A Sample 3-Month Training Plan for Cyclists

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Last weekend at the team's winter training camp, we hosted Wonderful Pistachios employees for a weekend of skills clinics and training. It was an exciting weekend with some great riding and bonding and everyone left in high spirits, motivated to ride more and become better all around cyclists. The problem with these camps is that in the weeks after it is over, a lot of the adrenaline and excitement wears off and the whole thing fades to a distant memory.

To avoid this, I was asked to provide the attendees with a simple training plan that they could follow throughout the year as they prepare for whatever cycling events they want to participate in. As I sat down to write this out in the most simple and easy to follow format possible.

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The first thing to know about this plan is that it is almost identical to the plan that I followed myself as a racer and that I am currently using to coach members of the Wonderful Pistachios Pro Cycling Team. I think it is somewhat of a misconception that different riders need vastly different training programs. The fact is that there are certain energy systems that need to be trained in a certain order and in a certain time frame. To train these systems, there are about six basic interval workouts that will work for you whether you are a recreational rider training for your first century or a track racer training for Nationals.

It's not big differences that need to be made to train different types of athletes for different types of events but extremely small ones. An extra interval here, one more day of recovery there, slight adjustments in cadence or number of intervals, etc. We're not going to get into any of that here.

More: 10 Training Fundamentals for Cyclists

Give yourself three months to get into shape. Three months for me is always the ideal amount of time to get myself or one of my athletes into peak shape for an event. With three good months of training I am confident that I could get just about any rider into the best shape of their life.

This breaks down to three four-week cycles that each include three weeks of hard training and one week of rest. A more experienced athlete might do an extra week of hard training while an older or less experienced rider might trim it down to two weeks on, one week off but three on and one off will work for most riders.

More: Why It Pays for Cyclists to Base Train  

Act 1—Strength Endurance

The goal here is to build endurance and more specifically, muscle endurance. The actual muscles in the legs are often the weak link for a rider, not because they are not strong enough but because they give out too quickly. Once the muscles go, the rider is going to see a big drop off in performance, no matter how fit they are otherwise.

To that end, I recommend low cadences ranging from 60 to 70 rpm for all rides during this first three-week period, This puts a greater stress on the muscular system in all your riding. This is a good time to train this because any sort of muscular work should be done when the intensity is relatively low, because otherwise it will hurt your ability to hit the high red zone when you are closer to your event. The muscles just don't recover as fast as the heart and lungs.

This phase is actually the most complex one in that it has four different types of intervals. Let's start with a brief description of each.

More: A Simple Cycling Training Plan

Muscle Tension (M.T)

This is a 10-minute interval done in a big gear so that 50 rpm is your top cadence. The effort level is low zone 4 or just at your anaerobic threshold.

(Anaerobic threshold is the point where you can feel your body start to go into oxygen debt but it is a pace that you could maintain for up to 30 minutes if you really had to. If you can go longer than 30 then you are not going hard enough and if you can't maintain it for at least 15 then you are going too hard.

Anaerobic threshold is something you can figure out pretty easily for yourself simply by finding a long climb and inching up your intensity until you hear your breathing change. Whatever your heart rate is at that point is going to be your zone 4 and all your other zones will be built around that. I would put this detection method up against any expensive lab test you've got.)

You will want to find a steady grade without any rollers so that you can stay in the right heart rate and cadence zone for the entire interval. The key to this interval is the tension part. Keeping tension on the muscles for the entire time is the key to making this an incredibly effective early season interval.

Also, keeping a nice steady pedal stroke with a still upper body is key. This is going to be the same pedal stroke that when sped up to over 100 rpm is going to give you peak cycling performance. If it's not close to perfect at 50 rpm then it's going to be a real mess when you get up to 130.

Two to three intervals per workout. Recovery time should be at least 10 minutes.

More: Breaking Down the Pedal Stroke

Max Effort (M.E.)

This is a 30-second, all out sprint effort. I do them on a slight grade using optimal gearing so that if I start at a rolling pace of 15 mph, I can stand up, accelerate, get up to speed and hold it to the end without having to shift. The idea with these is to stimulate the muscles in a slightly different way and get a little red zone training even though most of your workouts are endurance based.

This is actually the shortest interval I do all season and I do it in the winter (another benefit is that it is a nice distraction from the long boring days of winter training). Once again, form is key here. Make a nice smooth acceleration, settle back into the saddle without missing a pedal stroke and then keep a nice, fast steady cadence to the end. Since looking at the computer can be tough in such a short hard effort, you might want to use a starting point and a stopping point that gives you about 30 seconds between.

Two to six intervals per workout. Recovery time should be at least five minutes.


This is somewhat like a motor pacing interval but I do it at low cadences and I don't bother with the car. The car is a mental trick anyway and I think any rider can teach themselves the focus and discipline to do a good long tempo interval just using their heart rate or power meter. These can last anywhere from 20 minutes to three hours depending on the rider and what you are training for.

I recommend starting at 30 minutes and adding 10 minutes to each successive interval. Effort level is high Zone 3 or just a notch below anaerobic threshold. Keep a nice steady cadence of 60 to 65 rpm. The ideal terrain is flat to slightly rolling and a nice tailwind never hurts.

One interval per workout.

High Spin (H.S.)

This is an interval that you will do almost every week for the entire three months and it is the only interval that crosses the different training cycles so that tells you how important it is. The High Spin interval, otherwise known as No Load Revving is done with almost no tension on the pedals. So a flat road in your easiest gear is perfectly fine. If you've never done one before, start at 100 rpm. You can inch it up until you start rocking a bit in the saddle and then back it off just a notch. The target cadence is going to be 120 to 140 rpm.

These are Zone 2 intervals but don't worry if your heart rate goes all the way to Zone 4 when you start. The body adapts incredibly quickly to these. You'll notice that your heart rate will drop dramatically after the first few sessions, even at a higher cadence and speed. Because of the high cadence, you can actually do these on your easy recovery days or your endurance days. During this first phase we will limit these to 10 minutes, as we don't want your speed to peak too early.

One interval per workout.

Now that you have the basic workouts, you need to know how to put them into your schedule. First, you should always warm up for at least 20 minutes before you start your interval session but I would recommend 40 minutes to an hour. For this training plan you will need to be riding at least four days per week so in the schedule below the priority days are the interval days. The other days can be added if you are riding more than four days per week.

In terms of the length of the rides, figure out how much time you want to devote to this and count backwards from there. The longest week of the program is going to be the third week of the first phase so use that as a jumping off point.

Phase One Schedule

Weeks One-Three

  • Monday: off or easy (bottom of zone 1) recovery ride
  • Tuesday: M.E. Start with two or three and add one interval each week of the cycle.
  • Wednesday: M.T. Start with two but never do more than three. If you can do more, you aren't doing them right!
  • Thursday: endurance
  • Friday: recovery with 10 minutes of H.S.
  • Saturday: endurance ride
  • Sunday: tempo; this can be the longest ride of the week.

Week Four

  • Recovery

Week four is always an easy recovery week. This means at least three days of riding with 70 percent of it in the bottom of zone one. This pretty much means riding as easy as you can possibly ride. Most riders don't get this and the plan won't work without it. The other 30 percent can be done in low zone two. Don't let your training partners screw this up for you, no matter how much pressure they put on you. Remember what you are training for.

More: Everything Cyclists Need to Know About Recovery

Act 2—Threshold

In this second phase, you will be working on only one thing and that is improving your power output and efficiency at anaerobic threshold. The cadence goes up a bit to 90 rpm on your endurance rides and your intervals and the intensity also goes up a bit to the top of zone 4.

Threshold Interval (T.I.)

This is a 15-minute interval done at time trial pace. Fifteen minutes is the ideal length to hold a very high pace that is long enough to keep your body in the right zone throughout. You could do longer but your power would drop off and you would not be training at the highest possible intensity. If you go shorter you end up moving into VO2 max territory, which comes in the next cycle.

Find a nice steady grade that lasts at least 15 minutes. Once the interval ends you should turn around wherever you are, go to the bottom rest for a few minutes and start over. Keep your body relaxed and your pedaling smooth and steady.

I like to treat each one of these as a time trial, trying to beat my personal best power. If you don't have a power meter, you can use distance as a measure so long as you do the interval on the same stretch of road under similar circumstances.

Two to three intervals per workout with at least 10 minutes of recovery.

More: 5 Ways to Increase Bike Power

Phase Two Schedule

Weeks One-Three

  • Monday: off or easy (bottom of zone 1) recovery ride
  • Tuesday: T.I. Start with two and build up to three.
  • Wednesday: T.I. I can't get into all the benefits of doing back to back interval days but so long as you keep your cadence above 90, you will be ok with this.
  • Thursday: endurance
  • Friday: recovery with 20 minutes of H.S. Add 10 minutes every time you do a H.S. interval till the end of the program so that your end total is a full hour.
  • Saturday: endurance ride
  • Sunday: T.I. Never do more than three. If you could do a fourth, you are not going hard enough.

Week Four

  • Recovery

More: 3 Interval Workouts to Boost Your Power on the Bike

Act 3—VO2 Max

Once again, we will only be working on one thing this month and that is VO2 max. The cadence goes up this month so that your endurance riding is done at 100 rpm and your interval cadence builds from 100 up to 130 by the end.

Vo2 Max
I chose three minutes for these intervals because it seems to be the ideal amount of time to really dig into the chosen energy system but still maintain a very high power output. You could go as long as five minutes for these but the intensity would drop off slightly and we want every interval to be as perfect as possible.

You will want to start at 100 rpm on these and build to 130 for the last interval session of the phase. At first it will seem that you can get more speed and power with a lower cadence and that will be true because you have been training at lower cadences and that is what you are used to. However, for peak performance you will need to have very good leg speed and this is where it comes. So suck it up over the first few workouts and you will be surprised at how quickly the speed comes around.

For these find a flat or slightly uphill road with as few turns or obstacles as possible. You are going to be high into the red zone on these so you don't want to be thinking about anything but the interval. You really have to push it on these. I know I've done a good VO2 max interval when I have to clip out and put my foot down the moment it is over because I literally cannot take on more pedal stroke.

More: Lactate Threshold and VO2 Max Explained

Phase Three Schedule

Weeks One-Three

  • Monday: off or easy (bottom of zone 1) recovery ride
  • Tuesday: VO2 max; start with two and add one each session until you get to a max of six.
  • Wednesday: VO2 max; even though these are high intensity, you can do them back to back because you are using a high cadence.
  • Thursday: endurance
  • Friday: recovery with 10 minutes of H.S.
  • Saturday: endurance ride.
  • Sunday: VO2 Max

Week Four

  • Recovery

I recommend reading this through a few times before you start. Even though it seems like I rushed through a few parts, all the information you need to complete this training plan can be found here. Once you finish that last recovery week I recommend another week or two of good hard rides that are specifically tailored to the kind of event you want to do. Don't worry about going into the event a little tired. If you've done the training right, your body will be ready to go after a couple hard days.

Good luck.

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Josh Horowitz is a USCF certified coach, owner and manager of the Wonderful Pistachios Pro Cycling team and an active Category 1 racer.

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