By Brett Ratner
Everyone has a different reason for getting into better bike shape. Maybe it’s to keep up with the Saturday morning group ride, to ride a century, to finally tackle that nasty climb on your favorite mountain bike loop, or to be more competitive in your local race series.
Whatever the reason, conventional wisdom tells us that if we want to get faster, we need to log lots and lots of miles.
Miles will definitely help, especially in the beginning. Eventually, however, a lot of people will hit a plateau and regardless if they ride 50 miles in a week or 500, they’ll never seem to get faster. If anything, many may frequently feel run down and slow.
As any experienced racer will tell you, getting fast can be more about training “smart” than it is about simply riding hard and/or riding a lot. Sure, you need “volume,” but you also need “intensity” and you need “recovery.” In other words, you need a structured training plan.
It would be nice to have unlimited time to train like the pros do (not to mention have the chance to attend training camps in exotic, mountainous places). But careers, families and other commitments can make that tough. Fortunately, there are plenty of excellent options for the time crunched:
Option #1: Working With a Coach
A certified cycling coach can tailor a very effective plan to your schedule, ability level and goals. I personally know several people who’ve gotten extremely fast in the past year because they started working with a coach.
A primary advantage of a coach is that he or she can give you two-way communication, allowing for last minute tweaking of your plan if you’re not feeling well on a certain week, you have an unexpected business trip, or there’s a race on Sunday you decide you want to participate in. The downside of a coach is that it can be a more expensive option.
Option #2: Group Classes:
If you prefer a group setting, there are excellent classes taught at places like PSIMET’s new training center, Vision Quest, HPI, as well as the Pedaling with a Purpose classes which take place at BFF Bikes on Armitage in Chicago, and Hartley’s Cycle Shoppe in Hinsdale.
The classes can be a slightly less expensive option than a coach, and you often have primo equipment to use, as well as on-site bike storage (if you want it). Another advantage of these is that you have a set time and place every week to get your workout in, and a supportive group of people to help keep each other motivated. A downside might be that the classes don’t necessarily tell you what to do for the remainder of the week. That can vary, however, depending on the venue and the program you sign up for.
Option #3: Training at Home, DIY Style
Perhaps at this point in your development as a cyclist, you just want to dip your toe in the training waters without making too large of a financial commitment. Or maybe you’re a good self-motivator and it’s easier (schedule wise) to do your workouts at home. Or, maybe you need to find out if you can even stick with a plan...and you want to see if it can make a measurable difference in your fitness on a bike.
If any of these describe you, then you could be a good candidate for one of the home training plans that are available.
For a variety of reasons, a home training plan made the most sense for me this winter. So after doing a bit of research into the various home training options, I chose to try The Sufferfest. Nine weeks into my 10-week Sufferfest training plan, I can confidently say it has lived up to its name. But more importantly, I’m having zero problems sticking to the plan and I have been very happy with the results so far.
The Sufferfest consists of a series of training videos and training plans geared toward cyclists, runners and triathletes. In order to properly execute one of their cycling plans, you will need the following:
We’ll start with an overview of the cycling videos:
The cycling videos (20 in all) cover stuff like sprinting, climbing/descending, threshold work, cadence work, time trialing, and even race simulation. Most videos are about an hour in length.
There are a variety of ways to access the videos. If you purchase the videos, they can be downloaded to your computer. Once downloaded, you can watch them on your computer, burn them to a DVD, or share them with your phone and tablet (using iTunes, for example). The videos can also be downloaded directly to your phone or tablet through the Sufferfest App (available through Apple’s App Store or Android’s Google Play). The videos range from $6 to $14 each, or you can buy all of them as a bundle for $200.
If you’d rather do a subscription, it costs $10 per month and you can watch the videos using your iPhone or Android app. You can also subscribe to The Sufferfest through your Roku. I’m not an Android user and therefore not certain if this can be done on an Android, but if you own an iPhone and Apple TV, you can watch the videos on your flat screen TV using your iPhone’s “Airplay” feature.
Sufferfest Training Plans:
The training plans cost $30 each and are downloadable as a PDF document. They currently offer seven training plans, each covering 10 weeks of training:
The cyclocross plans combine videos (for stationary bike training) with structured outdoor workouts as well as skills drills to help develop your bike handling.
The triathlon plans combine indoor stationary bike and outdoor bike training with structured running and swimming workouts. There’s also a triathlon-specific video that runs you through “brick” workouts where you switch between the stationary bike and a treadmill.
The road plans combine stationary bike videos with structured outdoor workouts.
As a side note, there are also three available videos for runners on The Sufferfest website. There are not, however, available training plan for runners. Interestingly, none of these videos are incorporated into either triathlon plan.
Since my personal goal is to improve upon last year’s results in some spring gravel races, and come into track season as strong as possible, I chose to download the Intermediate Road plan.
PDF Training Plan Overview:
The PDF file begins with lots of important details such as what a functional threshold (FTP) is, what cadence is, what recommended perceived exertion (RPE) is, what heart rate zones are, and finally what the various zones in the “Sufferfest Scale” are.
Knowledge of cadence and the Sufferfest Scale zones is absolutely crucial because that’s how you follow the on-screen instructions during the videos, as well as execute the outdoor workouts.
Functional threshold, heart rate zones and RPE are important because those need to be established so you know what the Sufferfest Scale means in context of your abilities.
Finally, the PDF contains the 10-week plan, laid out in a calendar-type format.
Starting the Plan:
The very first thing you do in this plan is to do a 20-minute fitness test. This essentially requires you to go as hard as you possibly can on a stationary trainer for 20 minutes and record your power and heart rate on your bike computer. This is because your average power (multiplied by 0.95) and average heart rate over that 20 minutes will be the basis for your plan over the 10 weeks.
Lets say you averaged 225 watts over those 20 minutes. If you multiply that number by 0.95, the resulting number (209 watts) will be your functional threshold (FTP) in terms of power.
If your average heart rate was, for example, 170 bpm over those 20 minutes, 170 bpm becomes your FTP in terms of heart rate.
Your power FTP will be the primary basis for the work you do during the videos. For example, the incredibly unpleasant video entitled “Revolver” will ask you to hold “Sufferfest Scale 9,” which translates to 120% of your FTP (250 watts based on the example above) for 60 seconds, then rest for 60 seconds, then repeat the process 15 more times. Oh, and you need to maintain a cadence of at least 100 during these efforts. This may sound complicated, but once you get familiar with your zones and get used to using a cadence sensor, it becomes second nature.
Your heart rate will largely dictate the “tempo” and “aerobic endurance” work you do outdoors. For example, one day, you might be asked to do a 75-minute “tempo” ride, which is 84-94% of your heart rate’s FTP...for most people that might be somewhere in the 155-160 bpm range. Another day, you might be asked to do two hours of “aerobic endurance,” which 69-83% of your heart rate’s FTP, which might translate to around 135 bpm, give or take.
What if you Don’t Own a Power Meter:
If you don’t own a power meter, Sufferfest suggests you base your workouts on heart rate, and on perceived exertion (RPE).
While heart rate makes perfect sense for the tempo and aerobic endurance workouts, personally, I think it would be very difficult to do the videos based on heart rate. This is because a lot of the interval efforts are very short, and there is a significant lag between when you start or end a hard effort, and when your heart rate rises or drops accordingly.
In addition, I have a difficult time working by perceived exertion. This may not be the case for everyone, but I personally tend to work harder if I have a tangible number to hit.
Obviously, a power meter is the ideal solution for someone who needs a number to hit. But if you don’t own a power meter, there may be another option.
A Possible Alternative to Power:
The Sufferfest may or may not agree with me on this, but if you don’t own a power meter, I believe the speed registered by your wheel sensor could be a viable substitute. In other words, if you managed to average “20 mph” on your trainer during your fitness test, you could multiply that 0.95 and “19 mph” could serve as your functional threshold.
Better yet, some stationary trainers offer a rough estimate of power based on speed. For example, on a Kinetic Road Machine fluid trainer, “20 mph” roughly translates to 240 watts (for an FTP of 228). You can see what I mean on the chart here.
Keeping a printout of "The Sufferfest Scale" (training zones) on hand helps you follow the on-screen instructions. Printing out the wattage charts of your trainer is a nice alternative if you don't have a power meter.
Getting to Work:
Once you have your Sufferfest zones worked out, it’s time to get busy. A typical week will range between four and eight hours of saddle time, and offer a varying combination of the following:
As you can see, the awesome thing about Sufferfest is that it’s not that huge a commitment. The videos really, really suck, but they only amount to two hours per week. Doing an “aerobic endurance” ride could be accomplished by taking the long way home on your bike commute. “Tempo” work could simply mean dropping in your local group ride and being careful not to take any ridiculously hard pulls at the front or contesting that sprint to the Baha’i temple.
In other words, if you can commit to two hours on a stationary trainer per week, and then do the riding you’re probably already doing anyway, you have time to do this plan.
And if it’s cold, snowy or rainy out, no biggie. You can do the outdoor workouts indoors. The people at Sufferfest tell me to decrease your volume (time on the bike) by 20% and increase your perceived exertion by “1.”
The Sufferfest Experience:
Let it be known that when it comes down to it, The Sufferfest is making you do the same thing pretty much any coach or other training plan will have you do: intervals.
But the thing I like about The Sufferfest compared to other workouts is that they mask the intervals by incorporating them into various race simulations. They make it a game, in other words.
Relying heavily on footage taken on motorcycles and chase vehicles embedded in the pro peloton, the videos try to make you feel part of the action. So when Contador attacks on a climb, you’re told to hold his wheel. When Cancellara is powering away from the pack through a cobbled section, you have to bridge the gap. When Cavendish winds up for a sprint, you need to try to beat him to the line.
“Climbs” are replicated by shifting to a really hard gear and pedaling out of the saddle (this hurts a lot, actually). “Descents” are replicated by shifting to an easy gear and spinning at more than 110 rpm. A couple videos will run you through the final kilometer of a road race (including the sprint) up to five times, allowing you to fine tune stuff like gearing, while training yourself to keep the pedal to the metal for a full 200 meters.
Through it all, they employ a snarky, somewhat sadistic brand of humor. My favorite example is during the last five seconds of a really hard effort, the video was edited to look like it froze...essentially forcing you to hold the effort 10 seconds longer than you expected. And if they tell you an effort will be repeated five times, count on them to sneak a sixth one in there for good measure.
The Results (So Far):
Since you occasionally repeat a video over the course of the 10 weeks, it gives you the chance gauge your progress against past results. This is, of course, assuming you save your workouts to Training Peaks, Garmin Connect, etc.
For me, my average cadence has gone up considerably. My average speed over the course of a workout has increased, and my sprint speed has increased too. My maximum heart rate has increased while my average heart rate and calorie consumption has gone down (I’m assuming this implies that I’m recovering more quickly between efforts, and also becoming more efficient). I’m better able to find the “edge” and stay there without going into the red zone and “blowing up.”
Perhaps the most telling improvement pertains to the number that I hit during my original 20 minute fitness test.
At the end of week eight, I was doing a video called “The Long Scream,” which simulates a 30-minute time trial. Five minutes of hard riding into the workout, it occurred to me that this could double as a 20 minute fitness test...so I hit the “lap” button and then hit it again 20 minutes later.
Long story short, I achieved the same number during those 20 minutes as I did during my 20-minute fitness test at the beginning of the plan. This wouldn’t seem like a big deal except that after I hit the lap button and completed the final five minutes of the time trial, I proceeded to increase my power by a good 10-15 watts and then finish with a decent sprint.
In other words, for $60 and 10 weeks of work, I can now ride hard for five minutes, then pace my former self for 20 minutes, and then when my former self collapses in a sweaty heap, I can not only keep going, but I can go faster. You honestly can’t ask for better results than that.
Visit http://www.thesufferfest.com/ to learn more.
About the Author
Brett Ratner (email@example.com) began commuting by bike in 2005. Shortly thereafter, his interest in cycling expanded to century rides, bike camping and trail riding. The competition bug bit in 2012 and nowadays he races cyclocross, track, mountain bikes, criteriums and gravel for The Bonebell. His goals for 2015 are to complete the Lumberjack 100 mountain bike race as well as a 600 kilometer brevet.