In this article, I will share a method to improve your road cycling performance. It’s a method that takes into consideration many of the techniques and terminologies a lot of you may have heard of before – base training, high-intensity interval training, rest and recovery, progressive overload, periodisation, polarised training, etc. – and blends them all into an easy, digestible framework you can take away and implement in your own training operating rhythm.
Please note that the Stepladder Approach sits at the cornerstone of the Road Cycling Academy’s (RCA) training methods and thus has been the enabler of many transformations in recreational and amateur road cyclists from across the globe. You can read some of our case studies here. However, this approach should be considered a general guideline for improved cycling performance. If you are looking for event-specific advice, I would suggest contacting the Road Cycling Academy coaching staff here.
For Whom Is the Stepladder Approach Designed?
As someone who took up road cycling in his late twenties – with a corporate job, my first daughter on the way and a dirty big mortgage – I always found it hard to find easy-to-digest information online about cycling training.
The information always seemed too extreme, with language and buzzwords I was unfamiliar with, while not appearing to cater to my needs.
‘My needs’ included a training method that took the following into consideration: I was a busy young dad with a full-time corporate job, leaving me with the ability to train somewhere between eight and ten hours per week…if I was lucky.
Yet the information I found online appeared to cater mostly to really serious cyclists, people who already knew all the buzzwords and/or had lots of time during the week to train.
So the Stepladder Approach – designed by the Road Cycling Academy – has been created for busy intermediate road cyclists who are stuck on a performance plateau and are currently confused about how they can get faster and stronger on the bike.
Additionally, the Stepladder Approach is designed strictly for athletes over the age of 30.
Firstly, 99% of RCA members are over the age of 30, leading very busy lives. So this is the demographic we deal with as an organisation: men and women typically between the ages of 30 and 75.
It is widely accepted that roughly after the age of 30, recovery becomes more pertinent in both men and women. Unfortunately, you can no longer operate at the same intensity you once did (in your teens and twenties) without a different attitude and a focus on recovery.
Furthermore, after age 30, many of life’s general stresses begin to ramp up: full-time jobs, mortgages, kids, sicknesses (from kids!) – you name it – creating logistical barriers to training like a pro.
Yet despite a very strong proportion of the cycling community fitting this mould, there has never appeared to be a tailored cycling training method designed for this person. Until now.
Hence, the Road Cycling Academy’s Stepladder Approach…
Three Critical Tools You Will Need
Tool One – A Power Meter
I know there will be many reading this, saying ‘I’m not going to buy a power meter since I can get away without it. I’ll use a heart-rate monitor!’
I used to think the same way, as a heart-rate monitor is vastly more cost-effective and more easily accessible. It also allows you to target your cycling training zones to facilitate structured training. But the truth is, if you’re not well versed in cycling training principles, you’re kidding yourself, if you want to progress quickly.
Yes, I agree…
Before power training even existed, cyclists trained for many years with heart rate only. My critics often like to reference old-school professional cyclists – who trained exclusively with heart rate – that hold record-setting times up certain grand tour mountains.
However, what they’re neglecting is these referenced ‘professional’ athletes trained day in and day out, often with a coach supporting them. It was their livelihood; it was what they did for a job.
As a result, these professionals became intimate with the tricky measure of heart rate.
The same thought process applies to semi-professional athletes and experienced amateur road cyclists. You can certainly learn the intricacies of heart-rate training with time and patience, but there’s a lot of ‘tricky’ challenges that come with heart rate (HR), including:
- Variation in HR based on environmental conditions (cold, hot, humid)
- Variation in HR based on physiological elements (stress, sleep, fatigue)
- HR being very slow to respond to top-end output
- The tendency of HR to drift during a ride as you fatigue
- The tendency of HR to change over time as your fitness changes
So with these five considerations in mind, chances are – for someone at an intermediate level – you cannot effectively target your training zones with heart rate. And if you’re not targeting all your zones effectively, that is arguably missing out on the biggest opportunity you have for improvement right there!
Conversely, with a power meter – provided it’s calibrated – you have a consistent, day-to-day, tangible measure that responds instantaneously to output. It’s just like going to the gym and lifting weights, which is a great segue to…
Tool Two – A Seven-Power-Zone Training Model
Have you ever been to the gym?
There’s typically a weight rack presented to us. We pick up the most appropriate weights based on our current strengths and fitness goals, and we lift in repetitions.
Without the weight rack and without knowing how many pounds or kilograms the weights are, it’s very hard for us to know three critical insights:
- What are we lifting?
- Are we improving?
- Are the weights we’re lifting the right ones to help us improve?
These key questions can be answered with the seven-power-zone cycling model. These are seven targeted areas you can work on to achieve different physiological outcomes.
The above seven training zones thus become the foundations to taking your cycling performance to the next level.
You now have clear, tangible power targets for:
- Recovery rides
- Endurance training
- Advanced endurance training
- Threshold training
- VO2 max training
- Anaerobic training
- Neuromuscular training
When you enter each of the seven zones, you’re essentially working different physiological systems. Systems that IF trained properly, will see you make surprising gains on the bike.
So how do you work out your seven zones?
You must first complete an FTP test. You can either use one of the ramping protocols designed for indoor trainers, such as the Zwift Ramp test or the Sufferfest Half Monty, or complete the 20-minute test outdoors.
Note: I would not recommend the 20-minute indoor test due to the level of difficulty and the trickiness surrounding the pacing effect. I would also advise against lab testing unless you’re willing to continue to go back into a lab to ensure continuity in your testing protocols.
Once you have your FTP number, you can use the above calculations to work out your power zones.
Often, people then ask, which should I follow, heart rate zones or power zones?
100% power zones, all the way.
However, don’t throw away heart rate, as it can become a great complementary measure to assess physiological adaptations to power training, as we’ll discuss in greater depth in Step One.
Tool Three – Indoor Trainer
From my experiences working with hundreds of recreational and amateur cyclists from all over the globe, eight to ten hours per week is most common for designated cycling training time.
However, it’s not always rainbows and lollipops with your designated eight to ten hours.
Your scheduled eight-hour week can quickly turn into three hours due to life’s interruptions.
Weather can also destroy a week of outdoor riding, and even the outdoor riding you have available can often be difficult to train on effectively (due to the terrain).
Thus, the highly agile and efficient indoor trainer becomes paramount for any busy amateur or recreational cyclist looking to improve.
It should be noted…
With a power meter on your bike, you don’t necessarily need a smart trainer. People often ask me about this.
Conversely, if you do have a smart trainer (but no power meter on your bike), I say A-OK, as long as we have power somewhere to learn from and train to the seven power zones effectively.
Having said that, one secret benefit you will gain from a smart trainer is a different physiological cost to the training sessions you perform.
What do I mean by physiological cost?
When you attach your bike to a smart trainer, you are typically removing the rear wheel. As a result, the resistance is coming from the rear cassette/drivetrain all of a sudden.
The sensation is often described as a ‘pulling’ effect on the working leg muscles, especially at higher intensities. This type of training adds variability to your workload, a key to improved cycling performance, which we’ll be discussing down the page.
So the indoor trainer adds efficient training, convenience and variability to your training plan, making it a paramount tool for the busy amateur and recreational cyclist.
Now that you have the three critical tools for the Stepladder Approach, what are the five steps you need to implement?
THE FIVE CRITICAL STEPS
Step One – Assess Your Aerobic Engine
It is overwhelmingly common for amateur and recreational road cyclists to ride too hard most of the time. In fact, this is probably the biggest training mistake they make.
Every ride is at a moderate to hard intensity, and as a result, the aerobic system is never properly trained.
We want your aerobic system properly trained because you need to think of your base fitness as being like building a house.
If the foundations are shallow and small, as you continue to add levels to the house, at some point the foundations will start to crack earlier than they should. Then you’re stuck at, say, level three (aka a cycling performance plateau) when you ultimately have the potential to create five or six levels.
So in order to test/assess your aerobic base foundation, as the very first step, you need to complete something we call a ‘Cardio Drift Test’.
How do you complete this test?
Ideally, on an indoor trainer:
- Identify your top-end zone two power output. Roughly 65–70% of your FTP
- Pedal consistently for at least 60 minutes at this output
- Ensure you’re wearing a heart-rate monitor
- Be strict about not stopping pedalling and try to limit movement
- Ensure you’re not compromised by weather, especially heat.
*Note, if you do not have an indoor trainer, you can complete a test like this at a local velodrome or somewhere outdoors where you can maintain constant pressure on the cranks. Free pedalling is strictly prohibited. If you want further details on this test, you will find a dedicated tutorial in the Uplevel Road Cycling Course.
What did your heart rate do?
Did it do something like this…?
That is what we call cardio drift. This RCA member’s cardiovascular system is clearly stressing at a consistent aerobic power output, meaning their aerobic/base fitness is underdeveloped, and they should focus on aerobic fitness as their first ‘step’. That is what they did.
Or did it do something like this…?
We can see here that this RCA member has extended the test to roughly 80 minutes, given their aerobic conditioning. There is very little cardiovascular stress occurring on the aerobic system, and as a result, they should have no problems focusing on high-intensity training as their first ‘step.’
What we typically find with amateur and recreational cyclists who have never properly trained base fitness before is that their heart rate will typically drift by ten beats or more within a 60-minute period (pedalling at a 65–70% FTP intensity). This applies to roughly seven in ten RCA members who have been through our program.
The fact is, it is common mostly for amateur and recreational cyclists to start with some form of base training simply because they have never targeted base training in their lives, having previously considered it a novel idea!
So how much base training is needed for the typical amateur and recreational cyclist?
That question is up for debate and will depend on many variables, such as your current aerobic fitness levels, how quickly you improve and how much time you have to dedicate to base training.
Thus, the Cardio Drift Test not only becomes an imperative tool we can use to assess your aerobic fitness levels in the comfort of your own home (before you take the first right step), but it can also be leveraged throughout your training regimen to gauge where you’re at.
Ultimately, once the aerobic engine is robust and you’re seeing limited heart rate drift during your base training rides, you can prepare yourself for major improvements in your upper-end/go-hard fitness levels.
Step Two – Start Low, Aim High
Once you’ve identified your focus – base training or high-intensity training – you need to consider a well-regarded and highly adopted training methodology called progressive overload, aka starting low and aiming high.
Essentially, you have three critical elements to play with when it comes to making your training increasingly harder as time progresses:
- Volume – How long are you riding for?
- Intensity – How hard are your rides?
- Frequency – How often are you training?
Put simply, starting low and aiming high is a technique of beginning your training at a volume, intensity and frequency that may feel quite easy, initially. However, over the course of a defined timeline, you would build the volume, intensity and frequency to a high level of difficulty.
A quick story…
I always have a laugh when I get emails from RCA members, with the title of the email saying ‘Defender!’ because I know what the body of the email is going to articulate: something along the lines of how hard the session was; they thought they were going to give up; I can’t believe I got through that, etc.
For reference, The Defender is arguably one of the hardest one-hour, high-intensity sessions on an indoor training application called The Sufferfest.
We get RCA members to complete this workout right at the very end of one of our 12-week programs that we call Beat Your Mates Around the Block.
If we got members to attempt this workout during the early days, they would most likely fail or be sore for days.
Therefore, we build them up first so they can handle extreme intensities, and then carefully place workouts – such as The Defender – into their plans towards the end of the overall high-intensity program.
This example of starting low and aiming high is what sits behind the terminology used for our ‘Stepladder’ approach. We’re taking small ‘steps’ that progressively make the training harder and ultimately make us stronger. Progressively.
The idea is that you slowly and steadily stress the different physiological systems that are important for cycling – such as the cardiovascular system and the muscular–skeletal system – so that adaptations and stimuli are best absorbed. Step by step.
Yet, most recreational and amateur cyclists want to climb to the top of a proper ladder straight away.
However, this is not the right approach, despite the fact it’s typical human behaviour.
It’s all about taking small steps…
A base training example of taking small steps could be completing a two-hour ride at 60% of your FTP on a Saturday at the start of your training block.
By the end of the training block, you could be doing a five-hour ride on the Saturday at 70% of your FTP. However, you have slowly and steadily increased the volume and intensity over the training period to get to the five-hour ride.
A high-intensity training example of taking small steps could be hill repeats training. At the start of your training block, you may head to a hill and complete six one-minute repeats at your threshold/zone four pace.
By the end of the training block, you could be doing twelve two-minute repeats at your V02 max/zone five pace. Once again, you have slowly and steadily increased your reps, migrated to a tougher hill and increased the load over the course of the training block, enabling you to complete these twelve two-minute hill repeat sessions effectively.
Step Three – Three-Week Builds
Arguably, the most critical element to the Stepladder Approach is the three-week build, which looks like this:
- Easier week
- Moderate week
- Hard week
- Easier week
- Moderate week
- Hard week
- And so on…
The idea is that each three-week block gets a little harder as you progress, a methodology that is commonly referred to as periodisation.
So eventually, the hard week in the first three-week block becomes the moderate week in, say, the second or third three-week block.
You might be saying ‘That’s great, but can you tell me what a block would look like?’
If you’re training at intensity and doing, say, five rides per week, it would look like the following:
Tuesday: 90 min., zone two
Wednesday: Primers workout (an easy ride with some short/sharp upper-end efforts)
Thursday: FTP test or benchmark climb
Friday: REST (or recovery spin)
Saturday: Social/Bunch ride
Sunday: 2 hr., zone two
Tuesday: Hill repeats session
Wednesday: 90 min., zone two
Thursday: Threshold session
Friday: REST (or recovery spin)
Saturday: Fast bunch ride
Sunday: 2 hr., zone two
Tuesday: Hill repeats session (X2 more reps)
Wednesday: 90 min., zone two (with Z3 efforts)
Thursday: Threshold session (extend effort time and/or work a lower cadence)
Friday: REST (or recovery spin)
Saturday: Fast bunch ride
Sunday: 3 hr., zone two
Then you would fall back to an easier week.
The idea here is that you should be fatigued and eager for an easier week after two solid weeks at intensity. Additionally, by taking it easier for a week, you can absorb the physical stress of what has just occurred and reset for another two weeks at intensity. This strategy aligns with what we discussed at the start of this article – respecting our recovery more as athletes past 30 years of age.
The other common approach is the four-week block.
That would be three weeks on/one week off. However, I would only recommend this approach for younger athletes or very conditioned master riders.
Through my experience coaching amateur and recreational cyclists over the years, at times, I have given in to some RCA members opting for the four-week build despite my warnings. After the first or second four-week block, the member has requested to pivot to the three-week block, every single time.
The reason being…
Particularly for high-intensity programs, training properly at intensity for three weeks straight can be very fatiguing (for an unconditioned cyclist).
The fact is that most intermediate amateur and recreational road cyclists have never truly trained properly at intensity before. So when they start the process and fatigue starts to accumulate, the three-week build all of a sudden seems more practical.
In addition, having the ‘freshness’ to tackle intense weeks becomes paramount to achieving unprecedented fitness adaptations. Once again, the three builds will ensure freshness, as is evident mostly for the intense days on the bike.
Step Four – The Alternating Method
As mentioned in Step One, probably the biggest mistake cyclists make with their training is riding at a moderate to hard intensity most of the time. In addition to riding like this, cyclists find that these moderate to hard days become back-to-back days of intense riding.
So it is critical, particularly for intense training, that you alternate your training days. That would look something like this:
Alternating Your Training Days
Monday – Rest
Tuesday – High-intensity interval session
Wednesday – Base training session
Thursday – High-intensity interval session
Friday – Recovery session: zone one riding
Saturday – High-intensity session: bunch riding, social hit-out, etc.
Sunday – Base training session
Note that we have three high-intensity sessions in the week. I would never recommend more for the common amateur or recreational cyclist looking to improve.
Two sessions are high-intensity interval training sessions in which you would target a specific zone (or zones), and one is a general social hit-out.
Note: It’s important to maintain the social hit-outs but not to overdo them.
You will also see that these intense sessions are separated by base training, rest or recovery sessions. This strategy allows the body to effectively absorb the physical stress you placed on it the day prior while also ensuring you can be fresh for the intense session that is to come. Additionally, we are topping up your base aerobic fitness, which we want to maintain through any type of intense training programs. You can’t neglect the foundations, after all!
It should be noted…
If you are targeting an event that requires back-to-back days of intense riding, then you will need to train for that. So implementing back-to-back days at intensity becomes important from a specificity perspective.
You could also start to implement some back-to-back days at intensity if you were advanced in your training, as, no doubt, this strategy can create some much needed, new physical stress that will enable you to get the most out of your conditioned body.
However, please be aware that these are the caveats.
For the vast majority of amateur and recreational road cyclists, alternating your days between intense days and aerobic, recovery or rest days is the way to go.
Finally, you may even like to consider this approach a ‘Polarized‘ model, given the fact that intense sessions will incorporate a warm up and cool down (at lower intensities) and, of course, the recovery periods between hard efforts will be mostly at a zone one level.
Having said that, the split of high intensity vs low intensity could vary somewhere between 60/40 to 80/20 (*where the lower number is at high intensity) based on what you’re training for and where you’re at in the training cycle.
Step Five – Workload Variation (with Rest)
Just because we’re at ‘Step Five’, don’t for a minute think this step is the least important. Far from it.
There is a very well-known, three-stage process called the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS), which describes the physiological changes the body goes through when under stress. This process wasn’t necessarily designed for endurance activities but more as a general rule for the human body’s response to any stress, whether that be mental or physical.
However, the GAS framework acts as an easy-to-digest formula for why ‘variation’ becomes such a critical component to getting stronger on the bike.
Let’s have a quick look at the three components of GAS:
The Alarm Phase is when you shock the body. In other words, what you’ve just done for the first or second time has caused unfamiliar stress, typically leading to an increase in heart rate and muscular fatigue. Your adrenal gland releases cortisol, and you receive a boost of adrenaline, which increases energy. Sound familiar? We can all remember that first 100-mile ride we did!
The Resistance Phase, or adaptation stage, occurs if the stress continues long enough for the body to start making adjustments in its structures to support dealing with the continued stress. As you would know, once you complete your first 100-mile ride, over time, these rides start to become easier because the body has recruited more muscle fibres, has become more tolerant of lactate accumulation, and is, overall, conditioned to deal with the repeated cycling movement for hours on end.
The Exhaustion Phase is when the body loses the ability to adapt due to the continued stress that is being inflicted. Essentially, your body has depleted its energy resources by continually trying – but now failing – to recover from the repeated alarm/stress reaction phase. As you might have personally experienced, after many, many hundreds of miles training on the bike, at some point in time, you will fatigue and hit this exhaustion phase, Otherwise known as a cycling performance plateau.
So the critical question is, how do you continually re-engineer the alarm phase while mitigating the exhaustion phase?
By adding variability to your workload and resting appropriately.
Let’s first discuss variability.
If you go out and train the same loops, the same bunch rides, the same everything, week in and week out, eventually, your resistance to that training stimulus will reach the end of its tether.
Thus, we need to alter the training sessions so we’re constantly shocking/ ‘alarming’ the working muscles.
There are several ways in which you can do this, including:
- Working different training zones
- Training on different terrain
- Training at different cadence levels
- Training indoors vs outdoors
- Fasted training
- Adding neuromuscular efforts into high-intensity intervals
The list goes on.
But you must consider one highly important factor, which can be summed up nicely from a very famous saying: same, same but different.
The training plan should not become sporadic to cater to variation.
The training plan should always be well structured, incorporating all the steps we’ve mentioned above. However, as we progressively make our training harder over time, we should consider variability in the way we add to our sessions.
To give you one example, let’s discuss base training.
Let’s say, for example, you have two hours to play with on a Saturday.
Once your resistance phase has kicked in and your heart-rate drift is under control at a zone two aerobic output, let’s start to add variation to alarm the working systems.
Potentially, you could complete a zone two base ride for two hours at a low cadence, say a 70–80 average cadence for the whole ride. Or, if you’re inclined to naturally ride at a low cadence, making it the norm, aim for 90–100 for the whole ride.
By doing this, you will be leaning deeper into different physiological systems, thereby adding new levels of ‘stress’ to your training. Lower cadence drills are more muscular–skeletal-focused, and higher cadence drills are more cardiovascular system–focused.
Another option could be to add some sub-threshold efforts for ten minutes at a time, with a five-minute recovery (pedalling in zone one) between efforts. Once again, a new level of stress is introduced to your base training as you’re bringing higher levels of lactate into the working muscles while still working aerobically…
Then, of course, there is rest.
Rest is such a critical part of the variation equation, as it allows the body to mitigate exhaustion.
While you will see above that we have discussed having rest days, recovery (light spin) days and even easier weeks, it should be noted that that’s not enough rest over the course of your cycling journey.
If you keep progressing using the steps above, you will burn out at some point in time. There is no doubt. It’s simply not possible for the human body to keep progressing irrespective of all the smart rest and recovery days you implement.
So what you want to keep in mind is this: rest should be included for prolonged periods through any given year.
From what I have seen working with hundreds of amateur and recreational cyclists, somewhere between 12 and 24 weeks of high-intensity training is the sweet spot. Once you extend past that 24-week mark, more often than not, you will reach a point of exhaustion.
So, what to do?
Taking a complete week or even two off the bike is recommended. Refresh mentally and physically before getting back into it.
Yes, you will lose some fitness, but the impact of the rest will allow you to come back with freshness! And you should still be holding reasonable conditioning from your last round of training.
Time and time again, I have suggested to RCA members to take a week or two off the bike, and then six to eight weeks back into their training, they’re PBing their FTPs, their local KOMs, etc.
So how do you know when it’s time to have a prolonged rest?
Listen to your body and your mental motivation. Those are your signs.
So where to from here?
Can I just first say, if you’re reading this far down the page, you should be aware that you’re ready to take the next step.
However, I know from working with hundreds of amateur and recreational cyclists for almost three years now that most don’t believe they can improve.
Of course, they’re intrigued, yet they think their cycling performance plateau is their peak.
A quick story…
I remember receiving an email from a UK-based RCA member in March 2020. In the email, he said he would like to get his FTP from 250 to 300, but he didn’t think it was possible because, being into Ironmans, he did so much training already.
So there were high levels of scepticism there, as is normal.
Fourteen weeks later, his FTP hit 308, and recently it surpassed 330 watts.
What’s even more interesting here is this RCA member reduced the volume of his training yet was able to increase his FTP by more than 80 watts and produce personal best results in his Ironman events, all from implementing this Stepladder Approach.
So my call to action for you is – start tomorrow. Or the next day. What have you got to lose? This information is all free at the end of the day.
And it all begins with Step One.
Then, eight to twelve weeks into your newly found way of training, send the RCA an email. Coaching@roadcyclingacademy.com.
I’d like you to share with us how far you’ve come, as we simply love to hear the stories!
If you’re looking for more on the Stepladder Approach after reading this page, the Road Cycling Academy has created an online course called the Uplevel Road Cycling Course.
This course includes 20 step-by-step video tutorials, a private group, and over 12 training programs (both base and high-intensity training) that are all centred around the Stepladder Approach. You can read more about it here.
Cheers, Cam Nichols (Head RCA Cycling Coach)