Training for your first Bike Race

I have been itching to write this one for a long time. It was reading books about training that persuaded me to study Sports Science and put me on the path to a career in the Cycling industry (hopefully that is). Just a quick warning, this is a long post – I’ve tried to make it as concise as possible however there is a large amount of information to try and get across.

Firstly, I can’t even hope to summarise the vast amount of information that is available on how to train. There is a huge amount of advice out there, most of it is correct – the key is finding what works for you. My go to reference for training is The Cyclists Training Bible by Joe Friel – click here to buy a copy (you should). Note, however that the current edition was published in 2009 – I believe a new version is on the way. For more up-to date information, try Joe Friels Blog, here is a link.

If you are lucky enough to have a power meter, Training and Racing with a Power meter by Hunter Allen and Andrew Coggan is an essential read- get it here. Ps don’t worry if not – I have written this bearing in mind the fact that many first time racers won’t be training with power yet.

In this post I’m going to focus on training specifically for closed circuit races – for the sake of convenience I’ll abbreviate to CCR. They are the variety with which I have most experience and the best place to start if new to racing. This is designed to be a guideline, for more detail I’d strongly recommend reading some of the material listed above.

I’ll include some definitions of terms I will be using – most of you will already have heard of them, but just in case here is a list.

Volume: Combination of frequency and duration of training – basically the number of hours you train during the week.

Intensity: How hard you are working – e.g. 10/10 would describe a full on sprint with 1/10 being recovery ride pace.

RPE: Rate of perceived exertion – how hard you think you are working.

TSS: Training Stress Score – relevant to those with a power meter. Essentially a value quanitifying the impact of a particular session (1 hour riding at threshold = 100 TSS).The higher the TSS the harder the session.

Lactate threshold (LT): The point at which the blood concentration of lactate begins to exponentially increase. Basically the point at which your rate of lactate production exceeds the rate at which the body can remove it.

LTHR: Heart rate at Lactate threshold.

FTP: Functional threshold power – the power output that can be sustained for approximately 1 hour. Also defined as power at LT.

To begin with, lets dispel a few common myths:

. You have to train at a high volume.

Totally wrong – when it comes to racing, intensity in training is the key. Riding for 12 hours a week at endurance pace won’t directly get you you fit for CCR. You’d be better off only training six hours per week, at a high intensity.

. Harder is always better.

Wrong again. Yes, you need to include hard sessions in your training plan. However, too many and you will become overtrained. Make hard sessions very hard and easy sessions very easy. It is common to fall into the trap of riding hard every time, eventually you’ll end up doing lots of medium paced, medium intensity rides – again this won’t prepare you well for CCR, or any type of racing for that matter.

. No high intensity training during the Winter

There is no better way to lose your ‘edge’ than doing nothing but long steady rides – riding slowly teaches your body to ride slowly. You don’t need to do lots of hard interval sessions, that runs the risk of overtraining. Just get some short duration, high intensity work in from time to time – it doesn’t need to be structured, just go for the odd Strava KOM and don’t be afraid to sprint against your mates on a Sunday club ride occasionally.

. Be as light as possible.

Closed circuit races tend to take place on flat courses. You need to be producing a decent amount of power. If you are overweight then losing a few kg’s will make a big difference – however, don’t lose weight at the cost of losing a large amount of muscle. Don’t be afraid of hitting the weight room over the winter and working on leg and core strength. You should be lean – not emaciated. I found a good article here explaining how to best go about reducing body fat without losing muscle.

. GCN produced a good video on training myths a few months back, click here to view it.

Here are some tips about season planning. Having some structure to your training and following a plan (even if it isn’t a very good one) will almost certainly bring about improvement in results.

. Assign each event a priority

You can’t perform at your very best in every race you enter. Trying to do so will compromise the quality of your training. In order to produce a peak performance you will have to reduce training volume in the days leading up to a race, this is known as tapering. Tapering for every race is a bad idea – you won’t see many gains in fitness.

Pick two or three races per year in which you would like to do really well, preferably one in the spring, another in mid summer and another in autumn. Call these A races – build your training plan around these. Pick 4-6 races in which you’d like to do well but are not top priority, these are B races, taper for 3-4 days only. Anything else should be classed as C priority – use these events primarily as training, don’t worry about the results.

Personally, I find the best way to do well in B races without disruption to training is to have them at the end of a rest week. That way you’ll effectively be tapering but not missing out on any training sessions. Of course this isn’t always possible.

. Be sure to include recovery periods

Every third or fourth week, reduce both volume and intensity of training. A good rule of thumb is to halve your usual weekly volume. This will give your body a chance to recover and to adapt. Remember, it is not during exercise itself but during recovery that training adaptations actually occur. The best time to carry out any tests (e.g. FTP) to measure improvement is at the end of one of these weeks.

At the end of the season, I’d advise taking at least two weeks off the bike – don’t start training again until you feel ready and motivated. A mid-season break of a week or so is also a good idea.

. Set goals

Goal setting works. Nothing like a big race coming up to get you out of bed for that 6AM turbo session. Think about what you need to improve on in order to do better, for example you may want to increase the power output you can sustain for a duration of 5 minutes, important in CCR. If you carry out a test at the beginning of the season and find the value to be 340 Watts – you might set a goal of increasing it to 350 in two months time. Set goals that are challenging but realistically achievable.

. Carry out regular tests – include them in your training plan.

If you don’t test yourself, it is difficult to know whether or not your training is working. I’d advise testing every eight weeks or so. You don’t need a power meter to quantify improvement (though it is the most accurate method).

A Strava PB on a chosen segment is a common indicator, though conditions should be taken into account. Another popular method is to carry out testing on a turbo trainer fitted with a speed sensor, an increase in the speed you can sustain for a given time would suggest improvement. Don’t measure yourself using average speed on outdoor rides, there are too many variables for it to be a reliable measure.

Right, now that part is out of the way here is some more interesting stuff. I’m not going to pretend to be a coach and go into highly detailed specifics. As I’ve previously stated, this is intended to be a guideline only. I don’t know you – therefore have absolutely no idea which exact training sessions you would benefit from. I’ll provide an example training plan, but don’t assume you should be following it.

It is important to understand the concept of training zones, these refer to the intensity at which you are riding. Training at different intensities will result in different adaptations (e.g. training at low intensity for a long time will increase endurance, an all out ten second effort will increase sprint power). Here is a useful article. If you own a power meter, it is best to train to Power based zones. If not heart rate is the next best thing, look here for more detail. Failing that, you can still achieve good results using RPE.

Training should  be periodised. This simply involves training different abilities as the season goes on, beginning with basic abilities (e.g. endurance) and moving onto more advanced ones (e.g. sprint power) once said basics are established. For more click here.

Both the base and build periods are divided into sections (e.g. build 1 & 2), again there will be variations in intensity, volume and abilities. Typically, the base period lasts for 12 weeks and build for 8. Thereafter you will move into the peak (1-2 weeks), and finally into the race period (1 week) – in the run up to your A race.

You might have read my post about what to expect during your first race (click here if not). I explained that CCR involves many short efforts well above LT, with the rest well below it. Below is a power file to illustrate this:

Screen Shot 2016-11-06 at 16.47.15.png

Note the large number of peaks and troughs. It essentially represents not pedalling whilst going round the corners and then sprinting out of them. No time is spent at threshold. Most closed circuit races end in a sprint – as did this one,  evidenced by the large peak at the very end. In order to make training as specific as possible to CCR, it is best to focus on working above LT. Put simply, this means high intensity interval sessions.

That said, you also need to include other workouts. I’d try and get in one long ride (3 hours plus) per week in order to maintain endurance. It is also worth including some threshold work – the reason being that the further above FTP an effort is, the longer it will take to recover from, hence boosting your threshold can help when it comes to CCR.

There is no reason why these have to be separate sessions if you are short of time. For example a three hour ride; starting with a 20 minute warm up, followed by 4×5 minute intervals at an RPE of 8.5/10 / HR zone 5 / Power zone 5) then 30 minutes recovery followed by two 20 minute efforts at an RPE of 7/10 / HR zone 4 / Power zone 4.

I will emphasise here that in order for it to be effective, training should be specific to your limiters, notice I don’t use the word weaknesses. A limiter can be defined as a weakness that is negatively affecting your performance. For example, being a poor climber won’t have any affect on your results in CCR hence working on climbing won’t be the best use of your time. There is no one size fits all training program – it will be different for every individual. Here is an example – a week in training for me during the build period, at this point I was training exclusively for CCR:

 

Day Training
Mon Rest
Tue Sprints: 20 second all out sprint, 1:40 recovery. Repeated x20.
Wed VO2 Max intervals: 5×5 minutes with 4 minute recoveries.
Thur Rest
Fri Rest
Sat 2×20 Minutes at threshold
Sun Steady endurance ride including 4 hill efforts.

Note how the hardest workout is placed first, e.g. when I was likely to be at my most fresh. This would have allowed me to ride harder, hence getting the maximum benefit from the session (higher TSS). At the time, there was a local race series taking place on Tuesday evenings – following this weekly plan meant I’d be reasonably fresh if I chose to enter one of these races.

C Priority events can act as very high quality training sessions. Replicating race intensity in training is tricky – especially if you don’t have a power meter. Personally, I can always push that bit harder when riding with other people.

The bottom line – how should you train for your first CCR? After reading the above you may have realised the question is trickier to answer than it sounds. Here is a sample 11 week training plan for the build period onwards. For the sake of convenience, lets assume your A race is your first 4th cat CCR at some point in early spring.

Common limiters relevant to CCR include; Sprint Power, defined as the maximum power you can produce and Anaerobic endurance, defined as the length of time for which you can sustain a given intensity above LT. In reality, determining your limiters can be tricky before you start racing – working on these two abilities is a good starting point.  Below are four sessions, two for each ability, all of which have worked well for me:

  1. VO2 Max intervals (Anaerobic endurance)

20 Minute warm up of your choice

5 Minutes, Hr zone 5, power zone 5, RPE 8.5/10

5 Minute recovery

Repeat x4

10 Minute cool down – easy pedalling.

 

2. Sprints (Sprint Power)

20 Minute warm up

20 Second all out sprint – 1m40s recovery

Repeat x5

5 Min recovery

Repeat x 4 (20 sprints in total)

10 Minute cool down

 

3) Plus intervals (anaerobic endurance)

20 Minute warm up

3 Minutes, Hr zone 5, power zone 5, RPE 8.5/10 – 1 Min RPE 9/10 – 1 Min RPE 9.5/10. (Total 5 minute interval)

5 Minute recovery

Repeat x5

10 Minute cool down

 

4) Standing start sprints (Sprint power)

20 Minute warm up

Select a big gear (cadence of around 40). Ten second all out sprint.

1 Min recovery

Repeat x4

5 Minute recovery

Repeat x5 (20 efforts in total)

10 Minute cool down.

Those sessions should come in useful, assuming you have those particular limiters. I’d begin with the first two and move onto the latter sessions after around a month (three hard weeks, followed by a rest week). In order to make the sessions more challenging, include more reps and shorten recoveries. Be very careful with the last session, if your knees hurt even slightly – stop.

I would do each session once per week as a rule of thumb, alongside an endurance ride and a threshold session. My personal favourite is the classic 2×20 minutes at an RPE of 7/10 / HR zone 4 / Power zone 4 – with a 10 minute recovery inbetween. If you like, you could also incorporate intervals into the long ride – just be careful not to overdo it. To summarise thats two interval sessions, one threshold workout and an endurance ride – easier interval sessions for weeks 1-4 and harder from weeks 4-8.

Three weeks before your A race, begin to reduce volume. More detail here.  Now is the time to reduce the number of reps in the above sessions, for example reducing from 6 to 5x 5 minute intervals in week 1 and down to 4 in week 2.  For the first week, reduce volume by around 25% – for the second week make it 50%. You don’t have to worry about getting in a long ride at this point. This is designed to offload fatigue whilst maintaining a good level of fitness, ensuring you are as fresh as possible for race day.

Don’t complete any hard workouts in the final week or leading up to your A race. Do some easy sessions (for example 45 minutes ridden in power zones 1 and 2). It is worth including some very short efforts (e.g. 3x 1 minute) within these workouts. Complete 3-4,  including one on the day before your race. Having a complete rest day isn’t the best idea – your might end up feeling stiff and sluggish in the morning, not what you want after months of hard work.

These workouts are tough. Be sure to listen to your body, if you feel tired and question whether you are able to complete a session – chances are you should take a rest. Better to miss one session than end up overtrained or ill and have to take two weeks off. If at any point you experience worrying symptoms (i.e. chest pain) – stop the session immediately and seek medical advice.

As time goes on, you will come to realise what your strengths and limiters are. You’ll be-able to more specifically tailor your training plan and as such will see greater performance gains made.

That is enough for one day. My final piece of advice would be to read a few books or at the very least online articles on training. The field is rapidly evolving and it’s useful to keep up to date with the latest thinking. Your future self will thank you on the podium. Stay tuned.

 

What to expect from your first 4th Cat Race.

So, it’s the big day. You’ve done the training and sorted out your race license (if not click here to find out more and here to go to the BC website). You’ve managed to find a race within easy range and got in an entry. The conformation email will have come through, confirming you have a ride. It’s best to start with a closed circuit race, if possible a 4th Cat only rather than a 3/4. Here’s what you can expect to happen next.

Getting to race venues isn’t always easy, some are off the beaten track. Always bring a map for backup, the phone number of the organiser can also come in useful. Remember to check what time sign-on closes and the exact start time of your race.

Upon arrival, you’ll see a few very strong looking riders – with bikes to match. I’ll admit to being put off by this when it came to my first race. Appearances can be deceptive, don’t be intimidated by expensive bikes and shiny legs. If nothing else, you may not even be racing against these particular riders. Most closed circuit events consist of more than one race, (e.g. a 4th Cat only and a 2/3).

Remember to go to sign on and present your race license – obvious as this might sound, I’ve almost forgotten it many a time. You will be given a number, make sure to pin this onto your jersey in the correct position (this will differ from race to race).

Its good practice to bring a turbo trainer or set of rollers to warm up on. At some venues you will be-able to warm up on the circuit, do this if you can – it’s a good way of familiarising yourself with the course. However, more often than not you will need to use the aforementioned turbo trainer or rollers. Ideally, leave half an hour for a warm up – in practice this is easier said than done, I find 15-20 minutes is usually adequate.

At some point, typically about ten minutes before your race is due to start – you’ll be called to the start line. Listen out for this announcement, it’s easy to get engrossed in your warm up and not hear the call. Normally, you’ll be given the chance to ride round the circuit a few times before the actual race begins. Finally, you’ll line up on the start line and be given a safety briefing (usually words to the affect of – don’t ride dangerously and don’t swear). The flag drops, and things get underway.

If you can, try to start at the front of the race. Crashes are common in the very early stages, it is possible to be dropped virtually on the start line if you get caught behind one. Being at the front of the race will also save you a large amount of energy. In almost every event, there will be some ‘underprepared’ riders who will be dropped within the first few laps – you don’t want to be behind one, bridging a gap requires a big effort.

For many first timers, myself included, the intensity can come as a shock. You’ll have to sprint out of the corners – especially early on. In this kind of racing, no time will be spend sat at tempo, the effort will either be far below threshold or well above it (very much on again / off again). There is some good news in that the pace tends to slow down rather than speed up, many riders will get caught in the adrenaline rush and start off too enthusiastically. Push on for as long as you can, you might surprise yourself in what you can do once over the initial threshold.

The middle part of the race is simply about trying to stay with the bunch and conserve as much energy as possible. There will be a few optimistic riders attacking at this point, unless there is a large group (say 5+) these attacks are rarely worth going with – 99% of the time they will be bought back by the bunch. I have made the mistake of getting complacent at this point, doing lap after lap can be very dull – some races are far more animated than others. If you start to lose concentration its inevitable you will lose some places in the bunch, it also makes crashing far more likely. Stay awake.

Typically a sign will be held up indicating the number of laps to go, beginning from three laps out. It is at this point that things begin to get interesting – you’ll see more attacks and the pace will increase. If you are feeling strong, now is the time to go solo, that is to say with 2-3 laps to go. Many 4th Cat races are won with attacks such as this, many riders will be unsure of their own ability and as such will be reluctant to chase, even in the closing stages.

If you get to final straight within the bunch, chaos often ensues. The final sprint is another time where crashes are common. If you can, try to come through the last corner in a good position (say one of the first five riders to enter the straight). Often these sprints are short – positioning is more important than peak power. Don’t look behind you before pulling out to sprint, you may well hit the rider in front or inadvertently move to the left or right, again making a crash likely. Do however, pay attention to what is going on in front – leave space in case someone pulls out. These riders won’t know where you are in much the same way you can’t see those behind you.

If you are nervous or know you have poor bike handling skills, it can be better to sit up and move yourself out of the way. This especially applies if you are at the back of the field, chances of a points finish from this position are very minimal. After a season of racing, I still avoid these chaotic sprints if possible – preferring to make a move with a few laps to go.

You will be commonly advised to ‘just sit in’ during a race. If you do, you’ll never learn where your strengths lie – amongst other things it is a complete waste of money. Go with some moves if you can, try and get into a good position for the final sprint. Ride to win, not to avoid losing. I made that very mistake several times, the poor results speak for themselves. It was only with two races left in the season that I began to ride more aggressively, realising I had nothing to lose in trying to achieve my goal of moving up to 3rd Cat. In the course of these two races, I attacked on my own and it payed dividends on both occasions (taking a 6th and a 2nd respectively).

If you do get dropped – don’t worry. It’s what happens to most of us in the first couple of races. If the first attempt doesn’t go well – don’t assume all is lost, give it another couple of tries and things might well improve. Remember, its not just about fitness – the most common limiting factor at this stage is racecraft, more on that here. If you happen to be dropped very early on, it might be time to make some changes to your training plan, a post covering this is on the way.

Hopefully, this provides a good overview of what that first race will be like. Has anyone reading this got a story to share about how your first race went? If so, I’d be interested in hearing it, do leave a comment. Cheers all.

Want to Race a bike? Here’s what you need to do.

I will admit that this information can be found in plenty of other places – however, I don’t feel the site would be complete without it. If you’d like to start racing, this is what to do in order to get to the start line.

1) Join British Cycling

Most races in the UK are run under BC rules and regulations. This means you need to be a member in order to compete. You’ll need at least a Sliver membership in order to obtain a full race license. There are other benefits to being a BC member. Click here to go to the membership page.

2) Apply for a Race License

An optional purchase when you apply for BC membership, be sure to select it. You can’t race without one. One important distinction to make is that between a provisional license and a full one; with provisional you can ride a race but won’t be eligible for any points should you finish high up enough. If you are already a silver or gold member, the license can be purchased separately at any time.

At the time of writing, a full license can be bought at half price from 1 July onwards. Your license will expire on 31st Dec regardless of when you purchased it, I’d advise getting one as early on in the year as possible for maximum value. You will need to renew your license annually.

3) Find & Enter events.

Races, especially those of the closed circuit variety, aren’t as widely advertised as some other Cycling events such as Sportives. Just go to the BC website and look in the events section – you’ll need to apply relevant filters (e.g. event type and distance away). Click here to take a look.

It’s cheaper and easier to enter races online (on the day entries are typically around 25% more expensive). Note that road races are often oversubscribed, making it a good idea to enter as early as possible. Once you’ve entered, you’ll be sent an email confirming your application to enter a race – followed by another one if your entry is accepted (with closed circuit races this is almost certain, with road races there is a chance you won’t get a ride).

You may also receive an email containing some additional event information – don’t make the mistake of ignoring these, they often contain useful details such as when sign-on closes and what time your race is due to start. Information received may differ from that on the BC website, it is worth cross checking. If there is a discrepancy, it can be a good idea to email the event organiser to confirm exact details.

4) Don’t forget…

You’ll need to bring your race license with you and present it at sign-on. It is also advisable to bring another form of ID (driving license accepted). More often than not, only your race license will be requested but you never know. Your license will be taken by the organisers before you race, remember to go and pick it up again once you’ve finished. I’ve lost count of the number of times when I have had to go back for mine after almost driving off – its very easily done.

For today, that is all. As always, hope this post has been of some use. Happy racing.

7 Tips for Bike Racing on a budget

As a Student, this is something which I feel very well qualified to discuss. I have to admit to the cost of racing being one factor which stopped me from trying it earlier. However – I’ve learnt a few things along the way that enabled me to enjoy a full season of racing without worrying too much about money. As per usual, it was a process involving much trial and error – not without disaster. Anyway, here goes.

  • Plan your events carefully

Before writing this post, I had a look back through my 2016 season calendar. I’m sad to say that I managed to waste just shy of £100 by entering races that I didn’t make it too. Don’t impulsively enter events, as I found out – doing badly in a race and then entering another one in a few days time that you hadn’t originally planned to do is a poor strategy.

I’d suggest sitting down with the calendar and spending an afternoon planning the season – after all it is winter at the time of writing, what else is there to do? Entering races on the day tends to cost about 25% more when compared with online entries, once again it’s good to be organized.

  • Look after your equipment

This one should go without saying, as Cyclists we all know that bikes are to be revered and given nothing but the highest standard of care that we can offer. In all seriousness, maintaining equipment properly means it will last considerably longer. This is especially relevant if you have just the one bike that gets used all year round. I’ve been guilty of not cleaning mine after a ride on many occasions – it can be an expensive habit. If you are short on time, just get the worst of the mud off and clean the drivetrain components.

  • Get your hands dirty – but not too much

Bike Shops can be expensive – the more mechanical jobs you can do yourself the better. Anyone who knows me personally will be crying hypocrite, and in all honesty they’re right. I will admit to being a terrible mechanic, sometimes having to have my handiwork corrected by the local bikeshop. You’d do well by just learning a few basic things, such as how to change a cassette and index gears. If a job seems too advanced and it involves expensive components – getting it done professionally is still likely to be a better bet.

  • Don’t take your best equipment racing – at least not to begin with.

4th Cat Closed circuit races have a reputation for being hazardous, and with good reason – many of the riders will be inexperienced. The chances of crashing are during your first few races are quite high. You might not want to risk your most expensive equipment. Alloy frames are far more practical for Crit / Closed Circuit events – the material has made a comeback in recent years and with good reason.

Most circuits on which races are held are flat, hence some extra weight won’t be a massive hindrance. I save my best bike for Road Races, these are ridden at a slightly slower pace and the field tends to be more experienced (usually its about 50:50 in terms of 4th and 3rd Cats, assuming a 3/4 rather than 2/3/4 race).

  • Do your homework

There is nothing worse than buying a piece of equipment only to discover that you don’t need it, you have to buy more items in order to make it work, or it is the wrong size/doesn’t fit. It might sound obvious, but it’s a mistake I have made many times. Just take some time to do some research; read some reviews and hunt for the lowest price.

  • Spend a little more to save in the long run

Buying very cheap equipment can lead to more being spent overall. It’s costly, not to mention time consuming and extremely annoying if you have to replace something over and over again. Plus, the last thing you want in a race is for a component to fail – I was forced to pull out of my first race due to a slipping chain, not before I had all but ground to a halt in the midst of a fast moving bunch and almost caused a serious crash.

  • Treat yourself once in a while

Sometimes it can be good to reward yourself. If you do have some spare money and something you’d really like – don’t feel guilty about buying it because it wasn’t the best value choice. I’ve found that building up to these occasional indulgences is a good way to keep ‘everyday’ spending under control. If you are saving for a new bike – it’s unlikely you’ll make any rash purchases beforehand. Just don’t make the mistake of going into a local bike shop and having a really good look, as I found out this can quickly put an end to an economy drive.

For today, that’s all. If you have anything to add or feel I have missed something out, feel free to comment below. Onwards and Upwards.

Preparing for your first Bike Race? Eight things you should know.

Around this time last year – I began to think about entering a race for the first time. It’s fair to say that I was pretty clueless about how to prepare, paying the price in my first few events! After much thought, I’ve come up with some pieces of advice that I believe would have really helped. Here we go – eight tips to help you prepare for that first race.

1) Work on technique

Improved technique will make you faster. It’s surprising how much of a difference allocating one hour or so during the week to working on a technical weakness can make. Common areas to work on include skills such as bunch riding, cornering and descending – in addition to others, for example pedalling technique and gear selection.

In the first two races I completed, I was dropped virtually on the start line – for the simple reason that I was riding overgeared, leaving me unable to accelerate quickly enough to stay with the bunch. A month of sessions focusing on increasing my cadence and riding in an easier gear was all it took, I haven’t been dropped early on in a race since. Trust me – it’s really worth it.

2) Follow a plan

I’m no coach, to that end I’m not going to give out highly detailed training advice. However, I can say with absolute conviction that introducing some structure to your training makes a massive difference. Prioritise two or three races in which you’d like to do well – build your training plan around them. Set some intermediate goals along the way, such as trying to take a local KOM. You’ll be far more motivated, particularly in the winter, if you give yourself something tough to aim for.

3) Don’t overtrain

Remember, adaptation to exercise occurs during rest – it is in recovery that your fitness will increase. If you end up feeling demotivated, tired and depressed then it’s probably time to take a break. Missing one session is better than pushing ahead, making yourself ill and having to take two weeks off. Be sure to include rest weeks in your training plan, a good rule of thumb is to halve the volume and reduce the intensity every third or fourth week (for example, if you normally train eight hours per week – drop it to four and leave out any hard sessions).

Use the prospect of an upcoming rest week to get through hard training sessions. Having an end of-sorts in site can make it that bit easier to get out the door. I often use rest weeks in order to taper for an event, that way training isn’t disrupted but I can still race on fresh legs.

4) Think holistically

It isn’t just what you do on the bike that equates to increased performance. If you are training hard, it’s essential that you eat healthily and get enough sleep in order to maximise the results. If you can, avoid alcohol and save caffeine for race day. You don’t have to turn into a complete puritan, moderation is key. I’m still not one to turn down a slice of cake or a doughnut if offered – I just make sure to not have that type of thing in the house, knowing it won’t last the night.

Off bike training can also come in useful, especially during the winter when you may be short on time to ride. Improving core and leg strength – coupled with stretching in order to increase flexibility and aid recovery can lead to serious gains on the bike. That said, if your time in which to train is very limited (say under 6 hours per week) and it comes down to a choice, prioritise riding over anything else.

5) Join a Club

If you aren’t already part of a club, now is the time to give it a try. Your local club can be a good source of advice and may even offer group training sessions designed to prepare members for racing. If you haven’t ridden much in a group before, the Sunday ride is the perfect place to start. I’ll stress that you need to be confident when it comes to riding in a bunch before entering a race, regardless of your level of fitness – your competitors will be thankful.
6) Invest wisely

It can be tempting to believe the claims laid down by manufacturers and to try and buy your way faster. If you have money to spend, invest it in yourself before your bike. For example, spend a little more in the supermarket – buying good quality, healthy food. The single best item of equipment you can buy if your budget will stretch to it, is a power meter – this will allow you to train with more accuracy and more easily gauge your progress. I’d also recommend a bike fit, especially if you have any niggling injuries.
7) Make sure your bike is mechanically sound

This might sound obvious, but it’s something many of us (myself included) have been caught out on. Before taking it racing, give your bike some attention, especially the drivetrain components. If you’ve ridden your chosen bike over the winter, now is the time to have it serviced. Equipment failure during a race can be dangerous, for both yourself and others. I was forced to pull out of my first ever race after four laps, oweing to a slipping chain – lucky to avoid being crashed into in the process. This scenario could, of course, have been very easily avoided.

8) Remember to enjoy it

It can be easy to lose sight of the real reason why you ride a bike – to have fun. If missing out on a weekly social ride for the sake of sticking to a training zone is making you miserable, it isn’t worth it. Last season, I obsessed for months about moving up to 3rd Category – ultimately feeling no different once I’d managed it, after the initial elation. Race results are never a matter of life or death.
There we have it. Hopefully, you will have found the above useful. As always, any feedback would be much appreciated. I wish you a successful winter followed by some good results. Stay tuned.

4th Cat racing – am I fast enough?

After having trawled through a few forums – one very common question is that of “am I fast enough to start racing?”. Unfortunately, it’s a very tricky one to answer. In this post I will try and provide a few useful guidelines as to when you might be ready to enter that first 4th Cat race.

Even if you have a good fitness level, it’s likely that you’ll be dropped in your first couple of races. Don’t panic – this is the case for almost all of us, racing isn’t about fitness alone. I can’t stress enough as to the importance of technical skills such as cornering and being able to sit in a fast moving bunch. My advice is to give it at least three tries before assuming fitness is the main limiting factor.

For me, after three disastrous races, everything just seemed to click – I have data to prove I wasn’t significantly fitter, it was simply a matter of learning how to race. Being tactically astute and having good bike handling skills can save you a massive amount of energy – the strongest rider won’t always emerge victorious.

I would also say it’s important to live in the real world and to not worry too much about the numbers. I’ve seen many people posting power figures on forums, asking for advice on whether or not to start racing. My power to weight ratio at FTP was 4.5 W/Kg at the time of my first race (according to a well known volume, this is the average for a Second Cat) – I was still dropped very early on.

One very important point is that your level of equipment has very little effect on race results – especially when it comes to flat closed circuit races (i.e. those most people choose to start off with). I’ve seen many riders on 5k superbikes dropped within the first few minutes of 4th Cat crits, and many on old alloy models go on to win. Of course, it can also be the other way round – but you get the idea. Don’t be put off racing by the fact you have a limited budget.

So, how can you tell? I hear you asking. If you can keep up with the fast group on a club ride, by which I mean be-able to do the odd turn at the front and participate in the inevitable sprints to town signs – chances are you’ll be-able to hold your own in a 4th Cat race.

I am very hesitant to give out power figures, so I will stress that these should only be used as a very rough guideline. If you have an FTP of 260 Watts or over, with a power to weight of around 3 W/Kg at FTP – staying with the bunch in 4th Cat only races should be possible.

Another regular feature on the forums is that of sportive times as an indicator of potential racing performance. Yet again, it is very difficult to give a definitive answer. As a rough guideline, a high end silver time or better in a 100 mile sportive indicates a good level of fitness – meaning you may succeed in races.

However, the demands of races and sportives are very different, particularly in terms of intensity. Don’t be surprised if you’ve had gold times in tough sportives and still get dropped. I had this experience myself early on in the season, being fit for 6 hour stints in the saddle doesn’t mean a 40 minute race will be easy, quite the opposite. Yet again, don’t despair – if ‘converting’ from sportives to racing, just be sure to include some short sessions at a high intensity in your training. A post covering this in more detail is on the way.

Ultimately – you won’t know if you are ready to race until you’ve gone and tried one. I seriously regret starting as late as I did, missing out on a lot of fun in the process. The worst that can happen is crashing or getting dropped, neither of which will be the end of the world. One more time – if it doesn’t go well to start off with don’t give up, the guys (or girls) at the front of the bunch driving the pace are probably just the ones who stuck with it.

There we have it. I hope this has provided some useful info. If you think something has been overlooked – do feel free to comment. Any ideas for further posts would also be greatly welcomed. Stay tuned.