Winter training to improve cycling performance is a bit of a necessary evil. The cold winter months aren't exactly appealing riding conditions, but you can't simply jump on your road bike in March and expect to be as fit as you were in September without training. Whether you have a goal event or just want to take your cycling to the next level for the 2020 season, the 10 tips below should set you up for success.
1. Make a plan, focus on your goals, track your performance
What are you looking to achieve from your winter training? We all want to 'get better, faster or stronger', but if you don't have a specific measurable target, you'll never know if you're on track.
Whether you wish to improve your five-second power or your lactate threshold, a measurable metric will enable you to benchmark your current performance and track whether or not your training is having any effect.
A power meter, smart trainer, or if you're solely training indoors, a smart bike such as a Wattbike Atom will provide the power data you need to track your data most effectively. A heart rate monitor is a less-accurate tool when used alone, but is better than training on feel alone.
To make a plan, you could use a coach, but the very fact you're here suggests you're looking to do it yourself, and thankfully, there are apps that can help you along the way. Training Peaks for example helps to plan and track your training load, some apps, like Zwift or the Wattbike Hub app, provide training sessions, and there are a select few that combine all the necessary parts into one, such as TrainerRoad.
2. Periodise your plan
When you're putting your plan together, it's wise to set an end date and work backwards; calculate how much time you have, and create your training blocks accordingly. A typical block could consist of three weeks of intense training, followed by a week of recovery, but for inexperienced athletes, this can be reduced to two weeks of training with the same week of rest.
A typical plan will focus on endurance first, then add intensity later as you get closer to your target event. Often including just two or three, four-week intensity blocks, with the remainder being made up of endurance work.
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3. Test yourself and track your improvements
Day one of any plan should always include a test. Ideally, if you're training with power or heart rate, this test will calculate your training zones so that all subsequent sessions are performed at the correct intensity to achieve optimum adaptation. The most common test is a 20-minute max effort, although it's very easy to pace it badly, so the ramp test is a more foolproof method at calculating your zones.
You should aim to retest yourself at the beginning of each training cycle, after the week of rest, to reset your zones ahead of the upcoming block. It's important to try to test yourself under the same conditions each time. Factors such as diet, caffeine, and fatigue can all affect performance quite considerably.
4. Don't forget to rest
The whole purpose of training is to stress your body into adaptation, and it's during periods of rest that your body repairs and improves, leaving you stronger for the next block of training. Persistent stress without time to recover leaves no time for this adaptation to occur. With your susceptibility to upper respiratory tract infections (URTI) being higher during colder winter months, a lack of recovery will lead to a suppressed immune system and further compound that risk of illness.
5. Find a way to enjoy it
The best way to remain motivated is to enjoy the process, so find a way to enjoy your training. You might prefer to ride with friends outside, get your competitive fix in a weekly Zwift race, or put on some heavy drum and bass to zone into your session, whatever it is, make sure it's fun. It doesn't matter how you do it, but if every session is boring and painful, motivation will soon wane, and your commitment will truly be tested.
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The best Zwift Setups to give you the competitive edge
To improve your winter training, Zwift is a great tool that can provide interactivity, competition and structure to your training. Here is our roundup of the best Zwift setups.
6. Eliminate junk miles
Assuming you have a job, a family, or the many other responsibilities that come with life, you're likely to have a time limit on your training availability. This is why it's important to ensure that every moment on the bike serves a purpose, rather than riding along tapping out a power that's halfway between recovery and training, ultimately serving no purpose whatsoever.
That's not to say a junk mile is entirely wasteful however, as the purpose can be psychological. Often, a Sunday cruise with friends will undoubtedly feature a lack of structure, but it may be the mental reset you need to help you get through your midweek sessions.
Training indoors on a turbo trainer or Wattbike Atom for your winter training will help to increase your amount of structure, with the added benefit of not needing to spend 30 minutes layering up, and even longer cleaning your drivetrain. Do remember to invest in a good fan, though, and still expect to have to wash the sweat away from your headset.
7. Train your weaknesses, but remain goal-focussed
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It makes sense to train your weaknesses: by focussing on where you fall short, you should theoretically become a better all-round athlete. However, with your goals in mind, a personal weakness might not necessarily be considered a problem. For example, a good time-triallist might have a poor sprint, but this isn’t necessarily a weakness with regards to time trialling. Remember point number one about making a plan focussed on your goals.
It's also important not to forget your strengths. If you completely ignore the area in which you excel, it won't remain a strength for long.
8. Include strength and conditioning training
Strength and conditioning training is often overlooked, yet it can yield huge benefits both in performance and everyday life. During off season, this can be incorporated two or even three times per week, but as hours on your road bike increase, ensure you retain one session per week focussed on strength and conditioning.
Injury prevention is the primary gain: greater flexibility, along with stronger muscles, ligaments, tendons and joints will result in fewer injuries and greater durability in the event of a crash.
Neuromuscular efficiency is another major benefit. As your muscles adapt to lifting heavier loads, motor unit recruitment is increased, which in turn increases the percentage of muscle fibres you're able to recruit simultaneously, increasing the amount of power you're able to produce.
9. Eat well
When trying to increase fitness, it's important to get a handle on your caloric expenditure and take on enough fuel. Thankfully most training apps will accurately calculate your calorie burn based on power or heart-rate data. To train effectively without fluctuation in weight, you'll need to adequately refuel without under- or over-eating. That's not to say you should just step up your cheeseburger intake, though - you should aim to eat whole foods and strike a balance between protein, carbohydrates and fat.
On-bike nutrition is equally important. Forgetting to eat during a four-hour session on your road bike will likely result in the dreaded bonk, which will ultimately result in a miserable time, not to mention a poorly executed session.
10. Find a routine and eliminate excuses to avoid skipped sessions
Part of the planning process should assess where training can fit in around your daily life, and setting sessions to fill those gaps. A routine in which training is an integral part of your week will help to ensure other responsibilities don't override those already-limited hours. Complementary to this, a degree of flexibility and adaptability will help ensure a session can be moved, rather than skipped entirely, on those days where life gets in the way.
After a long period of hard training, motivation may begin to falter and when that happens, even the smallest inconvenience can seem like a worthy excuse to skip your next session. A damp base layer, a rubbing mudguard and wet cycling shoes are all excuses I've personally used in the past, but extra kit, an indoor trainer, and spare shoes have eliminated these particular excuses for future, preventing more skipped training sessions.
This article is part of a series on indoor cycling, supported by Wattbike.