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Unstructuring your Training

The spring season is in full swing, and the local fast group training rides are ramping up in intensity. How should we approach these local hammer sessions for training and performance?



Over the past couple of years, I've observed a clear pattern in annual or seasonal training that warrants analysis. I refer to it as the "fast group ride" pattern, characterized by two distinct stages: a winter/spring base stage and a spring performance stage. These stages are distinguished by their training approaches. The well-structured winter training program focuses on fundamental training principles such as progression and specificity, and as the days lengthen and local group rides become more prevalent in summer, training shifts towards a less structured emphasis on group rides. Let's delve deeper into each phase.


Structured Winter Base and Build

With increased access to coaching, training plans, and quality training information, more riders are utilizing the winter season for structured training programs, aided further by online platforms like Zwift. These programs typically include 3–5 days of structured training rides per week following a periodized approach and incorporating variations such as HIIT or polarized training.


Spring Performance

This stage sees riders utilizing their hard-earned base fitness to excel in local group rides. While participating in races or bucket list events remains common, many find joy in the camaraderie of local rides, often attending two to four per week.


How does each phase impact training? And what are the advantages and disadvantages of both structured and unstructured formats?


Structured Training

Structured training operates on two levels: high-level planning featuring micro and macro cycles and daily workouts characterized by structured endurance or interval work. There are typically two to three harder interval workouts and two to three endurance workouts each week.


Pros

  • Controlled progression ensures adherence to exercise principles by manipulating load and intensity

  • Specific targeting of desired fitness or performance

  • Improved aerobic system response compared to unstructured training

Cons

  • Motivation may decline after 8-12 weeks

  • Slow progression may lead to training stagnation and performance plateau

Challenges and impact on performance 

  • The quality of the training program/plan is very important 

  • 20+ weeks of structured training can lead to stagnation and limit ongoing growth 


Unstructured Training

Defined by individual preferences for the day, unstructured training emphasizes enjoyment and current motivation over specific outcomes. It often includes two to four group rides per week and solo rides with varying intensities.


Pros

  • Mimics real-world cycling and encourages varied efforts

  • Enhances speed through the demands of group riding

  • Fun and motivating, particularly when riding with friends

Cons

  • Lacks specificity in training stimuli

  • May lead to decline in aerobic fitness over time

  • Too many harder, non-specific groups rides will erode aerobic capacity 

Challenges 

  • Too many harder, non-specific groups rides will erode aerobic capacity and should be limited to two per week


Which method is best?

For the average rider, a combination of both is ideal, unless you have a high-level performance goal. Incorporating group rides into a structured training plan can provide the benefits of both approaches. Here's how:


Early Winter: Structured Training

For the initial 6-8 weeks of a 12-week winter training program, focus on building aerobic base through Endurance, Tempo, and Sweet Spot training without adding faster group rides or online racing.


Late Winter: Structured Training

In the final 4-6 weeks, consider adding one group ride or online race per week to enhance speed and prepare for the transition to spring group rides or unstructured training.

Spring


Spring and Early Summer

Limit hard group rides to twice a week, scheduling them after rest days. Ensure these hard days are intense. Additionally, incorporate one longer, disciplined Endurance ride each week to maintain stamina.


Ongoing structured training would likely result in higher peak and performance capacity, but each rider should match their training to their why. If you love to cycle and have fun with friends but still want a high level of performance but maybe not peak, this combo of methods can be rewarding. The key is to keep it enjoyable!


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