Races are highly effective to improve performance. First, races are done at high intensity with jumps, sprints, and pursuits. Secondly, you get tactical and technical experience.
Thus, cycling races train all the skills you need for racing. It is often said that a cycling race is the best kind of training you can get. However, I would rather say that cycling races might be the easiest way to improve performance.
You don’t have to speculate about doing specific intervals or concentrating on heart rate target zones when you go for a race. You follow the pack and try your best to make a good result. You will, passively, get plenty of different intervals during the race.
Races train a wide range of skills, but maybe you should sometimes be more focused on specific physical qualities. E.g. if your goal is to improve your anaerobic endurance, you can train it more precisely with intervals instead of unpredictably road races.
The significant advantage is getting precisely the kind (and amount) of training you are interested in.
But you have to be very dedicated to your training to push yourself hard enough to get the desired results. It is much easier to go fast when other riders try to beat you. I guess that is one of the main reasons that races often are preferred instead of regular interval training. When people get a start number, they can go fast and get intense training.
Training with power meters like SRM og Powertap
If you use a heart rate monitor or, even better, a power meter like SRM or Powertap, you have an excellent opportunity to train specific skills, e.g. time trial training.
That’s why I advise my riders to use a power meter because it gives me a detailed description of what they are doing on the road. On the other hand, heart rate monitoring only tells me how the body reacts (with some delay) and hides some of the most exciting improvements.
E.g. if a rider can push avg. 320W in a 40km time trial is possible to compare with previous results. On the other hand, if he rides the course in 52 minutes, it is possible to say that it is fast, but it isn’t easy to compare with previous results since both weather and materials inflect the result.
Did he go faster because of his new aero wheels, the good weather, or a higher anaerobic threshold? Well, the pulse monitor won’t tell him. The power meter would.
A Power meter is a bike’s black box
An easy way to discover the physical demands of a course is to look at the registered data from a race on the course. For example, power meters are not always valuable for a road race, but the power data becomes a vital weapon after the race.
Like the air planes’ “black box”, a power meter registers every move you make. It can tell you how much power you used to catch up with the early break, how long you could maintain 350W when you were struggling to close a gap or show the most challenging part of the course. A power meter becomes more valuable in a time trial since you can use it for pacing.
Important to focus your training
Before you skip the next midweek race, think about your training goal.
If you want to improve your aerobic performance, make a training schedule that fits your goal precisely.
If your goal is to improve your aerobic performance, you can avoid most anaerobic parts of races (sprints, jumps, hills). That will give you a significant advantage since you can train more intensely and focus on your primary training goal. However, if you can’t find a specific purpose to prepare for, it is probably best to go racing.
If you have several physical goals for your training, race might also be the best opportunity.
One of the basic principles in training is to make training as specific as possible to the demands in the particular competition.
If you choose to use races in preparation, go for races that are similar in distance and profile to your primary goal.
Your body adapts to what you challenge it with, and the more the challenges in training look like the challenges in the competition you are preparing for, the better you will perform. For example, if the course has many steep hills, you have to prepare your body for a lot of short anaerobic bursts during the race. Such hills can likely be the breaking point in the race.
How to Use Cycling Races to Your Advantage
Don’t get me wrong. Races are great training opportunities and make many cyclists so much better. Sometimes races can be the only way to keep a sufficiently high intensity for several hours.
Also, you will sharpen your technical skills because everything happens at a faster speed. So what can you do to achieve better results with cycling races as an integral part of your cycling training plan?
1) Go 100% or go home. If you want to learn how to handle your bike better in extreme situations, you have to ride 100% when you race. Riding with a comfort and safety margin won’t make you faster. So if you develop too many excuses about what you are willing to do in training races because it’s just training, then it might be better for you to stay at home for regular aerobic exercise.
I have to emphasize that 100% doesn’t mean you should do stupid things or take risks to make you ride faster. On the contrary, it means that your aim should be to ride as fast as possible and ride the race as a race.
2) Do experiments. A training race is a massive opportunity for you to test and optimize a broad range of skills and tactical strategies in race situations. For example, you can try a different tactic that might get you better results in the long run. Also, you can test new bike equipment, nutritional strategies, etc.
3) Schedule Cycling Races as a part of your Training Plan. Cycling races are often the most demanding training sessions, so it is mandatory to plan these races carefully so you keep a balanced and structured training plan.
What do you do to succeed with cycling races as a part of your cycling training plan?
(Leave a comment below)