post and it’s simply a case then of choosing the right session s for the correct period of training and also the right sessions to achieve the type of improvement you are looking for. You can, of course use the suggested sessions as a starting point and change the timings and intensities to fit in with your TRIMP calculations and this is an important part of the overall progression that’s fun and rewarding to work out.

Finally remember that each session, despite having an overall goal must start with a warm up and a cool down – suggestions for how to do these are included in the training sessions bank post – you will almost certainly sustain some sort of injury if you go head long into a tough training session with cold muscles and it puts unnecessary stress on the whole body to either shift quickly into or out of high intensity action.

The most important thing is that you listen to what your body is telling you and that you plan accordingly. As I said above start steadily and build. This is a long term overall strategy. If you feel that you are going to hard or not hard enough generally you can, of course, look at the TRIMP ratings of your plan and tweak it as needed. The point is that the plan is personal to you and, with the guidance outlined above and some common sense you can adapt it to fit you perfectly.

Final and finally, as with anything physical like this, I can only offer general guidance. I am not a medically trained professional, I have no knowledge of your personal health and fitness needs and you need to take responsibility for gauging your own suitability for any training plan. If you are in any doubt you should seek the advice of your doctor and, if you require a more specialist approach, then using a qualified cycling coach is the way to go. The information above is the result of my own research and experience and, whilst it will give a great start for a vast majority of people, it’s not intended to offer any sort of medical or physical guarantees and should be used for guidance only.

The next thing to do is to head off to the training sessions bank here and fill in the sessions onto your over all plan.

You can find the other posts in this series here:

Road Cycling Heart Rate Training Zones Explained

Cycle training with Power V heart Rate Monitors

How to Use Your MHR and FTP to Set Your Cycling Training Zones

Training Sessions bank

Make a personalised cycling training plan

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