Elizabeth Wicks is an endurance rider. In 2019 she rode 7500 miles. That’s a good year for any rider … and she turned 75 that year! You can read about her 7500-mile year and the obstacles she had to overcome here.
I’ve been friends with Elizabeth for decades and coached her for many years. She has set records at 12- and 24-hour events. This year her events are the Maryland 12-hour on May 22 and the National 24-hour on June 19 and 20. To prepare she needs to do long rides. She lives in Massachusetts and – as long as we pick the right day – rides outdoors all winter. But a steady diet of only progressively longer rides won’t get her in peak form. She needs intensity
Over the years we’ve learned how to incorporate intensity workouts into her training so they are beneficial. You’re not contemplating rides nearly as long; however, the same lessons about how to incorporate intensity apply to you.
If you do several different kinds of training at the same time you won’t get optimal results. If you try to build your endurance base and increase your high-end speed and improve your sprinting all at the same time you’ll be less successful than if you focus on just one aspect at a time. This is why coaches use a model called periodization to divide the cycling year into different phases with different purposes. If a client like Elizabeth is training for a specific event(s) I use a simple five-phase model.
- Offseason (1 – 3 months) – Recover and build general fitness
- Base (3 – 4 months) – Increase cycling-specific endurance
- Build (1 – 2 months) – Appropriate intensity training while just maintaining – not improving – endurance.
- Peaking (4 – 6 weeks) – Event-specific training
- Taper (1 – 3 weeks) – Recover fully before the big event(s)
If a client is training for great summer riding but not a specific event then we go through just the first three phases.
Elizabeth’s periodization is unusual. She did base endurance rides in October, November and December when she rode 1,603 miles including centuries on October 4 and 22. I analyzed her October through December base miles. She rode outdoors 53 days averaging 30 miles a ride. Of course some of these rides were longer. January was her preseason with just 252 miles recovering from the prior three months. We began working together the beginning of February.
To get ready to race for 12 hours on May 22 she needs to ramp up to a seven hour century by the end of March, complete a peaking nine hour 135-mile ride by the beginning of May, and taper for three weeks to the 12-hour race. She has plenty of time to build up her endurance rides. But if she only does moderately paced endurance rides she’ll only race at a moderate pace. She also needs intensity training. Also, there are only four weeks between the century and the 135-mile ride. She doesn’t have time for a normal progression of base training -> intensity training -> peaking. The solution is to carefully combine endurance and intensity training.
Experiment of One
One particularly cold winter we tried one high intensity workout during the week and a high intensity class on Saturday. Her performance didn’t improve – in fact it declined a little. We learned an important lesson. Despite decades of riding and a great endurance base, twice a week intensity workouts were too much for her.
You should adapt any form of intensity training to what works for you. If you’re getting stronger then your hard rides are working. But what if your performance is falling off? Should you pile on more hard rides … and risk overtraining? No, you should cut back on the intensity.
What Level of Intensity
Elizabeth improved with one very hard intensity workout a week. However, we learned that if she did one very hard workout a week sometimes she didn’t recover fully for her long ride that week. She isn’t training for relatively short road races where speed and sprinting are important so high intensity workouts weren’t optimal. She does intensity workouts to improve her cruising speed. We decided to shift her training to sweet spot intervals, the optimum way to improve a rider’s sustained power. I’ve written a column on 6 Kinds of Intensity Training: Which One Is Best for You?
What is Sweet Spot Training?
On an endurance ride you should always be able to talk comfortably although while climbing you may not have enough air to whistle. The sweet spot is just a little harder — you can still talk in short phrases. Because sweet spot efforts aren’t as taxing as high intensity efforts, the sweet spot efforts can be significantly longer than the high intensity efforts. Also, sweet spot efforts don’t require as much recovery as high intensity efforts. As a result the total training overload from sweet spot training is greater than with harder, shorter efforts.
The sweet spot is a Rate of Perceived Exertion of 4 to 5 on a ten-point scale, 93 – 97% of lactate threshold and 93 – 97% of Functional Threshold Power. If your legs are talking to you and you can feel lactic acid building up you’re going too hard.
Intervals or Not?
Elizabeth enjoys intervals, “I do like doing them. A specific, timed task that is fun and I can push myself to complete. And we know they work because that is why I was so strong/speedy last year.”
Some riders hate intervals. I’m coaching another client Mark who is preparing for a different endurance event also in May. Last year we tested his functional threshold power and I assigned him progressively harder power-based intervals. He did them but he didn’t like them and his performance wasn’t improving much. However, he loves riding his mountain bike. This spring I tell him to mountain bike hard for 1 – 1:30 hours. He’s having fun and getting faster!
Both structured and unstructured training work. The effective type is the type you’ll do
Perceived Exertion, Heart rate or Power?
Elizabeth trains by heart rate because she likes the well-defined zones. Mark trained by power last year but didn’t like it so this year he switched to rate of perceived exertion (RPE) on his mountain bike. RPE, heart rate and power are all work. The effective method is the one you’ll use.
I include over 60 structured and unstructured workouts in my 41-page eBook Intensity Training: Using RPE, a HRM or a Power Meter to Maximize Training Effectiveness.
Combining Intensity and Endurance
In February we introduced sweet spot workouts in Elizabeth’s training. Each week she also did several recovery rides. Here’s her program.
- February 1 – 7: A 52-mile ride and a 41-mile ride, longer than her typical rides in December and January.
- February 8 – 14: A 53-mile ride, a 38-mile ride and 3 – 6 repeats of [6 minutes in the sweet spot and 3 minutes easy]. She just did the same endurance rides as the week before so she’d have good legs when we introduced the intervals. She did all six repeats of the workout. For many riders starting with intervals this long would be too much; however, based on past experience we were confident Elizabeth could handle them. If you’re fairly new to intensity training then a better place to start is 3 – 6 repeats of [4 min. SS and 2 min EZ].
- February 15 – 21: A 68-mile ride and 3 – 6 reps of [7 min SS and 4 min EZ]. The week before she did two endurance rides totaling 92 miles. We cut back to just one longer ride so she could do well with the intervals. She did all six repeats.
- February 22 – 28: An 86-mile ride, a 31-mile ride and 3 – 6 reps of [8 min SS and 4 min EZ]. Because the weather was good I assigned two endurance rides. She did all six SS reps and commented, “They felt a bit harder than last week.” It was a harder set so it should feel a bit harder. And I’d given her two endurance rides – the coach’s mistake.
- March 1 – 7: A 68-mile ride (shorter than the week before) and 5 – 8 reps of [8 min SS and 4 min EZ] — more reps of the same intervals as last week.
Building to the century the plan is:
- March 8 – 14: An easy recovery week with a 30-mile ride and an easy sweet spot workout of 2 – 4 reps of [6 min SS and 3 min EZ].
- March 15 – 21: A 60-mile ride (shorter than two weeks ago) and 6 – 10 reps of [8 min SS and 4 min EZ]. I’m asking for more reps than two weeks ago but a shorter endurance ride.
- March 22 – 28: The century ride – key to her buildup – with no sweet spot workout.
Going forward I’ve planned the long rides but haven’t planned the sweet spot workouts. I’ll write those workouts depending on how she’s riding.
- March 29 – April 4: An easy week with a 30-mile ride so she recovers fully after the century.
- April 5 – 11: A 60-mile ride.
- April 12 – 18: A 90-mile ride.
- April 19 – 25: An easy week with a 30-mile ride so she recovers fully before her peaking ride the next week.
- April 26 – May 2: A 135-mile ride. She’ll peak with this nine-hour ride. Her longest ride is three weeks before race day to allow plenty of time to recover.
- May 3 – 9: She starts the taper with 30-mile ride to recover from the previous week. A rider loses power faster than endurance so I’ll include appropriate sweet spot workouts in both weeks of the taper.
- May 10 – 16: She continues the taper with a 60-mile ride.
- May 17 – 22: Race week!
- Discipline. Elizabeth knows that sweet spot workouts pay off so she disciplines herself to train in the sweet spot, not harder.
- Only change one variable. The week of February 8 – 14 we kept the length of her two endurance rides the same as the week before so she would do well with the sweet spot intervals. The week of February 21 – 28 I increased the sweet spot workout and gave her two endurance workouts – my mistake.
- When increasing intensity reduce endurance riding. The week of February 15 – 21 in addition to the longer intervals she only did one longer endurance ride instead of two.
- Progressively test fitness. I started Elizabeth with 3 – 6 reps of [6 min SS and 3 min EZ]. She did all six reps so the next week the SS and EZ times were a minute longer. She did all six reps so the next week I increased the length again. If she had only been able to do 4 or 5 reps of a set I would have repeated the same workout until she could do 6 reps.
- Don’t increase both endurance and intensity the same week.
- Include recovery. Each week she does only one endurance ride and one sweet spot workout as well as several active recovery days. Every few weeks I’m planning an easy week.
- Use feedback. I’ve planned her sweet spot workouts through the week of the century but not beyond. Continuing to ramp up her endurance is the primary goal and the weekly amount of sweet spot depends on how she’s riding.
More Sweet Spot Information
I’ve written three columns explaining how you can benefit from sweet spot training:
- Sweet Spot Training for Every Rider part 1
- Sweet Spot Training for Every Rider part 2
- How to Incorporate Sweet Spot Workouts into Your Training
Anti-Aging Elizabeth Wicks is one of a 13 riders ages 54 to 82 who to contributed illustrative stories to my eBook Anti-Aging: 12 Ways You Can Slow the Aging Process. It explains the physiological changes that take place as you age, how to assess your current fitness and the training principles that apply to older roadies. It includes how to get the most out of your endurance rides. It has sample training plans to increase your annual riding miles and to build up to rides of 25-, 50-, 100- and 200-mile rides. Anti-Aging explains the importance of intensity training, how to do intensity training and provides different intensity workouts. The chapter on strength training has 28 exercises for lower body, upper body and core strength illustrated with photos. The eight essential stretches are illustrated with photos. The book describes the increasing importance of recovery as you get older, the most important things you can do to improve your recovery and how to avoid overtraining. It concludes with a chapter on motivation. Anti-Aging gives you the tools you need to slow the inevitable decline in your health and fitness. The 106-page Anti-Aging is $14.99
Coach John Hughes earned coaching certifications from USA Cycling and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. John’s cycling career includes course records in the Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200-km randonnée and the Furnace Creek 508, a Race Across AMerica (RAAM) qualifier. He has ridden solo RAAM twice and is a 5-time finisher of the 1200-km Paris-Brest-Paris. He has written nearly 30 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John’s full bio.