A successful spring/summer racing season hinges mainly on one thing: the type of work you put in right now to prepare for it.
Did you catch that? I said the type of work you put in — not how much work you put in. For most cyclists, the brisk air coupled with shorter days are two signs it’s time to buckle down on long-duration, high-volume base training. But to a handful of other cyclists and triathletes, winter means an entirely different type of training.
To discover the type of training that’s right for you this winter, follow along as I tackle some of the most commonly asked winter training questions. Everything you need to know to have your best winter training season yet — it’s all covered here. Let’s dive in.
This guide was written with order in mind, but if you want to jump around feel free to do so by clicking on the hyperlinked questions below.
- How do I set smart winter training goals?
- Should I focus on base training this winter?
- How are most cyclists doing base training wrong?
- How do I create a winter training plan that’s right for me?
- What approach to base training should I take?
- How do I mentally prepare myself for a successful race season?
- How do I optimize my indoor training environment?
- What should I wear — and not wear — when training indoors?
- How do I identify which workouts I should do outside?
- What should I wear when training outdoors during winter?
- How do I stay motivated to train indoors?
1. How do I set smart winter training goals?
Setting goals is a big part of racing and cycling in general. How much thought and strategy you put into the goal-setting process can forecast how your race season will turn out. That might sound bold, but there’s some science behind that statement. In a study done by the Dominican University on goals research, they found that people are a whopping 33 percent more likely to complete their goals if they write them down, create an action plan and share them with a friend.
Now that you know the science supporting setting goals, let’s talk about the art of it. There are three key characteristics of a well-thought-out cycling goal: measurable, specific and attainable. To make cycling goals that have each of those qualities, follow these steps:
Step #1: Consult Your Training Log
To set measurable goals, it’s best to know where you’re coming from. That said, take the time to revisit your training log to look at your last year’s performance before you start your winter training. Be honest with yourself. Analyze the aspects where you were weak or how you came up short. This first step will vary depending on if you train with power or not.
If I don’t train with power, how do I analyze my past performance?
If you don’t train with power, make note of the perceived exertion and shortcomings of your past performances. Did you get dropped on all the climbs? Could you not hang on the flats? Was your sprint weak? The goal is to study the outcomes of your past races in their entirety. Referencing times and finish placings of your past events is included in that.
If I train with power, how do I analyze my past performance?
If you train with power, this step is more clearcut. It’s all about your functional threshold power (FTP). Look at your power files from your races and focus on what your power output was like during key moments in the race. When you went for the winning attack did you stick with them or get dropped? By looking at all of these key moments in your season, you’ll get a feel for weaknesses in your performance.
Step #2: Pick a Goal Event
With the weaknesses you identified and your last year’s performance in mind, decide on your goal event for the new year. Once you know that, pick all your supplementary events — the events that will help you prepare for your goal event. The key when selecting supplementary events is to look for opportunities to build a specific type of fitness, or maybe even your confidence. The closer you are to your goal event, the more closely your supplementary events should replicate its demands.
Step #3: Create a Realistic Winter Training Plan
I’ll dive into the core components of creating a winter training plan later in this guide, but the point I want to make now is this: you can’t force more training hours. Your schedule is your schedule. The best you can do is be realistic about the number of hours you can commit to training and how much training your body can recover from, then make a solid game plan with that information in mind. You can also do yourself a huge favor and plan ahead. Many cycling and triathlon events require seven months of training to get ready for them.
Setting measurable, specific and attainable cycling goals is a multi-step process. If taken seriously, the effort is extremely worthwhile.
If you’re not keeping a training log already, start one. This task is especially important if you’re not training with power because you don’t have downloads or files you can analyze. Along with your training and race notes, write your goals down in your training log to make them stick.
2. Should I focus on base training this winter?
In the cycling world, winter training and base training often go hand in hand. But the truth is, the two are not synonymous. Although it’s commonly done in late fall and early winter, base training is not tied to a specific time of year — it’s tied to your goal event.
Often during this time of year you’ll see cyclists go out for a group ride. One rider might decide to go really hard and blast away from the group. When this happens, the rest of the group will get frustrated and make remarks like, “Hey, we’re base training. You shouldn’t be doing that kind of stuff yet.”
A blanket statement like that isn’t appropriate unless you know the training schedule of every cyclist you ride with. Why? Who’s to say the rider who broke away from the group hasn’t already completed their base training? Maybe they’re only a few weeks away from an A race so they’re ramping things up.
Just because it’s winter doesn’t mean every rider is — or needs to be — base training. Your winter training should be dependent on the demands of your goal event.
To determine the type of training you should be doing this winter, look ahead to your goal event. Then, lay your season out into three key phases. The first and longest of your three phases should focus on building a solid foundation of fitness. The second phase should concentrate on building your fitness and functional threshold power (FTP). Your third and final phase should help you specialize and fine-tune your fitness.
3. How are most cyclists doing their base training wrong?
It’s traditional thinking that during winter when you’re doing base training you should be doing as long of rides as you can and at a very low intensity. This is the correct intention if you have enough time to bring about the type of adaptations you want. But here’s the catch. The majority of cyclists are time crunched and they can’t do as long of rides as they wish. That’s the big issue.
What often ends up happening during base conditioning is a cyclist will get in the habit of riding very easily and at a low intensity. But, to their detriment, they actually don’t have enough time to get the type of gains they’re chasing. To earn gains, you have to provide a stimulus that outpaces what your body can do right now.
When a cyclist rides easy for an hour or two, which they’re likely already capable of doing, they’re not creating a stimulus for change. However, when they ride for 4 or 5 hours at a relatively easy pace, that usually exceeds what they’re used to. If they don’t have those long durations to ride on a regular basis, they have to exceed their capabilities with intensity or, again, they’re not achieving a stimulus that later brings with it a change.
If you want to see gains from riding at a low intensity you have to ride a lot. This kind of volume requires a cyclist to dedicate around 12-20 hours a week to training. If you don’t have that kind of time, which most cyclists don’t, then it’s best to commit to another base-conditioning approach (I’ll discuss this more below).
Many cyclists are doing their base training at low intensity with good intention. The trouble is, they often don’t have the circumstances in their life that allow them to ride as many hours as they need to achieve real fitness gains.
Figure out how many hours you can realistically dedicate to training this winter, keeping how much stress your body can take in mind. Once you have your number, you can confidently decide the approach to base training you should take.
4. How do I create a winter training plan that’s right for me?
Your training plan should be created based off the demands of your goal event, also known as an A-priority race. After you’ve determined what and when your goal event is, the next step is to pick all the B- and C-priority races you’ll do between now and then to help you prepare for your A race.
Each type of priority race has a specific purpose and should fit strategically into your overall training plan. Here’s how to categorize your future races, which is the first step in laying out a successful upcoming race season:
These are high priority, key events that should inspire all your training. The performance outcomes of your A races will likely serve as a measure of your entire season’s success. You’ll likely only have one or two of these races in a season. As you get deeper into your training, you should taper your training for these events.
C Races (aka training races)
These races are focused more on targeting a specific aspect of your fitness or performance than they are on winning. For example, maybe you want to practice holding 90% of your race pace during a C-priority time trial or triathlon. Or, maybe you want to take a few flyers during a criterium or attack some climbs during a road race. These are all situations where your results aren’t your highest priority — your training is. You shouldn’t be afraid to “fail” during events of this priority. With C races, there’s no tapering or extra rest you need to work into your training schedule to prepare for them.
These races fall somewhere in between and serve your training on a few levels. One, they’ll show you if your training is moving you toward your goals at the right rate. Two, they can familiarize you with the exact types of demands you’ll face during your highest priority events. And three, they can give you an idea of how you’ll perform when you’re not particularly fresh or optimally fit. You won’t taper for these races in the same way you will for an A race, if you taper at all.
When you step from your C to B to A races, they should get increasingly more specific to your goal event. Keep this in mind as you go into your next step of training planning, which is laying out your season into three key phases.
In my Train Smart, Get Fast email series, I explain in-depth why breaking your season up into different phases is the most effective way to accomplish your cycling goals. But, for this guide I’ll keep things to the point. The goal for any type of productive training should be to establish a solid foundation of fitness, build upon that fitness, then fine-tune your fitness. At TrainerRoad, all 80+ training plans are structured with these three phases. We call them the Base, Build and Speciality Phases.
Of the three key training phases, the Base Phase is the longest. In most cases, you want to dedicate 12 weeks to base training. If you don’t have 12 weeks, eight weeks is a safe minimum. Anything less than eight weeks is not sufficient because it’s difficult to cultivate a solid base of fitness in under two months. As for your Build and Speciality Phases, it’s ideal to dedicate eight weeks of training to each phase.
Your training should get more specific as your races do. When creating your cycling training plan, you should prioritize your races then work them into three incrementally progressive phases to help prepare for your goal event.
Make a list of your race dates, then categorize them into three buckets: your A, B and C races. Next, break your season up into three progressive and increasingly more specialized phases. Lastly, account for timing. Your B and C races leading up to your A race(s) should be properly spaced throughout 24-28 weeks of total training for your race season.
5. What approach to base training should I take?
Variables like your cycling experience level, schedule and type of event you’re training for determine the approach you should take to base training. Take a look at these three rider-type scenarios to help you decide which approach works best for you:
Availability: Minimal time to train (6 hours/week on the bike)
Recommended base plan: Low-Volume Full Distance Triathlon Base plan
Rider A has a family and full-time job. Every hour this athlete has available to train s/he has to make the most of it. While travel time for swimming can lift weekly training time, a full-distance “finisher” — someone who’s not necessarily looking to set PR’s or reach the podium — can do so on as little as 12 hours/week, with 5-6 hours dedicated to the bike.
If you see yourself as Rider A, a moderately experienced triathlete who’s time crunched with less than 8 hours/week to train on the bike, TrainerRoad’s Low-Volume Full Distance Triathlon Base plan is likely your best option. These plans favor building a higher FTP instead of only logging long hours of low-end endurance. Follow your Base plan with TrainerRoad’s Low-Volume Build and Full-Distance Specialty plans and you’ll be on the right path to a successful race-day performance.
Availability: A lot of free time to train (13 hours/week)
Recommended base plan: Sweet Spot Base
Rider B has no real limits on the amount of time s/he can dedicate to training. While this situation is ideal, it often leads athletes into the “more is more” training philosophy. In turn, the chances of injury, illness and/or exhaustion increase.
Many new and less-experienced cyclists fail to recognize that the body responds most favorably to gradual, progressive amounts of stress. Sudden heaps of high-level intensity, lots of time in the saddle, or a combination of the two can over challenge these newcomers. At the same time, the challenge to their current ability has to be substantial enough to make an impact on their performance capabilities.
If you see yourself as Rider B, a beginner cyclist with upwards of 13 hours/week to train, consider starting on one of TrainerRoad’s Sweet Spot Base plans. With three to six interval workouts of week, these plans strike an important balance between doing too much and not doing enough. You’ll be pushed just hard enough to realize recognizable, safely acquired increases in fitness and technique. For a new cyclist, an additional increase in workload beyond what Sweet Spot Base plans outline is often unnecessary, counterproductive and can derail long-term improvement.
Experience: Seasoned rider
Availability: Moderate amount of time to train (8-10 hours/week)
Recommended base plan: Traditional Base or Sweet Spot Base. But across the board, Sweet Spot Base is recommended more often.
Rider C is a reasonably experienced athlete with around 8-10 hours/week to train. This type of rider can benefit from doing either the Traditional Base or Sweet Spot Base. To decide, it’s mostly a question of duration over intensity. Consider the pros and cons of each approach:
Traditional Base applies high doses of low intensity to help Grand Tour athletes or those recovering from an injury who want to avoid high-intensity intervals. This approach can be useful to these types of serious riders — but only if you have a lot of time.
Traditional Base requires the sort of rider who can tolerate long, mind-numbing hours of steadily turning the pedals in pursuit of slowly earned, incremental aerobic fitness gains. It’s no surprise a mindset that accepts monotonous workouts and training doldrums well is required.
The type of gains you can achieve through Traditional Base are useful to a limited number of athletes, such as Grand Tour riders and RAAM participants. These types of riders know that with this approach to training gains come slowly — if they come at all — since they depend on devoting a lot of time to riding easily.
Many long, slow and steady training adaptations use a blend of mildly and substantially higher intensity. Enter Sweet Spot Base and its mix of strength-endurance and max-aerobic training.
Pros of Sweet Spot Base
In contrast to Traditional Base, Sweet Spot Base is more all-inclusive and can get you more evenly fit for events in relatively less time. The workouts are substantially more varied, interesting, challenging in numerous ways and are comparatively entertaining. Just two or three of these workouts each week can bring measurable, inspiring fitness gains for all types of riders with varied training time limitations.
Higher-volume riders who are able to train more frequently (4-6 times per week), can add in just enough of the long, slow, traditional riding to further their gains a little, or to simply spend more time riding for weight loss or maintenance.
Cons of Sweet Spot Base
Opposite of Traditional Base workouts, Sweet Spot Base workouts require focus, concentration and often enough, a willingness to endure more intense — but shorter — durations of riding discomfort.
If you commit to Sweet Spot or Traditional Base, you will have desirable training outcomes. However, we recommend Sweet Spot Base for 99% of cyclists.
Traditional Base assumes you have almost unlimited time to ride at a slow pace. Whereas Sweet Spot Base assumes you have a limited schedule like most non-professional cyclists, which allows you to compensate for the lack of duration with an increase in intensity. That being said, time is not the only factor when deciding on your base training plan. You must also consider your experience, the type of rider you are and the cycling event you’re preparing for.
First, look at your winter schedule and decide on a realistic number of training hours you can commit to each week. Next, evaluate your most important events for the year and ask whether or not you’d like to get fit quicker for your lower-priority events. Finally, take into account your training history/experience, tolerance for patience and overall interest in working out. Once you’ve considered all these things, you’ll be positioned to make a decision on the direction to take with your base training.
6. How do I mentally prepare myself for a successful race season?
A strong, focused, and most importantly, goal-oriented mindset is one aspect of training that can help cyclists achieve consistency and success. If you’re like the majority of other cyclists base training this winter, your mindset should be concentrated on one thing: patience.
It can be tough to put in hours of hard work without the reward of competition. Remember, this is your time to progress and build a foundation for a new level of fitness you’ve never achieved before.
Building your aerobic endurance, speed and technique all takes time. The important thing is that you use this time to really focus in on those fundamentals. Make your efforts really count because once the race season is here, you’ve got the fitness you’ve got.
Base work is not exciting, glamorous or sexy — but it’s a requisite to a successful season.
If you ever experience a lack of motivation during base training, revisit your cycling goals and the plan you have for achieving them. This exercise will remind you that if you’re following your plan, success is inevitable.
7. How do I optimize my indoor-training environment?
Indoor trainers are a great substitute for inclement winter weather, but more importantly, they’re the best way to get into a structured workout. To have long-term success with training indoors, the right tools and setup is imperative. There are two words that should describe your indoor-training environment: comfortable and accessible. The important thing is that it can’t be, or feel like, a ton of work to get on the bike. You must eliminate as many obstacles as possible. Is your indoor training setup crowded, noisy, too bright, too cold, or too warm? These are all things you should address.
Of all the aspects of your indoor training setup, cooling is probably the single biggest issue because you’re not moving. Especially as you get into higher intensity workouts, it can be hugely limiting. This is one reason cyclists might think they have an indoor FTP and an outdoor FTP. But really, it just boils down to focus and cooling. The vast majority of cooling comes from evaporative cooling rather than room temperature, so a good fan is essential. Place one at the base of your bike and aim it at your body, or put it front in center on its high setting and you’ll be good to go.
How do I adjust my indoor-training setup the closer I get to my goal event?
Eventually, you’re going to want to make sure your indoor-training environment is setup so it’s not as foreign to your goal event’s racing environment. When you’re in the Base and Build phases of your training you don’t need to go to great lengths to replicate your outdoor racing environment. You will be too far out for any adaptations you incur to stick around throughout the rest of your training.
The Speciality Phase is when you can to start making adjustments to your indoor-training environment. For example, if you know that you’re going to be racing in Hawaii, invest in a humidifier to make your indoor-training space more humid.
Eliminate everything in your indoor-training environment that might deter you from getting on the bike to do something that’s potentially unpleasant.
If you can, have a dedicated bike for your indoor training. This will help reduce the number of obstacles you face when preparing for a workout. Even if it’s an old bike, it works. The only critical variable is that your dedicated indoor-training bike fits identical to the bike your ride outdoors. Note: this tip is purely for motivation. It’s not to save your bike.
8. What should I wear — and not wear — when training indoors?
What you should wear when training indoors really comes back to cooling. You should be wearing as little as possible. And of the items you do wear, they should be your best, most comfortable pieces.
It’s very common for cyclists to leave their old cycling kit (worn-out jerseys and bibs) for the trainer. In reality, this couldn’t be further from the best practice. When you’re outdoors, mostly because you’re in and out of the saddle and moving more, it’s a little more forgiving if you have an old chamois. But indoors, because you’re sitting in the same position for your entire workout, it’s best to wear the good stuff. You don’t want to set yourself up to get a saddlesore, rawness or something worse.
There’s also something to be said for looking good. You can gain a little motivation from putting on that fancy race kit. If you look better, you feel better and you might even work a little harder.
Wear your best, most comfortable gear when training indoors. After a long-duration workout on your trainer, your body will be glad you did.
Separate, or get rid of, old cycling kits so you’re less likely to make the mistake of grabbing it before an indoor workout.
You won’t need to worry about this in base training, but for the sake of looking ahead keep one thing in mind. As you near your race day, consider wearing your aero helmet or wearing a skinsuit on the trainer once or twice. The controlled environment of the trainer is a great opportunity to work through details just before your goal event.
9. How do I identify which workouts I should do outside?
When performing your workouts outside during winter, be strategic. If the workout is specific and intense, take those two qualities as a sign that your workout is best done inside. The opposite side of that is quantity. When you’re just logging miles, looking for a heart-rate parameter or a pretty wide, but low-wattage range, go outside when weather permits.
If you’re following a properly structured training plan, your weeks should follow a consistent pattern. Weekdays you should have your shorter, more intense, structure-workouts. Then on the weekends, you should have longer rides that have little fluctuation and specificity. When these types of workouts are prescribed, consider them an opportunity to do your workout outdoors.
If a workout looks really specific with a lot of different intervals and rest periods, you’re better off doing it indoors. This will help you focus on the quality of your workout.
Look at your workouts the day before you’re scheduled to do them. Doing this will allow you to plan ahead with your training. That alone has its own added benefits.
10. What’s the best gear to wear when training outdoors during winter?
There are many cyclists who tend to think they need that really expensive jacket or they need a full set of bib tights. But, in almost every single situation where you’d really need a massive jacket and bib tights, it’s a sure sign that you would probably get more benefit from training indoors.
If the cold weather isn’t too taxing and you want to take a workout outside, layers are your best friend. Leg warmers, arm warmers and a good vest are the best for managing the cold. Also, consider getting a thin scarf to bunch around your neck and shoe covers. With shoe covers, look for a pair that provides insulation and shields your feet from the elements. In my opinion, the thin latex shoe covers that slip over the feet are the best as they don’t absorb moisture.
For the riders who insist on training in shorts, knee warmers are a must if it’s below 45 degrees. There’s one major reason for this. There’s not a whole lot of circulation that takes place in the joint capsule. This is the opposite with muscles where there’s plenty of blood flow and heat. But in the joints, where circulation isn’t great and lubrication is necessary, protection is key. Otherwise, your joints will suffer in the cold.
If you step outside the door and you’re already warm, you’re overdressed. You should be a little cold starting your ride. If you step outside with a large jacket on and you’re freezing, you should probably opt to do your workout indoors.
Make time for more gradual warm ups. It doesn’t matter how warmly you dress, when you train outdoors and it’s cold you don’t want to dive right into training. Your whole asthmatic response will become totally exacerbated.
11. How do I stay motivated to train indoors?
I’ve already covered several tips on how to stay motivated to train indoors — including how to set actionable cycling goals, create a comfortable indoor training environment, reduce obstacles in your training journey and what to wear to feel good when training indoors. There’s just one more training component I haven’t addressed yet: workout structure.
Indoor training has long been typecast as boring. The natural conclusion is that we need to make it feel like we’re riding outside to be entertained. Many cyclists like to use forms of entertainment to keep their minds occupied, but the real secret to achieving workouts that seem to fly by is having benchmarks you have to hit.
When you give yourself a specific goal during each workout and interval — and actively measure your performance in relation to that goal — you create an engaging indoor-training experience. That’s how you make your indoor workouts more enjoyable and motivating. At TrainerRoad, we get this. In fact, it’s one of the main reasons all of our 800+ structured workouts include objectives and key milestones based on the broader cycling goals you set.
If you want the time on the trainer to pass quickly, set goals for your workouts and create plans for achieving those goals.
Before each workout write down exactly what you want to accomplish during it. Every workout, even if it’s a recovery workout, should have an interval structure with prescribed interval intensities and durations. If you’re not sure how to structure your workout with the appropriate type of intervals, use a training tool like TrainerRoad. We handle all those workout details for you, as well as track your performance in real time.
Ask a Cycling Coach Your Winter Training Questions
If you had questions as you read through this winter training guide, I want to give you the opportunity to get them answered by me. Every week I record a cycling podcast called Ask a Cycling Coach with other certified cycling coaches here at TrainerRoad. The podcast is dedicated to answering questions from cyclists to help them become faster.
For a chance to get your winter training questioned by a certified cycling coach, submit your question here.
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