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Compile a list of the greatest-ever time-triallists and Tony Martin (Katusha-Alpecin) will either be at the very top or in second place. The German powerhouse has a record-equalling four time trial world titles to his name (plus seven German titles), not to mention five stages of the Tour de France and two of the Vuelta a Espana (most of those against the clock).
While Martin has the chance to become the outright record holder at the world championships later this year, “Der Panzerwagen” has a more immediate target. This Sunday he’ll take part in arguably the hardest one-day race of the year, Paris-Roubaix.
Since 2016, Martin has added a handful of cobbled classics to his program and the same is true this year. So how has Martin been preparing for the Hell of the North and what does his training look like? To find out we caught up with Martin’s long-standing coach Sebastian Weber, who has been coaching Martin since he turned pro in 2008.
“We firstly try to turn everything upside down”, recounts Weber, “and we try to understand what worked, what did not, and what we need to change. It’s also important to find out the reasons for what worked and what didn’t work.”
Last year, for example, what didn’t really work for Martin was the timing of specific interval training ahead of the Classics. The intervals really benefited his fitness but they were simply performed at the wrong time.
“It was done a little bit too early,” explains Weber, “and we didn’t see much of an improvement afterwards. He was super-motivated, he trained really well in the beginning of the season (February-March) and with a lot of hard and specific training, but afterwards he wasn’t able to add on to that.”
In 2017 these kind of intervals — short, hard efforts, focusing on Martin’s anaerobic threshold — were performed in January and didn’t produce the desired effect on time. In 2018 Weber and Martin decided to keep them in the training plan, but postpone them to February.
“He doesn’t need a lot of time to get into shape,” says Weber. “He doesn’t need eight weeks or something to get going. He gets in shape pretty quickly; it only takes him a few weeks.
“Therefore, we decided to start a little bit later and get closer to the Classics. From now on there’s not much training anymore — after Tirreno-Adriatico it’s mainly racing.”
The new year’s plan
After the first two meetings of the fall, Weber and Martin determined what needed to be changed in terms of training content and training periodisation (i.e. when to do which types of training). They also looked at what they wanted to keep and maintain for the following year. This methodology gave them their outline for the upcoming months.
“Then we’ll basically fill the program block by block”, says Weber. “We start with the first block, we see how it goes, and then we plan the next one.”
Martin’s training blocks are not fixed nor do they follow a seven-day time-frame. They normally last two to three days, followed by a rest-day and an assessment, and then another block of two-three days starts all over again.
“Sometimes [the block] is even four or five days long, but it doesn’t matter if it starts on a Monday or a Tuesday. The weekdays, the seven days a week, have not been invented with endurance training in mind, I guess”, jokes Weber.
Martin’s training blocks mostly depend on his other commitments — team camps, family time, travels — and the specific goals of the period. Roughly 80% of the time he works on his endurance but from February he starts to do more specific sessions ahead of the spring, and high-torque workouts for his strength. These are done on the road bike before the Classics and on the TT bike before time trials.
Many of these sessions are done on a treadmill.
Tony Martin doesn’t run on the treadmill: he puts his bike on it and rides for up to three hours. The bike is not attached to the treadmill, so it requires core and balance skills, although Weber says it’s “super easy to ride on the treadmill, like if you were on the road”.
The main benefit, though, is that this session is really good at replicating uphill riding and getting used to the specific pedalling style and technique it requires. He uses the treadmill particularly during the hard winter in Switzerland, but also in the spring to imitate specific climbs or stretches of road. The treadmill allows Martin and Weber to program the exact distance and gradient they need to work on (e.g. 500 meters at 7%, 1,000 meters at 8%), or to plan a session by the second.
As for where he keeps the treadmill: “He rents a whole room for it”, says Weber. “It’s a gigantic treadmill, not like the ones you can buy now. It’s pretty big and it’s pretty fast [up to 60 km/h] and we basically design protocols on it, like tests, but even simulate different race profiles and specific hill repetitions.”
So what does a Tony Martin training block look like in the hard part of the training season, ahead of the Classics?
The Spring Classic sessions
Day 1: Medium-long day
Session: 5 hours of riding outdoor with climbs, or half of the time outside and half on the treadmill. Torque intervals on the climbs or on the treadmill.
Intervals: 3 x 30 minutes. These comprise 2 minutes in the drops at high power above threshold and lower cadence (~50rpm) with 1 minute easy at 70-80% of threshold at 85rpm on the hoods. From a metabolic point of view, the goal here is to produce a big chunk of lactate to train his lactate shuttling, tolerance and combustion. With a high-torque workout at low cadence, the goal is to recruit and activate more fast-twitch fibres.
Day 2: Short day
Session: 3 hours 30 minutes with short intervals of 20 seconds.
Intervals: 3 x 6 as 20 seconds with 1:40 rest. This session can be done on the treadmill or outside, depending on the route. The 20-second intervals are aimed at increasing Martin’s glycolytic power, the amount of power he can produce through carbohydrate breakdown or lactate production. This is Martin’s weakest link if compared to other Classics riders, who have a higher glycolytic power.
Day 3: Long day
Session: 6 to 7 hours with climbing and seated/standing changes at medium power in the “FatMax zone”, the power output at which fat combustion is maximum.
This workout targets the particular power output that optimises the use of fat as fuel and reduces the consumption of carbohydrates and the production of lactate. The session is finished with high cadence (120-130bpm) workouts on the flat.
Day 4: Rest
Session: 1 hour 30 minutes easy spin.
After that, the same four-day block repeats (with last-minute changes due to the weather, if required). In these blocks Martin also does two to three gym sessions planned by the team’s trainer: mostly three in the winter, two in the spring.
What does it take to be Tony Martin?
In order to perform at a high level in both time trials (where you need to be focused and ride to a consistent tempo) and the Spring Classics (where an instinctive component is also required), a rider needs a complex and complete psychological profile. But what about their physiology? What does it take, from a physiological point of view, to be Tony Martin?
“He’s got a very good endurance and a pretty big VO2max, combined with a good anaerobic threshold; especially when you look at the watts-per-square-meters and not per kg”, says Weber.
In time-trialling it is more common to calculate a rider’s power output in watts-per-square-meter of frontal area than power output per kg. This measure gives a better idea of power output in relation to aerodynamics. The bigger a rider’s frontal area the worse their drag coefficient and the less aerodynamic they will be.
“He also has a super high capacity to recover from lactate accumulation and he has a medium-to-low glycolytic capacity,” continues Weber. “With a mid-to-high body weight, his absolute numbers are pretty good. Plus he’s very resilient and can take in a lot of training load. His performance is not changing vastly during the season. He’s pretty stable.”
Perhaps more importantly, Martin’s power output hasn’t declined over the years.
“I don’t see his power number decreasing, but his resistance [the size of gear Martin rides – ed.] has increased while [that] of other riders went down.
“If you go back to his history when he was working as a lead-out train his glycolytic capacity was higher, and that is natural that it is going down with the age. But his endurance went up – and you can see that when he rides for hours in the front or he attacks.”
Can Martin win Paris-Roubaix?
“The key limiting factor for him to succeed in Roubaix,” Weber says, “will be his ability to put out a high power output on the cobbles and in short amounts of time: one, two and three minutes.”
However, as the cobble sections can last up to six minutes (and even more), the problem is magnified. Martin would in fact need a higher output both when they arrive on the cobbles and fight for position, but also later, when he tries to ride away from the best. As Weber says, the last thing they want is Martin to get “to the velodrome with a guy like Peter Sagan or Alexander Kristoff.”
And that is exactly the point of those 20-second intervals in training: improving Martin’s glycolytic power and making sure he’s be able to “crank out” a higher power for shorter amounts of time and break away from the pack.
About the author
Nicola “Nick” Busca is a freelance journalist based in London, focusing on sports (particularly cycling, triathlons and skiing), travel and foreign affairs. His stories have appeared in The Guardian, BBC Travel and BBC Capital, among other publications. Previously a staff tech writer for the Cycling Weekly, he wrote for the online and the print version of the magazine as well as for their sister monthly magazine Cycling Active before it was shut.
As a freelancer, he has also contributed to Bike Radar, UK triathlon magazine 220 Triathlon, Australia’s Triathlon and Multi Sport Magazine, and Italy’s Triathlete.