Pre-Competition Training

Okay, you've survived the temptations of Christmas and New Year, you've avoided the coughs, sneezes and infections of the masses, and you've maintained your endurance and base training programme throughout the winter; what now? 

Now comes the good bit, but not too much; too much of a good thing isn't necessarily a good thing. 

Here we'll propose some ideas and theories as to why that may be.  You can then draw your own conclusions and prepare for your season as you best see fit.

What is Pre-Completion Training?
For the pedants amongst us, theoretically all training is pre-competition training.  But for the purpose of this factsheet we'll consider that a typical cyclist's year consists of the following four phases:

▼  Base Period (winter)
Pre-Competition (spring)
Competition (summer)
Recovery (autumn)

Different coaches and different organisations attach different labels to these phases, but the ones above will suffice for our purposes. 

For now we will concentrate on the Pre-Competition phase which for us starts in February and concludes towards the end of March.  This phase should mark a significant change in our training patterns, endurance capabilities and power thresholds.

A Quick Recap
After the recovery month of October (recovery doesn't necessarily mean doing nothing), November sees the setting of goals and the introduction of moderate bike mileage and probably some cross-training, gym work or other "less demanding" activity.  The important thing is to give your mind and your body time to recover from the previous season's exploits. 

December is all about devising and training to a pre-determined plan that will enable you to meet your pre-defined objectives.  Otherwise you're just riding your bike.  The main aim of December is to introduce extended hours or miles in the saddle with slowly increasing intensity. 

January, along with keeping healthy, sees the consolidation of your endurance and the foundation building of your strength in preparation for the all important pre-competition phase.  Which is now.

Jai Watson, tucked in third behind two big blokes.  Top tactics!! ~ Kind Permission of Lucy Collins Imperial Racing Team

Pre-Competition Preparation
As we move into the Pre-Competition Period, only the intensity of our training should increase.  Endurance should ideally be established by the end of January.  After an adaptation or recovery week, you're ready to start ramping up the watts and heading for your first plateau of the year.  In mountaineering terms, we're going to establish a base camp.

Before you dive in to pre-competition, and to reap the maximum benefit from your training, it is important that you remember the principles behind the FIT acronym.  If you're unsure, check out the December Planning factsheet for an explanation or a reminder. 

Ironically, the pre-competition phase includes taking part in some competitions.  But not to win.  Be prepared for a kicking, if you've planned your season correctly then you should get one from the mad march hares. 

 flamme rouge adaptation

You should be aiming to come in to form gently, preparing yourself for bigger efforts around Easter when you can get in some solid riding or competition over a very long weekend.  At Easter you're not necessarily aiming to win but to use the holiday period as a springboard to the targeted and goal-oriented competition phase of your sporting season. 

When does your season end?
Seems a daft question when talking about pre-competition!  But it's a vital one to your success.  The probable answer is September.  That's seven months away!  So what's the rush to be winning races in March?  Like any successful project or goal you should concentrate on the finished objective and work backwards along a time-line to to where you now are. 

Do you honestly think it's possible to maintain form for seven months?  Don't bother Googling the answer, it's "no."  The winner of the Paris Roubaix isn't trying to win the Tour of Flanders, but he'll take it if it comes.  And the winner of The Tour isn't trying to win the Tour Down Under either.  It just doesn't happen. 

The days of riding competitively all year round are over.  A few Germans did it until a few years back, but they've subsequently admitted to eating "naughty sweets."   Let's not go there.

How to prepare
Okay, back to why we are here; February and March.  At this time of year consider cutting down slightly on your mileage.  Sacrifice quantity for quality.  Get the quality and intensity of your rides higher and throttle back on distance or hours.  But do it gradually!  Don't shock your body by going from one extreme to an other.  Remember, we're coming out of our winter hibernation.

Early season climbing ~ Jacques Bossis SportiveUse the first third of your ride as a general warm up by riding tempo on the flats and using controlled aggression on the climbs. 

Hit the climbs with commitment but only 80% effort.  Concentrate on technique, breathing and rhythm.  Climb well, don't climb fast. 

You want to build up to climbing at race pace, not racing the hill.  Racing the hill means getting to the top before anyone else, as fast as you can to the exclusion of all else.  Not good! 

Climbing at race pace means you have to get to the top, then kick again when you get there, passing all those that raced it.  If you can't go over the crest and for another couple of hundred metres, you've gone too hard on the hill.  Tinker with your pacing, especially if you've a power meter, until you've got it nailed.

As you move in to the middle third of your training session, start looking for that extra 10%.  But keep your form.  Don't sacrifice style for effort, that's called racing.  And, as above, don't be hitting climbs at 100% effort as soon as you hit the start ramp.  In week one hit the last third of the hill hard.  In week two, go hard for the last two thirds and in week three you go from the bottom.  But always with enough left over to kick at the top.

If you can, organise yourself a consistent route you can use over the coming weeks.  We have a circuit here in our tiny little "nine by five mile" island, called the Classics Circuit.  It has everything you could ever imagine you need for a race or a sportive anywhere in the world.  Apart from a mountain!

We have 10, 20 and 30 second sprints, 45 second surges, one, one and a half, two and three minute climbs and we finish with a six minute VO2max test session on our longest climb in the island. 

It's 20 odd miles of cycling heaven.  In week one we do it once, week two we do it twice and in week three we do it two and a half times, because no one in the seven years I've been riding it has ever done it three times.  We finish this routine two weeks before the season start.  We then take a recovery week and use the first month of the season as the final phase of our pre-competition training. 

Every year for the last five years, riders using this technique have taken race wins in the first month of the season.  Not because they had trained to be winning fit in March, but because they were best prepared to take advantage of the opportunities that arose during the early races.  Most then went on to win Island Championship medals throughout the season.  Prepare hard, race easy.

The above results were down to their own efforts, commitment and a structure to their training.  They used their pre-competition phase to prepare for the disciplines they were due to undertake.  Use your pre-competition period to prepare for the competitions in which you are to take part.  Why do you need to ride for five hours if your target for the season is a 50 mile road race or a 25 mile time trial?

If you can ride fifty miles now, what's the point in doing more or trying to ride the same distance only faster?  Do less distance much faster, then start blending your training to mimic race conditions. 

Marathon runners don't train for a marathon by running 26 miles every weekend.  And 100 metre sprinters don't just practice running fast.  Cycling can learn a lot from other sports; the traditional methods work well but they return traditional results.  If that's what you want, fine.  I've said it before and I'll say it again, "Don't keep doing the same thing and expect different results".

Early season events
A serious looking Andy Boxall, sheltering me from the windOnce the races start use them as part of your training and development.  Attack just to see what happens.  If you're blown out, so what?  Learn from it and use it as a pointer for development work in your next few training sessions. 

You've paid your race entry, so race.  Don't pay for a fast, tactical, forty mile club run.  If you're not sure what to do, just make a nuisance of yourself; go down the road.  Jump and jump hard and keep going until you're caught.  When you are caught, go again.  You may not win, but you'll learn a lot about your fitness and your tactics.  You'll also learn a lot of new swear words from your riding companions.  But one day, you might just stay away.

All races offer high quality training as long as you plan them into your schedule.  Unless you have a particular training requirement, or are  in a recovery period, there's no such thing as a bad race.  If it's a crit, go as fast and as hard as you can for a lap.  If you get caught and dropped, use the next lap to recover, eat and drink. then jump back on when they come round.  Sit at the back and get some free speed work.  Just make sure you don't influence the race, let a wheel go or start getting in the way for the sprint. 

If it's a road race, climb in the saddle instead of standing.  Do a long turn on the front, if your worried about getting dropped do it down hill or with a tail wind.  Just mix it up and save the tactical riding for the summer when the medals are dished out. 

After a few events, do an Ability Gap Analysis and identify where you could be stronger.  Then work on the areas that will give you the maximum benefit for the minimum of effort.  Have fun and leave the serious stuff until the arm warmers come off and you can feel the sun on your back.

A Terry's Chocolate Orange doesn't count.
If you're going to train hard you need to eat right.  Ramp up your carb and fruit intake to prepare your body for the more intense activities it has to endure. 

Make sure you eat correctly post-sessions to help your body repair and minimise free-radical damage.  And make sure you're sufficiently hydrated before, during and after your event.

Don't hang around after your early season event or a hard training session.  Get some easy riding in and start the recovery process as quickly as possible.  The quality of your next training session is determined by your ability to fully recover from the previous one.  Have a recovery routine, fine tune it and stick to it. 

Don't stand around talking to everyone and be the last one standing at the end, who's looking for their jacket or spare bottle when the organiser's already left.  Do your talking on the way home, when you're wrapped up well and nutritionally refurbished.

If you haven't already, and we've addressed this before many times, you should by now have at least one goal for the season.  Remember our SMARTS acronym?  Check it out here if you need to refresh your memory.  Set a goal, set sub-goals and build your training around meeting at least one goal a month. 

Each training session is one small step towards meeting your season's objectives and goals.  Monitor progress on a regular basis and adjust your plan accordingly. 

However, you can only monitor progress against a previously established baseline, otherwise what are you measuring progress against?  Make sure you're measuring like for like.  Find yourself a test protocol, a turbo session, a climb, an out and back course and use it to gauge your fitness.  Be meticulous about your record keeping.

The Message
Pre-Competition training is an important element of your season's preparation.  February should be a natural progression from January as you slowly come out of hibernation ready to stretch your legs in March and April.

Don't try and go from the gun from the first race, if you're regularly winning races in March you may have peaked too soon.  Cut back on your volume and increase your intensity.  Don't make the mistake of increasing both, remember ~ less is more!

The quicker you get fitness the quicker you lose it.  Bring it on slowly and maintain a high plateau through the serious part of the season.  Peaking for a week or two when you need it.   If injury, or real-life, intervenes you don't have to worry about losing form because you know you've prepared well and can miss a few races without it being too detrimental to your season.

Big changes in performance call for big changes in preparation.  If you weren't happy with some elements of your previous season try something different.  If you don't like it (or it doesn't like you ) you can always stop and try something else.  Don't just repeat last years plan with 10% added effort, you may just end up either ten percent more tired, ten percent slower or both!

We all race for fun and early season events should be more fun than most.  Remember this on the first Hougue Bie (Jersey) race. 

Why get up and leave home in the dark, with the rain coming down horizontally and have people screaming at you to come through on the second lap?  You can then get to ride home in the rain (or like last year for some, an ambulance), in wet clothes, bemoaning the fact that you think you're coming down with something and your legs feel heavy.

Why not aim to peak for the Hougue Bie race in August, when the sun's shining, it's 20 degrees and all the winter specialists are burnt out, jaded and past their best?  Then you can go for a post-race tea and carrot cake, sit by the seaside and watch the world go by, reliving a perfect race on a perfect day, possibly with a trophy in the bag.  Just a thought.

Enjoy your Spring; I'm off to Belgium!