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Finding your correct training volume

Updated: Jan 7, 2020

I love watching Thibaut Pinot race, when he's on a good day he's great, arguably one of the most attacking riders out there. He knows that he's so close to achieving the ultimate goal, he's just consistently inconsistent. His bad days are catastrophic and if it's painful for fans to watch, put yourself in his shoes!

I have discussed in another blog the importance of consistency, assuming you are now training regularly - what volume should you be aiming for when training on the bike?

In order to improve your endurance capacity, you would imagine that hours in the saddle is the right way to go. This is correct to some degree, therefore volume is just as important as intensity. However, there is a quality/quantity balance that varies from rider to rider.

Endurance work develops a numerous range of physiological adaptations, involving your heart, blood vessels, nerves and muscles. This steady state training forces the body into using your stored energy more efficiently, which is essential for athletes that will be competing in longer events. Through consistent stimulation of these physiological pathways, the body adapts and becomes more efficient and therefore endurance increases. Riders with a large base and years of riding experience develop the ability to efficiently transfer forces from muscular contraction to the pedals. Improved efficiency means caloric requirements are reduced, elite cyclists actually have to pay close attention to avoid putting on weight during this base period despite the large volume.

How do Pro’s cope with high volumes

Pro tour riders and experienced amatures typically have the ability to absorb large volumes of training. Their bodies have made the physical adaptations required to cope with the solid base of endurance training and right balance of intensity.

The winter build-up phase is a key element when getting race-ready. Anecdotal evidence suggests riders with a solid base, achieved through a high training volume over time, are better able to cope with and adapt from such overload periods. Thus, increasing their chances of greater race performance. Later in the training plan you overload your body with training stimulus with large amounts of intensive training in a short timespan. Volume may decrease at the expense of quality Z4 sessions, though my clients that have ultra endurance targets still require Z1/2 typically in an 80/20 ratio.

Increasing training volume too quickly, increases the risk of injury and overreaching. As with threshold and VO2 training, development of the ability to cope with high training volumes is a process that takes time. As a guide increases of 5% per week would be a typical progression for the average cyclist.

What’s best for you?

There are exemptions to the idea that “more is better”, work and family commitments may limit the available training time. A large base block of 10-12 hours a week is just not practical for the majority of riders I coach.

If you still want to improve your endurance capacity, there are alternative methods of doing this than maximising the amount of training volume. With this in mind i suggest polarised training for my clients and closely monitor the intervals and progression through each block. This technique of polarised training has proven to yield rapid gains in VO2 max and lactate threshold power, the clients have to be very strict with their recovery rides to avoid falling into the trap of overtraining.

I always start my clients training plan with a thorough consultation, we will block off the ‘A’ races in the calendar and work backwards. Developing a rider is a long process and typically starts with increasing the quality and quantity of their training volume. That scenario works well if the client approaches me in the off season when we have time on our side. However, if the rider is short on time and wants to get fit for a race that is only months away, I would consider lower volume and higher intensity training.

Increasing the yearly training volume is a key step in the development of young athletes in any endurance sport. A prime example of the is Thibaut Pinot who with his coach and older brother Julien, and Fred Grappe, FDJ’s coach and director of science, published all his training and racing data from the past six years.

Pinot’s volume and intensity has increased at a linear rate and with a bit of luck he should be a Grand Tour winner soon.

To summarise aim for training consistency then an increase in training volume is the natural progression to consider if you are looking to improve your performance.

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