Whatever performance means to you, if you put the time in to your training, you want to see results. One of the first steps when planning your training, is to decide on your goals. Understanding the demands of the event will help with formulating realistic goals and designing a structured training programme. Once you know what the event requires, you can design a programme which aims to improve the specific characteristics which have been identified to be crucial for success. This could mean targeting specific weaknesses that need to be improved, while simultaneously maintaining or improving on stronger areas.

High-intensity interval training (HIT) is the most effective way to improve your anaerobic capacity.
There are a variety of disciplines within cycling, each with their own specific demands. Olympic Cross-Country (XCO) events are physically demanding and tax both the aerobic and anaerobic energy systems. XCO events are generally more intense than their Cross-Country Marathon (XCM) counterparts and success in this discipline requires the ability to sustain high-intensities (>90% of maximum heart rate) for between 1 – 2 hours. XCO is characterised by large variations in power output caused by steep climbs, technical single-track descents and open jeep-track sections. Anaerobic power and high power-to-weight ratios have repeatedly been shown to be important determinants of XCO race performance. Anaerobic power is improved by exercising at intensities above your functional or ‘lactate’ threshold. High-intensity interval training (HIT) is the most effective way to improve your anaerobic capacity. Despite the variable power outputs, heart rate remains fairly stable during an XCO race. The proposed reasons for this paradox are the constant contractions in the upper and lower body musculature that are required for stability and shock absorption during racing. Therefore, including strength work that targets both the upper and lower body could assist with XCO performance.

Road races and Cross-Country Marathons (XCM) are mass start events with a total distance of at least 60 kilometres and are approximately 3 hours or more in duration. These events have fewer large fluctuations in power output, but are still completed at a relatively high intensity (~80 % of maximum heart rate), which means that these races require a well-developed aerobic and anaerobic energy system. However, the aerobic energy system has a bigger role to play when compared to shorter events like XCO races. This often leads to the common misconception that performance in longer events will not benefit from the inclusion of high-intensity interval training (HIT). However, the ability to perform high-intensity efforts could mean the difference between breaking away on the final climb to take the win or making it home to avoid the cut-off in a stage of the Epic.

stay off your feet as much as possible to maximise your recovery
In general, multi-stage racing will have the same physiological requirements as those of XCM and road races. The only real difference is that you will be required to wake up the next day and do it all again. Therefore day-to-day recovery between stages is important for stage races, especially during the longer versions (Cape Epic and Panorama Tour). The best way to stay on top of this, is to ensure that you have your nutrition dialled and stay off your feet as much as possible to maximise your recovery. (Stay tuned for an article on recovery strategies to enhance performance).

The gravity assisted disciplines of downhill (DH) and Enduro racing require riders to have high levels of technical ability, explosive power to accelerate out of corners and on flat sections, and probably one or two loose screws. Similar to XCO racing, heart rate during timed DH runs remains high and stable, despite the variation in power output and the fact that the pedals are only turning for about 50 % of the run. DH includes periods of high cadence (>130 RPM), with the highest values usually recorded at the start as the riders leave the start gate. Similarly, peak power outputs during a DH run are observed in the first 5 – 10 seconds of the run as the riders attempt to reach maximum speed as quickly as possible. DH and Enduro are unique in that the riders are required to generate power outputs suddenly and the events are characterised by a combination of acceleration and deceleration efforts. The timing of these efforts will be governed by the course design and profile with some courses having long pedalling sections (Pietermaritzburg), and others being very steep and technical (Champery, Switzerland).

As a result, successful DH riders will require a high anaerobic capacity which will allow them to accelerate from a standing start and slow speeds. However, those who are unable to generate the explosive power required to have a fast start could minimise their time losses by avoiding unnecessary braking and poor line selection. Riding dynamics, such as line selection and ‘flow’, have in fact been suggested as important determinants of DH performance. DH also requires isometric and dynamic muscular efforts in order to cope with technical sections and absorb the vibrations experienced while riding over uneven terrain. These muscular contractions will lead to elevated heart rate even when the pedals aren’t turning.

mountain bikers may unintentionally neglect skill training as part of their programmes
Success in all forms of mountain bike (MTB) racing is also highly dependent on a rider’s skill level, with highly skilled riders tending to lose less speed as they pass through technical sections such as rock gardens. Differences in level of technical ability and tolerance for risk have been suggested to be the reason for the variation in lap times in both XCO and DH riders. Although this seems logical, mountain bikers may unintentionally neglect skill training as part of their programmes so keep an eye out for skills clinics in your area to assist in improving your technical abilities.

The different disciplines within cycling all have very specific physiological demands. Failure to understand the demands of the event could result in gaps in your training and failure to achieve your goals so your training should be specific to the discipline or event you are planning to take part in. Sadly, there is no one-size fits all programme for these different disciplines or a single programme which will guarantee success for all individuals. However, there are certain steps you can take to ensure that your training is beneficial and will bring you closer to achieving your goals. No matter your current performance level, or the time you have available to train, intelligent training can result in noticeable gains. Beginners should look at focussing on the areas which will result in the biggest gains while more advanced or experienced riders should focus on refining their training.

A well-structured training programme consists of different periods or phases which target specific areas of performance.
A well-structured training programme consists of different periods or phases which target specific areas of performance. A programme should begin with very general conditioning sessions aimed at improving general fitness. The volume of training, (time spent on the bike), should reach a maximum early on in the programme and slowly decrease as the intensity of the sessions increases (see the diagram below). Do not make the fatal error of trying to include high volume and high intensity in the same session. In addition, the closer you get to the event, the more specific the training sessions should become to that event. It is often a good idea to include other races as part of the training programme to help sharpen up your fitness and skills.

Monitoring training is a great way to keep track of what you have been doing, and identify what has worked for you and what hasn’t. Previously, weekly distance (kilometres covered in training), and hours spent training have been used to quantify training. However, failing to monitor intensity could result in under performance through training too hard or too easy. There are numerous methods to quantify intensity, with the Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) being the most simple and affordable. Intensity is rated on a scale of 0 (Rest) to 10 (Maximal effort). RPE has been used with some success, but it is important to be aware of the factors that could influence your perceived exertion. Caffeine, environmental conditions (high-temperature and humidity), and intermittent vs. continuous exercise have been shown to influence RPE.

heart rate can be influenced by external factors such as fatigue, environment, caffeine and illness.
Alternatively, heart rate has been used to monitor training intensity since the ‘80s and the affordable nature of heart rate monitors has made them common training tools. It is recommended that you perform a maximal incremental exercise test at a recognised sports testing institute to help determine your personal training zones. Training according to specific training zones, which are based on your metabolic and lactate thresholds (LT), will improve both the specificity and quality of your training. You can’t exercise at or above your LT, if you don’t know where it is. Similarly to RPE, heart rate can be influenced by external factors such as fatigue, environment, caffeine and illness. These factors do affect the reliability of heart rate data, but heart rate is still a very effective tool for monitoring training intensity.

The most direct measure of cycling intensity, however, is power output. It is not influenced by external factors and cycling is one of only a handful of sports where power output can be measured during both training and racing. Power meters have become increasingly more affordable and, as a result, so their popularity has increased among cyclists of all levels. Using a power meter during training and racing is a great way to monitor not only intensity, but also progression. However, as with any other measure, it is the interpretation of the data which is more important.

In summary, different disciplines within cycling all have unique requirements for success and training programmes should target improvements in these unique areas. Training programmes should progress from general conditioning to more specific, high-intensity sessions. Monitoring intensity during training is important for adaptation and heart rate and power are the best measures for monitoring training intensity.