Cycling, Podcast

Stefan Sölkner | EP#405

 August 28, 2023

By  Bernardo Gonçalves


Stefan Sölkner - That Triathlon Show

Stefan Sölkner is a national team coach Austria's Elite and U23 men's cycling, and founder and coach at Ausdauerwerkstatt. In this episode we discuss cycling and training, in the context of both professional and amateur athletes

In this episode you'll learn about:

  • Stefan's coaching methodology
  • Getting the basics right (sleep and nutrition)
  • How to select the right workouts based on race demands and athlete physiology
  • How to manage training through the racing season, when races come thick and fast
  • Similarities and differences in training between pros and amateurs
  • Considerations for time-crunched amateur athletes
  • Stefan's top pieces of advice for amateur cyclists and triathletes

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Stefan's background

02:34 -

  • I reside in Vienna as a coach and sports director for the men's and under-23 road cycling national teams. 
  • Alongside this role, I co-run a coaching business with two colleagues. 
  • This business involves designing training programs, analysing training regimens, and conducting lab testing. In my current position, I oversee the elite men's team, and it's my first year in this role after working with the junior national team.
  • My path to cycling has been somewhat unconventional. Originating from a background in winter sports, I was involved in Nordic combined, which includes ski jumping and cross-country skiing. 
  • During my sports science master's studies, my interest in cycling grew, prompting me to enter the field. I engaged in racing for about two to three years, not to become a professional cyclist but to gain deeper insights into the sport. 
  • This journey has led me to where I am, fully immersed in the cycling world. While my Austrian roots often tie athletes to winter sports, I've found my niche in cycling and have no plans to switch back to winter sports in the foreseeable future.

Role as a National team coach

04:38 -

  • The national teams don't significantly influence the training regimens of the pros, as most pro teams have their performance staff. 
  • My involvement here centres more around event nominations, especially for significant races such as the European World Championships and the upcoming Olympics. 
  • This aspect of my work involves management responsibilities, race direction, and ensuring optimal team conditions for achieving good results.
  • Conversely, working with the under-23 team involves a different dynamic. They are in closer contact with coaches; many teams boast their performance staff and coaches. 
  • This has led to increased collaboration between various coaches and myself. Ensuring the riders' well-being is paramount; though I'm not solely responsible for training prescriptions, I contribute to a few. 
  • My role is more holistic for others, overseeing training and fostering a cooperative environment. Mutual support among coaches and the overall success of the training process are central focuses.

Coaching Philosophy

06:56 -

  • I don't adhere to a fixed coaching philosophy, like being solely inclined towards polarised or threshold training. My approach depends on the athlete's unique characteristics, physiological profile, and specific demands of their target events. When planning a season, I closely analyse the event's requirements and compare them to the athlete's strengths and weaknesses. This forms the foundation for periodisation and season planning. While having a yearly plan is essential, the dynamic nature of training means constant weekly or even daily adjustments.
  • I prioritise getting the fundamentals right, which is standard advice for my athletes. 
  • Perfecting the basics is crucial, as I've rarely encountered athletes who have flawlessly mastered these foundational aspects. Unless the basics are solid, delving into finer details becomes challenging. 
  • This principle holds, especially for junior and under-23 cyclists and triathletes. 
  • Achieving excellence in the fundamentals sets the groundwork for progressing to more intricate training elements.

Doing the basics right

09:28 -

  • The fundamentals are the most crucial aspects and extend beyond the training regimen. 
  • Proper nutrition, sufficient and quality sleep, and adequate food intake are as significant as the training process. They hold equal importance.
  • It's not uncommon for these fundamental elements to be overlooked, even if the training routine is well-structured. These factors are integral components of the training process. 
  • Similarly, collecting and analysing data points is an essential part of the process, which must be carried out meticulously.

Balancing training load

10:34 -

  • A significant portion of these decisions relies on the athletes' sensations. 
  • I don't adhere to fixed recovery patterns, such as three weeks of training followed by one recovery week. 
  • Instead, I adopt a more flexible approach, providing recovery as needed. 
  • I stay closely connected with all my athletes and tailor their training accordingly. I'm ready to grant it if they express a need for rest, whether a day or multiple days.
  • I'm not inclined to pre-plan extended training progression followed by deloading phases. 
  • This approach could potentially overlook valuable adaptations, and predicting the exact timing for a necessary recovery week after precisely three weeks of intense training is challenging. 
  • This approach might work during the general preparation phase, but in the race phase, in my experience, it's not so straightforward.
  • Ultimately, the decision-making process heavily relies on the athlete's sense of how their body responds.

Recovery metrics

12:00 -

  • I tailor my approach to each athlete I work with, considering factors like resting heart rate and heart rate variability. However, not all athletes are receptive to these methods. 
  • Some athletes find value in tracking these metrics, while others do not. Athletes with a strong sense of their body's needs and who can gauge when they require rest might not need these tracking methods. 
  • On the other hand, some athletes struggle to recognise fatigue and tend to overtrain. In such cases, I reintroduce metrics like heart rate variability to help them better understand their body's recovery processes.
  • It's important to note that I don't employ these methods universally. I assess the psychological aspect of each athlete and their characteristics. 
  • If an athlete tends to benefit from these tracking methods, I discuss their advantages with them. 
  • However, I don't insist that every athlete needs to track these metrics all the time. It's about balancing and ensuring the approach aligns with the athlete's needs and mindset.

The types of sessions that Stephan uses

13:38 -

  • I tailor my training approach according to the specific demands of the race and the type of triathletes I work with. 
  • For instance, athletes competing in long-distance events like Ironman don't need to exceed LT2 or VT2 during their races. 
  • So, I structure their yearly plan with this in mind. 
  • Closer to the event, I focus on race-specific work, incorporating a lot of tempo and training between LT1 and LT2 in the weeks leading up to the competition. 
  • During winter or spring, I might include high-intensity work.
  • Comparing this to cycling, take the recent world championships in Glasgow as an example. 
  • The races there were characterised by crit racing with numerous sprints, cornering, and high-intensity intervals. 
  • For such an event, my approach would be quite different. I'd emphasise extensive or submaximal sessions early in the season to build their aerobic capacity. 
  • As the event draws near, the training would shift to match the specific race demands. 
  • For instance, in the men's elite race, more than 500 sprints were accumulated during the six-hour duration due to 49 corners per 15-kilometer lap. 
  • This means it's crucial to incorporate sprints and aerobic efforts leading up to the event to effectively prepare for the race's challenges.

Training according to the athlete's strengths and weaknesses

15:56 -

  • In cycling, an athlete's profile significantly influences their race calendar. 
  • For instance, the race preferences and strengths of a sprinter and a mountain rider would significantly differ due to their physiological profiles and genetic makeup. However, when focusing on disciplines like triathlon, particularly long-distance events, the athlete's profile becomes a pivotal consideration in planning training prescriptions.
  • The training approach is tailored based on an individual's strengths and weaknesses, as determined by lab and in-field testing. 
  • For example, if an athlete excels in anaerobic capacities and possesses a high VO2max but lacks metabolic efficiency, their training would vary greatly from someone who may not have a high VO2max but already exhibits efficiency in longer distances.
  • If I encounter an athlete with a high VO2max but poor efficiency aiming for long-distance races, I would reduce high-intensity work and emphasise training around the threshold or slightly below. 
  • Significant work between LT1 and VT1 would also be incorporated to enhance efficiency within the race demands. 
  • In the case of cyclists, maintaining a clear understanding of the athlete's physiological profile and comparing it with race objectives and planned events for the year remains crucial in planning their training regimen.

Weekly intensity sessions

18:43 -

  • The training approach varies based on the time of the year. During the racing season, races themselves provide a significant training stimulus. 
  • In this period, it's crucial to avoid excessive training and focus on intense training between races for effective adaptation.
  • During regular training weeks, particularly in the general preparation phase, I typically incorporate around two to a maximum of three challenging sessions weekly. 
  • These sessions are considered intense even if they fall between LT1 and LT2 rather than exclusively above LT2. 
  • For instance, an LT1 to tempo range session is still considered a hard interval session due to its duration and energy expenditure. 
  • Such sessions require considerable effort, burn substantial calories (kilojoules), and profoundly impact the body and adaptation.
  • Generally, in a typical training week, the training load consists of two to a maximum of three demanding sessions, with the remaining sessions being comparatively easier and more fundamental.

Balancing training and racing

21:01 -

  • A common issue I've observed, especially among under 23 cyclists, is the lack of emphasis on easy training sessions within their training plans. 
  • While they tend to focus on building top form for every race and stage event, including foundational base rides and easy sessions often fall short. Amidst a packed race schedule, which sometimes involves 10 to 15 race days within a month, finding time for longer, easy rides becomes challenging.
  • Some coaches insert intense sessions between stage races or events to optimise training. However, this approach can lead to a deficit in training hours and potentially result in burnout during the season. 
  • The consequence of this approach is that athletes might perform well in the initial part of the season but experience a decline in performance as the season progresses.
  • To counteract this, I must incorporate numerous easy sessions between major races. Furthermore, I avoid a complete tapering down between all races. Tapering down excessively can lead to a loss of performance gains and hinder the ability to maintain top form consistently throughout the season, especially during races scheduled closely together.
  • In general, most races are significantly more demanding than regular training sessions. When participating in around 60 to 70 races spanning from March to September or October, this extensive race schedule significantly affects other training sessions and recovery. 
  • Given this racing frequency, engaging in intense training during the week becomes challenging. 
  • It's crucial to prioritise a handful of major events and consider other races as opportunities for learning or part of a training phase. Not every race can be treated as a pinnacle moment or the year's highlight. The key is to balance and maintain a strategic approach to racing and training throughout the season.

Strength training within cycling

24:05 -

  • In the existing literature, some studies indicate the benefits of strength training for cycling performance, while others suggest minimal effects. When done correctly, following theoretical principles, it's possible to achieve performance gains. 
  • However, a challenge in cycling is the frequency of race days, making it difficult to incorporate strength training during the competitive season.
  • Training strength solely during the off-season or winter and then discontinuing it entirely during the racing season is counterproductive. Recent research highlights that performance improvements gained from strength training can vanish within six to eight weeks of cessation. 
  • This temporal aspect is a significant concern. For instance, if strength training is executed between November and April, the resulting benefits can disappear quickly.
  • The critical dilemma lies in integrating strength training seamlessly into the racing season. While some athletes can manage it, maintaining minimal strength training every week or every ten days is crucial to sustaining performance gains. 
  • If the feasibility of regular strength training during the racing season is improbable, it might be strategic to omit it during the off-season or general preparation phase.
  • Considering their weekly time availability, especially for amateur athletes, I wouldn't advise sacrificing regular training days to incorporate strength training. 
  • However, if there's sufficient time within their schedule, including one to two strength training sessions per week can be beneficial. 
  • This approach is beneficial during the competitive season as it enables athletes to sustain performance improvements.

Stephan's research on muscle oxygenation

26:36 -

  • We conducted a study involving 15 athletes who visited our lab for six sessions. Numerous tests were performed, including measurements of muscular oxygen saturation in the vastus lateralis muscle. 
  • This measurement was taken during both stationary cycling on an ergometer and spiro-ergometry. 
  • Additionally, we collected data on power output and heart rate. Two incremental ramp exercise tests were carried out at 60 and 90 RPM. 
  • These tests allowed us to establish three distinct intensity zones: moderate, heavy, and severe.
  • We then proceeded with two protocols, each at 60 and 90 RPM, across all three intensity zones. We aimed to compare muscular oxygen saturation between the two cadences and intensity zones while assessing the testing and measurement reliability.
  •  Despite a measurement error and slight variations due to multiple tests, we observed negligible differences in muscular oxygen saturation between 60 and 90 RPM. The measurement error was approximately 2 to 3%, which could stem from device inaccuracies or physiological differences.
  • While the tool is interesting, it comes with methodological challenges. It only measures muscular oxygen saturation in a specific muscle area, providing a limited view of the body's physiological response to varying intensities. 
  • This constraint raises questions about its application in training. 
  • Due to these limitations, I refrain from using it during training sessions and lab testing. 
  • Even if the measurement is accurate, it's challenging to determine its practical benefits for real-world training adjustments.
  • We conducted the study in a controlled environment using a specialised tool commonly employed for cycling in laboratory settings. Unfortunately, this tool isn't suitable for outdoor use due to the absence of live data viewing. 
  • Unlike other devices available for consumer use, our equipment is considerably more expensive, approximately 20 times more costly. 
  • However, its heightened sensitivity to data changes makes it a valuable asset.
  • It's worth noting that some other devices on the market exhibit reliability issues and higher measurement errors. This compromised accuracy can lead to uncertainty when interpreting changes in data. 
  • For instance, a minor increase of 3 to 5% in muscular oxygen saturation could either indicate performance enhancement or just result from measurement error. Such ambiguities must always be taken into account, and it's a practice I'm not particularly fond of – employing tools that don't provide high confidence in the data they produce.

Training differences between amateur and elite athletes

32:40 -

  • The primary distinction lies in the time constraints of amateur athletes, as they typically don't have the luxury of dedicating all their time to training like professionals. 
  • This leads to the necessity of planning workouts around their available time, usually within a 10 to 12-hour weekly window, in contrast to the extensive 20-hour training of full-time athletes.
  • A common issue is athletes believing they have allocated sufficient hours for training. 
  • Yet, a closer look at their schedules reveals that their training slots often encroach upon other essential aspects, like sleep. This can result in compromising recovery and adaptation time between sessions. 
  • It's crucial to understand that adequate training isn't just about the hours spent exercising; it also necessitates recovery time for the body to adapt and grow stronger.
  • Amateur athletes face various life stressors that differ from those of professionals, especially if they have family, kids, and demanding work schedules. 
  • Balancing training with recovery becomes even more critical in these cases. 
  • Additionally, relying solely on training metrics like fitness values from platforms like TrainingPeaks can be misleading. While increasing fitness values might seem promising, it's essential to comprehend that actual fitness gains don't solely depend on these numbers but instead on the holistic approach of proper training and recovery.
  • I find that scaling down training isn't a direct translation, as different training stimuli yield distinct adaptations. 
  • I prefer to maintain one day per week for a long and easy session, entirely under LT1. Ideally, I schedule this day during the weekend, as it often fits most people's schedules. 
  • On weekdays, I strive to incorporate two more intense sessions.
  • When an athlete can only dedicate 90 to 120 minutes to a base ride during the week, I might slightly increase the intensity to maximise the training effect. 
  • However, I might prescribe longer rides of four to six hours for professional athletes with more available time. Nevertheless, I avoid overloading with excessively intense sessions.
  • Limited training time (around 8 to 10 hours per week) doesn't mean cramming in four to five demanding interval sessions. I typically limit more challenging sessions to two or a maximum of three per week. 

The importance of other factors related to cycling performance

38:04 -

  • Our objective isn't simply about achieving the highest power output or generating the most watts during a race. 
  • The ultimate aim is to cover the distance between points A and B as swiftly as possible. This focus on speed precedes power output since race results only display finishing times, not the specific power generated.
  • It's crucial to remember that the goal is to optimise the time it takes to move from A to B. Enhancements can be made in various aspects, including aerodynamics. 
  • This applies not only to time trialling or triathlon but also to the standard road bike position. Aerodynamics play a significant role in cornering, descending, and positioning within a group of riders.
  • Technology, bike design, wheelsets, and clothing fabrics, especially in time trials, also contribute to performance. Although these improvements might not be achieved within a year, they can be refined through multiple bike fits and gradual enhancements in technique. 
  • The key is constantly striving for advancements that make us faster from A to B.

Bike handling skills training

39:57 -

  • The most crucial skills in cycling races are positioning within a group, cornering, and descending. 
  • These skills can't be effectively trained solely in practice. While group rides can help, the best way to improve is through actual racing experience. 
  • Starting racing early and participating in as many races as possible is essential. 
  • Even if you have a high physiological fitness level but lack in these aspects, focusing more on gaining racing experience than intensive training is recommended.
  • Considering cycling on open roads can be riskier than races, it's crucial to view races as opportunities for skill development rather than just competitions. 
  • While larger group rides can also be helpful, it's worth noting that practising fast descending and cornering on regular roads can be challenging due to safety concerns.

Three pieces of advice to amateur athletes

41:36 -

  • Keep things simple and avoid getting caught up in unnecessary details. As I mentioned at the start of the podcast, focusing on getting the basics right is crucial, and it can't be stressed enough.
  • Prioritise sleep and nutrition, with a special emphasis on eating adequately. 
  • Many athletes struggle to perform well in intense sessions because they aren't correctly fueled, leading to concerns about their performance outcomes. 
  • Ensuring your body is well-nourished beforehand, particularly with enough carbohydrates, is essential for high-quality, high-intensity sessions.
  • Listening to your body is paramount. While you might be tracking various metrics like resting heart rate and heart rate variability if the data doesn't align with how your body feels, trust your body's signals more. 
  • It's vital to pay attention to how you're feeling. If you're not up for training on a given day or sense you can't manage a tough session, it's better to reschedule for the next day or even consider skipping the session. Pushing yourself when your body isn't in sync can produce unfavourable results.

Things that Stephan applies in cycling from Nordic Combined

43:50 -

  • The scenario involves two distinct sports with contrasting demands. 
  • Jumping sports require high maximal power and force development, with no need for endurance, as seen in ski jumping. On the other hand, cross-country skiing demands precisely the opposite skill set. 
  • Balancing concurrent strength and endurance training is challenging, especially in Nordic combined skiing, where both components are essential. This integrated training must occur within the context of the skiing discipline.
  • The same principle can be applied to cycling, where strength training often takes a backseat. 
  • However, adopting the necessity approach, as in Nordic combined skiing, could enhance performance, particularly for sprinters in cycling. 
  • It could yield better results during the cycling season by recognising the importance of strength training and treating it as an indispensable aspect, similar to how it's treated in skiing. 
  • This perspective highlights the significance of the approach and the value attributed to each aspect of training.

Things that Stephan is currently interested about

45:33 -

  • Continuous learning is a cornerstone, especially in real-world scenarios, where races and training camps often reveal opportunities for coaching improvement. 
  • Over years of coaching, you gain fresh insights and discover nuances through athlete interactions. Each interaction provides new perspectives on what works and what doesn't in practical coaching.
  • The ever-evolving coaching landscape introduces a range of trending topics. 
  • I've been extensively exploring heat stress training sessions in recent years. 
  • This dynamic area has been a focus, offering valuable insights. 
  • Implementing heat stress training involves practical experimentation based on research findings. 
  • Athlete feedback is a vital resource that refines coaching strategies, benefitting both the coach and the athletes' experience.

Heat training protocols

47:07 -

  • I experimented with conducting around 25 heat sessions within approximately five to six weeks with some athletes. 
  • While this approach yielded positive performance improvements, not all athletes are receptive to it due to the mental strain caused by the heat sessions. 
  • It's crucial to implement this protocol only with athletes who are highly motivated and open to it. Otherwise, it may not be effective.
  • I have stuck with the same protocol used in the literature. I typically initiate it for five weeks and five sessions per week. 
  • However, I also focus heavily on heat acclimatisation, incorporating my protocols not explicitly outlined in the existing literature. 
  • I've taken what I've learned from my readings and integrated athlete feedback to adapt and customise these protocols for better outcomes.

Other Sports science research topics useful for coaching

48:43 -

  • I often delve into retrospective papers on training intensity distributions. 
  • These papers shed light on the considerable volume of easy training hours that professional athletes accumulate. They highlight that 80 to 90% of training falls below LT1. This prevalence of easy training is quite evident in the real-world practices of most professional athletes.
  • While longitudinal studies are scarce, especially among professional athletes, analysing different training periodisations over extended timeframes and examining training data over extended periods provides valuable insights into the training regimens of the world's best athletes. 
  • These insights offer a glimpse into successful training approaches, although they might not determine the unequivocally suitable or optimal methods.
  • Regarding trends within sports science, the focus on high-altitude training has gained prominence. 
  • However, there appears to be a gap between research findings and practical application. Studies suggest that performance gains resulting from altitude training might not be long-lasting once athletes return to base levels. 
  • Nonetheless, in the real world, many professional athletes, particularly Norwegian triathletes, undertake multiple altitude training blocks throughout the year. 
  • This contrasts with the limited data and comparisons found in research, which often evaluates single altitude training blocks against regular training routines. 
  • The practical implications and comprehensive understanding of high-altitude training thus seem to outpace current research insights.

Pieces of advice for aspiring young cyclists

52:24 -

  • I would advise aspiring junior cyclists to focus on racing as much as possible during their junior years to gain valuable race experience. In terms of training, don't be afraid to train intensively. 
  • While some coaches might believe that excessive training hinders development, the current trend shows that younger athletes are signing pro contracts, necessitating substantial training during junior years to reach the top. 
  • Remember, appropriate training load and stimulus are crucial for progress.
  • It's important not to fear doing too much training, but excessive intensity should be moderated. Prioritise training volume over extreme intensity. 
  • Don't get overly fixated on data and power output; maintaining a balance is critical to enjoying training in the long term throughout a potential 10 to 20-year professional cycling career.
  • Regarding the early specialisation debate, it's a complex matter. While early specialisation might not be the ideal path for development, the reality is that substantial training early on is necessary to have a shot at turning pro. 
  • Achieving a high level in the under-23 or junior categories significantly increases the chances of becoming a professional cyclist. 
  • Although a more comprehensive, long-term development plan would be preferable, the practical world often doesn't align with this vision. 
  • Despite potential drawbacks, adapting to the current trends seems necessary, even if it might not be the optimal direction for the sport's overall development.

Rapid-Fire Questions

55:36 -
What's your favourite book or resource related to endurance sports?I don't have a single favourite book or resource for endurance sports. I believe in gathering information from various sources like practice, research, papers, discussions, podcasts, and professional insights.

What's an important habit you've benefited from athletically, professionally or personally?
Repeating successful patterns. For instance, after a good race, I replicated the training sessions I did leading up to it. This not only aids physically but also psychologically.

Who's somebody that you look up to or that has inspired you?
I draw inspiration from individuals who are incredibly passionate about something. It doesn't matter if it's related to sports or any other field; I admire those who dedicate their time and energy to pursuing their passions wholeheartedly.


Bernardo Gonçalves

Bernardo is a Portuguese elite cyclist and co-founder of SpeedEdge Performance, a company focused on optimising cycling and triathlon performance. He writes the shownotes for That Triathlon Show, and also produces social media content for each new episode.

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