Structured & Semi Structured Training for Cyclists
The winter season for many cyclists means time spent on the indoor trainer, using visual apps like Zwift with structured workouts from online sources such as Trainer Road or a cycling coach. Structured workouts are great, they bring purpose to the indoor trainer, and they keep you focused on reaching your training zones. Indoors while cycling on the trainer, it’s easier to focus on specific training zones for specific amounts of time. Indoors provides an uninterrupted place to ride, making it the best place to use structured workouts. Cycling outside provides more of a challenge when using structured workouts depending on terrain and weather. Fortunately, there is a benefit to both structured and semi structured workouts depending on where you are riding and your goals.
The Pros and Cons of Structured Workouts
Structured training using power is a quick and easy way to follow a workout, target certain energy systems, muscle fibers and more. The picture below is an example of a simple structured workout that uses power as the guide to intensity.
While power training is great, heart rate feedback should still be used to provide additional information on whether you’re feeling great for the day or dealing with some aerobic fatigue. You can read here my article on using heart rate as a guide to fatigue.
A benefit of these types of workouts is that they get you into the zone right away and in a precise way. When targeting power, you can either pedal into the zone and follow the workout or you can’t, with the latter representing a form of fatigue. A productive workout happens when you can reach the power zones and have proper related perceived exertion and heart rate levels. One of the biggest benefits of these workouts, when all systems are working and your able to hit the power ranges, is the ability to target a specific energy system and related muscle fiber adaptation for a specific duration.
A targeted system for training is great but not all the time. Power, while a great metric, can be a limiter. There are going to be times on a ride when you can work more power than what’s prescribed while still maintaining the proper related perceived effort and heart rate ranges. In this case its best to work the higher power to get more out of the effort. Essentially sticking too close to the structured workout, when feeling good, can limit your gains. On the flip side, working too hard to achieve the power levels while all else is off, such as high perceived effort, sore legs, and non-responding heart rate can lead to over training. Another drawback of structured workouts is when trying to apply it outdoors. Its best to adjust workout goals according to your terrain, to get the most out of your ride and workout. Adhering to a structured workout outdoors can have you going hard on the downhills and easy on a climbs, where the opposite would have more benefit to your cycling goals.
Semi structured Training
When riding outdoors, generally, its OK to be somewhat unstructured and depending on where you are riding, it may be necessary. Not everyone has access to continuous stretches of road or dirt, with slight increases in elevation allowing you to nail a specific workout structure. Instead, many riders will deal with traffic laws, short climbs, technical off-road terrain or even worse, sand! All these things will cut your effort short, make you work harder than you plan at times and at times easier than planned. Therefore, its best to get a goal in mind for the workout, such as a few short zone 6 power sprints into an FTP effort, or to work high muscle tension force efforts on the climbs. Put the goals in mind, pick a fun route to work it on and work it as best as you can given the terrain. There may be a section for one longer ideal effort, while then the rest of the day is made up of shorter efforts. If you are working towards the goal of the workout, working hard to hit certain heart rate and power ranges on the flats and climbs, you will make gains from it.
Indoor Structured workout VS an Outdoor semi structured workout –
Completed Indoor Structured workout
Completed semi unstructured workout
Training on the bike most times is never perfect but it’s OK to have goals and workouts that are. This gives you something to work towards, whether outside or inside, and that goal keeps you focused. The Human body is complex and training adaptations are complex, with many systems overlapping. So, even with a targeted approach, training adaptations can still vary some. Regardless, the goal always is to get the most out of your training day, work focused, listen to your body to know when to back off and have fun. If you are consistent at doing that you will be successful at the cycling training game in the long run.
Mike Schultz, CSCS