Hard or Moderate: How to Optimize Your Cycling Training

Peter Glassford
by Peter Glassford
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Hard or Moderate: How to Optimize Your Cycling Training

If you are planning your training, or working with a coach to progress toward a goal, you are already on the right track. After all, not having a plan or giving it an honest try, is where many athletes go wrong. There have been a lot of studies, podcasts and articles dedicated to the merits of the two major ways of organizing training: polarized and threshold. One is extreme and intense and the other is relatively more moderate (but still pretty intense).

The first step in organizing your training is to look at your current ability and compare it to where you want to go. When planning your training, it’s important to think about how you will evolve your days and weeks to ensure you progress toward the specificity of the race demands and continue to adapt to new loads so you keep getting faster.


We all have our strengths and weaknesses. If you are like many athletes, you love going long and identify as an endurance athlete. On the flipside, you probably struggle with starts, attacks, steep hills, sprints or other defining moments and will lose races or get dropped from group rides despite seemingly great fitness. Physiologically, the lack of quality intervals means your strong aerobic system is limited by the lack of speed. Doing a few blocks of polarized, interval training can be very effective because it stresses the ‘defining moments’ and also reduces the fatigue from the long-to-moderate efforts they are already great at.

A different athlete might not do very much intensity at all. They may be adverse to really working hard or just be newer to cycling. They may even have a medical condition that prevents them from pushing too deep. These athletes can gain fitness by intensifying their training hours, which are usually limited to less than eight hours a week. The added training stress means they will likely keep getting more fit as they increase the amount of threshold they can tolerate each week.

Yet, another athlete might be very good at going very hard but struggle to finish rides. They might start with the leaders but fade and barely finish rides and races. Some of the former-hockey players I work with fit in here and since they haven’t done year-round cycling training that would follow a typical periodization from easy base to harder build to very hard race phases. Spending a few phases focused on endurance and muscular endurance at threshold before bringing back their favorite maximal intervals ahead of their key races can work very well.



Does the race you are training for require very high intensity because it is a short event like track racing or downhill racing? Is the start important like a cross-country mountain bike race or  a cyclocross event? The defining moment in these races is well above your threshold, so you should be familiar with what those hard efforts feel like. These same events are often quite variable with interval-like power racing where an athlete coasts downhill and then sprints up hills.

If your race doesn’t have these accelerations and you can control your speed, like a long-distance triathlete, then you will find yourself doing a lot more work toward the middle training intensity, especially as the race approaches. You may still plan a polarized block of training in the winter when the weather is poor and build up the quality of their training with short intervals. Then, as the weather improves, you can shift your training distribution so you are spending more time on the bike doing longer intervals, such as ‘sweet-spot’ and threshold intervals.

If you are switching your disciplines or focus, you will have to change your training. The ultimate question is how do you organize your training over the course of a season based on your own experience, abilities and goals.

The best training for a single athlete is more complicated than simply following the generalized models of an elite Olympian’s training over time. Simply make sure you are improving over time and that you are practicing for your defining moment.

About the Author

Peter Glassford
Peter Glassford

Peter is a cycling coach and registered kinesiologist from Ontario, Canada. He travels frequently to work with athletes at races, camps and clinics. He also races mountain bikes for Trek Canada and pursues adventure in all types of movement. Follow @peterglassford on Twitter, or check out his online and in-person coaching at www.smartathlete.ca.


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