7 elements of good road cycling/MTB training programs

7 elements of good road cycling/MTB training programs

road cycling training program

Training plans for road cycling and mountain biking look different from person to person and there’s no one program that’s best for everyone. There are however some best practices that can be applied based on science and experience from the field that will make huge improvements to almost any kind of plan.

In this post, as many riders start to build up for their 2017 season, here are 7 key elements that nearly every good training plan will have. 

1. Flexibility 

As much as a good training plan should be followed closely, it’s almost certain that at some point a plan has to change or adapt. This can be for many reasons, including illness, injury, family commitments or weather.

Whatever the reason, a training plan should be flexible enough that it can be adapted when necessary. Just ploughing through whatever happens to be written down isn’t often a good long-term strategy. 

It’s very difficult to know precisely whether a certain ride or set of intervals is going to be the right workout to perform a month down the line, so be prepared to take into account how you feel day-to-day when assessing your immediate workouts. You might also learn new training theory or workouts as you progress through your training, so don’t be afraid to add these in or make changes as you go. 

2. Periodisation

Periodisation can be a bit overhyped and overanalysed when it comes to training planning, but all it means is that your training changes based on different times in the year. These changes can come from volume (i.e. how much training you’re doing), intensity (how easy or hard your training is) and from mode (what type of training you’re doing) to name a few.

In order to maximise your fitness improvement and ensure progressively greater fitness as you get closer to your events, training plans have to develop (or periodise) in some way. How it will change will depend on you as an individual and what your goals are, but a plan that repeats the same type of training stress over and over again inherently won’t develop you as a rider nearly as much as one that is periodised.

3. Progressiveness

Good training plans offer an appropriate level of stress to the athlete at the appropriate time in order for a positive adaption to take place, and part of that is gradually increasing the training variables like intensity, duration etc correctly to slowly build fitness.

Plans that are not progressive and that make drastic changes in training load week by week have a very bad effect on the athlete. Riders run into problems of overtraining, overuse injuries and burnout and training plan is commonly forced to a halt. Instead, good training plans progress the training stress in a fashion that the athlete can handle, therefore promoting long-term fitness gains throughout the entire year and beyond, as well as more motivating, enjoyable training. 

4. Specificity

Specificity is an interesting concept when it comes to training for cycling and mountain biking. Although training on a day-to-day basis is often very different to the demands of a race, parts of the plan at some point certainly need to reflect the kind of things you’ll experience in your event.

Specificity in cycling

The reason for this is because good training plans focus mostly on developing physiological systems in isolation. For instance, a long ride works on your endurance, physiologically building the strength of your slow-twitch muscles and stimulating the production of mitochondria. Another example is a series of 4-minute intervals at 98-100% of your maximum heart rate, which targets your VO2Max. Whilst your race might be nothing like either of these two workouts, they still have a very important part to play.

When it comes close to your event though, a plan should build on this foundational work and add on the specific training (like short recoveries and low cadence pedalling of a MTB race, for instance) to complete the package. Without this shift in training focus, you might be left with good fitness, but without the skills to apply it in a competitive situation.

5. Goals

A good training plan will have some kind of purpose, and this often manifests in a goal or series of goals. Goals have an added benefit of allowing the coach or rider to work backwards and plan in the necessary training blocks, weeks and individual workouts necessary to achieve the goal. 

Goals in a cycling training plan are typically centred around events, whether that’s just to make the start line, finish or score a certain result. Adding these goals into an annual plan is the best way to ensure you see the big picture and plan accordingly. Otherwise, you can end up training based on daily motivations and by the seat of your pants, often resulting in failure to prepare correctly.

Here's a bit of advice on how to set your cycling goals for the season ahead.

6. Testing

Something that I’ve been guilty of neglecting in the past is testing, but I aim to make amends this season. Testing on a regular basis (for instance, at the end of each distinct training block) allows the rider to evaluate two important things. 

The first is whether the training plan is actually having the desired effect and is eliciting positive changes in your performance. Without having some way to track progress, you might be following a plan that is leaving you stagnant or worse, actually making you weaker.

The second is that testing allows you to constantly reaffirm your training intensity zones like heart rate and power. These zones are used to structure workouts and reveal how much time was spent in each particular zone throughout a week of training. With these zones set incorrectly, it’s likely you’ll be under- or overtraining, so it’s vital to update them as often as is practical.

Here's an older post on how to test your FTP regularly.

7. Variety

Finally, linking closely to periodisation above, a good training plan has to have a range of workouts that challenge you in different ways. As mentioned above, the same workouts day after day won’t induce the necessary stress to develop fitness over the whole season and will leave you in a rut both emotionally and physically.

Adding variety into a training plan is relatively easy and can simply come from manipulating the variables of individual workouts like intensity, duration and frequency. You can also use cross-training as a way to strengthen other important muscles and work on different abilities, with good choices for cyclists and mountain bikers being running, XC-skiing or motocross.

Running for cyclists

You can also extend variety out to weeks and even whole blocks of training, making sure that you’re progressively training different abilities and in different loads as you progress throughout the year. Adding in rest days will help keep things varied and the plan running smoothly too.


What do you think makes a strong training plan? If you have any tips, please let me know by leaving a comment below.

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