How to Optimize Your Pre-Season Cycling Training

Pre-Season Cycling Tips

The road cycling race season is about to begin, and in some countries, they have already started. So today, I will show you some highly effective techniques to help you perform better in the first race.

In the bottom of this article you’ll find 4 Pre-season Bike Training Sessions

One of the most common arguments against interval training during the winter is the risk of peaking too early.

I’m afraid I have to disagree. If you are not competing professionally, your risk of peaking too early is shallow. Remember that your current fitness leaves significant room for improvement, so it makes sense to train longer, faster, and more frequently. You are far from peaking.

Lack of Race Speed

Finishing solid base training leaves you with a reliable aerobic engine. Your threshold power is now close to maximum, and you are getting lean and ready to enter the cycling races. Still, you might feel your legs are unprepared for the big races.

Something is missing.

Have you ever completed a solid base training and left with the feeling that you still lack the race speed to perform optimally?

The case is that a solid aerobic engine alone is not enough to win cycling races.

Even though threshold power is often the most critical physiological parameter, having a decent power output at threshold power is not enough. It would be best if you usually had anaerobic endurance/sprint skills and a highly trained VO2 max to compete in cycling races.

Why? Because in most cycling races, winds play an important role. When you ride behind other riders in the bunch, you may save up to 40% of power output to maintain the pace.

Thus, if you sit in the front of the peloton and work around your threshold power, all other riders can easily follow your pace as long as you ride in the flat or slightly uphill.

So if you want to make a breakaway or drop some of your worst opponents, then a steady pace at threshold power might not be enough.

Instead, you must use your anaerobic and tactical skills to establish a breakaway.

And then afterward, return to a steady pace slightly below threshold power in your new group of riders.

To make these breakaways, you’ll need at least some anaerobic power to accelerate away from the peloton. The more aware your opponents are, the harder you will work to get away. Also, as you get closer to the finish line, you should expect more riders to react when you make your attempts.

You could see their awareness as a problem or your opportunity to strategical alternatives. By leveraging other riders’ impatience, you can make tactical moves far more likely to succeed than most solo attacks.

Also, if you stay away from the front and let the attacking rider protect you from the wind, you can relatively quickly join the attack. That way, you can join a new breakaway while saving your anaerobic power for later.

The structure is the key to successful cycling training

Even experienced and ambitious riders get surprised when they enter the first couple of races. Some of them may have significantly increased their total training load during the winter and reasonably expect to perform better.

However, many talented riders don’t get the deserved results and honors. Because they struggle to increase the total training time and intervals, they forget to remind themselves of the importance of having a good overall structure in their training plans.

Everything else is meaningless if there is no structure to your intervals, distance training, and cycling races. Forget about exotic recovery drinks, aero wheels, carbon saddles, etc.

If there is no structure on when you train hard and when you don’t, then this is the first place to improve your performance in the long run.

The structure is the best and most effective way to increase your performance. And you don’t have to train harder.

It’s vital to notice that high-intensity intervals are not just high-intensity intervals. Since road cycling is mainly aerobic, it is clear that most of your training should target the aerobic engine.

Building a solid aerobic engine takes more time, but it only needs minimum training to keep it at a reasonable level.

Why are the first cycling races in the season so tricky?

One of the most common excuses is ‘lack of race speed.’ I agree with this cause, but I don’t think it’s exact.

Switching from group rides at 30km/hr to cycling races at 40+ km/hr is not only a question of speed, and it’s a paradigm shift from riding friendly group rides to entering a war on bikes.

Let me explain: If you haven’t included high-intensity intervals and riding in your training yet, you will likely experience a ‘lack of race speed.’ And you will experience it the hard way.

Those riders who dominate and win these first races are typically well-prepared.

They have followed their training programs for months and have been doing high-intensity (anaerobic) training in the past. Anaerobic intervals provide them with ‘race speed.’

So yes, in races, you ride 10km/hr faster, but that is only a part of the explanation. The physiological and technical demands are quite different when you enter a cycling race.

So if you want to be one of those well-prepared riders when the race season opens, you must use some of the pre-season training techniques mentioned below. Otherwise, you will be one of those riders whining about ‘lack of race speed.’

The good news for lazy riders is that you will catch up within 6 to 8 weeks if you haven’t done your anaerobic training. But, unfortunately, that’s what many cyclists experience season after season when they have entered the first ten races or so.

(Simply because their anaerobic capacity boosts participation in the cycling races.)

That also means that if you plan to peak later in the season, you don’t have to push too hard with anaerobic intervals and sprints before the season opens. But it will make your life in the peloton a bit easier, and maybe your winning chances are also better in the early part of the season.

Getting back into the road race routine can be tricky

You have to believe and have faith that your winter training was correct. Then, take things slowly and make sure the strength, conditioning, and endurance work you did during the winter transfers to the bike.

Also, remember this: everybody else is in the same boat during the first few races, and there will be tension and uncertainty. However, during your early races, you will discover if the training you completed over the winter was enough to be competitive immediately or if you still have plenty of work.

Remember that it is a very long season, and it is crucial to stick to your training plans regardless of your initial results.

Riders peak at different times of the year, so don’t be discouraged if your fitness is not where you want it to be.

How to Ride Faster in the Early Part of the Race Season

1) Friendly races (Fartlek)
Making your training more similar to races is a logical step that helps you prepare for the cycling races waiting for you.

Instead of riding steady-pace group rides, you should include two or three short races with a predefined distance of 5km or up. These short races give you an excellent combination of aerobic and anaerobic intervals while riding your bike at higher speeds. You will also get a sense of race tactics by including a finish line for your friendly race.

Though this training approach is unorganized compared to most of the other advice I give, it’s a very effective and inspiring way to optimize your aerobic and anaerobic systems. Well performed, these Fartlek sessions are both highly effective and motivating as pre-season workouts.

Sometimes you must dig deeper into your reserves when you train, which may help you go from good to great. But, more importantly, it is a fantastic mental relief to follow the pack as they begin to race.

So remember a positive attitude and enjoy the chance to have extra training and fun simultaneously.

Remember that most cycling races are not 15-minute sub-threshold intervals. Cycling races are incredibly unpredictable, and you will need a vast repertoire of skills to master them. So spontaneous cycling races or sprints are an excellent supplement to your regular, scheduled intervals.

If you never do anything off-diary, try to make at least one interval/race/sprint this week.

One of the best ways to prepare for race day is to get some actual race experience before the season begins. Of course, this doesn’t mean that you need to line up for every local race on the calendar – but signing up for one or two events that are similar in distance and format to the races you’re targeting can be very beneficial.

Not only will this give you a chance to practice your race tactics, but it will also help you gauge where you’re at in terms of fitness and preparations.

2) Anaerobic intervals and sprints
The secure way to boost your anaerobic performance is through specific intervals designed for anaerobic performance. These intervals are typically shorter efforts of less than 60 seconds, and the intensity is so high and the duration so short that using a heart rate monitor for pacing makes no sense.

Even without any pacing tool, it is relatively easy to significantly boost your anaerobic power and endurance.

Doing anaerobic intervals once or twice weekly will increase your anaerobic capacity within a few weeks. It is much faster than building aerobic power, so you can catch up quickly, even if you are a bit late.

One important thing that most riders are not aware of is the need for recovery between hard anaerobic intervals.

Why? If your recovery periods are too short, you will not generate sufficient high power outputs in the work periods, and your legs will perform more work through aerobic metabolism. Thus, you will not get an adequate stimulus for your anaerobic enzymes.

3) Tapering
The most overlooked secret of winning riders is their use of tapering. To make a great ride, you should make at least some tapering protocol before the races you prioritize. That will keep your legs and mind fresh and help you perform much better than most opponents.

Many riders have been through heavy training, especially in the early part of the season. As a result, these riders need a few weeks of tapering regarding the overload principle before performing at peak performance.

It’s not all about boosting your anaerobic system.

Winter training is often considered essential to your preparation for the next season. So why not also use your best weapon to improve aerobic performance?

As I mentioned in this article, you might prioritize differently. If you spend less energy optimizing your anaerobic system now, you can build an even more robust aerobic engine (for example, following my 6-week training plan). And because of that, you can be even more substantial later in the season. That is always a question of priority.

Even though my 12-week winter training program forces you to tackle scheduled intervals three times per week and perform an increasing amount of training, there may still be opportunities to ride more.

Don’t be afraid to add an extra interval or a spontaneous, friendly cycling race.

Yet, it’s my gut feeling that many riders don’t prepare optimally for the season opener. And just a slight tweak to your current training can make a nice improvement in your opening races.

Thus, I conclude that intelligent riders get an easy advantage simply by optimizing their training in the first few weeks.

4 Pre-season Bike Training Sessions That Will Boost Your Race Performance

VO2 Max intensity refers to your avg. Power output (Watts) in 5min test.

Please make sure to increase watts as you get stronger, and if you feel unsure, exchange one of the interval days with a performance test. That should do the trick and instantly update your current fitness level.

Pre-season Training Program 1 (50 min)
15 min warm-up
1 x 5 min – 80 % VO2 max
1 x 5 min – 50 % VO2 max
3 x (3+3 min) 100 / 50 % – VO2 max
7 min cooldown

Pre-season Training Program 2 (50 min)
15 min warm-up
3 x (40s + 9.20min) maximum sprint efforts
5 min cooldown

Pre-season Training Program 3
15 min warm-up
16+ x (30+30s) VO2 max
10 min cooldown

The Ultimate VO2 Max Training Session
(read more about the ultimate VO2 max workout here.)
10+ min warm-up
2+8 min VO2 Max / Threshold intensity
10 min recovery
2+8 min VO2 Max / Threshold intensity
10 min cooldown

Following these tips, you can optimize your pre-season cycling training and set yourself up for a successful race day. Just remember to focus on endurance rides, intervals, strength work, and getting some race experience under your belt – if you can cover all those bases, you’ll be well on your way to a successful season.

4 thoughts on “How to Optimize Your Pre-Season Cycling Training”

  1. Thanks for this timely post Jesper! Today I did your Pre-season Training Programme 3 and next week will have a go at the ultimate VO2 Max Training Session. After a winter packed with threshold training I hope this will be the icing on my fittness cake!

  2. Hi Jesper,,
    I have one, but an essential question – I think. Do you have to train your anaerobic capacity for the improvement of TT (30-40 min.) performance. Most of the literature says that it is a very, very small part of the anaerobic system used in this work area in competitions. But I have my doubts, and therefore I ask. When you add a little amount of anaerobic work to your training, it feels like that VO2-max lifted a bit, because of the added anaerobic work. But maybe I’m just fooled :)…

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