I coach riders with goals as diverse as generally improving performance, riding better on club rides, completing a first 100K or 100 mile ride, riding a multi-day tour, or racing. My clients’ ages range from the 40s to 70s. They aren’t elite athletes with plenty of time to train. They’re ordinary folks with jobs, families, social lives, chores — all the complexities of modern lives. Some train by perceived exertion, some by heart rate and some by power. I use perceived exertion.
I include sweet spot workouts in their training because it’s the optimal way to improve each client’s performance. And it doesn’t have to hurt. Sweet spot training doesn’t mean riding so hard they’re gasping for air. Just a little harder than normal.
Benefits of Sweet Spot Workouts
Sweet spot workouts improve a rider’s sustained power. This means that at a given level of effort you’re going faster. Even if you don’t use a power meter to measure it, increasing your sustained power improves your general riding, climbing and riding into a headwind. For example, if you usually do a local 20 – 30 minute climb at 7 mph increasing your power may mean you can climb at 7.5 mph. Because sweet spot workouts improve your sustained power they also improve your cruising speed. If you normally do an endurance ride at 14 – 15 mph, sweet spot training may improve your speed to 15 – 16 mph. How much you improve depends on your current fitness, the specific workouts you do and a variety of other factors, which vary among individuals. Sweet spot training will improve your riding; however, it may be more or less than the two examples.
What is the Sweet Spot?
The sweet spot is the place where the right combination of multiple factors gives the best result for a given amount of effort. In sports like baseball, tennis and golf hitting the ball in the sweet spot of the bat, racket or club will result in more power transmitted to the ball.
In cycling the relationship between a rider’s training load (combination of volume, intensity and recovery) and performance is one of the basic principles of training. This applies whether you are training during your commutes to go a little faster while you’re commuting, improving for harder club rides, preparing for a 100K or 100 mile ride or peaking for the state championship.
Think of training as an inverted U. Not enough of the right kinds of training and recovery and you’re on the left side of the U with room to improve. Too much or the wrong kinds of training and recovery you don’t ride as well — you’re on the right side of the U. Just the right kinds of training and recovery and you’re at the top of the U, you’ve optimized your training load and you’re riding at your best.
This relationship exists whether you think of your training load in terms of volume (number and length of your training rides) or in terms of intensity or a combination of volume and intensity. (For nerds this is called the Training Stress Score or TSS.)
Training in the sweet spot doesn’t require riding more miles; it means riding the right miles at the correct intensity at the proper time. Whatever your training volume you can benefit from sweet spot training.
A Bit of Optional History
In January 2005 Frank Overton was working with a group of coaches on how best to use power meters to balance intensity and volume to optimize results. Their goal was to increase a rider’s Functional Threshold Power (FTP). FTP is the highest average power a rider can sustain for an hour. Anaerobic (lactate) threshold is the highest average heart rate a rider can sustain for an hour. Hunter Allen and Andrew Coggan, PhD popularized sweet spot training in Training and Racing with a Power Meter originally published in 2006.
The Cycling Sweet Spot
The general training paradigm is:
Training overload —> physical damage + sufficient recovery = improved performance.
- “When my legs hurt, I say: “Shut up legs! Do what I tell you to do!” —Jens Voigt
- “It never gets easier, you just get faster.” — Greg LeMond
- “The race is won by the rider who can suffer the most.” — Eddy Merckx
The inference from these quotes from top pro racers is that in order to improve you need to train hard: no pain, no gain. You may think that the harder the training overload the greater the performance improvement. However, this doesn’t take into account the other two variables: physical damage and sufficient recovery. The harder the overload the more micro-tears in your muscles and other physiological damage. The greater the damage the more recovery time you need. Because you need more recovery time it’s longer until you can do another hard workout. If you don’t allow enough recovery then you spiral down into overtraining.
If you do a very hard intensity workout on Monday you may not recover enough to do another very hard workout until Thursday or Friday. After the very hard quality workout Thursday or Friday you’re too tired for a good endurance ride on the weekend. You’ve only had two good training days in the week: Monday and Thursday or Friday.
If you do a moderately hard intensity workout on Monday you probably will recover so you can do another moderately hard workout on Wednesday and then recover enough for a challenging endurance ride on the weekend. You’ve had three good training days: Monday, Wednesday and Saturday.
By not training as hard, you get more cumulative training overload in the week.
The same applies within a workout. Suppose you’re doing very hard four-minute intervals. It takes four minutes of recovery before you can do another repeat. You do four intervals and start a fifth but your legs are toast. You have a total of 16 minutes of very hard riding.
Or you train in the sweet spot and ride moderately hard six-minute intervals. After only three minutes of recovery you’re ready for another repeat. You do five intervals and call it a day. You have a total of 30 minutes of moderately hard riding.
Training in the sweet spot you have the greatest cumulative overload and the greatest improvement!
My eBook Intensity Training: Using Perceived Exertion, Heart Rate and Power to Maximize Training Effectiveness is written for health and fitness riders, recreational and club riders, endurance riders and racers. I explain in much more detail how training intensities at different intensities brings about different physiological adaptations. I guide you through the process of establishing your own training zones so you can train at the proper intensities for your specific training objectives. I include sample year-round plans so you ride at the correct intensities at different times of the year. I provide over 50 structured and unstructured workouts at different intensities for different training objectives. The 40-page Intensity Training for Cyclists is $4.99.
My eBook Cycling Past 50, 60 and Beyond: Training with Intensity explains what happens to your body as you age, and the physiological benefits of riding with intensity. I give you five progressively harder levels of training and give three to five examples each of structured and unstructured workouts for each level of training, a total of almost 40 workouts. The 27-page Cycling Past 50, 60 and Beyond: Training with Intensity is $4.99.
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 over 40 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John’s full bio.
What about less harder interval training. As Tempo and Cruise Intervals. Are such training old fashioned?
Rick Simpson says
The above Sweet Spot Training sounds like a Polarized Plan using Moderately Hard Training instead of VERY Hard Training. My question is: should Moderately Hard Training be used early in the season and then VERY Hard Training after Moderately Hard Training Maximum Adaptation has been accomplished??
Dave Minden says
John, what do you think of Gretchen Reynolds in the NYT today putting forth the idea of setting goals just beyond what you can do?
Ron Ruff says
When I got to ~55 my ability to recover from hard efforts took a sudden nosedive. It got so frustrating I nearly quit racing. I made a big shift to riding at a modest pace (up to 70% FTP) nearly all the time. I generally go harder only when a race is coming up, which consists of at least 6 weeks of once-per-week high intensity (race specific) workouts. It takes a week to recover from these. But I’m able to perform as well as I did 10 years ago come race day.
Maybe a greater number of not-so-intense hard days would work too. The bottom line is to get a good sense of how much recovery you need and not go over the cliff of being overtrained.