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Bike Training in the Winter

You can achieve the same benefits with shorter harder efforts.

In order to decide what your training plan should look like in January and February, you need to consider what you’re trying to achieve. Training requires that you overload your system and then recover for long enough to adapt and get fitter. Overload is a combination of volume and intensity. How much overload and recovery you need will depend on each individual, their current fitness and goals for the year, which needs to be taken into account when setting up workouts. Athletes with early season races will need to overload their systems more in January and February than those with goal races in the fall. These are all factors that need to be considered when setting your goals, knowing when your key months of training are and being prepared to put in the work at that time.

One traditional approach to the off season is to use it for “Base” building: long, slow miles where you put in a lot of time at a low intensity. However, some newer theories suggest that you can achieve many of the same benefits with shorter harder efforts. I feel that this is a much more effective way of training for Canadian athletes in January and February. Canadian winters are just not ideal for long, slow rides and the psychological toll that long, easy rides on the indoor trainer take is too high for the return you get.

You can get much of the benefit of a long easy three to four hour ride from a 75 minute ride with some focused intensity. One of the key factors in training for triathlons of any distance is to raise what Dr. Andy Coggan calls your Functional Threshold Power (FTP), which is the highest average power you can attain for an all out 60 minute effort. By doing workouts focused on raising your FTP you can get a great workout in a reasonable time frame. There are many different ways to do an FTP workout, but the main goal is to spend 40 to 50 minutes at your FTP power with short rest intervals. Here is an example:

Warm up:

5 min Easy spinning (Z1)

5 min Steady (Z2/3)

5 min Tempo (Z3/4)

2 min Easy (Z1)

Main set:

Aim for a total of 40 to 50 minutes spent at your FTP (Z5) with short rest intervals. Examples include:

4 x 10 min Z5 with 3 min rest

3 x 15 min Z5 with 4 min rest

2 x 20 min Z5 with 5 min rest

Warm Down:

5 min Easy spin

This type of workout should only be performed once a week. The key is to hold a consistent power output over the entire interval, so that you don’t fade (for those without a power meter, you should be riding in the same gear for each interval and maintaining the same cadence – this will ensure your power is reasonably consistent for the workout)

It’s also important to note that training adaptations occur on a continuum, meaning that you don’t shift instantly from using one physiological system to another. You don’t switch from using slow twitch to fast twitch muscle fibre instantly as you cross your FTP. Instead, your body (once warmed up) uses slow twitch muscle fibres to provide the power you need. As your power requirement increases, your body starts to recruit more muscle fibres to produce the power. At a certain point more fast twitch muscle fibres will come into play. These fibres are more energy costly than slow twitch ones, but, by training them, you can get them to act more like slow twitch ones, which is one of the main goals of endurance training. You can do this through long rides (e.g. after three to four hours of riding your slow twitch fibres are too fatigued to continue to produce the power you require, so your body recruits more fast twitch), or with harder FTP efforts that directly challenge your slow twitch and fast twitch fibres at the same time.

There are other training benefits that longer rides provide that shorter FTP rides don’t (e.g. testing your nutrition and bike position), but the goal is not to replace your long rides entirely. You can delay the longer rides until the weather is more cooperative, though, at which point you can do them outside. You can also ake advantage of any warm winter days to get out on your old mountain bike. You will find that with the right pacing and fuelling you can go from a hard 75min indoor ride to a three-hour-plus ride outside with little trouble.

Many athletes are concerned that by doing hard workouts over the winter they will burn out during the summer racing season. This is where recovery becomes important. With proper recovery, burn out  will not be an issue. Incorporating some easier training weeks with your harder build weeks can help ensure that you are getting enough recovery to go along with the overload and also give yourself a mental break (which can be just as important).

There are many ways to provide the overload in your training and these are a few key concepts that you should consider when setting up your winter training plan. Just don’t forget about the recovery, which is what many triathletes tend to ignore. The overload makes you tired, but it’s the recovery that allows you to adapt to the overload and become fitter.

Nigel Gray is the Head Coach of NRG Performance Training, with over 12 years of coaching experience from beginners to Elite athletes and 15 years of racing experience as a professional triathlete