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What is Tempo Training? And should it be part of my winter training programme?

Updated: Jan 7, 2020

We all the commitments my clients have in their everyday life, we are typically working with 60 - 90 min training time to spare on weekdays. So what type of training ride should they be doing during the base phase? With limited time to devote to 'base miles' in the winter, what's would be the most efficient way to achieving aerobic adaptations and keep the training interesting?

Road ride or smart trainer

I design training plans for clients with the experience of 30 years riding behind me and a good idea of what is sustainable during a typical British winter. I do not want my clients to ever go too deep on their fatigue (ATL), so repeated endurance rides in the cold and wet are just miserable, dangerous involve quite a lot of additional bike maintenance and cleaning. Now if you are a full time cyclist who has the luxury of spending the winter in Gran Canaria, we can probably double the time on the bike and focus on building the base steadily through Z1/2 training. Unfortunately, I haven't got a client in this situation, so I put a lot of thought into each and every minute of training I assign my clients.

Z1/2 endurance training on the smart trainer can be quite monotonous and just not practical for the average cyclist. So to achieve those consistent steady aerobic adaptations, you make better use of your time and ride harder! So by adding blocks of slightly more intensity (Sweet Spot) the shorter time crunched rides and indoor trainer sessions. Sweet Spot is defined as being between Tempo and FTP, but now it has it's very own, clearly defined level 88%-95% FTP. 

Tempo Training

You'll notice from the chart that more positive adaptations occur from riding in zone 3 than in zone 2 alone. If you are using a power meter, riding tempo (Z3) will be represented by a greater total workload measured in kilojoules and higher TSS. If you’re using a heart rate monitor or RPE, well, it’s just a notch higher. All represent greater training adaptations than zone 2 alone.

When riding tempo in a group it should be something that everyone has agreed on as it falls into what I like to call “evens”, everyone should be riding at that even tempo - no half-wheeling. You can have conversations at this pace but it'll probably start getting a bit quiet towards the end of the ride. Tempo doesn’t elicit the pain like threshold training does unless it’s for an extended period of time, for me these would be my 3 hour road rides in winter. Plus, tempo is more technically stimulating than Z3, should be done without stops so feeding on the go is the order of the day.

So it's tempo riding all winter.......err no

There are several reasons I want to have an initial consultation with a client before starting a winter training programme. However, in the context of this article I would want to establish the following:

  • Has the client already completed a decent block of Z2 aerobic endurance training?

  • If the client has been following the classical model of 80/20 periodisation, is there a need for even greater training load in order to stimulate further adaptations.

  • Time crunched cyclists, are not reaching their potential because their insufficient training load is not as high as they could if they had more time to train. Tempo delivers a greater training load and that’s why is beneficial for cyclists training with a limited amount of time.

Tempo Session Examples

  • Zone 3: 2 x 10 min ON 5 min OFF (Tempo = 76 – 90% of FTP)

  • Zone 3: 3 x 10 min ON 5 min OFF  

  • Zone 3: 2 x 20 min ON 10 min OFF

  • Zone 3: 3 x 15 min ON 7.5 min OFF

  • Zone 3: 4 x 15 min ON 7.5 min OFF

As with all phases (base, build, race etc) within your training plan, start off gradually. So incorporate a few zone/level 3 tempo intervals into your midweek 90 minute trainer ride. Start conservatively with two or three 6 – 10 minute tempo intervals and steadily increase duration. It is totally acceptable to build your way up to twenty or thirty minute tempo intervals for 60 minutes total tempo . At some point I would suggest that the client move from tempo towards more sweetspot to keep that progression going, this would be the build phase post base. Tempo has its place in a training programme, however I would suggest that the coach/client pay close attention to the accumulation of fatigue from repeated tempo efforts which would be at the expense of maximal aerobic efforts and VO2Max.

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