How To Train for Professional Stage Races through a Chicago Winter, with a Job

Updated: Feb 13, 2019

Training with a full-time job can be hard. Training through a Chicago winter can be even harder. Here's how I'm doing both to prep for the Redlands Classic in mid-March.

It's been almost two months since my last post, where I wrote from the perspective of a smug idealist who alleged to have accomplished everything I could ever dream of. That's an easy post to write when you're sitting on a throne constructed of calorie surpluses and perched atop seemingly endless hours of non-exercise that is the the short-lived and so-called cycling "off-season". As in all things in life, this time came to a swift and unfortunate close as soon as:

  1. I got the registration confirmation email for the Redlands Bicycle Classic, confirming that apparently Ryan was actually serious when he mentioned it as a potential race for 2019 and...

  2. I realized Redlands was moved from early May to mid-March.

Maybe these realizations don't immediately bring you into a sweaty panic-induced fit of hysteria as it did me. However, as I am the person who actually has to climb up mountains with the best racers in the U.S., my thoughts were the following:


The race starts in 13 weeks. I haven't looked at a bike in 10 days.

There will likely still be snow on the ground in Chicago when this race happens.

How the h*ck am I not going to get dropped every day?


After the hysteria settled, I put together a semi-coherent plan on how I can be in at least decent shape by the time stage one starts in March. So behold, my definitive guide on...


How to Train for a Professional 5 Day Stage Race while Working a Job and being Stuck in Chicago™

or, HTTFPFDSRWWJABSIC for short.


Step 1: Delete your Strava account

One day, likely when it winter has reached it's coldest depths and you've been confined to indoor training for 3 weeks straight, you're going to venture onto Strava while metaphorically chained to your desk at work to find seemingly everyone you follow posting massive 5 hour rides, complete with photos of everyone in shorts and a jersey. They'll talk about how hard this is. They'll have ride titles like "Just on that grind!" with 10 workout-bro emojis.


This will quickly send you into a rabbit hole of depression, where you frantically check the upcoming weather forecast for everywhere within an 8 hour drive only to find that, no, none of these locations has rideable weather this weekend. You'll then look at how much it costs to fly to California, reason that a $400 last-minute plane ticket isn't that expensive and think,


I'm sure it wouldn't be that bad if I got that 5am flight back to the city Monday morning, I could go straight to work after a 10 hour training weekend and it would totally be worth it.


This is all hypothetical, of course - I haven't experienced this...


Just take my advice, and delete that Strava account. For your sanity. And your bank account.


Step 2: Create a plan

I know what you're thinking: "This is quite a vague and obvious step for such a thorough, comprehensive and advanced training guide, right?"


Wrong.


The plan is everything - and is more nuanced than it might appear. At first, you might be tempted to create a plan that brings you to peak fitness for the race, but that's a mistake because...

  1. Contrary to some people's beliefs, road racing season continues until early September, which is a long time after March, and it's really hard to maintain high-levels of fitness for 6 months, and...

  2. It's really hard to reach peak fitness in only 13 weeks.

Like most cyclists, I split my training into 4 week blocks, where I spend three weeks progressively increasing my training volume and the fourth week is focused on recovery and contains about half the volume of the previous weeks. If you "do the maths," I had time to fit in 3 blocks of training, and Redlands would fall after the rest week of block 3. I decided to split these precious 3 blocks as follows:



Block 1 (Base 1): Panic training

This was the first block of training I had following a 2-week riding hiatus. Luckily for me, there was no time to "ease in," so I dived headfirst back into training, kicking things off with 16 hours in week one. Also luckily for me, this block fell over the holiday break. This is somewhat good, in that I had much more time to ride without that pesky "Real Job" that allows me to do silly things like pay rent, buy food, etc. However, it's also bad in the sense that holidays are generally a good time to relax, visit with loved ones you might not see often, and read a book by the fire place.


No time for that - Winter is Here, but Redlands is coming.


Since I was visiting family back in Southern Indiana, I also had warmer weather and generally (much) better roads to train on. This made it easy to jam as many hours of riding in between quality time with family and the narrow windows of rideable winter solstice weather with the motivation only a panic-filled I'm-going-to-get-dropped frenzy can bring.


For the nerds, this block was focused on getting as many long, 4 and 5+ hour rides in as possible while also throwing in some shorter (2-3 hour) rides with sweet spot intensity (84%-94% FTP) efforts that will serve as the foundation of my fitness for the rest of the year. Intervals sets started out as being something like 5x10 mins with 5 minute recoveries and started to progress to 3x20 minutes and 3x30 minutes with similar rest. The intensity of these intervals, while staying in the sweet spot range, would generally fall as the intervals got longer.


Block 2 (Base 2): Sunless in Chicago

This block might be the hardest one to plan for, as January in Chicago is, without a doubt, going to be cold, dark, snowy, and generally miserable; too far from the promise of March and April, which makes a cyclist's hope spring eternal. Riding outside is going to be impossible during the week (because I have to go back to work) and spotty at best on the weekends (because, Chicago winter). So I basically write this whole 4 weeks off as a trainer-only block (see step 3 below).


Being relegated to indoors can have it's perks, and this block is likely the most structured of any I'll have up until Redlands. You could basically break down the workouts in each one of the three weeks as:

  • Monday - Rest Day. Maybe an easy commute (see step 4) into work, if I'm feeling spunky.

  • Tuesday - 90 minute trainer session. This is typically some variety of a 3x20 minute sweet spot effort.

  • Wednesday - 60-90 minute trainer session. Generally a ride with tempo/low-end sweet spot effort.

  • Thursday - 90-120 minute trainer session. Very similar workouts to Tuesday.

  • Friday - Easy day, once again an easy commute to work.

  • Saturday - Split Session. Usually this is made up of a 2 hour trainer session (more sweet spot intervals) followed by, if I'm lucky, a quick wardrobe change and 2-3 more hours of steady riding outside. If I'm exceptionally lucky, it will be warm enough in the morning to do the whole ride outside. Usually, it's just more trainer riding.

  • Sunday - Another split session similar to Saturday, but usually slightly less hard.

This ends up always being a pretty hard segment of training, both mentally and physically. In my experience, this type of work pays off in droves in the form of muscular endurance. After completing a block of training like this, I find that my legs are in a condition where they can continually ride hard for long segments over and over - something that's really important in a climbing-heavy race such as Redlands.


Block 3 (Base 3): Cramming

At the beginning of block 3 in the past, I'm typically 5 weeks away from early season objectives. This is when I would continue training as I have been in blocks 1-2, but throw in some spring racing to remind my body how to deal with repeated race-pace surges. I've had some success with a buildup exactly like this in the past, except there's only one problem with that this year:


There aren't any spring races close to Chicago in early March.


At first, I was in denial as I explored every corner of the internet, looking for even the most grassroots industrial parking lot crit, sure I would be able to find something. I did find a couple of races, they're both likely out of the realm of possibility due to the travel required.


So in replacement of these races, I'll be swapping out 1-2 of the sweet spot workouts (likely Tuesday and Saturday) for harder, shorter, workouts. Our team camp in Asheville, NC, also falls on the second week of this block, which should provide another week of overload to allow me to build some good fitness going into March (more on this in step 5).


All things considered, I'm fairly optimistic about this training plan. It allows me to follow a similar pre-season path to what's been successful for me the last couple of years and will (hopefully) get me to a level of fitness where I'm able to do more than just survive. In addition, the 5 stages of Redlands should provide the type of fitness for races later in the season that only hanging on for dear life as the pack sprints up a 10-minute climb on repeat for 4 hours can.


Step 3: Embrace the trainer

As I've mentioned above, there's no way to avoid the stationary trainer if you're in a similar situation to mine. Contrary to what most people think, this can be a huge advantage if utilized properly. Trainers are great because:

  • Unlike training outdoors, there is nothing holding you back from doing every workout exactly as prescribed, every time. You don't "accidentally" take more rest between intervals than intended, just because there is a stop sign coming up in a mile and it would ruin your interval anyway.

  • When riding the trainer, every minute of your ride is productive. You don't coast down hills, you don't soft-pedal into a stoplight, you don't have to spend 30 minutes putting on layers to keep warm while anxiously waiting for the lights you forgot to charge because your brain literally froze on your ride the night before. This lack of ride time book-ending is great when you're coming home from work at 6 pm and have 2 hours of riding to do.

Sometimes it's so cold in Chicago you need to layer up ON the trainer

I use the TrainerRoad (TR) training software instead of just staring at a blank wall while riding indoors. In fact, I use their training plans as the launching off point for my training year-round. Their plans are science-based, have a multitude of options to choose from, and remove some of the "what type of workout should I be doing at this point in the season" questions that I was typically running into when designing my own training plans. In addition, TR is quickly becoming an all-inclusive training platform, with their recent additions of performance analytics tools and a training calendar.


I also use the popular Zwift platform, but sparingly. Zwift is great at accomplishing their goal: replicating outdoor riding. The problem with this is that it's not as fun as actually riding outdoors, and the platform makes you sacrifice the benefits outlined above (exact training, time efficiency, etc.) to achieve those goals. However, I do find it's a great tool for longer, easier rides that, because of the weather, are just impossible to do outside.


Step 4: Commute by bike

If you work a standard office job, this is a really easy way to boost the volume of your training without sacrificing more time out of your day. Currently my situation allows me to bike commute almost every day, adding around 3-5 hours of extra riding per week. Not only is my bike commute 10-20 minutes faster than if I were to take Chicago public transit into the office, but I get to leave on my own schedule, don't have to deal with the crowds, and its free!


Obviously, your work situation determines if this is a viable option for you. Having a place to store your bike is crucial, but most of the other details are fairly easy to sort out after your first couple rides into the office. While length of commute can be a factor, you would be surprised how far you can commute by bike. In the past, I've been able to replace a 32 mile driving commute to a client's office with a ride, and thanks to Chicago traffic, it only took 30 minutes longer than usual!


In the end, commuting to work on your bike isn't going to be the make-or-break part of your training for the upcoming season, but it's a great way to add a little more training stress into your week.

Riding along the Blue Ridge Parkway in Asheville, NC during last year's team training camp

Step 5: Go on a training camp

A few weeks out from your big race, try and get a training camp together where you can spend 4-5 days in a great training location and fully focus on bike riding. For me, this training camp falls on February 20-24, where the team will all convene in Asheville, North Carolina for some fantastic training in the Appalachian Mountains. This falls three weeks before the Redlands Classic kicks off - perfect timing to have a big block of hard training and also allow enough time to recover afterwards.


Training camps, especially with team members, are a great time to get to know people, get accustomed to everyone's riding styles, and get a block of "crash" training. For the cyclist who is also living in a winter climate, it's even more beneficial as it acts as a sanity buffer between all the indoor training, preventing burnout that can easily occur during the winter months. So even if you don't have an early spring event to prepare for, consider scheduling a training camp - even if it is just to remind yourself that riding bikes is, you know, actually fun.

There you have it, my official guide on How to Train for a Professional 5 Day Stage Race while Working a Job and being Stuck in Chicago™ . Be sure to stay tuned to the blog to see if it works for me. You can even subscribe to our mailing list below to make sure you don't miss an update from the team all year long!

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