There is an old saying that racing is the best form of training. However like many old adages this is only true some of the time. Specifically for cycling it mainly holds true as you get closer to your target race and then usually when the format and course for the race suitably replicates the demands you expect to encounter during your main event. At other times racing serves different purposes, for example allowing you to hone your race craft and tactics. At other times racing can be one of the worst types of training. If you want to know why, read on.
There is a false assumption in cycling that the higher the intensity the better the training and therefore racing or fast paced bunch rides are the ultimate training sessions. However, while racing and fast bunches do have their place in a training program it would be more accurate to say that high intensity training at the correct time is extremely beneficial but at other times it can actually hinder the development of a rider. To explain we need to delve in to a bit of exercise physiology, specifically muscle fibres and energy systems (I will do my best not to get too technical).
At the very heart of a good training program lies one objective, improving race day performance. To achieve this a coach (or rider) needs to understand the demands for various types of events – specifically which energy systems and muscle fibers provide the greatest contribution to power output and results. This is where matching a riders abilities to types of races, or even specific types of course is important. Take the track sprint event, which is highly anaerobic and predominantly utilises the Fast Twitch muscles fibers, of which there are two types, referred to as either IIa and IIb or FOG and FG (Fast Oxidative Glycolytic and Fast Glycolytic). The difference between these is the FOG fibers can operate both aerobically and anaerobically while the FG fibers are purely anaerobic. These are also the real power house fibers that sprinters rely on to obtain their insanely high power numbers (2000+ watts) but the downside is that they fatigue quite rapidly and the energy supply (alactic energy system) is quickly depleted. The FOG fibers on the other hand still generate high power but they don’t fatigue quite as fast and while they can operate aerobically (oxidative state) they rely on the lactic energy system – and as the name suggests produce lactate when in use. Some track sprinters have a high initial power then fade quite quickly (high FG percentage but lower FOG), while others don't quite have the same peak power but can hold their sprint much longer (moderate FG and higher FOG %). On the road its primarily the aerobic system and Slow Twitch (Slow Oxidative - SO) fibers, with some contributions from the FOG and FG fibers at various points throughout the race (attacks, short climbs,etc). Where and why this is important is that riders with more fibers of a particular type are better suited to different events but more importantly, the training for each type of energy system and muscle fiber is different and therefore the type of training session or interval also needs to vary for maximum benefit. The demands of each event are also unique and therefore your training also needs to be tailored to those demands.
So what has this got to do with why training sessions might be better options than races?
Early in the season the training focus needs to be on developing the key energy systems. Quite often in races the intensity can be quite low for significant periods so the training effect is also quite low (even though there will undoubtedly be harder points throughout the race). A common option is riding to a race and this can be fine so long at the intensity before and/or after the race is right for your current training needs. The other question is of course whether the racing serves a different purpose, other than physical conditioning. I can’t underestimate the importance of getting out and racing just to work on your race craft, skills and tactics.
Closer to your main target race you need to be very selective about your training races, even to the point that you may ride some with no real tactical plan other than to push yourself hard. This can mean riding on the front and setting a solid pace for much longer periods than you would in a race you might be trying to win. It can also be heaps of fun just getting on the front and stringing the bunch out behind you and knowing that other people are hurting as well. It’s also good practise for your real race day as it helps teach you just how long and how hard you can push for in a race before you hit your limits.
Most importantly, picking events with similar terrain to your target race will help ensure you are training the correct muscle fibers and energy systems. One example of this is your typically, undulating to moderately hilly road race. If the climbs you will encounter take no more than 3-8 minutes to ascend then don’t waste your training time doing uber long climbs. What you need is better power over the short to medium climbs so you need to simulate that in your training. Break up the climbs to simulate what happens on race day. Start the climb hard and then settle down into a solid tempo/threshold before accelerating (sometimes to an all out sprint) over the top. Sometimes you may also want to push a bit further over the top to simulate when that happens in a road race too. For races with long climbs, by all means get out and find some long climbs to build your climbing strength and endurance. For flat, fast races you need (surprise, surprise) flat and fast training sessions. Flat races, crits, fast bunches, motor-pacing, time trials, there are heaps of options.
A note on bunch rides: Bunch rides provide an altogether different mix of training opportunities and problems. Most bunch rides follow a set format and understanding the format and how it will stress you will determine whether a ride is beneficial or not. It’s also important that your training requirements don’t override the format of the bunch. Just because you have a 10min threshold effort to do doesn’t justify you jumping on the front and ramping up the pace through sections that are supposed to be recovery or pace-lined. These are important facets of the format of that particular bunch ride and you wont win any friends by disrupting the balance. You can find the same in some road races but its generally deemed more acceptable in that environment.
How can you use this information?
The next time you consider adding a ‘training race’ or a bunch ride into your schedule take a moment to think what your current training or skills focus and objectives are. Figure out whether the race/bunch ride will help you meet those objectives and how you are going to integrate your training into the format of the bunch or race.
Note: Don’t forget races and bunches can provide a great social environment and this is also important. Don’t stress over the training aspects for these rides so much, just ensure the sessions you do throughout the rest of the week are dealing with your race day needs.