Michael Barry: The Winter Months
November marks the beginning of the cyclist’s New Year. Although dead leaves blow through the streets, morning frost covers the tarmac, and the sky is a drab and ominous grey, the off-season brings the cyclist a sense of renewal. Through the cold winter, we rejuvenate. The period not only gives us needed mental and physical rest, but it also allows us to reset objectives to start again with a clean slate. We can absorb the experiences of the last season, analyze them, learn from them, and then plan for what is to come.
A steady progression in fitness is equally important to the amateur as it is to the professional. A balanced, steady approach to training leads to solid aerobic base and success. Too much time off, and you’re playing catch-up; too little time off, and you’ll be tired before the summer races. It is good to be eager, but far too often, riders train harder in the winter months than they do before key races. Why? Because their motivation is high and their bodies are fresh. A strong foundation, carefully established in the off-season, can be built upon through the year and allow the rider to attain higher and more sustained peaks in fitness.
November, December, and January are the months to take care of all that was neglected. Nagging injuries can be tended to, operated on, and healed. Bike positions, which every rider fears adjusting in the middle of the year, can be tinkered with, changed, and then adapted to. New bikes can be tested. Different shoes, cleats, and pedals can be tried and adopted. There’s even time to work around the house, clean the garage, and tackle projects that a cyclist is too tired to attempt mid-year.
After a two-week break from riding, and often not doing much of anything except relaxing, I would begin hiking, doing core strength work in the gym, running, skiing, and playing other sports. I would ride on the road and trails without structure and often with friends. After a month, I would begin riding with regularity—usually, four times a week—with a day or two off. The first rides were never long, and they allowed me to ease back in. During that time, I continued to lift weights and work on my core strength. On my off days, or in the afternoons, I would also keep other sports in the routine to work muscles that hadn’t been used vigorously while on the bike. Those sports also provided an important mental break from cycling.
Balance is equally as important when it comes to diet and sleep. In the off–season, many cyclists fear gaining the pounds that they’ve lost during the summer. As I matured, I didn’t restrict myself but simply tried to eat healthy foods that are loaded with nutrients. As most cyclists know, good food and proper sleep are essential to maximizing training and fitness. To regenerate and become stronger, our bodies need the right fuel and rest, which is easy to neglect when the first races are months away.
As the pre-Christmas training camps approach, the length of the training rides increased. On two to three days of the week, I would ride for four or more hours, building on the base. In the hills, I would increase the tempo, occasionally riding above my threshold. After a few more weeks of riding, the intensity and duration would increase. At the camp, we could do structured intervals, log six-hour rides, and sprint each other for the occasional sign.
The adaptation back to racing is progressive. At first we feel clumsy and slow, then agility returns, and we can again pounce on the pedals and are ready to race.
Here’s an example of my schedule: