Racing: a few basics

Racing bikes is a very complex, chaotic activity, and for a lot of people getting into it, it’s hard to know what to do and how to do it in order to make the most of their fitness and to try to get the best results. I’ve raced for years, and all along the way I’ve continued to learn things about racing strategy and tactics, and could continue to do so for years to come. Even watching pro races in Europe, where people’s careers are in the balance, you’ll see people riding very smart races, taking risks and coming out with big wins, but you’ll also see people making blunders and losing races even with years of experience under their belt.

Here’s a rundown of things that I think are worth considering for people getting into racing or for people who don’t feel that they have a good handle on racing strategy and tactics. That’s not to say that everything I have here is necessarily right for every circumstance or right for you, but these are just some basic guidelines that I think are right for most people, most of the time. At the very least, this should be a good starting point for a lot of people who are starting out or have room to improve their basic skillset.

  • First and foremost, good racing requires good training. Training should be progressive, challenging, and specific. It should be hard enough that you’re fatigued after tough workouts, but manageable on a day-to-day and week-to-week basis so that your body can adapt to the training and get progressively stronger as you rack up more and more workouts. You can’t really do the same workouts at the same intensity week in and week out and expect to get better. Likewise, whatever kind of training you do is the kind of racing that you’ll be good at, so remember what racing you want to do well at, what your strengths are, and consider what you should be working on to maximize your chances of success at those goal events.
  • Before and during your races, consider the course, the conditions, and your competition. You could try to simplify and remember “the three C’s” or something like that. If you think about it, racing comes down almost entirely to these three things. The course determines when and where you’ll have to go hard to get up a climb, where the field will get strung out through a bunch of turns or a fast descent, where the wind may split the field, etc. The weather and other conditions can make a huge impact on a race. Heat, wind, rain, and other conditions can make a world of difference how a race is won or lost. And, of course, your competition’s strengths, strategies, and tactics will have a big impact on how the race unfolds. Ideally, before any race, it’s good if you can take a few minutes to think to yourself or talk with your teammates about the course profile, where the climbs are, what the weather will be like, whether it’s windy or not and if so where the wind will affect the race, and the competition. Be aware of when and where you need to be in position, where you need to be ready to go hard to get through a crosswind section or over a climb, think about when to eat and drink or get water. Also think about who you’re racing and what you think they may do and how you think you should respond. You may not win a race by doing this, but you can often avoid pitfalls that will definitely lose you the race if you’re caught off-guard by a crosswind or drift back to eat right before a decisive climb.
  • Save energy for when it matters. Don’t be afraid to use up your energy when it does matter. The ability to tell the difference between what matters and what doesn’t is the hallmark of a good racer, but you can learn this skill if you just pay attention and reflect on race situations after they’ve happened. In general, whenever you can save energy, you should do it. A lot of people have the ability to sprint well at the end or get up the hill fast on the last lap of a race, but they don’t do it because they spent too much energy getting to the final sprint or the final hill. If you can save energy, you’ll be relatively fresher than your competition and have more of your sprint or hill-climbing power intact when it really matters at the end. As a corollary to that, never be afraid to act and use energy when it matters. If the field is going to split on a climb or through a few miles of crosswind, then you should position yourself and go as hard as you need to go to be in the frontmost group on the road that you can. Don’t hesitate and don’t waste energy doing half-hearted efforts. Do whatever you need to do to make it over the hill or through the crosswind. You may feel like you’re not going to be any good, but you never know how badly everyone else is feeling, and ultimately it doesn’t matter. You just need to do what you need to do to still be in contention for getting the best result that you or your team can achieve. If a split is happening and you don’t think the field will come together again, then it’s better to be blown and struggling momentarily in the front group than to be comfortable in the second group. The front group will likely slow down, or at the very least, you can hold on and try to recover and save energy while staying in the draft of the other riders in that split. If you get dropped, then so be it. If you’re in the second or third group, but you feel comfortable, then what good does it do you to be there, because you have no chance of winning or getting that top 5 or top 10 that maybe you were shooting for, because there’s 10 riders up the road in that front group.
  • Pedal less, brake less. Any time you’re pedaling, you’re using energy. Every time you’re braking, you’re giving up forward momentum. Don’t ride your bike without looking up the road. The more you can read the movements of the field and the course, the more you can save a few pedal strokes here and there and the more you can avoid using your brakes, all the while, you’ll be saving some small amounts of energy that will help you be slightly fresher towards the end of the race than your competition. Of course, sometimes you really need to be pedaling hard and sometimes you need to slam on your brakes, so be ready for that, and more than anything, try to be safe for your own sake and for the sake of everyone around you. Just don’t sprint after everything that moves or brake any time you see a turn up the road or someone slowing down in front of you. If someone attacks and you want to go with them, then maybe you should sprint to get on their wheel, or many times you can just wait for a moment or two and hop on the rider next to you who’s thinking the same thing. When they sprint, you can do just 2/3 the effort and get a draft and essentially a free ride up the road. Or, if someone’s slowing in front of you, look to see if there’s a safe way around them up the road. Sometimes it’s easy to move up if you just anticipate field movements as the road curves or goes uphill.
  • Play off of other people and use their energy to your advantage. Get a draft whenever you can. If you want to move up, look for someone else who’s putting in the effort and see if you can safely get on their wheel to draft your way up to where you want to be. If people are attacking and counter-attacking like crazy, and you know that the speed can’t be maintained, then just sit back and relax, follow wheels and save your energy by not accelerating any more than you need to. Do the least amount of work possible, but also watch and be ready for when people tire and maybe the break actually goes off the front, or watch for when that late race flyer will actually work because people are tired or inattentive.
  • Collectively as a team, use your energy efficiently to improve your chances to perform well as a team. Sometimes that means that some riders cover the early moves in a race, but are likely not going to factor into the late stages of the race. Or, it may be that some riders work to chase back a break, while others save themselves for a sprint or late race attack up the climb. Likewise, look at the other teams and pay attention to the race situation, so that you can take advantage of the energy that they may decide to or be forced to use. If another team has to chase down a break, or close a gap, or they’re riding the front because they have the best sprinter, then don’t waste your energy or the energy of your team when you don’t have to. Let other people do the work. Again, the aim is to do what you need to do, but save as much energy for later in the race as possible. Many races are won or lost because of how much energy people did or didn’t use in the middle of the race.
  • Try not to lose, instead of trying frantically, and wastefully to win. I definitely don’t mean that you should race negatively, and by all means, I love to race aggressively. But, when you’re racing, just think about things for a second. Ask yourself if what you’re doing will increase or decrease your chances of getting a good result. If you’re decreasing your chances of doing well, then why are you doing it? Or as a team, are you working to increase the team’s chances of doing well or are you just wasting energy? Are you riding the front? Are you attacking to try to initiate a break-away? Are you chasing down a move that your team didn’t make? Are you riding hard to stay on the front going up a climb? This may be worth while, or it may be a total waste of energy and you could be shooting yourself in the foot. Late in the race when things actually matter, you could be too tired to do what you need to do to get the result you’re hoping for.
    • Riding the front is almost never a good idea, unless your team is chasing with good reason. Maybe people are soft-pedaling and you’re literally rolling along without pedaling, but that’ll only last for a moment. Otherwise, you should really only be at the front when you’re chasing for your team, alternating pulls in a break-away, setting up for a crosswind or descent where you think you need to be at the front. The rest of the time, try to stay off the front, or if you’re there, pull off safely and drift backwards.
    • Are you attacking because the early break-away hasn’t formed yet? Are you bored? Well, if you really know that you’re capable of riding away from the field or think that the course is tough enough, the wind isn’t a factor, and your best chance is to be in the break, then maybe it’s fine. In general, the early break usually doesn’t win the race and if you’re in the early break only to be caught later, you’re likely not going to be a factor in the race finale. Just follow wheels when someone else attacks if you want to be in the early break. And, only go into the break if you know it has a good chance of success. Most racing is about probability. If the early break has a 2% chance of success, then do you really want to take your chances there? Or would you rather wait and see what you can do as the field breaks apart later in the race?
    • Climbs are another classic place where people can go too hard. In general, going over most climbs that last more than a few minutes, you do want to make sure you’re in the front third of the field so that any splits that may occur won’t take you out of contenton for a good result. That being said, not every climb is that way, and it will benefit you to discern the difference. Sometimes a climb is just a climb and everyone will get over it easily and the peloton will stay together, in which case, do as little work as possible to get over the climb in a position that will be advantageous after the climb. If you want to be near the front after the climb, then ride near the front. If you don’t need to be at the front after the climb, then don’t worry about it and consider saving some energy by going just 5 or 10% easier up the climb than a lot of other people. This is often how things can work on a course with a lot of small climbs. Every time there’s a little rise, at least a third of the field goes full-gas up it. Why?! There’s no upside (because the field is still together, nobody got dropped) and only downside (lost energy). After a little while of that, people can’t go so hard. But, if you just get up the climbs and down as efficiently and comfortably as possible, making sure not to get dropped, but also making sure to give up a few spots on every climb, just to regain them on the way to the next climb, then you may be way fresher than your competition when it comes to the last ¼ of the race when all it takes is a few riders who aren’t blown-up by then to attack and ride away from the field for the win.
  • Make a plan, but be flexible. If you don’t have a plan at all, then you may make a lot of random efforts that may or may not increase your chances of success, and in all likelihood will just reduce your energy stores for later in the race, and with it your chances of finishing well. So, just think about whether you want to ride waiting for a bunch sprint, a late race flyer (if so, where?), an early break (if so, how many riders are needed?). Have a plan and make choices and commit to them. Don’t waste energy by trying to make half-measures. But, also pay attention to how the course, the conditions, and the competition make the race evolve and consider changing your strategy if it becomes evident that another team is racing with a particular strategy, then you can play off of them and use it to your advantage. Don’t blindly put your head down with total commitment to a strategy if it becomes clear it’s the wrong one for that race. If you know your strategy is pretty sound, then you have to accept the fact that ultimately you’re playing the odds. Most strategies you might employ will mean that you have good chances of doing well under certain circumstances but lesser chances if the situation unfolds differently than you plan or anticipate.
  • Focus ahead of you, not to the sides or behind. For everyone’s safety, move safely and predictably. Hold your line and don’t make sudden lateral movements. Move up when you see you have room. Watch your front wheel and be aware of anyone behind you so that you don’t take out their front wheel. Look up the road so that you can see where people are moving, who’s a good wheel to follow, and what riders are causing chaos and are to be avoided. For everyone’s safety, it’s good to look ahead, and you’re more likely to see how the race unfolds and to learn something.
  • Be patient, but don’t hesitate to act when you need to. A lot of people waste energy and make poor choices because they are impatient. When in doubt, usually it’s better to delay. Doing things at the last moment possible or reasonable is often a good strategy, whatever the tactic is at the moment. If you plan on waiting for a split to happen in the wind, or waiting for someone to attack on the climb, or waiting to try to get into the early break, you really don’t need to initiate it or try to force it to happen that way. Just wait. There’s probably somebody else thinking of doing the same thing and then you can work together. Don’t just attack because nobody else is. Don’t ride the front trying to split the field because it’s windy and nobody else is. It’ll happen soon enough, and you don’t need to waste your energy to get it done. But, if you need to get across a gap in the wind, or over a climb late in the race, don’t hesitate. Assess the situation and make a total commitment to getting the task done. Maybe you’re trying to bridge across on a climb, trying to not get dropped in the crosswind, or maybe you’re trying to lead your sprinter across to the front group in the last few km of the race. If you decide to do something, and you think it needs to happen, then do it, don’t hesitate, and fully commit to it. If you can’t do it, then you can’t do it, but if it’s really crunch time, then you either have to do it or the race is over for you or your team.
  • Feel free to make mistakes. Make a plan and act it out. Maybe it’ll work, or maybe it won’t, but you’ll learn from it either way. You’ll learn something about tactics, and you’ll learn something about your fitness, so even if you lose the race, you win.
  • Don’t forget to evaluate the race afterward. Try to remember moments in the race that were decisive. Consider where you saved energy, where you wated energy. Remember when you weere positioned poorly or well. Think about the energy cost of your actions and strategies. Don’t go through races and fail to learn because you never thought about the race after the fact. Just as a few minutes of planning before the race can help that day, a few minutes of reflection after the race can sometimes matter more for all of the races down the line because of the wisdom you gain from your experience.

How to start your early season training

If you’re like a lot of athletes, late fall and early winter is about the time you’ll be coming off of a post-season break. You’ll be thinking about training and about next season. You may be getting antsy, and  anxious to get out and train after taking it easy or even totally off for a bit. That’s great, but just begs the question of how to approach getting ready for next season.

Here are a few thoughts on the subject, motivated by my past experience with myself, working with other athletes, and based on a lot of reading from a variety of sources, whether scientific studies, books on training, or anecdotes about training that other high-level athletes have done in the past.

In it’s shortest bullet-point form, here you go:

  • slowly increase the total volume that you’re training
  • keep the overall difficulty of your training moderate
  • include a lot of aerobic work
  • include some strength work (sport specific or at the gym)
  • include some core work and consider cross training
  • don’t go crazy and do hard intervals, but do include some higher intensity efforts sparingly
  • consider your past weak points and plan to improve where you can
  • plan ahead a bit what your season will be like

In a little more detail, but in the same order:

I usually prefer to stay away from the term “base training” because of the connotations that it implies for a lot of people. It doesn’t really matter what people call things, but I often refer to the November-through-March time period as a time for “foundational” training. For many people “base training” necessarily implies that an athlete is trying to get in a lot of miles and may be proactively avoiding intensity as much as possible. Yes, you need to get in an appropriate amount of training volume and aerobic conditioning in order to reach your potential, and doing too much high-intensity training may compromise that in the long run. But, that doesn’t mean that volume is the end-all metric by which you might gauge the quality of your preparatory training. In fact, some form of high-intensity training is one thing that pretty much every study on endurance athletes shows to be effective. In contrast, the control groups for these studies usually submit to only endurance training, and underperform every time compared to the intensity group. The concern would just be that you can’t continually subject your body to very intense training all of the time. So, for myself and my athletes, I liberally include a variety of moderate efforts throughout the year and sparingly incorporate high intensity efforts as well. This often includes short sprint drills, cadence drills, tempo or sub-threshold climbing efforts, and occasionally, shorter, harder above-threshold efforts. I usually also recommend core work, gym work, and maybe other forms of cross training to build strength and injury resistance. After all, durable athletes are usually the most successful ones.

Always remember that training is specific. Effective training will stress your body so that it progressively gets better at whatever stress is applied to it. So, doing a lot of endurance training will generally make you build endurance, but only to a point. But, if you can comfortably do a long endurance ride of 4-5 hours and you can average 160 watts for that ride, then how many 5 hours rides can you do at 160w and get better? If you do that all winter long and don’t include something else, you’ll go through January and February still doing 5 hour rides at 160w and be no better than you were in November when you started. You don’t need to go out and do peak intensity workouts, but you should include some strength and speed drills as well as some higher intensity aerobic efforts as well.

If your training is never challenging, then you can almost be sure that you’re not stressing your body enough to improve. In some sense, training is a protocol followed in order to create some form of fatigue so that your body can better resist that fatigue in the future. Just keep in mind that there are different forms of fatigue or stress. You can fatigue from running low on glycogen because you’ve been training for hours. You can feel weak and tired from lifting heavy weights. Both of these are very different. One is metabolic and hormonal, because you’re running low on a major fuel source. The other is neuromuscular, because your muscles are having trouble firing with as much force as they previously were, in spite of having fuel to do so. It is good, even necessary, to create different forms of fatigue at different times in your training if you’re to get better.

A note on fatigue, though. If you were doing that routine of just training a bunch, think about your long endurance session that you’re probably going to do every weekend during the winter months. That 2 hours run or 5 hours ride will pretty much always make you tired, but you could also get tired from walking for 10 hours. Clearly, walking for 10 hours will not be good training for pretty much anything… So, if you’re going to do a 2 hour run or a 5 hour bike ride, make it productive and do something within that time that will build strength or raise your aerobic power by including a few sprints or big-gear efforts or tempo/low-threshold climbing efforts.

You want your training to be challenging, and you want to be fatigued on a somewhat regular basis. Still, you don’t want to get carried away and decide that you should train as much and as hard as possible. Training like this can burn you out mentally and physically. Always remember, it isn’t training hard that makes you stronger, it’s the recovery that comes afterwards that helps you improve. That being said, none of the training you do in the preparatory/foundational phases of training should be terribly hard. You can and should recover fairly quickly from most of these training sessions. So, if you’re taking care of your body and have enough time to do so, you can probably train moderately most of the time.

Along these lines of making training challenging but not brutal, most of your training should be aerobic fitness and strength oriented. You can build aerobic fitness by doing steady endurance training and by including some tempo and low-threshold kinds of efforts. If you’re training, say, 8-10 hours per week, it would be great if you could get in 20-60m of training just below your last season’s peak 60m intensity. You could start out in November with just a few 10m efforts and build up so that in February, you’re doing 3x20m or doing a couple of workouts that include 2x15m, for example. You could also include a couple of hours at your tempo pace, which should be about 75-85% of that intensity. If you’re a more experienced and fitter rider, you could push that up to even 90% of your peak 60m intensity. Similarly, you should include some on and off the bike strength and power work. This can be strength training at the gym, as well as big-gear work and short snappy sprints out on the road. Or, if you’re a runner, hills and stairs are great for building strength, as well as strides at 90% of your sprint for 70-100 meters at a time.

Don’t assume that only practicing your sport of choice is enough to reach your potential in that sport. People in every sport recognize the benefit of having balanced strength, a strong core, and good flexibility. Doing other similar, but different activities can be well worth while. Running, cross-country skiing, rowing, kayaking, mountain biking, strength training, yoga, etc. There are a lot of good possibilities. When it comes down to the bottom line of performance, strength training in conjunction with some form of stretching and endurance training is about the best thing you can do to bolster your overall fitness. Strength training can significantly increase strength, strength endurance, aerobic capacity, and most every metric of endurance sports. It seems like much of this comes down to an increase in neural recruitment of muscle fibers and increased endurance of those neural pathways…. Increasing strength and power increase performance and those goals are perhaps best accomplished with weighted strength exercises, and can be complimented with sport specific movements. Outside of gym work, consider mixing it up and doing a few days away from your chosen sport, doing other activities you enjoy.

As much as it’s good to enjoy training and enjoy exerting yourself, it’s good to pay attention to your body and not overdo it in training. It’s okay to occasionally get wrecked from hard training sessions or to have big training weeks that leave you feeling very tired. But it’s not okay to grind away at a constantly challenging training regimen that leaves your body low on recovery and high on fatigue. Don’t plan out tons of training and blindly stick to it when you can feel your body is getting worn down. And, don’t get too excited to include intensity in your program so that you’re doing threshold or VO2-max intervals twice a week in January and reaching a kind of faux peak of fitness in the beginning of February when you could reach a higher peak later on if you planned things right. Always remember, training is meant to create fatigue. If you feel tired, then your training is at least a little effective. But, you get stronger when you recover from hard training, not from the training itself.

Lastly, look back on what you’ve done well in the past and what you’ve seen lacking in your fitness. What is it in races that you find easy or hard, what do you do well and poorly? Take stock of where you’re at and where you want to be. Look at ways that you can overcome your past or current liabilities. Sometimes just filling in an empty spot in your training routine can make a big difference. If you can’t sprint, then practice. Maybe go to the gym. Both can help a lot, and probably will carry over into other aspects of your sports performance. Or if you can’t sustain high-intensity efforts for long, then practice that. Maybe start with moderate intensity efforts for long periods and slowly increase the intensity of those efforts. Or, target a goal pace or power output and do intervals that get progressively longer and have progressively less recovery between efforts.

Along similar lines, plan ahead for the coming season and see what you want to do, when, and think about how you should plan for that. Consider adding breaks in your training so that you can get extra recovery part-way through the season to reset your mental and physical fatigue. This can be as simple as mapping out the races you think you might do, or even planning specific workouts ahead of time that you know will make you ready for those goal events.

How to deal with vacation time

One of the challenges that athletes may face when they have a job that requires travel, family vacations, or other reasons to travel, is that they have to spend days or weeks away from their normal training grounds and often away from their bike, pool, or good running routes. Sometimes you can’t train at all, or maybe you can, but all you have is a hotel gym and some running shoes. How do you cope with these challenges? Can you maybe even train effectively when you’re on the road? Well, here are a few thoughts.

Bullet points:

  • focus on intensity if you’re short on time
  • consider the hotel gym for an uphill treadmill run and/or weights
  • load up a little extra on higher volume and/or intensity training before the vacation (when you’ll presumably be getting extra recovery away from normal training)
  • don’t stress, but try to get in some training every other day if you can

A little more in depth:

First off, if you will actually have much more time to train while away from home, the trip is probably more of an opportunity than a limitation. Clearly, there’s no need to worry, and you’ll probably just plan ahead to make that week a little longer or harder than your normal routine at that point in your season. If you’re building your aerobic and strength foundations in the early season, then you might plan a higher volume week than normal. Or perhaps if you’re looking ahead to a stage race in 4-5 weeks, you might do a higher volume block of training that includes some high-intensity work as well. If you’re in the middle of the racing season, and intensity is the deciding factor in your races, and not endurance, then increasing volume wouldn’t be helpful and you should focus on race-specific intense workouts, probably the same as you would train at home. Just have fun and remember that your training should be specific to your goals.

On the other hand, if your trip away from home reduces your ability to train, then I wouldn’t necessarily get upset by the fact that you’re away from your bike for a few days or even a week or more. Likewise, it’s not the end of the world if you have to spend a whole day going to the airport, flying, and then driving to your destination on the other end, without any time to train that day… Just think of it as enforced recovery time. If you normally ride 2 hours every other day, or 1 hour every day, it can sometimes be disconcerting to athletes to think that they have to lose a few days of training, especially if they are already somewhat limited by their normal work/life/family routine. And, at the destination, sometimes athletes are really strapped for time while they’re at business meetings all day, and business dinners every night, or if they’re busy doing things with family during the bulk of their trip.

Well, given the fact that you may have the entirety of your trip off, the first and most important thing I would suggest doing before your trip is to do a small block of elevated intensity and/or volume if you can. If you’re traveling for the holidays in the middle of the off-season, then see if you can’t do a high-volume weekend right before your trip with 2 or 3 longer training sessions. If it’s in the middle of the season, then consider doing higher volume and intensity than normal, or if your competitive goals don’t rely on endurance and aerobic fitness so much as intensity, then just do normal training volume, but do a few workouts that are harder than normal right before your trip. If you go into your trip fatigued and thoroughly stressed from recent workouts, then regardless of necessity, you’d want to take some days off or easy traveling or not. Even on the day of your travel, if you have the day off and have an afternoon flight, for example, you could go out for a hard morning workout before you’re taken away from your bike or local training grounds.

Once you’re on your trip, it’s good to look into what options you’ll have while you’re gone and make a plan. If you’re busy all day at meetings or family events, then perhaps all you have the option to do is to get in some 30-45 minute sessions in the hotel gym or to go for some morning runs before your day gets started. If that’s the case, then consider your goals, where you’re at in your training, and what will be the best option for you at that time. Sometimes, just doing a light run, some core work, and a few weights will be great general conditioning as you build overall fitness early in the season. Maybe if you’re well into your preparatory training, you might get in a good warm-up and then do some moderate to heavy weights if gym work is already a part of your home routine. Or, perhaps if you’re getting close to the competitive part of your season and intensity is the priority, then consider using a treadmill or exercise bike to do some intervals at whatever intensities are relevant to your competitive goals. Or, sometimes more fun, you could find a good hill to run up or a stadium to do intervals on. Actually, for cyclists, uphill or stair running is one of the very best ways to cross-train for cycling, because you engage your muscles with similar speed and at similar angles to what you do while cycling. Flat running is great, but differs significantly in muscular recruitment patterns from bicycling.

If you have a bike shop near your destination, then maybe you can rent a bike for a day or two to get in some training, and even if you can only ride twice during a week-long vacation, that will make you feel much better when you come back and will mitigate or completely erase any training gains you would have lost if you took the week completely off. Or if biking is not an option, doing a few long hikes can be a great alternative to endurance cycling. I’ve definitely enjoyed trips where maybe I just rent a bike for a day and take it for an afternoon ride and a second ride the next morning before returning the bike, and just having 2 rides plus a few runs during a week away from home and I feel fine when I get back. Or, I also enjoy cranking up a hotel treadmill to 10% gradient and running at a comfortably quick pace for 20-30m plus a few weights. I know I got a workout that worked my aerobic system and maintained strength.

Ultimately, just think about how you think you can best make a few minor adjustments to your training before, during, or after the trip. Sometimes just adding an extra day before or a few extra miles the weekend before plus a few trips to the gym during the trip, and you won’t miss a beat. You can come home a little refreshed and ready to get back to your normal routine without any loss in fitness or good training sensations.