I was recently having a conversation by email with a riding buddy. We were comparing training schedules. He commented on mine and concluded: “Be careful not to peak too early.”

Last week end I was at a meeting with members of a local cycling club and I invited the guys to join me for ten days of training in Tucson from March 7th to March 17th. After looking at me in complete disbelief they said: “No way, it’s too early in the season to do such training.” I also heard someone mention the “I don’t want to peak to early” comment again.

A few days ago I ran into a friend at our local indoor training center and we compared notes on spring training. I invited him to join me in Tucson in March but he declined as his theory is that “It would be too early in the season and he will lose the benefit of that training block between his return on March 17th and when he starts racing locally in mid April“.

I think too many cyclists confuse seasonality and periodization. I am not a seasonal rider but I do religiously follow the rules of periodization. Here are some of the signs to look for to determine if you are a seasonal rider:

  • You completely switch to a different sport in the winter.
  • You start training when the weather is nice enough to ride outside.
  • Your training season never starts in November or December.
  • You believe that the normal training cycle consists of starting with 50 km rides in April or May and you progressively increase the length of your rides to 100 km or 125 km before the end of the summer and start again next year.
  • You do not see the benefit of a large training block before you start riding outdoors.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not knocking seasonal riders. Most of my friends are seasonal riders. My point is simply that if you want to progress as a cyclist you need to view your training in relation to an overall training plan which is not based on the weather or in other words, “the seasons”. Training doesn’t necessarily start in the spring and end in the fall. You don’t do most of the work in the summer and take the winter off neither. Having an effective training plan based on periodization will include training when you typically don’t train much (now!) and it will go a long way to give you an edge over the competition when people start riding outdoor. And since most cyclists, no matter how experienced, like the competitive aspect of the sport, I have to believe that the prospect of dropping your buddies who used to drop you last year might be a good motivator to have you migrate from being a “seasonal rider” to becoming a “periodization rider.”

To better illustrate my point I went back to an old email I got in September 2011 from Carmichael Training Systems – written by founder and CEO Chris Carmichael:

“The first significant snowfall blanketed Pikes Peak this week, and even though it’s rapidly melting it’s a sure sign that fall and winter are approaching! Some people mourn the end of summer and dread the onset of shorter days and colder temperatures, but as a coach and an athlete, I love this time of year. Here’s why:

All the fitness, none of the pressure: Think about your fitness right now. You’re strong from a season’s worth of training and racing, you can go faster and further now than you could in March, May, or even July. But if your big goals were in the summer, it’s likely they’re behind you now. That means you’re in a sweet spot as an athlete – you have the strength and stamina for high-quality training, and you don’t have to worry about the intricacies of balancing competitions with training. As a coach, that’s why I look at this time of year as a huge opportunity. I use this time for blocks of training that are often too big to fit into the typical race-and-recovery cycle that athletes get into during the height of the summer.

The runway is as long as it’s going to get: To improve from year to year, you have to take time to address your weaknesses. If you wait until January, you’re addressing your weaknesses at the same time that you’re counting down the weeks until you have to be ready to race. It’s better to work on pedal stroke, climbing technique, aerobic endurance – or whatever your season review reveals as your weak link – now. Get it done in the Fall so you can focus all your pre-season energy on maximizing race-specific performance.

Everyone else is watching football: Everybody trains hard in January and ramps up for the season in the first few months of the year. Not everyone trains through the fall. If you want to make real progress, you can’t afford to give up 30% of your fitness and power by sitting on your couch or exercising casually through Christmas. Tired of the regimen of structured training? The athletes I coach sometimes feel that way, too. But the answer isn’t to walk away from training; my job is to utilize varied training experiences to refresh their enthusiasm for training while simultaneously keeping their fitness level high.

You want to kick some butt in 2012? You want to dramatically exceed the performance level you reached this summer? It starts now. You drop off, hang back, or bail out now and it’s going to be you who gets passed, dropped, and disappointed next season. This is the message I give to my coaches because this is the time of year when coaches can make the biggest impact on an athlete’s overall performance. And it’s the message I’m delivering to you – in no uncertain terms – because right now is when you lay the foundations for your fastest Leadville 100, Ironman, Triple Bypass, California Death Ride, etc. in 2012.”

I can so relate to what Chris wrote especially this: “You want to kick some butt in 2012? You want to dramatically exceed the performance level you reached this summer? It starts now. You drop off, hang back, or bail out now and it’s going to be you who gets passed, dropped, and disappointed next season.”

When I think about everything I go through several months per year to get to a good fitness level (pain, pain, pain, time away from love ones, boredom, frustration, disappointment, anxiety, sacrifices etc) there is no way I am going to lose a big part of that fitness just because conventional wisdom says that cyclists who live where it snows in the winter should  stop training when fall arrives. So what is periodization?

Periodization can be defined as the systematic planning of athletic training over a given period of time. It involves a progressive increase in workload and specificity of training over a specific period of time. It is a way of achieving peak performance at the right time of the season. The aim of periodization is to introduce new training stimulus and more specific type training as one progresses through the training plan from the start of the season to the athlete’s main goal of the year. Periodization involves individuality of training. It is specific to ones circumstances such as time available to train, where the athlete lives, what type of terrain is available and obviously what the ultimate yearly goal is. Keep in mind that “where the athlete lives” doesn’t mean training or not training. That is never the choice. Whether you train or not is not dictated by weather but where you stand in your yearly plan. I live in Montreal where it is winter and I am currently training. I have a friend who lives in Australia where it is summer and he is also training. The difference between him and I is the type of training we are currently doing, not whether we are training or not. While he can go on four hour group rides I am indoors doing 90 minutes hard Computertrainer classes with a big focus on intensity. That is periodization. An even better example of what I mean is the difference between my good friend Dave Burke’s training and mine. Dave has the same coach as me, has the exact same event as me as his key yearly goal and he lives in Tucson, Arizona where he could be riding a ton. He is instead vacationing in New Zealand. I bet you I am now spending more time than him on the bike. Why? For two reasons. Dave’s 2013 season ended later than mine and he is retired and has way more time than me to train when he gets back to Arizona. He is in a different phase of his yearly training program than me. That is periodization.

My 2013 riding season ended in October and my 2014 season started in December 2013. The 2013 season was originally supposed to end at the end of November after the 180 km El Tour of Tucson but a business trip to Europe conflicted with this last sporting event. My coach and I decided to call the season off as soon as we found out in October that I wouldn’t be racing the El Tour. After that decision, I rode my bike an hour a week for four weeks and then about three to four hours a week for about three weeks. These seven weeks didn’t involved any kind of structured workouts and I just got on the bike when I felt like it.

While I was taking it easy my coach and I focused on building the plan for 2014 which for us meant getting me ready to ride the Haute Route Dolomites and Haute Route Alps from August 16 to 30. Over those two weeks I will be riding 1,788 kilometers (1,111 miles), climbing 36 mythical European mountains and 39,900 meters (130,905 feet) of ascent. Because my coach Jason Tullous and myself believe in periodization and not seasonality we built the plan with a view of getting me as ready as possible for August without giving too much thought about stuff like snow storms or having to ride inside for several weeks. Getting ready for a cycling event, be it two weeks in the mountains in Europe or a local 100 mile Gran Fondo, means getting ready for it. Outside factors like seasons do not really get factored into the planning other than to adjust the type of training to achieve the ultimate goal. Here’s a good example of what I mean.

Here are the basic portions of my periodization based training program.

The macrocycle

A macrocycle refers to the annual plan that works towards peaking for the goal competition of the year. There are three phases in the macrocycle: preparation, competitive, and transition. My macrocycle started in December 2013 and will end after my main event in August, unless we decide to extend it.

The preparation phase typically represents the bulk of the macrocycle.  The preparation phase is broken up into general and specific preparation. An example of general preparation would be building a large aerobic base for an endurance athlete. An example of specific preparation would be to work on the proper form to be more efficient on one aspect of the sport such as climbing or sprinting.

The competitive phase can include one or several competitions, but it all leads to the main competition which the athlete has set as his or her yearly goal. The competitive phase is a good way to test yourself to see how your preparation is going towards getting ready for the main competition: performance level, new shoes or gear, a new race tactic might be employed, pre-race meals, ways to reduce anxiety before a race, or the length needed for the taper. When the competitions before the main goal are of a high priority there is a definite taper stage before each competition while other competitions might simply be integrated in as training. I have personally already signed up for six days of racing between March and July which I will use to test my fitness. As we get closer to these events, my coach and I will determine if we approach them as key events or just as training and based on our decision I will either taper or not before each event.

I am fully aware that for most amateur cyclist racing is out of the question. So when I mention “competition” or “competitive goal” it doesn’t necessarily means a “race”. Participating in a Gran Fondo or a long charity ride is a perfect “competitive goal” for most. In other words, if someone is training for a 100 mile Gran Fondo or charity ride in August as their main event, putting in place a competitive phase might mean participating in a series of group rides or even doing a 35 or 50 mile Gran Fondo in June and July.

The last phase, the transition phase is very important for psychological reasons, a year of training means a vacation is in order. A little time off the bike is good but it doesn’t mean being completely off the bike nor does it mean being off the bike in the winter as I mentioned earlier when I described my transition phase in October and November 2013.

The mesocycle

A mesocycle represents a phase of training with a duration of between 2 – 6 weeks (or microcycles). For me a mesocycle is typically a four week block: three weeks of “real training” followed by a recovery week. A mesocycle can also include a number of continuous weeks where the training program emphasizes the same type of physical adaptations, for example muscle strength or anaerobic capacity. Over the Christmas holiday I did a lot of “Muscle Tension” work which consists of intervals of ten to fifteen minutes at a low cadence of about 60 RPM. This exercise is designed to build muscle strength with a cycling specific exercise. I am now on a second four week mesocycle which is focused on high intensity interval training (“HIIT”). HIIT is simply a workout in which the rider alternates between high intensity efforts (from 30 secs to 5 mins) and recovery periods. The reason for this approach is quite simple: I am a time crunched athlete and research has proven that if you can’t put in the time to train then you have to throw in some intensity. The other reason to do HIIT is that it helps cyclists “Harden The Fuck Up”. You see, HIIT hurts a lot and it requires a lot of motivation. Getting through several weeks of HIIT will not only boost your fitness but it will help you get stronger mentally.

Over the years I have found all sorts of excuses to avoid having to do HIIT. Last year I was actually so successful in avoiding HIIT that I showed up at a race in Tucson in mid-March and I got beaten by all my riding buddies by more than a minute in a 5 km time trial and I got dropped within five minutes of the second stage road race. I was so humiliated that I decided to never again skip HIIT.

The goal is to fit the mesocycles into the overall yearly plan to make each mesocycle end on one of the phases of the plan (preparation, competitive etc) and then to determine the workload and type of work of the next cycle based on where in the overall plan the given mesocycle falls and how the athlete performed in the last mesocycle. The goal is to make sure the body peaks for the high priority competition by improving with each cycle along the way.

The microcycle

A microcycle is typically a week. Each microcycle is planned based on where it is in the overall macrocycle. A microcycle is also defined as a number of training sessions, built around a given combination of acute program variables, which include progression as well as alternating effort (heavy vs. light days).

So to my friends who think training in January and February means you risk peaking too soon I can clearly say that it is not a risk as I am following a very specific plan that calls for peaking in July when I will be training in the Pyrenees for ten days. And what does peaking mean? I think it is important to define “peaking” as for many people around me peaking seems to be some abstract notion. For me, peaking is a mathematical formula. For me peaking means achieving the highest Chronic Training Load (“CTL”) at the right time before my main event.

The CTL simply represents your long term tolerance to a given relative training stress. In its simplest sense, CTL can be thought of as a rolling long term average (the default is 6 weeks) of the athlete’s relative training load. In this sense it is often used synonymously with fitness, assuming that fitness is related to long term work capacity and indeed, for a given athlete on a given season it has been empirically validated that the athletes highest potential performance will occur at their highest CTL. It is certainly a good indicator of “base fitness”, where increasing the long term capacity to do work is a major training objective. My training plan is developed not only to achieve the highest possible CTL (i.e. fitness) possible at the right time (as determined by analysis of past data) but also to achieve the right power outputs at the same time through specific workouts designed to increase things such as lactate threshold as well as workouts designed to replicate the specificity of the main yearly event.

So there you go, to my friends who think that the benefits of a large training block do not last I can assure you that the work you do today affects your fitness over the long term, as represented by the need for your CTL to be as high as possible to achieve good fitness. And to my friends who have a competitive nature and who would like to drop their buddies as opposed to getting dropped, get on your bikes now and aim to achieve by mid April the same training workload you had last July. When you start doing group rides outside, you will be a completely different rider and you will enjoy cycling even more. It will motivate you to look at training as a tool to achieve your goals and not as something that is dependent on weather or the seasons of the year.