Chapter 4 How to go about setting your season's “A” race goals

Your season training plan is designed to ramp you up to form for a handful of races that you choose because they favor your strengths. After you examine the energy needs for those races, you then structure your workouts to improve your limiters while simultaneously building upon your existing strengths.

All training starts with goals. No exceptions.

​If you’ve never raced your bike, it’s very difficult to sit down and state what your goals are. Racing is an odd beast: unless you've experienced it — and experienced it more than once — it’s super hard to say with confidence something like, “I need to be able to hold 425 watts for 2 minutes at my current weight in order to successfully initiate breakaways.”

But that’s just the kind of thing you need to do in order to define truly successful training.

In terms of athletic performance and training, without goals you’re just aimlessly moving. Oh sure, you’re probably moving pretty hard and pretty fast. And if you are like most competitive cyclists, you are moving hard and fast quite often.

In other words, perhaps a little too often, not getting enough rest, and as a result, wondering why you’re not getting faster. As usual — I digress.

But toward what end? What’s all this “moving fast and hard” really about? It's not enough to simply state, "I'm going to attempt to do well in that XYZ road race in two months." You have to define what "doing well" means. You also have to define the demands of the race in terms of your limiters and strengths.

I lost a lot of you right there, didn’t I…

Keep scanning. It gets better. I promise.

Here's a simple example of what I mean. One of my "A" races from last year was defined this way:

Define your “A” races in terms of ENERGY NEEDS

  • Four laps of 10 miles each at an average power of 220 W per lap
  • Average lap time: 28:30
  • Four climbs at 350 W for 8 minutes each. (Yeah, that hurt.)
  • 12 "matches" at eight seconds each of 600 W+

This all came from an analysis of when I rode that race last year. So I now know that I need to surpass these measurements in my training if I hope to place better this year.

You remember that scene in the first Matrix movie, when Cypher looks at all those computer monitors streaming code and said, “Now all I see is blonde, brunette, redhead?”

That’s how you need to start looking at race data.

“But Sam, I don’t have a power meter…”

Or

“But Sam, I’ve never raced, so I don’t have that kind of data.”

Hang in there. We’ll get to that, eventually.

My point is that every race needs to be broken down into measurable pieces of effort. How you choose to measure them depends on your own circumstances. But those measures, coupled with a clear understanding of your own strengths and weaknesses and where the races fall in terms of the calendar are the foundations of successful race training.

Each of my "A" races are defined in this way. (Thankfully, you never want more than 2 or 3 of these pinnacle season events.) Then I compare my current abilities against these areas to see where my limiters are, and therefore, where I must improve. This information casts a lot of light on the kinds of workouts I’ll need to do as the race approaches, and when I’ll need to do them.

The “when” part is huge. These races will be mapped to a calendar so I can determine where my base and build periods will be. That enables me to peak and taper appropriately.

As I write about season planning, we’ll explain all of that.

Here's a screenshot of my current 2016 calendar as of this writing, mid-February 2016.
Click to enlarge, or turn your phone sideways…

My 2016 Annual Training Plan as seen in TrainingPeaks. Those tall gray bars are planned TSS goals for each week; a feature I'm finally starting to put to use. The colored portion of each bar is the actual amount of Training Stress I accumulated for that week.

  • You will see that I have three "A" races scheduled. “A” races are the culmination of specific training. I’m gunning for top 10, top 5, or better, depending on the event. They are in:
    • May
    • Early August
    • Late September

You’ll notice the first race of the season is scheduled for the beginning of March. Do I plan to “do well” in that race? Not at all. I’ll barely be finished with my base period. Why? Because base and build and peak and taper all all determined by working backwards from planned “A” races. Everything ramps up to the big events, and that includes races that just happen to come before the “A” races.

  • Other races are therefore training events. I consider "C " and "B" races to be dress rehearsals.
    • “C” races will have limiters as their training focus. Hard workouts but I don't intend on fighting for a podium in them.
    • “B” races will see me testing my limits, but I’ll only push it if I see a clear opportunity.

Finally, here's a description of my three "A" races:

Sunday May 22: Lake Hope — Ohio State Road Race Championships

Lake Hope, Ohio, March 2015. It was cold, as you can see from the blue temperature line. This year, it'll be late spring.

Limiters to build

  • Strong climbing with the ability to surge
  • VO2 max endurance

Topography

  • 2 laps w/2 climbs
    Longest: 8:30min
    @290W
  • Endless rollers
This is a beautiful course around a great Ohio state park. You go from pristine road with wide lanes to narrow dirty road for the spiky climbs.

For Cat IV’s, it’s only 2 laps for a total distance of about 40 miles. My back of the pack time last year was 2:06. As you can see from the annotations, this race is about your ability to punch it over and over again. If you can keep consistent power, you’ll stay with the leaders. If you can lay in repeated climbing surges, VO2 Max efforts, and Zone 5 stuff, you can make the selection. I know the length of time each of these segments took before. This will be my third attempt on this course. The first time I rode it, I finished 5th. 2nd time, well, let’s not talk about it.

OK, I'm supposed to be transparent, so let's talk: I was dropped on the 2nd climb last year. The accelerations over the rollers between climbs were incessant, and I hadn't sufficiently trained over threshold. The time between 1st descent and 2nd peak was roughly 30 minutes, averaging at or over threshold.

Sunday August 7: Smith’s Dairy Milk Race

Smith's Dairy Road Race, 2015. Looks like a big crit, doesn't it? It's going to be a time trial with lots of attacks on the 2 biggest "hills."

Limiters to build

  • VO2 max endurance

Topography

  • 3 laps @ 10 miles
  • 2 “climbs”
  • Finishes on a 2-mile long false flat
I’ve never ridden this race, but have heard from several that it’s a good one. 3 laps of a 10 mile course.

One of the main reasons I’m targeting this event is the fact that it’s one of the very few road races in this area planned for the late summer. In Southwest Ohio, everything turns to criteriums (or “crits”) after May, and I just don’t prefer that type of racing. However, looking at the course map from above, it looks like a classic American crit race.

It’s a rolling-to-flat-ish course with no hill steeper than 3.5%, and the finish is on a 2 mile long false flat — which might be my salvation. This looks like a sprinter’s race, so I'll have to hunt for a break and lay in a TT effort and/or work with anyone who comes with me. Keep the power high, surge up the climbs, wear others down on the 2-mile falsey. 

I’ll have the entire spring and summer season to ramp up that FTP — and continue to focus on my surge ability. My weekly time trial efforts at Cleves, Ohio — which culminate with my final “A” effort of the year, should build me well for this race.

Tuesday, September 27: Final Cleves Time Trial of 2016

Cleves, Ohio, Time Trial course. It's a rolling course, not nearly as “mountainous” as this makes it seem.

Limiters to build

  • Sheer, raw, FTP
  • Pacing strategy
  • PR: 24:46
  • Goal: 23:59

Topography

  • 10.2 miles, A to B
  • Rolling, with a long, false flat
  • Shifting winds
This semi-remote course has become a bit of an obsession for me. 10.2 miles of rolling hills along the Ohio river. Very little traffic, but there is a very large chemical plant on the route.

Large, 18-wheelers sometimes need to pull in or out of that plant, necessitating that riders accommodate them. Not exactly joy-extracting when you’re in full aero tuck and on route for a personal best, but it does happen.

The Queen City Wheels cycling club has hosted this community time trial every Tuesday evening from May through September since 1973! It’s like the show, Cheers!. Everybody knows your name, it’s friendly, and for some, more serious than others. The course record is an incredible 21:27. My goal is to just finally get inside of the 24-minute mark.

The recipe for this is primarily short, full-on max intervals at around 5 minutes each, with not quite enough recovery in between. Eventually those short, WAY over threshold intervals get linked together, and combined with a pacing strategy that starts me out hard and delivers me to the line in a wretched, quaking state. Ahh. That's the life.

Base and Build

You will see that as of the time of this writing I'm in the back half of my "base three" period.

Base one was getting my aerobic engine back up to snuff: rides of 2+ hours that were seated and consistent around Zone 2.5. I kept riding them until I saw my EF or “efficiency factor” in TrainingPeaks plateau. That meant my heart rate and power were pretty much in sync, and I was fit enough to start doing harder efforts.

Base two saw me working on the base fitness for the climbing surges and sprints I need to build. Except for the longer Zone 2 workouts on the weekends, I was doing VERY big gears and VERY low cadences for hill climbing simulations on the trainer, and stomps and standing starts workouts to build muscle for sprints.

“Stomps” are increasing trainer resistance and shifting to a monster gear that brings you down to 20 RPMs, then just exploding into 12 seconds of balls-to-the-wall effort. Recover ’til your heart rate is under 2.1 or so, then repeat… Joyous!

“Standing Starts” are similar, except you bring the bike to a stand still in the trainer, out of the saddle, then — BOOM. 12 seconds of heart-in-your-throat, suppress that puke goodness. Recover. Repeat.

Base three is mixing and matching. This is a time of really working on increasing my functional threshold power with sweet spots (extended intervals of 15+ minutes, seated, at power zone 3.8 – 4.2) and occasional short over threshold workouts, plus I am working on extended climbing repeats; period of time where I am in relatively slow cadences but at or over my lactate threshold. As Joe Friel points out, all three of the base periods are not really very race like. You're working on strength, you're working on endurance, but you're not really mimicking the demands of any of your key events. What you are doing, however, is preparing yourself for the specific kinds of intensity you’ll be kicking out during the two Build periods — and THOSE workouts start mirroring what those race files call for.

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.