Training and periodisation for cyclists with Adam Pulford | EP#211
Coach Adam Pulford of Carmichael Training Systems discusses the yearly training plan for a cyclist, what goes into each training phase, and tackles plenty of frequently asked questions that cyclists, triathletes and other endurance athletes all need to consider when planning their training and racing calendar.
- Let's discuss this episode and the topic in general. Post any comments or questions in the comments at the bottom of the shownotes. Join the discussion here!
In this Episode you'll learn about:
- The yearly periodisation of a typical cyclist.
- The architecture of mesocycles and microcycles.
- The competitive phase and maintaining fitness and freshness between races.
- Frequently asked questions: the balance of high and low intensity, scheduling rest, physiological testing and more.
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About Adam Pulford
- I’ve been a full-time coach with Carmichael Training Systems (CTS) since 2006, based in Colorado Springs.
- I was full time for 8 years and for the past 5 years I’ve been coaching as well as directing/managing professional cycling teams – both mountain bike and road.
- I’ve always had a focus on how to elevate athlete’s performance and have taken that mantra into whatever team or athlete I’m working with.
- I’ve carved a niche in mountain biking and women’s road racing, but before that I used to race triathlon myself as well!
- I started a triathlon club at the University of Wisconsin when I studied there and raced a lot of triathlons and Xterra.
- I still coach triathletes as well as mountain bikers and cyclists.
- I currently now live in Washington DC with my fiancé Kristen.
Focusing on one discipline versus multiple
- I would always ask the athlete what they want to achieve in their single discipline – how high is their goal.
Is it participatory, or do you want to win?
- Additionally, you need an assessment of their history in the discipline before you can say how much focus you need.
E.g. if you race mountain bikes at a high level, then got married and had kids, then came back and wanted to race the Swiss epic mountain bike stage race, it’s probably possible.
It’s not overly technical and it’s a five-day stage race that’s endurance driven – for that reason if you spend a lot of time on the road and then ride the mountain bike leading up to the event, you’ll be fine.
- Meanwhile, if you want to win your age group or a national championship, at some point you’ll need to steer most of your training onto the mountain bike for the specificity of the sport.
- It’s possible to do a base training phase in the winter with tempo and threshold work, then do specific road or mountain bike training relating to the race you’re targeting in the Spring/Summer.
You could cover road racing, then mountain bike racing, and then cross racing in the fall.
- Focus on two things: strengths and weaknesses, and specificity.
- You want to focus on your weaknesses further out from your main event and focus on strength leading into the event.
- Athletes targeting the mountain bike national championships in the summer and need to focus on technical riding will doing this in the off-season.
Leading up to the event, they will then focus more on the mountain bike with 60-70% of their training on the mountain bike.
Training periodisation across the year
- Traditional periodisation always has base, prepatory, specialisation phases with sub-sets of each.
- As we progress as physiologists and coaches it’s been turned on the head slightly.
The way I coach now involves looking at the chronological age and training age of the athlete and that sets up the plan.
- When I’m working with someone who has been doing this for a while I go back to strengths and limiters assessment and where their goal event is.
If we’re further out and I’m working on the limiters – e.g. a female aiming at the mountain bike national champs but without much anaerobic capacity and overall strength and power, their training will incorporate a lot of 1-minute efforts, or 30 second sprints.
In the weight room we would be doing heavy lifting, working on generating overall force and strength.
We’d also be riding some technical and demanding terrain but in a non-structured way (e.g. be out for 5 hours).
- If the same client couldn’t train outside in the winter, I would still have them do the short intervals (10-60 seconds), and I would still go heavy in the weight room.
In terms of technical riding I might suggest vacations to places that have this terrain.
Also if it is somewhere with snow I might recommend going out on a fat bike and having some fun with that.
- If the athlete has got 2-3 years of fairly structured training, I would make the strength and limiter assessment and do high quality training on their limiters in the ‘base period’.
I call this strengthening the base, not necessarily establishing the base.
- With a typical professional or aspiring age group from there we would take the strengthening of the base approach through the new year, then start to work on threshold development.
January – February we need to increase lactate threshold which is best bang for your buck with any aerobic sport 3 hours or less with a performance aspect to it.
- Single track mountain bike racing starts to kick up in March so you need to be ready to have the highs, lows, and technical aspects of what single track mountain bike racing looks like.
Threshold training block
- Power duration curves look at your mean max power from 2 second all the way to your longest ride.
It shows how good you can sprint, how long you can carry it, how good is your threshold and how good is your endurance.
- That gives me an assessment of where we’re sitting on a rolling 90-day average at any given time period.
- I want to either train the athlete intensively or extensively.
As I lead up to the specificity of the event, I tune into that, but when it comes to threshold training, I want to extend the amount of time they can tolerate threshold and increase it as it comes into racing season.
- I see what the athlete can do to begin with, which might be 250 watts for 33 minutes.
If this is what they can tolerate I’ll start with 3 x 10 on Tuesday, 3 x 8 on Wednesday and then an endurance ride on Thursday. The perceived effort should be an 8/10.
I’ll use block training to overload the threshold system and make them tired in a specific way so that when they rest, they super compensate so we can do more next week.
3 x 10 or 4 x 10 is a good place to start for most people.
- Many athletes think that the day after a hard interval day should be easy, but that’s not the point.
The whole point of training is to fatigue so we want you to come back and do it the next day but maybe slightly less.
It’s good to get tired because then you rest and then you get better.
- I encourage people to think in terms of blocks of training and what you’re trying to do.
I often run athletes four days hard, then give them a rest day, then go again – which isn’t a full week, so it’s good to get out of thinking in terms of weeks.
- For Masters racers or someone who has 10 hours available I would do Tuesday, Wednesday hard, Thursday medium, Friday easy, hard group ride Saturday, long ride Sunday, Monday off.
It looks like that for threshold block!
- Some of the traditional periodisation modelling is starting to get a different look now.
- Traditional periodisation does work, but we need to look at why we’re doing it and see if there’s a more effective way of doing it.
- I do follow some traditional periodisation modelling such as meso cycles, but as I get to know the athlete more I tend to not use them.
I base everything upon what their life looks like.
- I typically find that anyone doing less than 20 hours a week and we’re taking care of ourselves, you can train hard for 4-6 weeks with taking short blocks of recovery (e.g. 3 days easy).
You chunk it in an overloading pattern to make sure that you’re getting tired before we take the recovery block.
It’s a more efficient way that fits better into many people’s lives who have regular jobs as we can freshen up over a long weekend rather than taking 7 days completely off on a regular basis.
How to know when the athlete is tired/needs a rest block
- I regularly tell my athletes you don’t know where the edge is until you go and find it.
- The edge is not only within a given day, but also within a given training period – it’s about how tired we can make you before you can’t do it anymore.
- It’s tricky because you don’t want to induce injury or get the athlete sick, so you want to find your edge in a training block where it doesn’t matter if you did get sick.
You never want to induce an injury though.
- I work with my athlete individually and regularly contact them either face to face or via video chat to keep ongoing feedback about where they’re at so we can find their edge.
- For self-coached athletes you must know who you are and what your thoughts are when you’re going really hard and long.
- When you’re trying to induce training fatigue you must be able to remind yourself why you’re doing this and what your goal is.
- You want to find the edge but don’t fall off.
Quantifying where the edge is
- I’m a big Alex Hutchinson fan – if you haven’t read Endure then go and do it!
- The mind has a big capacity to go beyond what we think we can do, and we can’t measure that yet.
- If my athlete is doing an edge finding workout, I’m going to measure heart rate, power or pace, speed, perceived effort and anything else that’s on their GPS advice.
- Within the training block, I’ll measure TSS on the day as well as a 7-day rolling average, RPE of all sessions and for the week, and time in zones (either power, pace etc).
I want to see how much time is spent in a specific training zone related to energy systems and what we’re trying to train.
- I want to see where they cracked and how much TSS, power, time in tempo zone that they could accumulate before this.
- Edge finding isn’t done often, it’s done once or twice a year to establish where you’re at and it would be during an intensive threshold block
Racing season training
- If you go to the performance management chart on Training Peaks you have a fitness accumulation score (CTL).
- For single day mountain bike racers, or Xterra racers, I’ll get the fitness really high.
We’re doing a lot of training and getting your tolerance of training really high for race season, and then I’ll bring that down coming into the first block of racing or where it matters for performance.
I’ll intentionally bring CTL down and bring up the freshness, typically done by reducing volume.
- During this time I’ll keep threshold training in the mix, at 80% of the total volume of threshold training that I have been doing, but bring volume down by 50%.
- In between races it’s based on communication and maintenance to make sure we’re not overdoing it.
If you do it right in the prepatory phase, you don’t need much in the racing season. What it takes to stay fit is not what it takes to get fit.
- With my athletes they typically races either 1 per month for those who work etc, or blocks of 3-4 weekends of racing in a row which is typical of a mountain bike, road or crit racer.
Triathletes or Xterra athletes may also race a few weeks in a row.
- 3-4 weeks of racing will be racing at the weekends often both days, Monday off, Tuesday really easy, Wednesday back in single track, Thursday hard ride, Friday hard openers but volume low, then racing again at the weekend.
Volume is down by 30-40%, and the hard ride on Thursday might be at the same intensity but not the total time at intensity as a normal threshold day. It may be a race simulation.
- Racing once a month, the week after the race would be a recovery block. 2 days of doing nothing, and then some active recovery for the rest of the week, getting back to endurance by the weekend.
- From there I’d assess how good and race went and assess based on the performance of what we need to work on.
You have a 2-week window to work on an energy system or some specificity of the racing before you take a 7-10 day taper leading into the next race (assuming the race is 3 hours or less).
This 12-day block would be pretty hard. If it was an Xterra racer who needed to work on mountain bike specificity of a hard course I’d bring them through a block of VO2 work with 2-3 minute all out efforts on the bike, with 2-3 minutes recovery in between.
- I’d go hard on Tuesday, medium/easy on Wednesday, then hard on Thursday.
I’m inducing a training effect, then allowing recovery before I go in with another training effect.
I don’t want to find the edge and have them fall over at this point, so I put in more recovery in the grand scheme of things.
- I’d be looking for at least 15 minutes of time in zone if I’m going for race specificity VO2 workout. Up to 20-25 depending on who they are.
This might be 5x3 minutes with 3 minutes in between, or 8x2 minutes with 2 minutes in between on the bike.
If it’s a run workout it might be 5x1km on the track. I want at least 90 seconds, up to 5 minutes for a VO2 interval, and at least 15 minutes total time.
- A lot of people think they’re doing 60 second efforts and it’s VO2, but it’s not, it needs to be at least 90 seconds to get the maximum aerobic benefit.
I would encourage athletes to go longer, 3-5 minutes really hard, and take a 1:1 rest ratio.
- Mikael mentioned 2 papers he’s recently read investigating pacing during VO2 intervals and how you can potentially get more time at VO2 max by going harder initially with the VO2 repetitions.
So you might do a 2 minute interval but if you start at 130% of FTP, and finish at 100%, you might spend more time at VO2 then if you spent the whole time at 150% even though the average power may be the same.
- At CTS we call them front loaded or peak and fade intervals, and it generally elicits the VO2 max you’re trying to achieve and it’s a very race specific training tool.
Peaking and sustaining peaks
- This comes down to the art of coaching and performing, and it's a tricky area.
- It's very individualistic, you need to practice your taper.
With the taper you're trying to predict a method to get the most out of yourself - it might take 7, 10, 14 days and it depends on you as an athlete and the event you're going for.
Practice the taper with B or C events where it's less risky to do so.
- A fairly fool proof taper for the majority of athletes, for a one day event that is 3 hours or less would be:
Dropping volume by 40-50% two weeks out, keeping if not increasing intensity, with a full 24-48 hours recovery between harder sessions. Increase sleep and go into the event as fresh as possible.
- Cross country Nationals are mid to late July, and you often start racing in March and have races quite regularly.
To make sure athletes peak in July you do the first round of racing and re-assess to see what you need to do - typically we need another bout of threshold/VO2 training with volume to increase CTL/overall fitness.
You'd do this until June with B races and events, then as you hit the start of July I'd end the cycle of training, freshen them up with a recovery block, and then have a very race specific with VO2 intensity lead in taper to National championships.
I'd be bringing CTL down, and have intensity higher on key training days (Tues, Thurs, Sat) and everything else in between is very easy or single track riding to keep a feel for that.
Two weeks out I'd have three hard days, 1 week out it might be 2 days with pre-riding.
- Volume is two fold, it's great for aerobic base training but also specificity for the event we're doing.
In cross country mountain biking for example, volume isn't a big component so going out and doing 6-8 hour rides leading up to the event won't help you it'll hinder you.
The event is 90-100 minutes so volume isn't needed in that time period, and you probably don't even need to overdo the volume at base period.
- The specificity of the race volume relative to everything else you're trying to do is important to consider.
- For an advanced amateur athlete preparing for cross country Nationals the volume would be around 12-15 hours.
Balance of high and low intensity
- I don't think that there is balance, I think there's homeostasis relative to what we're trying to achieve.
- I like to get out of balance to have a better new balance - I'll really fatigue my athletes and then pull them back, but not to the point of getting sick.
I keep balance 3 days a week of really hard intensity, and if you're doing everything else right that should be enough to drive performance.
Training outdoors vs indoors
- If you live in an area where you can be outside, outside more often is always the best.
There's a lot of benefits from being outside - the feel and technical aspects, but also the social benefits, fresh air, sunshine etc.
- However with the virtual platforms and the road feel of trainers such as the Wahoo Kickr, it makes for a fantastic indoor riding experience.
If you live somewhere with harsh winters and you can't ride outside, get on the trainer.
- I take ERG mode off because it pushes back for the power versus making you push for the power.
If you take it off, you produce the power so it makes for a far better road feel.
Nutrition on the bike during training
- I split into two different camps: if we're trying to do performance with really hard workouts 2 hours and less, hydration with electrolytes and sugars.
- If it's 2 hours or more and performance related, we need calories as well as hydration.
- If it's 2 hours and less with not too many performance aspects, water is fine.
- If you're trying to do something from a fuel utilisation stand point, trying to burn fat/carbs better, you need to take a look at what you're doing leading up to the bike.
If you're trying to burn fat more you want to start with an empty stomach and just drink water, but you can't typically do too much intensity with that.
- Base training is the best time period to do this if we're not doing anything high intensity, and I'll do it pretty much all the time in those types of sessions.
You need to be in a fairly well fed state - i.e. not overly depleted from a previous session.
Physiological testing in labs
- For professional athletes who have it as an option it's great.
- For others, if you have accurate and consistent pace and power measuring devices, you no longer need to go and do that.
We can capture everything and model physiological markers with all the data from certain wearables.
- I think the days of the lab for the amateur athletes isn't as needed.
- WKO does a good job of modelling, but Strava, Garmin etc are also getting better.
- Just make sure that you're improving - either going faster or holding the same pace for longer.
Rest and recovery
- Sleep is the holy grail!
- If you overlook sleep, you overlook recovery and you get it all wrong for training.
Strength and conditioning
- I've done quite a bit of work and research in this area.
- I think that in general as long as you have time in your week to incorporate some form of strength and conditioning, it should be there.
- When done properly and with good recovery there's no detriment, and there's a lot of benefits that can be gleaned from it.
This includes force production, overall health, strength, range of motion.
- However, with busy people, I go bang for the buck and if we're trying to win a National championship it's probably the first thing to be scrapped.
Your endurance training will make you perform best.
- In general if I include it in the off season or base block, I'm going to include some version of it throughout racing.
I'll start with a gym format, but if you can't get there do a home based workout.
- Coming into race season I'll generally keep more body weight movements, not gym based stuff, unless it's still really easy to get to the gym.
I go with full body functional movements, focused on the core as well as hip explosion and force production.
- If you're spending more than an hour doing this, you're wasting time.
- 2-3 times per week during non-race season, and 1-2 times during race season.
- Favourite exercises of mine include pull up and back squat.
Medicine ball wood chopper is also good!
- In terms of reps and weights, I love Stacy Sims quote of 'sometimes we just need to lift some heavy shit'.
Lift heavy when it applies. I tend to go lower on the reps and higher on velocity and quality of the movement.
I might bring the rep ranges up to 8-12 depending on what we're trying to do.
- I focus on strength, speed of movement and quality of movement.
Rapid fire questions
- What is your favourite book, blog or resource related to endurance sports or your field of expertise?
- What is your favorite piece of gear or equipment?
- What do you wish you had known or done differently at some point during your career?
- Sometimes you just have go harder or more than you think within that moment, but you don't have to do that very often.
- Challenge yourself in training and try to search for the edge, without going over it.
Links, resources and contact
Links and resources mentioned
Connect with Adam Pulford
Connect with host Mikael Eriksson
Hi! I'm your host Mikael,
I am a full-time triathlon coach and an ambitious age-group triathlete. My goal is podium at the Finnish national championships within the next few years.
I first started the website Scientific Triathlon in autumn 2015 as a passion project to share my learnings with a larger triathlon audience. Later on, in early 2017 I started the podcast That Triathlon Show.
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