The “Best” Way to Train in the Off-season

One of the most frequent questions asked of cycling coaches regards the “best” way to train during the fall/winter or typical off-season months. Old school thinking goes that you need to pound away the miles at a slow endurance pace in order to build your “aerobic” engine before the competitive season. New-school thinking points toward the benefit of high intensity training as well as explosive “anaerobic” efforts typical to cyclecross racing. Old-schoolers will tell you that you shouldn’t “ride too hard” during the off-season or you’ll compromise your “aerobic” fitness development. New-schoolers will tell you that spending a bunch of time riding slow might not be the best way to get faster on the bike. So who is right?

What Is Your Reality?

My problem with the “best way to train” question is that it’s the wrong question to start with, when it comes to training in general. The better question to ask is “what is my reality”. Let me explain…

Focusing on your own training reality guides you to perhaps the most valuable pieces of information when it comes to constructing a training plan. Here is an example…

The Important Questions

  1. How much time do you realistically have to train during the week?
  2. With fewer daylight hours, how much physical and mental energy do you have to complete workouts either before or after work in less than ideal training circumstances?
  3. What is your tolerance for extended training indoors?
  4. What family commitments do you have that might impact your ability to train?
  5. Does your spouse/family support you coming home from work and immediately hopping on the bike to train, or do you need to make some compromises that might reduce your weekly training volume?


All of these questions will get you closer to your training reality. When you lay out the details of your daily and weekly schedule, you should be forced to focus on what is real rather than what might be ideal. The sooner you are realistic, the sooner you will be able to get the most out of your available training time.

You’ve figured out what real is for you, now you’re ready to construct the best off-season training plan. It’s the “best” because it is centered on your weekly time constraints, not what might be ideal for a European pro or a local hot-shot.

Basic Guidelines

You’ve nailed down your reality. You’ve sketched out the slots of time that are realistic for you to train , now back to that “best” off-season training approach…Here are a few basic guidelines.

  1. If you’re only training 5-8 hours a week, riding slow endurance miles doesn’t make a lot of sense. If you have the opportunity to get a longer ride on the weekend great. If all you’ve got is small pockets of time during the week you might as well hit it hard and maximize your training time with some higher intensity training.
  2. If you’ve got 8-15 hours a week to train you’ve got some more flexibility. Mix things up with some longer endurance rides as well as some higher intensity work during the week
  3. If you’ve got 15-20+ hours a week to train then you’ve got more options. The world is your oyster. Experiment with some new concepts, find a cross-training activity you enjoy, throw in some intensity to keep things interesting. Focus on staying mentally fresh and motivated.

It Depends

As with most training-related questions, the answer to “the-best” usually starts with “it depends”. The sooner you can nail down your reality, the sooner you can maximize your available training time and be confident you’re following “the best” off season training plan. A plan that is specific to you and your goals as an athlete.

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Nate Dunn, M.S.
Data Driven Athlete

Using a Power Meter to Manage Rest and Recovery

Most athletes understand the necessity of rest and recovery. From the weight room, to the track, to the velodrome, it is impossible to get stronger and faster without rest. To put it simply, training makes you weaker as an athlete. It’s the rest that makes you stronger.

3 Types of Rest

It’s helpful for me to think of rest in three different contexts:

  1. “Micro-rest”—Rest between hard efforts on the bike
  2. “Mini-rest”—A day of rest after a hard workout or demanding race
  3. “Macro-rest”—Several days or weeks of rest after a block of training or racing

In each of the above mentioned examples a power meter can help guide your decision about when and how long to rest, giving you the greatest chance to progressively get stronger and faster. Here are a few examples of how you might use your power meter to better manage your rest and recovery.

1. Micro

This is the rest duration in between efforts during a workout. The intensity of your effort often shapes the duration of your rest period. If you are unable to sustain your target intensity for a specific interval, your power meter is likely telling you that you either need to reexamine your training zones or you need more rest. Rather than complete a mediocre workout below your targeted intensity, you’re better off shifting your focus for the day into active rest with the aim of coming back at full steam the next day.

2. Mini

Let’s say it’s Monday and you’ve just finished a particularly demanding workout where you nailed all of your intensity targets for the ride. On Tuesday, your plan calls for a rest day in order to consolidate the hard work you just put in, as well as prepare you for another tough workout on Wednesday. Rather than rest, you decide to hit up the local Tuesday night world championships. Wednesday rolls around and you find that you can’t hold your targets for the workout. You attempt to gut it out anyways and end up finishing the workout hitting substantially lower power targets than you had originally planned. Instead of getting two high quality training days you’ve gotten one day of quality, and two days of mediocrity. Your power meter is telling you that you can’t cheat the system. If you want to train with quality you have to rest.

3. Macro

You head out for a structured workout and can tell immediately that you’re not feeling it. Your RPE is off the charts for a power target you can usually nail. Rather than execute a mediocre workout, you opt instead to get some active recovery with the intent of hitting it hard the following day. The next day rolls around and you head out for your workout, noticing again that you’re unable to hit your targets. It has now been two days in a row that you’ve had a hard time completing your workout as prescribed. This is where you might need to take a step back and grab a few days, perhaps even a week of rest. If you’re finding it difficult either physically or mentally to execute consecutive workouts, your power meter might be telling you that you need some sustained time off the bike to rest and recharge.

So there you have it…not only does training with a power meter give you the advantage of quantifying the intensity of your effort on the bike, it also helps you pinpoint when and how you need to rest.

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Nate Dunn, M.S.
Data Driven Athlete

Training With a Power Meter, The Next Step

After conducting a basic performance test the next step in cycling with a power meter is to determine where you want to go. What are you goals and objectives as a cyclist? Are you hoping to excel in a local group ride, criterium, time trial, flat road race, hilly road race, or double century? Determining exactly where you want to go is the first step in constructing an actionable plan that puts you on the right track for success. If you’re wanting to improve while maximizing the amount of training time you have, you need to have some clear objectives.

The Real Work

Once you’ve got some clear targets identified, the real work of constructing a training plan begins. If you’re a do-it-yourselfer you’ll likely spend some quality time researching different training methodologies online. If designing and creating your own training plan seems daunting, hiring a coach to do the heavy lifting might be a good option for you. Whatever choice you make, to self-coach or hire a professional, the process of constructing a training plan is likely to follow these basic steps.

Basic Steps

  1. Carve out exactly how much time you have to train during the week
  2. Identify the specific demands of your target event and develop a progressive plan to replicate those demands in training
  3. Focus on improving your aerobic fitness and your ability to produce power at your lactate threshold
  4. Establish benchmark criteria to assess progress

Skinning The Cat

How exactly you go about addressing the above steps is really what defines different training strategies and coaching methodologies. There are hundreds of opinions about how to get stronger and faster. Between online forums, teammates, training books, and coaches there exists a lot of training noise that can be distracting if you’re trying to go it alone. Thankfully your power meter can help you keep things really simple.

If you’re self coached or working with a professional cycling coach, a power meter will give you an objective look at whether or not your training is effectively preparing you for success in your target event. Be consistent, stick to your plan, and continue to measure your progress by coming back to your testing protocol every 4-6 weeks. Your power meter helps to keep things simple; you’re either getting stronger or you’re not.

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Nate Dunn, M.S.
Data Driven Athlete

So You Bought a Power Meter, Now What?

So you did the research, you purchased a power meter that best meets your needs, and now you’re juiced to finally be riding with power…Now what?

Understanding The Mechanics

Your first step should be making sure you understand how your power meter and head unit work. Make sure you thoroughly understand the process of properly recording and downloading your rides. Here is a common routine for the Quarq Cinqo and Garmin 500 combo I use

  1. Power up the Garmin
  2. Spin the cranks
  3. Pedal backwards periodically during the ride, especially if large temperature swings have occurred
  4. Stop and reset the Garmin at the finish of the ride
  5. Download your ride into Training Peaks and delete the file off the Garmin

These are mechanical steps that might seem unimportant but they will minimize your chances of loosing a power file after a ride.

The Fun Part

You’ve cemented the routine of recording and downloading your data, you’re enjoying the process of seeing instant feedback every time you press on the pedals…now the real work begins…

The next step you want to undertake is to do some sort of performance test. Different cycling coaches might prescribe tests anywhere from 20 to 60 minutes in length, but the goals of a performance test are usually pretty strait forward

  1. Establish a baseline of current fitness
  2. Provide an approximation of power at lactate threshold to establish individualized training zones
  3. Execute a max effort that can be repeated over time to quantify progress

Understanding Your Data

So you’ve got the mechanics of the power meter/data download figured out, and you’ve done a basic performance test to establish a baseline of fitness and create some specific training zone intensities…what’s next? In the next post I’ll discuss some basic guidelines for establishing a training program using your power meter and the data you generate as a guide.

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Nate Dunn, M.S.
Data Driven Athlete

Data Overlay and Cycling Race Footage

The first time I saw a cycling video with data overlay I knew I had to get to work producing my own. No other type of cycling coverage could come close. The ability to see power, speed, HR, and course location in a live race situation was amazing. Some of the early pioneers of the dark art of telemetry were Steve Weixel and Tom Dillon, the later who even wrote his own telemetry software. Not only did live data make cycling footage exponentially more exciting and engaging to watch, it provided a new learning opportunity with each race.

Cycling Footage In Context

How did your effort hanging on the outside of the pack compare with your effort riding in the middle of the pack? Did you miss an opportunity to improve your position in the last lap of a crit, subsequently boxing yourself in for the final sprint? When you counter attacked did you play it too conservatively? Did you fail to hold your speed coming through each corner?

Having the ability to rewind a race and view footage with live data provides endless opportunities for improvement as a competitive cyclist. Your only limit is your willingness to be self critical or accept constructive criticism from others.

For entertainment or education, the integration of data and video footage opens up exciting new possibilities for the future of our sport. It’s a great time to be racing a bike!

Be the first to know about new blog posts while getting inside training tips delivered to your inbox.  No spam, ever, I promise.

To learn why my cycling coaching is different click here

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Nate Dunn, M.S.
Data Driven Athlete