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Everyone says they’re aiming for the next level. The next level? What does that mean? More endurance? Faster sprints? Higher functional threshold power (FTP)? More matches in your matchbox? More of everything?
Naturally we all want more of everything. Is it possible to improve everything at the same time? Or should we focus on one area at at time until finally we have more of everything?
Reaching the next level means improving every aspect of fitness, but it’s our threshold power that holds us back. If George Hincapie could suddenly crank out 450 watts at FTP instead of his normal 420, I’d say he’s reached the next level. Does this mean his sprint has also improved, or his ability to go hard on short, steep hills? Probably not, but now that his FTP has increased so much, he might never have to do another sprint because he’s winning solo off the front.
Such was the case with a masters athlete I coached a couple years ago. He’d improved his sprint and VO2 max power and was more competitive in his masters category, but he still wasn’t dominating wins and was occasionally still pipped at the line. The solution? Move to the next level. I asked him to focus only on improving his FTP without worrying about any other specific area of fitness. He increased his training by 15-20% and rode more sub-threshold and threshold intervals than he’d ever wanted. He kept this up for three months, and it paid off; his FTP increased more than thirty watts that season. He no longer needed to contend in sprint finishes or worry about short hills. He simply rode away from everyone else.
Click through for key steps that’ll bump you to the next level….
The average speed of a Category 4 race is determined by the collective average threshold power of the riders in the peloton, which is a lower power-to-weight ratio than Category 3 riders. If you want to ride in the Category 3 peloton and you are a Category 4 now, you need to increase your threshold power to at least the median of all the racers in the Category 3 pack. (Not sure what is your FTP is? In general terms it’s the max wattage you can maintain through an hour’s effort.)
Here’s how to do it:
- Increase your overall training stress by 15-20%. Many of us have such full schedules that it’s impossible to ride longer than two hours a day, but if you really want to reach the next level, figure out how to squeeze it in. You need two big rides (preferably three) each month, at least 5-6 hours long, that force you to dig deep near the end, so that when you get home you’re tired and your muscles are quivering (not cramping) from the fatigue. This is the number one thing you can do to improve. Whether you’re a pro or a recreational cyclist, you have to increase the miles, hours, and overall volume of training stress to challenge your cardiovascular and muscular system enough to create positive adaptations for the future.
- Do longer intervals at or near your FTP, at least 40-60 minutes of work from 91-105% FTP three days a week. After three weeks of riding at this level, increase the time spent at or near your FTP to 60-90 minutes, with one session a week of almost 90 minutes at FTP. Start with 3 x 10 minutes at 105% FTP and build up so that you’re doing 3 x 30 minutes at 100% FTP, with lots of little steps in between. If you get too tired from riding right at FTP, lower the power to “sweet spot” wattage (88-93% FTP) and continue from that level. You’ll still get plenty of training stress, and as long as you can maintain at least 88% or so, you should be training intensely enough to see improvements in your threshold.
- Give yourself a rest day between each training day. The beauty of the power meter is that it gives you a wattage goal to maintain in each interval, but it also tells you when you can’t do the work, and that is equally important. If you head out on a threshold workout and can’t hit your wattage goals, give yourself some rest (endurance pace) and try again in twenty minutes. If you still can’t hit the goals, it’s time to go home and rest up for another try tomorrow.
- Focus on quality over quantity. If you can’t produce the wattages at your threshold power, you’re not straining your systems enough to improve. For example, you could do 4 x 10 minutes at threshold power with 10-minute rests between each and still get in a total of 40 minutes at threshold, which is better than doing 2 x 20 and finding in the second interval that you can eek out only 85% FTP. If you start to fatigue, shorten the interval length (no shorter than 10 minutes) in order to still hit the wattage goals. As you get stronger, you’ll be able to do more intervals and lengthen the total amount of work done at threshold.
It’s always the last hill repeat, the last interval, the last week of your build cycle that really makes the difference. Dig deep. If you start too hard, you won’t be able to maintain your threshold pace for the entire effort. If you start too easy, you’ll cheat yourself out of precious training strain. I recommend that you start out quickly (without sprinting) to get up to speed, then immediately settle into your threshold pace. Hold this pace until the last minute of the effort and then increase your pace by 10-20% and push hard to the end. This gives you a double peak shape in your power file (peaks of wattage at the beginning and end).
Reaching the next level isn’t as simple as doing some random intervals, riding fifty more miles each week, or focusing on one specific energy system. It’s the combination of all of these things in a rational, progressive manner that allows you to overload your lactate threshold system, and when you rest, your system improves to produce a higher threshold power.
It will take at least three months before you see significant gains. There’ll be days when you’re tired, and there’ll be days when you doubt the training is working or even worth it. Have faith and push through. The next level awaits.
Hunter Allen is a USA Cycling Level 1 coach and former professional cyclist. He is the coauthor of Training and Racing with a Power Meter, codeveloper of TrainingPeaks’ WKO software, and CEO and founder of Peaks Coaching Group. He and his coaches create custom training plans for all levels of athletes. Hunter can be contacted directly through www.PeaksCoachingGroup.com.