Chapter 8Helllllooooo, intensity!

Bye-bye base period. It’s now time to grab the drops, flatten the back, tighten the core, and push out those intervals. Aerobic fitness is saying, “Bring it!”

When I was first learning to ride a motorcycle, it was initially exciting to learn to start the engine, feather the clutch, and make the bike go in that big parking lot where I was taught. But it didn’t take long for that controlled environment to feel stifling. I wanted to know what it felt like to actually get up into 3rd gear, to accelerate on an on-ramp to a highway, and to cruise at speed.

That’s Base compared to Build. Base is working on core skills without which there is no “fast.”

But enough of that.

This week was my first Build week. And my legs feel what Lilias Folan, the woman who essentially introduced America to Yoga back in the 1970’s used to call “sweet pain.”

Building speed

With about 12 weeks to go before your first "A" race, your base building time is over. If you’re like me, you’ve diligently worked hard on your fitness, as evidenced by your efficiency factor reaching a plateau. Your heart rate is easily able to keep pace with your power output at your endurance pace for a good, long time. You’ve done hours of low cadence, high-torque hill work to build leg strength. You’ve also been hitting the gym twice a week and working on movements that mirror cycling.

But now it’s now time to start working on your “fastness.”

What is “fast?” That can only be defined by the specific needs of your “A” race.

For me, one definition is the ability to hold nearly 300 watts up a series of 4, 8-minute climbs — and to get out of the saddle and surge over and above that to answer attacks or to initiate one, myself.

From a workout perspective, what’s the difference between your Base Building period and your Build Period? In a word, intensity.

Base building involves a lot of strength building and development of cardiovascular fitness. These efforts can be fairly long, and they can tire you out. But you wouldn’t really call them “intense.”

From a workout perspective, what's the difference between your Base Building period and your Build Period? In a word, intensity. Base building involves a lot of strength building and development of cardiovascular fitness. These efforts can be fairly long, and they can tire you out. But you wouldn't really call them “intense."

Enter the Build Period. All that changes, now.

What to focus on…

Of the following, which 2 of these will make or break your upcoming “A” race?

  • Sprinting
  • Climbing
  • Breaking away and accelerating up clients
  • Holding high rates of speed for long periods of time such as in a breakaway or time trial

Although you will be spending specific time working on all of these aspects of your road racing, you want to start now to be very specific on the two weakest aspects of your riding as they relate to your "A" race. During the first Build Period, really putting the work in on those two in an intense way is the focus.

I've already stated the two areas that I am working on the most:

  • Sprinting: Current Mean Max: 871 watts. Current PMax: 1,023 watts. Goal Mean Max: 1,130 watts
  • Climbing accelerations: Sustain 300 watts / 6+% grade for 8 minutes while responding to or initiating attacks

Once you've identified your areas of limitation, you can then work on building your repeatable weekly pattern.

Two Changes to the Weekly Pattern

Truth be told, you should have already gotten into a repeatable pattern during your base building period. The key is to get into a rhythm, week upon week, where you can create subtle but increasing overload.

Another reason for the weekly pattern is measurement. You’ll need to see how you’re progressing with the various workouts, so you can determine how to adjust them to insure you’re adding appropriate load.

For most of us with day jobs, school, or limited time to train, that means we have already defined which days are our weightlifting days and which days are our long days…and those are usually weekends. Don't upset the apple cart. Continue on with those days as before.

However, there are two big changes: 

Think “workouts” not rides.

Cut back on weightlifting time.

  1. The first is that your long endurance days no longer need to be quite as long. Your rides that are designed to build the ability to “go long” don't need to be any longer than the longest race you plan to do well in. My longest race should not take much longer than two hours. So, starting this weekend, my longest rides will be reduced from three hours at Zone 2, to two hours at Zone 2.5 — Zone 3, or “tempo” riding.
  2. Additionally, all the focus on intense, hard workouts means I'm cutting back from 2 days at the gym to just 1. The routine doesn't change, however, through the season. (Specifically, Squats, Bench presses, Planks, Leg curls, Calf raises, Seated rows, and Lat pulldowns. 2 sets of 12–15 at a medium load, followed by 1 set of 4–6 at a very heavy load.)

Although I use TrainingPeaks and WKO software, I build my weekly patterns using Google calendar. I find it easier to create a separate calendar with a unique color for each ability I am working on. Then, I assigned them to the days that work best for my personal schedule. I will then go to TrainingPeaks and assign individual workouts to those days corresponding to the limiter or skill I am building.


In the monthly patterns snapshot above you'll notice the Rest Week highlighted in pink in the middle of the month. 

Every 3rd week is a week of much less volume, but pretty much the same intensity. This is absolutely crucial to avoid overtraining, burnout, and potential injury. 

Additionally, Build phases are made up of really hard workouts that push you significantly. You'll also notice that I have several Recovery / Endurance days in each week. You can’t go hard all the time. 

My goal is to be around -20 — -25 or so Training Stress Balance during the hard weeks, with a Ramp Rate of about 7. I've learned that this is the level of fatigue I can carry without feeling like I want to chuck my bike out the window… Motivation is huge! When you're fresh for hard workouts, you accomplish your goals more frequently. That builds fitness and confidence.

Repeat: Workouts, not Rides

Here in the midwest, it’s still damp and chilly most days. When there is sun and it’s dry, I try to get out on the road. The early races are likely to be held in those temps, so I’ll want to be acclimated. That said, the lion’s share of the workouts are done in my basement pain cave. Even so, when I’m out on the road during Build, I don’t think of those efforts as rides, I think of them as workouts. It’s an important distinction.

During a workout, you’re working very specific on something: a skill, a target time, a specific wattage goal, a heart rate to maintain. This intensity of this micro-focus is what defines the 12 weeks leading up to a key race or event.

Doubling Up & Overload: An Example

With the intensity of the workouts getting harder and more akin to the demands of your target event, the time spent doing them will likely shrink. One way of maximizing your workout time is by working on 2 limiters in the same workout.

If you do have the luxury of time, then doing 2 workouts a day each dedicated to one of your limiters is very advantageous.

Thursday is what I’ve dubbed, “Belgian Day,” because it’s so flipping hard.

When a sparrow tries to lift a cinder block, it feels like this. You know, all that weakness leaching out of your legs.

The morning workout is an hour of sprint intervals. Being early in the Build Phase, I’m working on Jumps now: getting int a monster gear, cranking up the trainer resistance, slowing the cadence to a crawl, and then for 12 seconds going full gas. 12 seconds on, a minute of recovery, then repeat. 5 sprints makes one set. 5 minutes of recovery between sets, and I’m currently doing 3 sets. With my warmup, that’s about 40 minutes of sheer, puke-inducing agony for this skinny climber. My heart is tickling the back of my throat in the middle of the second set, and I’m seriously considering throwing in the towel for the third set, thinking, “I still have VO2 max intervals this evening; I’ll save myself.”

But I didn’t.

My Current Lack of a Sprint

Here’s the sprint workout I did. You can see that I have a pretty weak sprint — especially when strapped to a trainer. My Mean Max 12 second measure was only 693 watts, with a 5 second Mean Max of 838.

Contrast the workout above with the few sprints I recently did while out on an endurance ride on a nearby trail: Mean Max of 871 watts with a 5 second Mean Max of 916 watts.

My numbers are often higher out on the road than on the trainer, and that’s true for all of the various zones. That said, I keep my numbers calibrated to the trainer for sheer consistency. I know they’ll be higher — and probably considerably so — in a race situation. After the first couple of “C” level races in the season, I’ll have new data to work with, and I can recalibrate for the road numbers at that time.


The evening came and I did The Sufferfest video, “Nine Hammers,” which consists of 9, 3-4 minute threshold and anaerobic threshold intervals.

Quite a training day. 152 TSS points for an hour and 48 minutes of combined sweat.

Measuring the Pain

Let’s see where I am for VO2 max work. According to WKO4 software, my Zone 5 is defined as:

Zone 5 FRC/FTP 224 to 320 W 27:51 to 2:47

The 27:51 to 2:47 is the wide span of time the software recommends I work at that intensity in order to improve my functional reserve capacity and / or FTP. The intervals I did during Nine Hammers ranged in length from 3:30 to 4:30 minutes, so I was certainly working at the duration I needed.

Looking at the data, my average power for the various intervals was 261 watts; nearly right in the center of the range. Go, me.

Reality: 4 Mins Ain’t 8 Mins

My goal of 8 minute climbs way over threshold with the ability to dish out surges is a whole lotta hurtin’ goin’ on. And as of this writing, the best baseline numbers I have for sustained 8 minute Mean Max is 256 watts. That’s a gap of nearly 50 watts.

I’ve got a lot of work to do. But I have both specific goals and and specific plan. Follow along and we'll see how it pans out. 

Sam Lowe

I've been a road cyclist with a penchant for speed ever since my first-ever paycheck holiday. I blew the whole wad on a turquoise Schwinn Tempo with then-new Shimano 105 indexed shifting way back in 1985. I've been a voracious consumer of racing-oriented information ever since. Training, nutrition, bike fit, racing techniques, and all manner of "kit." Between nearly 30 years of riding, racing, and reading about racing, I'm ready to help you get ready to race.