Off Season Training: Part 3

author : eric_kenney
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Whatever your motivations for this winter are, balancing a structured plan with a good dose of spontaneity will get you in the best form ever, both physically and mentally.

By the time we rest get refocused and on track again it’s the middle of winter. Don’t despair! Before we get to specifics lets go over a few points so we don’t get side-tracked this winter.

We all have different ideas on winter training. For some it is a vital time of year, laying the foundation for a big race mid summer or tuning speed for the early season duathlons, crits and road races.   For some, winter will be a success if we gain less than 10 pounds. Whatever your motivations for this winter are, balancing a structured plan with a good dose of spontaneity will get you in the best form ever, both physically and mentally. 


If you live in the northern states or anywhere that snows in the winter, and you’re not a pro, you simply can’t train as much in the winter. With darkness coming around 4:30pm, frigid morning temperatures and icy roads it's just not possible. We won’t even get into jobs, girlfriends, kids, wives, the Patriot's game schedule, etc.

So now that we are at peace with the fact that we simply can’t put in as much time as we may want, we can focus on what to do with the time that we have.

Find a Routine

With cold temps, warm beds and stale indoor air it is easy to get off track. Try to find some kind of routine. This could be one workout or rendezvous with a friend per week ie., “every Wednesday morning John and I run together, no matter what” or “Thursday night I do the spinning class at my gym.”  This one appointment can be the backbone of your winter success.  Find something that works with your schedule so it will be easy to keep this date and not get side tracked.

This can work for you in a great way if this one workout focuses on your weakness. I have seen athletes increase their maximum power by 10-14% over the course of six weeks during the winter with two focused workouts a week. Focus and consistency can get us VERY far, even if our volume is low.

The Bike

These time constraints really hit hard when trying to work on your bike, especially if you are training for an early season race that’s long.   First thing to do is to invest in the proper warm clothes. Water/wind proof booties and gloves. Warm tights, thermal cycling jacket, hat or helmet cover.  Investing in proper cycling winter gear will make your cold rides more enjoyable, more effective, and maybe a bit longer. One trick for cold feet is to use shoes one size too big and put in two insoles. And don’t jam your feet in there with too many socks as you’ll restrict circulation and have wood for feet in less than an hour.

The trainer can be your worst enemy and your best ally all at once. If you are going to improve your riding, regular visits to the trainer will be a must but they don’t have to be torture.

  1. Don’t do the same thing day-in-day out. Mix it up with different workouts and the amount of time you spend on it. Try something new once every two weeks or so. Try this next time you are watching football:  3hr’s with big gear climbs every commercial, sprints every field goal, and hard tempo every time your team is on offense.  This workout would make even the fittest cyclist slump over the handlebars by the final two minute drill. 
  2. Keep your mind busy. Read a book, watch TV, listen to the radio, etc. on your trainer ride.
  3. Stay focused. I have just given you ways to distract yourself from your work on the trainer but the best way I find to make time fly is to have a specific workout and stick to it. Warm up, cool down, some 10 minute strength intervals and rest intervals. You’ll soon find that riding for less than an hour becomes pretty difficult.    

Getting to you, training your weaknesses

Now that you know what your weak areas are (from off season training article #2) we can get right to it!  Trying to improve any weakness is not going to come easily or quickly so now is the time to start correcting them.

The key to training your weaknesses is a two part process:

  1. There is more to having great endurance than just pounding out the miles on the trainer or the swimming pool. Are you training at the optimal intensity? Make the workout Quality before Quantity.
  2. Endurance (for example) has two parts: being able to resist fatigue (pounding out the quality miles) and efficiency.  How much of each pedal stroke is pushing the bike forward and how much is just moving your leg?
If endurance is something you’re working on you don’t necessarily have to ride the trainer until 11pm and swim until your whole body prunes.  Incorporate drills into your training. Lots of drills.

To address this issue, FP drills are key. 

Workout #1: 3x5’ F.P. Pedal as fast as you can while still being in control. 110-120 rpm is a great range.  Take 3’ rest between sets. Build up to doing these at the end of your ride.

This will work your neurological durability as well as your general “endurance” as most people think of it.  Also when on the trainer realize you have no '0' time.  In a bike race you may only average 70ish rpms per minute and have 1/3 of your time at '0' watts or in a recovery zone! That's a lot! On the trainer doing the workout above you could average 100+ rpms and have 100% of your time in zone 2 and 3.

Recently I compared a team training ride with a ride a friend did the day before. “I only had 90’ to ride” he said in disappointment. After comparing his data with mine I noted that if you took out the nearly two hours of '0' along with recovery wattage time in my ride he had done the virtually same training as me!  90’ in zone 2 and 3. You could say mine was better because of the fatigue from the longer duration, or one could say his was more effective because his effort was a continuous effort while mine had several “rest periods.”  This is a great example of maximizing your time.

Workout #2. Zone training. Do 45’ or more in zone 3 after a good warm-up at end of your ride. Build up to 90 minutes of zone 3 time.

Bump up the intensity! Do your “endurance” work in zone 3. Riding sub-threshold has the same physiological adaptations as riding in zones 1-2 but they happen faster. The cost is greater fatigue and decreased repeatability. But if you don’t have the time to do 3+ hours everyday then do it up! The key to this is doing your Z3 work as one steady interval and staying in your zone (no coasting)! Having detailed and accurate training zones are vital for this. A power meter is king here. This will rack up your kilojoules (total workload) must faster than riding in a group or doing zone 1-2 work and will give you maximum return on your training time. By riding in zone 3 (tempo) you could do twice as much “work” in the time given than on a long group ride. Here are two tips for making this work:

  1. Don’t go out too hard
  2. Don’t spike your power on hills, when you stand, etc…

In a seminar I do every Fall there are two slides.  The first slide is a power file from a group ride 3:45 long (riding time, more waiting for people etc.) and I accumulated 2100 kilojoules. Again, just a number of total workload.

The second slide is a power file from steady tempo ride. The ride was 2hrs long and I accumulated 1862 kilojoules. That’s almost 900 kj’s/hr compared to 540 kj’s/hr.   Now this is NOT to say you don’t need to do the long rides. But the numbers speak for themselves.  Don’t have time and you're looking to build some endurance? Zone 3 is your best friend! 

Stay true to the grand plan

Lower intensity “endurance” training will most likely take up much of your training time in the winter. So when training your weakness keep the overall intensity down! If you are working on your hill climbing go easy. Find a hill with a low grade so you can work on your climbing pedal stroke.

If you are working your sprinting power or anaerobic endurance, work the cadence aspect of it. Short, high cadence, spin-ups are great for this.  Keep your recoveries on the long side by letting your heart rate drop to Z3 or Z2 and keep the gear easy. This will allow you to work the neurological and technical aspect of these skills without the cost of excess muscle damage and lactate buildup. Working strength or sprint power again here, push out that sprint or big-gear and stomp hard. But again, use long recoveries. This is to keep the overall cost of the training session low. We’re not looking to mimic a race here! At least not yet...

Good luck!

Eric is a full time triathlon and cycling coach. He is the owner of EK Endurance Coaching and works with athletes of all levels. To see EK Endurance Coaching’s highlighted results and learn more about what they can do for you go to


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date: February 7, 2013