Equal parts art and science, creating an annual training plan helps cyclists of any level progress and perform at their best.
When plotting your route for a journey, it’s nice to use a big paper map. Lay it out on a table or hang it on the wall and it’s easier to view the full breadth of the endeavor.
Developing as a cyclist is much like planning for that journey, and that map, in the parlance of coaching, is called an annual training plan. In both cases, in order to get from here to there, you have to know where you’re starting, where you want to get to, and how you’re going to get there.
Creating, implementing, and adjusting an annual training plan is critical for any athlete who wants to progress to a higher level. Like that map, a plan allows you to visualize the whole season, including the various training phases, testing milestones, and target events.
“Getting it down on paper is a commitment to the plan,” says Joe Gambles, an endurance coach and former professional triathlete. “Not having a plan often leads to you doing too much, whereas if you’ve given yourself permission to have that off-season, that transition period, and all these different periods leading up to your race phase—and it’s down on paper—you’ll follow the plan, take the rest you need, let the body reset, and allow the mind to get hungry for racing again.”
The ideal annual plan illustrates your training emphasis at any given time, your various races and events, and, importantly, your recovery and rest periods. To do this effectively, you need to take into account your athletic history, fitness and experience level, goals and objectives, the time you have to train, as well as any preferences as to your training philosophy and approach. It should also reflect how you like to be coached, assuming you are working with someone. (We’ll address the importance of working with a coach to build a training plan in just a moment.)
To build an annual plan, it helps to know about periodization, which is a traditional method for dividing a season into periods (or macrocycles). Typically, a plan will have three or more periods—for example, preparation, competition, and transition—depending on your needs, the race schedule, your level of experience, and, importantly, whether your plan is built for development or performance.
The macrocycles are then broken down into smaller segments of time—also called mesocycles and microcycles. These three components each serve a different function, with an increasingly more specific focus as an event or competition draws closer.
Mesocycles give direction as to the specific attributes that will be developed during that time—whether physiological, technical, tactical, mental, or otherwise. Microcycles are traditionally seven days in length, and represent the weekly demands of training.
In many ways, it is best to start by identifying your most important event of the year and then developing the plan backwards. This allows you to create that roadmap to attain peak form for a key event.
Do you need a coach?
Building an annual training plan is a process. Numerous factors affect how the puzzle pieces fit together. It’s beyond the scope of this article to explain all the factors, decisions, and nuances that need to be addressed to craft the appropriate plan for an individual athlete. That’s where the art of coaching comes in.
The simpler the plan, the better. When you’re done with it, pin it up where you can see it.
The optimal method for developing an annual training plan, built specifically for you, is to work with an experienced coach who can customize one that fits your lifestyle, preferences, and goals. A good annual training plan will help you achieve more success, have more fun, and stay healthier in the process than any interval prescription could.
“Working with a coach to map out the year is a great investment in your season,” Gambles says. “That doesn’t mean you have to have a coach week in, week out. But having a coach to give you insights and impartial, critical feedback, and ask you questions… this can often lead to you rethinking and improving that plan.”
Utilizing a coach offers several advantages. First, a coach will offer an objective opinion as to the viability of your goals, and be able to help you identify the limiters that stand in the way of your ability to achieve those objectives.
Next, a good coach will help you understand your unique strengths and weaknesses relative to the demands of your key events or goals. Furthermore, they will help you understand the purpose of your training, which will give you more confidence in its effectiveness. Likewise, if coach and athlete are equally invested in the plan, that sense of ownership elicits the utmost in commitment.
One of the most important advantages of working with a coach is having an observer who will watch for changes, positive or negative, throughout the plan’s execution. The coach will continually evaluate your progress and modify the plan if necessary—for example, to include additional goals or benchmarks to improve motivation or identify new limiters. All of this information will allow you and your coach to determine if you should stay the course or modify the plan.
According to Gambles, who has coached all ability levels and across multiple sports, most people don’t take the time to create the plan. But that’s the most important step: sitting down, being honest with yourself, and creating a framework. You can always come back to the plan after you’ve had some time to stew on it, or received input from others, and tweak it.
Those who don’t take the time often do what they did the previous year, or they arbitrarily add a little bit more to everything they do. This is a sure way to get off track or get burnt out.
“The simpler the plan, the better. When you’re done with it, pin it up where you can see it,” Gambles says. “Mapping things out provides some enlightenment as to things you may have done wrong in the past. It simply keeps you on track, and it steers your motivation.”