Training programs: one size fits all?

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The one request I get more than any other is for training advice. Unfortunately this topic is not as simple and generic as you might think and I’m careful to avoid writing about it since I’m not an expert. However, I’ve asked former professional cyclist and level 2 cycling coach Helen Kelly to write about training principles on a regular basis. To lay the foundation for future articles, Helen explains why a one-size-fits-all approach to training programs simply doesn’t work.

As coaches of many State- and National-level cyclists over the past 15 years, we often get asked why a cyclist needs an individualised cycling program and why several cyclists can’t simply head out in a group every day and do the same training sessions. The answer is complex.

Yes, at times cyclists can and should train together but at other times they need to have their programs tailored to suit. Why? Because there are a great number of factors that come into play and almost every cyclist is going to be different in their strengths, weaknesses, and what they need in a training program.

Here are just some of the factors we consider when developing an individualised training plan:

Training age

One of the most important factors to consider when writing a training program for a cyclist is to determine their “training age”. That is, how many years have they been riding/training constructively – that is, riding or training in a structured manner under a coach.

This sets the scene for how well their muscles are accustomed to riding and how long they can comfortably sit on a bike and hold good form/posture. A cyclist that hasn’t ridden much will have “young legs and a young back”. The workload they can tolerate will be significantly less than a rider who has been riding overseas for 15 years and is used to sitting on the bike for 5-6 hours at a time.

Adaptation to training

Different training ages are responsible for the differences in optimal training volume and intensity between cyclists. Training age also affects the recovery that’s needed between efforts and between sessions.

A well-seasoned cyclist who has been riding for several years at a National level could do, for example, 8 repetitions of a 2km-long hill as max efforts and roll back down for their recovery, achieving only a slight drop-off in power for each rep. A young rider in their first or second year of cycling could do 2-3 reps of the same hill and may need up to 5-10 minutes of recovery spinning in order to achieve a similar time/wattage for each rep.

A well-seasoned rider could handle 3-4 hard sessions in a row and then take an easy recovery ride and be fully recovered to train hard again. A young cyclist might only be able to do 2 days in a row with a few efforts, and would then need a day off to recover.

Also women adapt differently than men and their workload needs to be tailored accordingly. Women have very little testosterone so it takes them longer than men to build strength and unfortunately lose it a lot quicker too. Men can take as little as four weeks to build strength through Strength Endurance intervals, whereas women can take twice as long (sorry girls!). Women will also need to continue their strength work while in a racing block whilst men won’t necessarily need to.

Periodised training

A seasoned rider can do more hard weeks of training in a row before taking a lighter recovery week. This is in contrast to a novice cyclist who may be able to do 2 weeks of training with perhaps 2 days of rest in that week, followed by one week of lighter training in order to recover.

Sporting background

Many cyclists we coach discover cycling after playing another sport in their earlier years. Some cross over to cycling due to injury or because they didn’t quite achieve what they wanted from that other sport. Others get into cycling because their mates cycle and someone has encouraged them to give it a go.

Cyclists that have been former runners, rowers or triathletes, for example, bring certain attributes with them and these enable them to develop faster than a person who has no background in sport. For example, a trained rower like Drew Ginn came to cycling with highly developed aerobic and anaerobic systems (as do most rowers) and with a great awareness of his own physical abilities and thresholds.

“Cross-over cyclists” often have a well-trained aerobic system and their bodies are used to the rigours of hard training.

Goals of the rider

The goals of the rider will definitely alter the way their training program is structured. Here are two examples.

Rider A is a 45-year-old masters rider who has a family and can only ride 4 times per week. He wants to compete in the National 20km Time Trial at the end of winter. His program will be structured around improving his 30-minute threshold as well as giving him the endurance and strength to hold the highest possible wattage for this 20km event.

In contrast, Rider B is a 20-year-old who is taking a break from uni and has all day to train. He isn’t working so he can take an afternoon nap after every session. His goal is to compete in the Melbourne to Warrnambool and try to finish in the top 10. His program would have a lot more volume and intensity, compared to Rider A.

Yes, Rider A and B could possibly do a ride together on a weekend, but as you might predict, Rider B is training full-time and would have more strength and general fitness than his 45-year-old friend. If they rode side-by-side, with the young Rider B riding at E2 (75-80% of maximum intensity), this would be at a higher intensity for the older rider (Rider A).

Therefore, due to their different training ages, different cycling goals and different amounts of time available for training, the fitness levels of these two athletes is very different. One athlete would be training at a much higher level of intensity than the other.

This should help you understand why we need to target training sessions to suit the race goals and fitness level of the cyclist. If Rider A trained at an intensity level that was too high for him, too often, he would likely get sick. So yes, this athlete could train with others but we would recommend he train with cyclists of a similar ability so he is not riding above his recommended intensity levels for extended periods of time.

History of injuries

A cyclist’s former injuries need to be considered in determining the appropriate training load. It depends greatly on the particular injury but avoiding stressing a weakened area is obviously of utmost importance to avoid reoccurring pain. Flexibility and core strength are also two major factors that must be considered in the context of former injuries.

Measuring your training (hours vs kilometres)

And finally, it’s crucial to monitor your workload each session, week, month and so on, for your coach and for your own records. We always explain to our cyclists the need to measure training in hours rather than kilometres ridden. Why? Because a 3-hour ride along a flat road will put a very different training load through your legs compared to a 3-hour training ride in the hills.

Most importantly, whenever there is undulating terrain, and gravity kicks in, the workload or training stress will increase. A 3-hour ride in the hills may only result in you riding 60km but you’ll be far more fatigued than after a 90km flat spin. That’s not to say that hills are always better than flats, they’re just required at different periods of your training.

So, as you can see, it’s simply not possible to take a one-size-fits-all approach to training plans for cyclists. There are a vast range of factors that need to be considered in order to create an individualised training program. And this is one of the reasons coaching is so enjoyable – it’s an art as well as a science.

Helen and her husband Bob run Kelly Cycle Coaching. Both are certified level 2 cycling coaches and Helen has raced professionally all over the world and has represented Australia at the world championship level. Kelly Cycle Coaching is hosting a masters cycling camp in Bright, Victoria from March 25-29. Click here for information.

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