How to build a 12 week cycling training plan

Rebecca Bland
10 mins

As a rule of thumb, structured training is more beneficial to improving your overall fitness than riding without structure. By a structured training plan we don't mean you have to be following everything to a tee, and have every meal planned out for the next six months.

Instead, having an event or race day in mind and working towards those goals is a sure fire way to add purpose to your cycling training, and improve your cycling fitness. You don't have to be aiming for the Olympics to benefit from a training plan, although if you are keen to understand how to train like a pro, read our blog here.

In this article, we'll get into the nitty gritty of what it takes to design and follow a 12 week cycling training plan. 12 weeks or three months is a decent amount of time to prepare yourself for an event, and although personalised plans (like on Spoked) are naturally the superior cycling training plans, you can use this article to understand what you should be doing or looking for in your cycling training plan based on your own goals.

"You can easily build your 12-week plan in Spoked under 60 seconds. Spoked is free for the first 14 days so you can download the iPhone or Android app and create a plan.”

What are the key demands of the event?

Firstly, it's important to think about what you're working towards, what all those training sessions and longer rides are for - your target event. Whether it's a 100 mile sportive or a 10 mile time trial, we recommend starting by breaking the event down into quarters.

So for example, a 100 mile sportive would be broken into four 25 mile sections. The key to this is making the event, however big, more manageable. By ticking off these chunks within the event you can firstly mentally prepare yourself for what's coming, but also by achieving smaller goals within the larger event you'll feel more confident in your ability.

If we use the 100 mile sportive as an example, and say you have a target time of completing it in 6 hours, each quarter will take roughly 90 minutes to complete. The first quarter will be spent easing into it, you don't want to go out too fast here otherwise you'll start to suffer later on. You also want to be thinking about eating, even as early as the first 90 minutes. If you're planning to be on the bike for 6 hours, you need to make sure you're eating and drinking enough even over flat terrain.

The second quarter you still want to be maintaining an even effort - if you have a power meter or monitor your heart rate, you'll be able to identify if you're working too hard or expending more energy than you need to to maintain a consistent pace throughout the event.

The third quarter signifies you're over the halfway mark. This can be a mental boost, particularly if you've been struggling so far. Your endurance fitness will begin to come into play, but if you've been undertaking consistent training then it shouldn't be too much of a stress.

During the final quarter you might find you gain a second wind, as mentally, you're in the home stretch now. If you've stuck to your training zones and have been fuelling correctly, then you should be okay and make it to the end without too much stress. Nonetheless, any event can be a big day on the bike, so it's important to understand what the key benchmarks are to success in your particular event.

Let's continue with the 100 mile sportive example. So say it's a hilly sportive, with some medium length climbs and a couple of short, steep ones. Now many riders will immediately jump to improving their functional threshold power (FTP), which is the maximum effort you can sustain over an hour, usually it's measured through a 20 minute test.

However, while it might be great for overall fitness, for a hillier, longer sportive that's going to really test your anaerobic and aerobic base, the FTP isn't the be all and end all that many think it is. For steep, shorter climbs perhaps your 1 minute power, or Vo2 max is more appropriate. When you need that shorter surge of power, your cycling training plan should reflect this need and incorporate intensive effort training sessions that focus on improving this benchmark.

Every Spoked goal is aligned to a benchmark group. It's not always about the FTP.
Every Spoked goal is aligned to a benchmark group. It's not always about the FTP.

We spoke about it in a previous blog, but this is where dynamic cycling training plans come to life compared to static cycling training plans. With those designed specifically with your goals in mind, whether it be a hilly sportive or a time trial, for example, the plans can be tailored to help you get from where you are now, to where you need to be come the big day.

A Wattbike static cycling training plan
Wattbike has created a static training plan targeting sportives

What will it take to be competitive? 

Typically, the longer you give yourself to train before an event, the fitter you will be and thus the more prepared you will be. If you want to be competitive or fit for your event, then your cycling training plan should really be at least 12 weeks in length. This amount of time gives your body a good amount of time to adapt to the training stress and take in enough structured training to really benefit your riding.

When you build your training plan in Spoked, you receive a plan overview that automatically adjusts to your health and ride data
When you build your training plan in Spoked, you receive a plan overview that automatically adjusts to your health and ride data

The longest ride you do prior to your event will depend on the event you've chosen, but we'd recommend doing some long rides just below your target distance if it's particularly long. For example, if your cycling training plan s aimed at a 100 mile sportive, then to feel confident enough on the day of the event, you should be looking at riding around 80 miles in training, if not a little more. You don't want to fatigue yourself too much before the event, but you also want that confidence that you will be able to complete it.

The amount of hours you should be aiming for in the saddle per week depends on your schedule and the event you're targeting. If you're looking to ride an ultra event, you will need much more time to spend on a training ride, particularly focusing on an endurance session each week and base training to allow your body to build that fitness it needs at a low intensity to prepare for the sheer volume of time on the bike. If you're looking to ride a shorter event, like a 100 mile sportive, then you can see plenty of gains by riding 10 hours a week, including a long ride in your training plan.

Now, if we use a different example, something like a race, your requirements to being competitive are going to be slightly competitive. Ideally, you'll already have a few bike races under your belt so you know how to compfortably ride in a compact bunch and you can react to the ebbs and flows of the peloton.

However, if you haven't, it's not the end of the world - try and get out on as many group rides as you can to get a feel for riding close to others, and see if there are any more experienced riders that can pass on some knowledge. Otherwise, it comes down to tactics and power.

While it's impossible to know what sort of power to weight or FTP you'll need to win or be competitive in a cycling race, the chart below can be used to give you a very rough indication on what sort of fitness level you can expect to encounter in each level of racing.

Rider Categorization Based on FTP: How Do I Rank? | Zwift Insider
A chart to help you categorise your watts per kg.

How to fuel for the event

Although there are a lot of things on the day of your event that you won't be able to control, fuelling is one of the few things that you can. The latest research tells us that fuelling should be different to reflect the level of intensity of your ride.

If you're riding an intensive effort, then you will require more fuel, aka carbohydrates. Per hour, you might look to eat and drink between 60 and 90 grams of carbohydrates. This could be through drink and food, so don't feel that you need to be wolfing down a whole loaf of bread every 20 minutes. British cycling has some good resources on how to make sure you avoid stomach issues when upping your carb intake or when riding in different training zones on the bike.

Essentially, however, it's important that you consider your stomach like your legs - they need to be trained and so does your digestive system. If you go from eating nothing to trying to eat 90g of carbs an hour on the bike, you'll quickly regret it. Start slow and gradually increase the amount you're eating and drinking.

During your training, it's a great idea to test any new foods you may introduce during your event day
During your training, it's a great idea to test any new foods you may introduce during your event day

Hydration is also key, not just for carbohydrate intake but for replacing the lost electrolytes through your training session. The amount you need to drink can vary due to a number of factors: weather conditions, intensity, and your sweat rate for example. As a rule of thumb, try to drink roughly 500ml at least every hour, but if you want to understand how much you should be drinking to stay on top of your hydration, you can work out your sweat rate using the method below.

  1. Measure your nude weight before a session and your nude weight after (towel off).
  2. Subtract the total fluid you consumed during your session consumed to calculate your sweat rate.

For example:

  • During a 1hr ride, you consumed 1 litre of fluid (Which is equal to roughly 1kg)
  • Your pre-session weight was 80kg
  • Your post-session weight was 78kg, which equals 2 litres lost
  • 1 L fluid consumed + 1 litre put back = total of 3 litres lost

If we put it into a calculation it would look like: 80kg-78kg= 2L     

2kg + 1L = 3L sweat rate

In order to replace your lost fluids, you must replace 1.5x what you've lost, so to replace 3L you actually need to replace 4.5L. Keeping hydrated is incredibly important, not just for your perceived exertion rate but for your body's ability to exercise efficiently. Even a 2% decrease in body weight through dehydration is enough to notably impair your performance on the bike.

In terms of fuelling strategies and overall cycling nutrition, we've put together some examples of what you might want to consider eating and drinking during training and racing.

On a race or training day, aim for breakfast 2-3hrs before. This gives your stomach time to digest your meal before your ride so you don't start the ride feeling full. Here are two ideas for breakfast:

  • Large bowl oats with milk or Greek yoghurt nuts, seeds, fruit, honey / syrup, pinch of salt
  • Or 3-4 slices toast with nut butter, jam, 2-3 eggs, avocado, fruit 

When you're on the bike, make sure you have enough to eat and drink for the duration of your ride or race, by following these tips:

  • Take 1L bottles on bike and have electrolyte and carb solutions pre-mixed in the bottles
  • On a hot day aim for 1L/hr (this is where looking at your sweat rate will help you to tailor your fuelling)
  • Start drinking within 15mins and eating within 30minutes of roll out
  • Mid-ride, look to consume 240-400kcal/hr: e.g. 2 gels (200kcal), 1 bar (250kcal), banana (100kcal), energy chews (100kcal/pack), carb drink (150kcal/500mL)
  • Try and keep to solid food in the first two hours only, as yes the gels are great sources of energy, but they can be quite sickly and are more likely to give you some GI distress
  • On race day try to go for more of a liquid gel vs thick like GU. E.g. SIS, Mountain Fuel Sports Jelly, High5, Kendal Mint Gel
  • In the final hour, stick to liquid gels instead of solid food, as you need the energy to be released quickly, ready for the final attack or ramp up of your training ride

There are plenty of things you can do to improve your exercise nutrition, and different parts of your training plan will require different focuses. For example, on a rest day, you won't need quite as many carbohydrates as a day where you are training your lactate threshold zone. Learning about your sweat rate and how your body reacts to certain foods as you build fitness and go further along in your training plan will pay dividends on your big day.

The mindset you need to have for your event

Thankfully cycling nowadays has begun to appreciate just how important mindset is for success. Not just in racing, but for sportives and amateur events too. No matter what the event is, you need to get your head in gear to perform at your best.

So, how do you get into the right mindset for your event? Like we discussed earlier, breaking the event down into chunks is one of the best ways of making it more manageable, particularly if it's a long ride.

If we go back to the 100 mile sportive example, breaking it into 25 mile chunks will make it seem far more achievable than counting down from 100. Of course, just because you're thinking in 25s doesn't suddenly mean you won't face any mental fatigue during the event.

It helps to remember, however, that everyone is in the same boat, and that everyone is hurting just as much as you. If you're racing, this is particularly apt, and remembering that you are not the only one suffering can really help your mindset. Take the race as it comes, one corner at a time, or in a circuit race, one lap at a time, and focus on your techniques. In our 'how to train like a pro cyclist' blog, we touch on some of the skills these riders focus on, you can read more about them here.

The biggest thing you can do to help your mindset on race or event day is by having confidence in your cycling training plans. Consistency is key, and if you've been hitting your benchmarks, taking enough rest days and getting in the hours per week you need to complete your key sessions, then you should have enough confidence that you can get yourself through.

Training equipment / bike you need 

To be competitive, or successfully complete your event you don't need the most expensive equipment in the world. What matters more is that you have a bike that fits you well, is well-maintained and is functional.

Naturally, if you're thinking about time trials then yes, equipment is more important. But for a sportive or if you're getting into racing, then you don't need to splash out on thousands of pounds worth of equipment.

Being comfortable and having the right bike for you, with everything mechanically sound is the most important thing. When you spend more time on the bike it might be tempting to splash the cash, but unless you're sure the purchase will make a noticeable difference to your training or performance, then worry more about following your cycling training plans as well as you can and let your legs do the talking.

During training, while you get used to carrying items on your bike, or perhaps if you don't feel comfortable reaching for food in your pockets, why not consider a pouch on the top tube or a bar bag? No, they're not aerodynamic but they can make it easier for you to fuel. Always make sure you take enough tools to deal with minor mechanicals on the road. If you're out on a long endurance session, the last thing yuo need is to have a puncture 30 miles from home and realise you forgot your pump. Be prepared.

Continuing with the fuelling theme, for longer events, why not consider bigger bottles? If you're worried about managing between feed stops or events where you might not be able to stop at all for extra water, two 750ml bottles adds essentially an extra bottle of 500ml to your bike. It could be that extra boost you need to get you through to the finish.

How Spoked can help 

Following static cycling training plans is of course more likely to help you reach your goal than if you just rode without focus, but a dynamic, flexible plan like you get from Spoked (or a coach) will help you cut the junk miles and be more efficient with your time on the bike.

Spoked - adaptive mode where every completed session can adjust your remaining sessions for the week
Spoked - adaptive mode where every completed session can adjust your remaining sessions for the week

Start by outlining your goal. Is it to increase your FTP, or to beat your friends? Or maybe you want to tackle a rolling road race or a time trial. Spoked has training plans for all of these goals.

Then, enter your training volume - this is the amount of time you can dedicate to cycling training per week. You can edit each day to determine how many hours you can ride, and set out which days you want as rest days. Spoked can help to give you guidance on the hours per week you want to ride to see the best results, and the best part is - all this can be edited at any time.

When setting your ride time you can choose between types of rides. We know that you won't always be able to follow a planned ride, and sometimes you need to go for a ride with your mates without any structure, which is why we include the option of a free ride.

"Spoked fits around your lifestyle and riding. Spoked is free for the first 14 days so you can download the iPhone or Android app and create a plan today.”

Choose between free rides, structured training and another activity (for example, running or strength training), and the plan will build itself each week. Once you've completed a session, the algorithm detects how well you worked to the planned workout and changes your plan to adapt to your progress.

Final thoughts

While it's difficult to write a plan for a cyclist without knowing their end goal, hopefully this article has given you a few ideas on what you should focus on when you look for a 12 week training plan.

Static plans can have their place, but to really be prepared for your race day or event, an adaptive plan like those Spoked produces can be tailored to your personal goals and takes into account your physical and mental health among other factors, rather than just assigning a blanket list of workouts to be completed each week.

If you want to give Spoked a try, it's free for the first 14 days, simply download the app from the App Store or Google Play.