The most difficult task is in deciding how much intensity to include in the group ride and knowing when to allow yourself to slow down.
Q: I'm officially confused. I read training books, magazine columns and online articles that tell me to take all the intensity out of my training in the offseason. Several authors recommend doing "base" miles that drone on and on with no intensity. Yet, the very best riders in my area keep a fast group ride in their training mix all year. These aren't the "Christmas Stars" that are in peak condition for the holidays, these are the guys and gals that are winning races in the most important times of the year—and they do it year after year.
I need help, can you enlighten me? Should I not go to my group ride and instead ride boring miles all by myself? Or should I keep the fast group ride in my off-season training and maybe perform like the best riders when race season rolls around? Help!
: Dear Groupie,
You raise a very good question that is asked by plenty of riders. I can't speak for the history and training mix of your fast local riders, but I can tell you about the riders I coach and the group ride that I host.
The road racers and mountain bike racers I discuss in this answer are very experienced riders. All of them have been riding consistently and competitively for over three years—at the very minimum.
When I say riding "consistently" I mean they might take one to four weeks of non-structured training over the course of the year, but they keep aerobically fit year round. All of them can easily do a ride in the three- to four-hour range any week of the year. That ride might not be racing-fast, but the ride does not put them on the couch recovering for a week.
These riders are injury-free. If they experience any kind of training or racing injury, it does not keep them off the bike for more than a few days. If they have a crash or get an illness that keeps them off the bike for a week or more, then my comments would change.
For the healthy, experienced riders I have profiled, I do keep a group ride in their training mix. The group ride does contain some intensity—but the intensity is not at the same volume it would be, compared to when they are in the pre-competitive phase of training.
The group ride includes some time at lactate threshold and even a few city limit sign sprints; but the total time at high intensity levels might total less than 15 minutes over a three-hour ride. How much time is spent at the higher intensities varies from rider to rider, but in the off-season a good rule of thumb is 15 percent of the group ride time, or less, spent at higher intensities.
I include a minimal amount of intensity in group rides for the riders I have profiled because I have found that removing all intensity for periods of six to twelve weeks does not serve their performance and racing goals well.
Including some intensity in the weekly group ride, however, needs to be managed. What I mean is that I don't want the riders doing the "Sunday World Championship Race" 52 weeks of the year. I have found that riders who treat the weekly group ride as an ego performance and race every week of the year are burned out, if not injured, by the time the important races roll around.
The most difficult part of the task is in deciding how much intensity to include in the group ride and knowing when to allow yourself to slip off the back of the group so you can do the ride that best helps you meet your goals.
This group ride that includes some intensity is just one piece of the training plan equation. What other workouts are you doing during the week? Generally, most riders can handle two to four stressful workouts each week. If regular life is very stressful, then cycling life might only be able to handle one or two stressful workouts. The other stressful workouts scheduled depend on the performance limiters and racing goals of each particular cyclist.
To answer your question directly—should you include fast group rides in your offseason (base or preparation phase) training? The answer depends on your cycling goals, personal cycling history, current aerobic fitness and weekly training mix—in addition to the group ride and most of all, your self-control.
Do you have the self-control to utilize the group ride to meet your fitness goals or do you lack self-control, allowing others to dictate how much intensity is in your ride?