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Stepping Up Your Riding and Preparing for a Big Event with Alison Dunlap

Posted by: Shannon Boffeli |March 8, 2013 3:29 AM

Coach's Column with Alison Dunlap - Stepping Up Your Riding and Preparing for a Big Event

Question: "I am moving up to Cat 1 level racing this year and hope to do well at XC Nationals.  My season starts in mid-April.  What three things would you recommend I focus on most and why during this off-season to be ready to go in April and still be fresh for Nationals?"

Answer: Racing well at the Cat 1 level requires a commitment to training in the off-season that you may not have done in years previous.  Riders at the Cat 1 level are fast and extremely competitive. They will be extremely fit and will have spent a lot of time on the bike to get to this level.  To do well as a Cat 1 racer there are three major areas you need to focus on in your off-season; endurance, maximum sustainable power, and anaerobic power (Dave Morris Performance Cycling; Training for Power, Endurance, and Speed2003 p. 55).  A carefully constructed training plan will allow you to be ready to race in April and then peak for Nationals in July.

The first component of your off-season training plan should be endurance.  Endurance training enlarges the heart, increases stroke volume and blood flow, and increases the capacity of your muscular system; all necessary to be a successful cross country racer.   Lots of rides at your recovery, endurance, and low tempo zones are great.   Figure out how long the events you want to race are going to be and then do rides that are similar in duration.  If you plan to race the National Ultra Endurance series, then you should work up to long rides around 5-7 hours on the weekends.  If you only plan to do the Pro XCT races, then your long rides donít have to be much more than 3-4hrs.   I would also mix in some mid-level intensity on the weekends to keep your fast twitch muscle fibers from getting stale. This includes doing an assortment of sprints, leadout intervals, and "muscle tensionĒ workouts (60rpms in your tempo zone).  Your endurance block of training can begin in October and go through the end of December. 

The second component of your off-season training plan should be improving your power output.  This happens in two parts.  The first step in this process is increasing your short term power output.  This is accomplished by doing lots of very high intensity interval workouts.  The large amount of volume from the endurance phase drops dramatically and is replaced by short painful workouts.   These intervals are more commonly known as Vo2 intervals.  A typical workout might involve a 20 minute warm-up followed by 7x3 minutes on, 3 minutes off.  You want to ride as hard as you possibly can for the entire three minutes.  I like to mix it up with intervals ranging in length from 3 minutes to 10 minutes.  At the Cat 1 level you should be able to handle 3, 5, and up to 10 minute Vo2 efforts. There are no long rides during this block of training.  You will ride really hard on your interval days and then have lots of recovery days in between.  Vo2 intervals can be done during the month of January.

The next step in improving your power output is to increase your power output over long periods of time also known as your power at lactate threshold.  You will take the power you developed last block and use it for intervals that are longer and slightly less intense.  I personally feel like this is the hardest block of training, but will also do the most to improve your cycling. Lactate threshold intervals are theoretically done at a power output that you can sustain for an hour.  Your lactate threshold zone will usually range from 5-10 watts below and above your lactate threshold.    If you donít know your lactate threshold power and heart rate I recommend doing either a field test or going to a lab.  Intervals during this block are typically between 10-30 minutes in length with an equal amount of recovery time.  Early in the training program I would do these intervals slightly below your lactate threshold power and heart rate.  Later in the summer you can come back and do them slightly above. These workouts are very long and hard and will make you feel slow and flat.  To keep from losing everything you gained last block I recommend doing hard group rides or an occasional training race on the weekend to refresh your high end intensity.  Be sure to go very easy on your recovery days because you will need the rest.  This block of training can be done during the months of February and March.

The third component of your off-season training should be improving your anaerobic power.  This is the power you can sustain for only very short bursts of time.  These efforts are done anaerobically or without oxygen so your body can only do such efforts for 10-30 seconds.  As a cross country racer you may wonder why you would do these kinds of intervals.  Many times in a mountain bike race you have to power up a very steep technical section or sprint up a short steep hill.  Your body goes anaerobic for a few seconds.  If you donít train this system, then your body wonít be able to tolerate the huge amounts of lactate produced during these anaerobic efforts, which means your muscles will fatigue quickly and you will "explodeĒ.  Anaerobic intervals are typically very short with equally as short recoveries.  A typically workout might be 15 seconds as hard as you can go, followed by a 30 second recovery, 15 seconds on, 30 seconds off and so on for 10 minutes.  These intervals are fun because they are short and there are lots of variations which keep things exciting.  I like to do these intervals right before my race season begins.

Now that your season has begun in April, how do you maintain your fitness and then peak for Nationals in July?  I recommend doing high intensity training that mimics what you are doing in your races during the months of April and May.  In June I would go back and do more endurance work; tempo and lactate threshold. Remember these workouts make you feel flat so donít do these leading up to a big important event.  The 2-3 weeks before Nationals I would fine-tune with very specific high intensity intervals.  Try and match the length of intervals to what you think the course will be like at Nationals.  If the race is on very short steep punchy climbs, then you probably donít need to do efforts longer than 3 minutes.  But if the race is up at altitude in Colorado and you know the climbs are at least 30 minutes long, then I would do some 10 minute Vo2 race pace efforts. 

Remember that a successful training program isnít all about going hard all the time. Both active recovery days on the bike and rest days off the bike are a critical part of getting stronger.  Ride hard but also rest hard.  Hard training is all about creating a stress on the body and breaking it down.  The adaptations to all this hard training donít actually occur until your body has a recovery day or a rest week(s).  With a good mix of both you will see tremendous gains in your fitness and power and it wonít be long before all those Cat 1 racers are behind you.

Happy trails!


The information for this article came from Dave Morrisí book Performance Cycling; Training for Power, Endurance, and Speed, 2003.

Alison Dunlap is a certified Level II USAC Coach and has been working with athletes for thirteen years.  She coaches both road and mountain bikers and runs skills clinics and camps throughout the summer with her company the Alison Dunlap Adventure Camps.  Alison is also a two-time Olympian, MTB World Champion, and 13-time National Champion. Please visit for more information.






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