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Three Top Build Season Workouts for Cyclists

Cyclist climbing a hill working FTP efforts

Spring is near and around this time of year cyclists are finishing up with base season workouts and starting the build phase of training. For some cyclists who have been trapped indoors through the winter months, this time of year is also accompanied by an increase in volume too. The build phase of training is a time to get a touch more specific towards your race goals. If you’re an ultra-endurance mountain bike racer, this is the time to ride off road more while working efforts, or if focused on road events, seek out roads and climbs that will help you prepare for your peak event. It’s also the time of year to introduce more intensity, such as working above and below FTP power zones, adding in more threshold efforts, while also maintaining sweet spot efforts to build more power aerobically. While there are endless ways to construct a workout, these workouts are good examples of the energy systems you should be focused on through the early build phases of training.

Above and Below FTP, zone 3-4 efforts

Functional threshold power, which is either a calculation or a tested best one hour power average, is essentially a sub threshold effort. Threshold efforts in cycling are commonly related to your 10-to-20-minute power and heart rate, depending on the athlete. The shorter the duration, the harder you can go. Therefore, maintaining a hard pace for over an hour will force you to go slightly easier compared to a 20-minute time trial effort. When working easier than FTP and let’s say 20-30 watts easier, 10 heart rate beats, you’re exercising more aerobically. This range is typically called the sweet spot range, and a pace you can sustain for many hours and be able to speak freely while riding here. This is typically between zone 2-3 for most.

When training within your functional threshold power range, you stress type 2 A-X muscle fibers, leading to increased FTP power (Read about muscle fibers here in my article on Training Peaks). These fibers are your powerhouse for cycling. These fibers are unique because they contain both aerobic and anaerobic properties, meaning they can help both on the aerobic side of things, let’s say when you’re pedaling in a 6-hour race, and on the anaerobic side of things, like an all out 6 second sprint to the finish line. In the early build season, it’s important to focus on the aerobic side of things and continue to build cycling power aerobically. Building a bigger aerobic engine, builds sustained power over long durations. The longer the event, especially for off-road cycling events, the more of this power you need. As the build season unfolds, more and more threshold and anaerobically focused efforts can be added, leading to a bigger engine at threshold and peak form.

To keep the workout aerobically focused, a mix of efforts under your FTP range is needed. FTP is typically associated with somewhere in zone 4 heart rate and power ranges. So, a lesser intensity would be a zone 3 effort. Working between a 5–10-minute zone 4/FTP effort, then backing off to only zone 3 for 5-10 minutes, while repeating this throughout the day will tax you aerobically. The more power you build within these ranges, the more potential threshold power you can produce mid-season or for your peak event.

Example workout – Above and below FTP, zone 3,4 efforts

FTP workout for a cyclist

Threshold efforts early, long zone 3 efforts late ride

While training in the early build season, some threshold work to start to prime that engine is needed. Threshold work now is needed to prepare for more threshold efforts closer to your events. Threshold can be defined as 5-15% above your FTP power and close to or at your true threshold heart rate. Threshold power and heart rate also relate to upper zone 4, zone 5 efforts. Elite professionals need to keep some threshold work nearly all year to maintain these systems, while an age group athlete that logs far less volume, may need less. Efforts of 5–20-minutes, including repeats are good to focus on this time of year and to keep things focused on aerobic power gains, ending the workout with zone 3 efforts will do just that. This not only keeps the intensity in check this time of year, it helps you build more power aerobically while priming the engine at threshold. The more power you work with, the more muscle fibers you engage. This is another benefit of adding threshold work to early build phases, as it brings more muscle into the mix for additional adaptations

Example workout – Threshold early, long zone 3 efforts late

Threshold and zone 3 workout for a cyclist

Long zone 2, upper zone 3 efforts with high cadence

Zone 2 and 3 efforts are a sweet spot for building aerobic adaptations, such as increased mitochondrial density, utilizing more fat as fuel, and capillary density, while also focusing on type 1 muscle fiber adaptation. Type 1 muscle fibers are your backbone when it comes to aerobic energy. At the very end of a super long ride, it’s the strength in your type 1 fibers that are carrying you to the line. During the base phases of training, the focus is mainly on type 1 fiber adaptation, but carrying this focus into the initial build phases helps extend the focus on building aerobic power. The longer your events are, the longer you can carry these efforts into the season as the aerobic adaptations here are important. A good tip is to use both heart rate and power for these efforts, maintaining proper heart rate ranges while spinning with as much power as you can. This keeps the effort aerobic, because your following heart rate, but pushes power to maximize gains.

Example workout – Long zone 2, upper zone 3 efforts with high cadence

Zone 3 workout for cycling

The workouts above are a good example of how to construct early build season training rides. You could add, subtract, extend efforts, toss some sprints in and more to dial it into your needs and ability. There are also endless ways to build a workout. What’s most important is the energy systems you target and how you’re pedaling through these efforts. Mashing at 50-60 reps per minute to achieve power will provide a great workout but it’s not how you would pedal through an 8 plus hour, 100-mile gravel race. At times mashing can be good for training but most times working with a smooth and fast cadence will prepare you the best. As you work through the build phases with more intensity and more specificity, such as on the bike you will race, you will build to the point where you are as prepared and strong as you can be.

Mike Schultz, CSCS

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