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.