How to Make Early Season Training Work for You
It’s early season and for most of us the days are still short, the temperatures still cold and our normal training routes are often frozen. No matter how dedicated a cyclist you might be and no matter how much you are able to “harden up” against the cold weather, this is the month where many of us find ourselves unable to train outdoors consistently. But that does not mean we have to make it the month in which we lose fitness. To the contrary, with the correct approach and a positive mindset, pre-season can actually be a time where we make positive gains on our goals for the upcoming season.
For many athletes, February and March can become a “just get through it” time period. And, from the perspective of Alec Donahue, a coach with Cycle-Smart.com, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Riders should allow themselves the time to take some small breaks rather than risk burnout by trying to train in every horrible weather condition. Donahue urges his riders to “take shorter breaks throughout the year,” so that they never have the need for a prolonged “off-season.” From this perspective, it is reasonable for riders to train for a couple of weeks in February, but then to take a week of lower intensity to recuperate and save all the mental discipline for later season intensity. Certainly there are other options, according to Donahue, including using the “gym, trainer, trainer classes, cross training like Nordic skiing, hiking, yoga, [and] running.” But he is quick to note that “nothing replaces cycling and none of the cross training is a substitute for aerobic base building.”
To that goal, Donahue and other coaches agree that there is a lot of benefit to be gained from indoor sessions on rollers or stationary trainers. Donahue explains that “doing volume inside is okay for the riders who are very goal oriented and may have been in the sport for a shorter time.” As he explains, some newer riders might simply need more hours on the trainer to build an effective base for the upcoming season. More experienced riders, however, don’t always require such a volume-oriented approach and might risk burning out mentally right at the start of the season if they spend too much time on rollers. To avoid this, Donahue generally recommends striking a good balance by spending time in what he loosely refers to as a “tempo” zone, which ranges from 75-90% of a rider’s threshold power or 80-90% of threshold heart rate. Through efficient training, riders give preference to quality over quantity and will still be excited for more intensity when race season finally gets started.
Dr. Jim Weinstein, a Registered Dietitian with a Board Certification in Sports Dietetics, sees an additional component to winter training that may be of benefit to athletes as they struggle with February. He encourages riders to focus on the “whole athlete.” What this means is that many racers do only that: ride bikes. This can lead to muscular imbalances, which can lead to a great potential for injury over the course of a season. So February, for Weinstein, is the perfect time to “incorporate some method of strength training” into the workout regimen. This method should focus on “strength movements that do not isolate muscles.” In other words, use dumbbells and squats instead of isolated bench- and leg-press machines.
Of course Weinstein is quick to add that “riding outside in the wintertime can be very enjoyable. There is often less traffic; sight lines are increased; and frankly, most athletes will say that the hardest part of a good winter ride is getting out the door!” He cautions that one of the biggest mistakes he sees as a coach is also one of the most self-evident rules of winter training: choose the right gear. Though he advises his riders never to attempt to ride in cold rain or freezing precipitation, he explains that a simple collection of gear such as gloves and booties with chemical hand and toe warmers, windproof head coverings and protection for your ears and face are essential items for avoiding emergency situations during February training. Of course there are always those days when it simply is not feasible to train outdoors. Weinsteins explains, “if you are having to do a lot of bottle rotating to prevent your water bottles from freezing, maybe you’ll get a better workout indoors.”
Training indoors offers many unique opportunities and Mimi Newcastle, who is not only a rider herself but also a USA Cycling Level 2 Certified Coach, is a strong advocate for an activity that is growing in popularity for cyclists across the country: Computrainer Centers. These centers offer cyclists the chance to “compete” in simulated races. Newcastle explains, “the computrainer is a rear wheel trainer that is run by a computer which changes resistance to simulate changing terrains.” In a multi-rider configuration, the type which is often found in local gyms or coaching centers, up to eight riders ride together on the same course. The racers’ various speeds and wattage data are projected on a screen at the front of the room to show the relative position of each rider on “the course.” In other words, by pedaling a stationary bike, racers will move a video game image of themselves across a virtual racecourse. All the while they will be able to see their position relative to their competition. It provides all the excitement of head-to-head racing without the ability for any rider to “sit in” and edge out a victory at the last minute with a well-timed sprint.
Newcastle notes that one of the aspects of this type of training that makes it so much fun is the variety of courses that can be simulated. She explains, “the courses range from flat to legendary Tour de France climbs such as the Col du Galibier and Ventoux.” Riders can, in her words, “do any type of workout - climbing, speed work, time trial practice, or any mix thereof.” So while there may be snow or slick pavement outside, you and your buddies could very well be dancing up the twenty-one hairpin turns of L’Alpe d’Huez in a comfortable, climate-controlled cycling gym.
How does one find these centers? They aren’t necessarily just part of your local health club. Instead, as Newcastle explains, “what really makes the difference between a health club spin class and a computrainer class is that computrainer center classes are generally run by USA Cycling certified coaches with cycling specific training in mind.” This means that the workouts “build on each other to deliver you to the road in great shape for spring and summer riding and/or competition.”
So, even though Newcastle admits that “it's not easy for inside training to be fun,” there are ways to make February training very productive. Whether you structure this often-frozen month around some short breaks to keep your mental focus sharp or you choose to use the time to build your body more holistically with a “total rider approach,” it’s always going to be a great month to work closely with your friends and teammates. As Newcastle contends, “when you're doing a traditional training plan, January through March are "build" phases. So the workouts are hard. But it's certainly a lot more tolerable tackling such training in the company of others - we all know that misery loves company - than alone in your basement.” Yes, of course, we know that misery loves company. But if we’re being really honest with ourselves, we will admit that time spent on the bike, even if it’s indoors, is never the true definition of “misery” when it’s spent with company. So get the right gear on and get out the door. But when it’s not safe to do so, get the right friends together and get indoors to a USA Cycling coach’s computrainer center. You and your upcoming season will be glad you did.