Fresh from his big signing with Team Sky earlier in the year, Irishman Nicolas Roche shares one of his favorite training sessions with us and helps us understand how you can do it, too.
"One of the most effective workouts I do is a four-hour ride, incorporating two big efforts on a long climb either in the Peak District (in Derbyshire in the UK) or at our training base in Mallorca, Spain. I do these climbs a lot, and know times, heart rate and average power on each of them. I use this data as a bit of a guide, but rather than just riding up them, I have a specific system that I use.
"What I do is ride just below my threshold for a specific time (anywhere from 2 to 5 minutes), then go slightly over my threshold for the same amount of time. I keep alternating, dipping just below my threshold then riding at just above it all the way to the top. The climbs I'm talking about take between 12 and 15 minutes to complete, so I'll do them a number of times. But the important bit is those efforts either side of threshold, using the time under to recover, and the time over to improve and get stronger."
The threshold Roche refers to is his anaerobic threshold, or the effort he can hold for one hour if he has to. It's hard riding but sustainable, the maximum power a cyclist can produce aerobically. However, if this level of effort is exceeded for any length of time it quickly becomes incredibly difficult as lactic acid rapidly floods the muscles.
"The work that we do above threshold (usually 5% over) is difficult and can be a bit painful, "Roche explains, "but it simulates the way bike races often go. You never have a race that is perfectly consistent - people are always surging and attacking, and to chase them down you often have to ride well above threshold then recover quickly."
You can do it too
These Under/Over sessions (or spiked sessions) are great for riders of all levels and abilities. You can do this training session using a wind trainer or on a long consistent climb. Have a good long warm-up, taking about 15 or 20 minutes to break into a light sweat. Then ride for 5 minutes at 5% under your threshold, followed by 1 minute at 5% above your threshold. Then keep riding at 5% under your threshold for 2 minutes, and 5% above it for 1 minute until your total workout time is between 15 and 18 minutes. As your fitness improves you can add another block of 15 to 18 minutes, with a 5 minute recovery between the hard blocks. Conclude your training with 10 minutes of easy spinning.
If you don't know your threshold, you can do a 20-minute test to figure it out. Ride as hard as you can for 20 minutes - really push yourself - and take 95% of that number to represent your threshold power. So if you ride at 200 Watts for 20 minutes, your threshold will be 190 Watts. If you are using heart rate instead of power, you can use your average heart rate for the 20-minute effort as your threshold heart rate.
"This type of training works well for everyone," says Roche. "It will condition road racers to make sustained attacks or chase down breakaways, and it will help Gran Fondo riders bridge from a slower group to a faster one. In general terms, it does wonders for your overall fitness.
"But just bear in mind this is pretty tough training, and even in a ProTour team like Sky we would only do it once every 2 or 3 days. Once a week is definitely enough to begin with."