Training for Track Racing

23 Aug

An extended treatise on training for track racing would be fascinating – and well beyond my abilities. I will make a few comments though from the layman’s perspective, and hope that something comes around in the English language explaining how best to train for track racing. There are a great many similarities in how track and road racers train, so roadies will do fine for the most part by keeping to their old training habits. But there are three ways in which training for the track commonly varies from a good road training program:

(a) Higher cadences: Because track racing proceeds at much higher cadences than road racing, training must reflect this. An athlete trained to maintain 30mph at 90rpms will find it surprisingly difficult to maintain the same speed at 130rpms. It’s a different type of motion requiring different preparation. And the most intense efforts on the track by definition take place at the highest cadences. But the most intense efforts in most roadies’ training rides take place at very low cadences.

Think about it: if you are like most road riders, your most intense efforts take place on hills. So the moments when you are putting out the most wattage at the highest heart rate are likely well below 90rpms – which is the opposite of what you’re looking to do. Generating 300 watts at 90rpms really is a different matter than generating 300 watts at 140rpms, and you need to train with that in mind. It actually suggests that your big efforts should be on slight downhills, with a tailwind, or at least on a flat section. This isn’t natural for roadies – it takes some focus to do this consistently, to stop training yourself to go hard up hills and easy down them, and frankly to find sections or road where you can safely hit 50-60kph without interruptions.

(b) Shorter distances: A nice aspect of track racing is that, because races are shorter, training sessions can be shorter too. They of course need to be more intense, focusing on the explosiveness and speed needed for the track, but a good amateur trackie can succeed entirely on training sessions of 90 minutes or less. Some track racers will say that longer rides will actually hurt for purposes of developing speed on the track – I won’t opine on that, but it is certainly the case that a high percentage of your training time needs to be at very high levels of effort, so the comfortable long road rides typical of club riding won’t get you there on their own. (And – club rides tend to have major efforts around climbs, contra the point above about doing intense efforts at high cadences.)

(c) Time in the weight room: Road racers often lift weights in the winter as a part of general conditioning, often on the theory that it balances out the body (particularly the core) and prevents injury in the long run. Studies seem to have shown that extensive use of weightlifting, however, doesn’t really help road performance much – if you want to get better at racing a road bike, the best thing to do is to ride a road bike.

On the track, lifting weights seems to return more benefit, to the point where it’s not uncommon for track racers (particularly, but not exclusively, sprinters) to lift not only in the off-season, but during the racing season too. Much could be said about different techniques – but I will only note that the typical training regimen includes both upper- and lower-body lifts, and many of the most productive lifts are variations on the dead-lift. Dead lifts and variants have the merit of increasing not only leg strength, but strengthening the upper and lower back, arms, and hands (for grip) as well. All valuable for track racing.

Injury is the thing to look out for. Cyclists, unlike runners and other athletes, are not accustomed the idea of training injuries. They are pretty rare. But weightlifting, particularly with heavy weights at low repetitions, is very likely to result in injury. You have to watch out for it, and there’s a steep learning curve. Given the major muscle groups involved (quads, hamstrings, lower back), a muscle pull or tear in the weight room can set you back weeks or months – so read about it, consult someone with experience, and proceed conservatively. But having said that, weightlifting can really increase your strength and speed on the track.

For many riders, weight training is a great help to their performance, and has the added benefit of being an indoor activity for winter training. So – bring weight training into your regimen if you can, but take it slow and try not to learn “the hard way” by testing your limits too early. That’s how injuries happen.

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