Ah, professional cyclists. They're super humans, able to put out more power than a posh vacuum for hour after hour, climbing mountains like they're nothing and descending down them like a 15 foot drop is easy. They race things like the Tour de France, and have their own training plan dedicated to their every need. But as time restricted amateur cyclists, is it possible to train like them?
If you have ever wondered how to train like a pro cyclist, then this article is for you. We'll discuss the demands, the types of training sessions they may encounter, their recovery, how to fuel, and many more tips on how you can take inspiration and adopt a training program like a Tour de France rider, but without the considerable training time.
From high intensity interval training to 20 hour weeks, there's nothing quite like the training plan of professional cyclists. There's plenty of demands that amateur cyclists may struggle with when trying to replicate a cycling training plan of the professionals, including things like time, motivation, and other important variables that all go into making a pro cyclist.
Time is possibly the biggest difference between amateur cyclists and pro cyclists. Pro cyclists literally ride their bike for their job, so they don't have to worry about fitting in their training schedule around a 9-5. Of course, there are exceptions and some amateurs that find the time for a 20 hour a week cycling training plan but we wouldn't recommend it - you can see plenty of gains in half the weekly time.
With cycling being a job for professionals, it comes a level of motivation that sometimes may be hard to replicate. These riders train to win and perform at the highest level in the world, so naturally, if you have a lot to think about outside of the bike like your family, your work and socialising, your motivation may suffer. Also, if the weather is not ideal and you're faced with a four hour ride on the turbo trainer, it's easy to want to avoid that training session.
A professional cyclist's training program also includes periodisation, aka, say they are trying to peak for the Tour de France. They will build up their endurance first, and then add in intensity slowly so that they peak in time for the race. This level of personalisation is something that can be found using cycling coaches or an app like Spoked and helps you to get the most out of your training time.
"If you want to see what a truly personalised plan might like for you, Spoked is free for the first 14 days so you can download the iPhone or Android app and create a plan.”
Alongside these factors, there is also plenty of attention made to an athletes nutrition, their recovery, any off-the-bike training time they may require, and finally, consistency. The key to any professional cyclist succeeding is consistently approaching their training schedule and completing hard sessions without compromise. This is, however, something that is tricky to do without the level of time they have.
A quote from leading digital publisher Cycling Weekly about riding like a pro suggests amateurs shouldn't try to replicate their training exactly.
"A direct translation from pro training to the life of someone with a full-time job isn’t a good idea if you want to get fast, but there are some features that can be taken from pro life to improve your cycling prowess."
Most athletes have specific training blocks within their training plans which allows them to peak for certain races or events, for example, the Tour de France. Each training block will encompass different types of workouts, for example, over winter, when a rider is returning to cycling after a short break, they will focus on easy sessions at a low intensity. Volume is key in the early stages of their season's training plans, as they want to rebuild their aerobic fitness after the winter layoff. Higher number of hours at low intensity such as zone two rides
“If you want to see more pro sessions like this from Spoked then download the iPhone or Android app. It’s worth checking out because it’s free for 14 days"
We've all heard the phrase, 'why stand when you can sit?' And 'why sit when you can lie down?' This is all to do with recovery and allowing a riders training to be their main focus. Everything before and after should be about recovery and making sure they are able to perform at their best, whether it's doing specific race intensities in training or on race day.
Recovering well from training allows riders to be at their best to perform in the next hard efforts or on race day. Sufficient recovery allows the body to rest and repair the muscles you've been working hard. It's also important as it increases your body's ability to recover from training hard, and without it can lead to overtraining or extreme fatigue.
So how do professional cyclists recover?
It usully begins with a recovery meal straight after their session. The type of meal might depend on the training day, whether it was low or high intensity, for example. A protein shake with some carbohydrate is a great way to kickstart recovery. Then, particularly in a stage race, riders might go for a massage which can help to alleviate any tightness in the muscles caused by training hard.
If a massage isn't available, lots of riders have begun to use massage guns or ice therapy where they put their legs inside cooled sleeves. In the evening, depending on the next day's schedule, they might drink a casein or overnight protein shake to top up their supplies.
On a more general basis, pro riders include things like rest days into their training, and periodisation of training to make sure they don't overtrain or run themselves into the ground. In a typical training plan, most coaches will now prescribe a lighter, almost 'recovery' week every third week of a plan. These will be shorter weeks with less high intensity sessions and a lower perceived exertion over the whole week to get your body ready for the next block of training.
Essentially, recovery is just as important as the training itself. If you skip this part of the pro cyclist lifestyle then you won't reach your full potential and will put yourself at risk of overtraining or injury.
Fuelling during training and racing can take a few different forms. On the hard sessions or on race day you want to be full of energy before you even get on the bike so that you can push through the efforts. Oftentimes this means loading yourself up with carbs a couple of days before your event, whether that be a road race or otherwise. Then on the day of your race or high intensity training schedule, you want to be looking at onboarding between 60-90g of carbohydrates per hour.
This isn't something that should be attempted for the first time on the day of the race, however, as like your legs, your stomach needs to be trained in order to successfully absorb the sheer volume of carbohydrate otherwise you might end up like a certain Mr Dumoulin in the Giro d'Italia.
On a medium day, with something like a long ride or a couple of manageable anaerobic threshold intervals, it can be a good time to practice getting in a couple of extra grams of carbs per hour. Alternatively, if it is only a medium intensity day, then you may only need to aim for 40 - 80 g of carbs per hour.
It's a balance between fuelling enough to keep your system topped up for the intensity of the riding you'll be doing and not overfuelling, or underfuelling which can lead to many riders feeling unwell and not performing as well as they could.
Fuelling on a recovery day usually sees less carbohydrates being consumed. That's not to say you need to remove all carbs from your day, just have less than usual as you won't be using them in training as fuel.
Professional riders at the top level will often have a sports psychologist working with them to get the best out of themselves. It's not uncommon for even the pros to have nerves or butterflies before a big race or an FTP test, but it's what they do with their emotions that makes them. Being able to recognise nerves or a negative thought pattern is important, and top riders can accept this before framing them in a positive way.
Motivation is another thing that people struggle with, but for professionals, their job is quite literally to ride a bike and train. If they skip sessions and start reducing their riding, their job performance will suffer - so it's not always the same for athletes as it is for amateurs.
That being said, being a professional cyclist doesn't always have the glamour that people assume it might. Private jets, private chefs and general wealth aren't the end goal, and they're not attainable by 99% of professionals. Instead, they try to remember that being a pro is only a short amount of time in their lifespan (unless you're Alejandro Valverde, of course) and enjoy the ride, reminding themselves why they ride and why they picked up a bike in anger in the first place.
Although many cyclists have a degree of panache and look like they may have been born on a bicycle, most riders need to practice certain skills so that they can ride fast in a peloton without crashing or causing harm to other riders.
Skills like cornering and descending contribute a lot to maintaining speed whether you're in a peloton or not. Being able to safely descend means you'll lose less time on a descent, while cornering is a basic skill every cyclist should learn - racer or not.
Aim for the apex and enter the corner wide. If you're in a peloton or behind other riders, the most important thing you can do is stick to your line and follow the wheel in front. Being predictable is the best way to keep yourself and other riders safe in a group. This applies to race and non-race conditions.
Lots of riders nowadays use their off season to try some other disciplines of cycling to help boost their bike handling skills. Mountain biking, cyclocross, gravel and track riding are all great ways to improve your confidence on the bike and mean you'll be less likely to cause an incident in a race.
Strength training and working in the gym is not just something riders do in the off season anymore. Gym work is often prescibed year round, albeit in different forms depending on the training block a cyclist is in.
Over the winter, developing your core work and power is ideal. Exercises like planks, lunges and squats are all great for racing cyclists as they develop your body's stability and strength in similar ways to the bike, but more targeted.
As the season progresses, strength training becomes less about making gains and more about maintaining - particularly coming up to a race or event, as workouts in the gym do add to a rider's fatigue.
Want more suggestions? Read our article on strength training for cyclists here.
Top level riders travel a lot. As the WorldTour calendar picks up for both men and women, riders face more and more days on the road, so it's important they are able to travel and remain relaxed and ready for their events. So how do they do it?
Easy to use during travel, compression socks are great for reducing swelling by improving blood circulation to your legs and ankles. They are worth considering, particularly if you're going to be sat still for a long period of time.
When riders arrive at their destination, they will often head out on the bike for a short ride to spin the legs. It doesn't even have to include a power meter, they just want to get the blood flowing and legs moving after being sat still for a long time.
Getting sick is not ideal for anyone, but even less so for a professional athlete. Cycling can be quite hard on the body, so riders travelling tend to avoid massively hard sessions in the days leading up to some big travel plans. Keeping their immune system functioning well is important, so they'll be keeping on top of their vegetables and minerals to make sure they don't catch anything while they travel.
TrainingPeaks has some good advice for travelling athletes:
"One way to bolster your defenses is to stay hydrated and eat fresh, vitamin-packed food (unlike the packaged fare typically found on planes). Not only do airplane meals typically fail to satisfy a hungry athlete with a fast metabolism, but they often lack the nutrients you need to be at your best when you step off the plane."
Pro cyclists and their training plans are vastly different to those of us amateurs. They have endless hours to dedicate to not only riding their bike but making sure they have enough energy for key sessions and recovery off the bike.
You shouldn't aim to emulate a professional rider completely or you'll burn out very quickly - but, you can take some inspiration from them and their training. Hopefully some of what we've covered above has given you some ideas on how to train like a pro cyclist, but without the 20+ hours a week in the saddle.
Spoked takes the fundamentals from pro cyclist plans and applies them to yours. It offers individually tailored plans that are flexible and can be used by anybody, from first time rider to national champion.