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8-Week Crit Training Plan to Crush Your First Race

Athens Twilight Criterium
8-Week Beginner Crit Training PlanPatrick Daly

Criterium races a.k.a. “crits” are fast, unpredictable, and addictively exciting. Unlike stage races like the Tour de France, crit races happen on closed-circuit courses, and the timed events are relatively short in the world of bike racing. Each race is basically an all-out effort that lasts up to 90 minutes, with the shortest crits lasting about 30 minutes. Think of these races as something similar to Formula One racing—but with bicycles.

The simplicity of the format belies the technical riding skills needed for this style of road racing. Two main skills you’ll need to crush a crit: cornering and sprinting (specifically while riding in a pack).

Along with developing top-notch handling skills, to excel at crits, you also need to train cardiovascular fitness in order to maintain the fast pace required for the entirety of the race. Riders also need to be able to summon the explosive power necessary to dial it up to an all-out sprint at a moment’s notice.

Training for this type of event demands a specialized training plan. So to get you ready to race a crit, we turned to Pan American Games gold medalist and cycling coach Daniel Holloway to design an eight-week plan that is perfect for the first-time crit racer or anyone who wants to push themselves.

“There is no need to be intimidated by this training plan,” Holloway says. “All you have to do is do the workouts to the best of your ability. I have riders all the time and even myself throughout my career over-thinking a workout or being hard on myself if I didn't do it perfectly. The most important thing is to do the effort with intention and give yourself some grace if you have an off day.”


Bicycling’s Crit Contest

The Easton Twilight Crit, happening on May, 25, 2024, is literally outside our front door here at Bicycling HQ in Pennsylvania. So we created an opportunity for a member to train with us for eight weeks—with the help of Pan American Games gold medalist and cycling coach, Daniel Holloway, as well as editors—and then race the Easton Twilight Crit. Yasmin Boakye answered the call. Boakye has been cycling for three years, and was ready to take on her next cycling milestone: crit racing. She will be following an individualized plan with Holloway similar to the crit training plan he designed for Bicycling readers below.


Your 8-Week Crit Training Plan

This plan has rides scheduled for five to six days per week for the duration of the eight weeks.

“During the eight weeks a rider should see progress in their overall fitness and ability to change pace easier with less accumulated fatigue for a race length period of time,” Holloway explains.

As part of this plan, you’ll establish your cycling power zones so that you can accurately follow the prescribed intensities. You’ll also work on cadence and learn to push yourself through various levels of effort. With a mix of workouts, you’ll finish out the plan as a stronger cyclist.

Who This Plan Best Serves

This plan is aimed at the beginner to intermediate cyclist who can complete five to six training efforts per week for eight weeks. Ideally you’ll have some familiarity with power zone training and cadence drills, but don’t worry if they’re new to you—you’ll get a lot of practice while you’re working on this plan and will have mastered both by the end.

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Bicycling Staff; Tom Messina

“This eight week block is scheduled in a way to help most riders who have some kind of pre-existing base of riding but can also be done ‘off the couch,’” Holloway says.

Holloway stresses that the warm up is a crucial step to getting the most out of these workouts, so don’t skip them. “A warm up is essential to prime the body for a workout. It promotes blood flow and gets the neuro pathways firing before asking for more stressful or hard efforts. A race car would never start its engine and then immediately go pedal to the metal,” he says.

Because the efforts in this plan are often high intensity, it’s a good idea to obtain clearance from your physician before starting any kind of training.

How to Conquer the Workouts in This Plan

Power Test to Set Zones

In the first week, you’ll establish your power zones so that you ride at the ideal intensity for each workout.

“The purpose of the power test is to gauge your current ability across the power spectrum,” Holloway says. The power test sets a baseline for some key performance metrics, such as your sprint capacity and your max power, both when you’re fresh as well as when you’re fatigued. Familiarizing yourself with your power zones will help you get the most out of this plan as it allows you to perform the workouts accurately.

Holloway recommends focusing on each push effort in this workout one at a time and giving your maximum during each. Then, take the recovery portions very easy to reset for the next hard effort.

“To execute this workout you will need to do some preparation and math,” Holloway says. “Have your head unit set up to display ‘last lap average power’ as one of the data fields. When you do the five-minute maximum effort, press the lap button at the start and finish. Then you can check the ‘last lap average power’ field to see your average power for the effort [after you’re done with the entire workout]. Take 70 percent of this power, and use that as the target power for tempo efforts. It takes some planning, but it means you're doing the workouts at the best level for you on the day!”

To establish your power zones, follow the steps below:

Warmup

  • 15 mins at 90-110 rpm in zone 1-2

5-Min Tempo

  • 5 mins at 90-100 rpm in zone 3

  • 5 mins rest

  • 5 mins in zone 1

  • Repeat 2 times

Sprints 2 x 10 sec

  • 10 sec at 90-130 rpm in zone 6

  • 2 mins 30 secs recovery in zone 1

  • Repeat

5-Min Maximum

  • 5 mins in zone 4-5

  • 5 mins recovery in Zone 1

  • Repeat

Tempo 3 x 20 min

  • 20 mins at 90-100 rpm in zone 3

  • 5 mins recovery in zone 1

  • Repeat 3 times

Fatigue Resistance 5 min

  • 5 min in zone 4-5

Cooldown

  • 20 min at 90-100 rpm in zone 1-2

Tempo

During these workouts, focus on smooth pedal strokes with a strong and still posture as you work on your form. Keep your elbows bent and start your pedal stroke from the glutes.

By zeroing in on form, you’ll not only increase fitness, but also solidify cycling posture and efficiency. “You’ll build good core strength by maintaining a solid position, and better efficiency in your pedal stroke in the tempo zone,” says Holloway. “Tempo is an important part of the foundation to build your more intense efforts off of. I always found tempo to be more mentally taxing than physically.”

“Physiologically, tempo workouts are about building aerobic endurance and efficiency. When we do work below the threshold, we are working on pushing threshold power up by contributing to the control you can exhibit below it,” Holloway adds. “This work is also what allows you to recover during a long climb without going totally easy.”

You’ll see tempo efforts throughout this plan, but during the sit/stand tempo efforts, aim to keep power steady while transitioning between seated and standing positions. “Before getting out of the saddle try shifting one to two gears harder. This helps stabilize the bike as you stand up. Experiment with this in the efforts to find the sweet spot of where you can transition from seated to standing and back, while keeping the bike moving smoothly forward,” Holloway says. “Ideally these efforts are done on a moderate grade climb of 4 to 6 percent. Aim to keep the upper body relaxed and focus on deep breathing.”

Cadence

The purpose of the cadence drills is to build endurance and your cadence range abilities. “Both endurance and a well-developed range of cadence are an essential part of the sport, and building both of these abilities will help you be more efficient when it matters most,” says Holloway. “Having the ability to change speed quickly without needing to shift gears or being able to spin a high cadence comfortably is a great asset during racing.”

Cadence drills can be challenging at first, but with practice you’ll master this crucial cycling skill. Holloway says it’s important to realize that there’s a learning curve, and not to get discouraged in the beginning.

“Just know that the more you do it the better you will get,” he says. “If you are not able to hit the initially prescribed cadence it’s okay to lower the number by five and or not worry about the requested power number. I’d rather you get the cadence work in than the power requirements. The body adapts quickly to these types of efforts so you will see progress in no time.”

Endurance

The purpose of the endurance workouts is to develop the ability to ride longer with an emphasis on building your aerobic capacity. Another thing you’re developing during these efforts is the ability to effectively change pace during a steady effort. These workouts are all about accumulating time in the saddle, focusing on cycling posture, hydration, and fueling.

Holloway recommends selecting a route that allows for consistent, uninterrupted, pressure on the pedals. During these efforts, use your heart rate as the guide for intensity, especially if you’re training on varied terrain. Do the best you can to stay at the target zone 2 intensity.

“The sensations during this type of riding will be low for the first few minutes, but as the ride duration progresses, the feeling of work will accumulate,” Holloway explains. “Conversation with a riding partner is possible but they can tell you are riding and working. Endurance pace should be something that you could hold conversations with someone or be able to sing along to your favorite music.”

Threshold Intervals

The purpose of these intervals is to build your threshold zone, a.k.a. zone 4, and learn to embrace the discomfort of all-out efforts. “Building your threshold zone can be a very uncomfortable process. Remember: It’s supposed to be very hard,” Holloway says. “A well-developed threshold zone is essential in the sport of cycling. This is the zone you will use on long climbs and in moments of intense efforts up to an hour long.”

Threshold efforts are designed to be achievable, but they should also be uncomfortable. You should be working very, very hard. Pushing through this discomfort is as much about mental training as it is about physical training; you will learn how to stay focused while pushing through the discomfort, Holloway says.

Also, know these efforts are prescribed according to your individual training zones that you calculated during your power zone test, he adds.

Surges

These workouts are designed to be very short maximal efforts touching the ceiling of force production. This switches the nervous system on and makes a rider responsive and reactive in group rides and events as you’ll master changing pace very quickly, according to Holloway.

“Each surge should be executed like an ‘on/off’ switch: straight to maximum and back to baseline pace instantly,” he says. “Think of a surge as an acceleration or quick change of pace in one gear. A surge in a real-world scenario is often shorter than a sprint or attack.”

Maintain aerodynamic posture during these workouts with shoulders low, riding in the drops or the hoods with bent elbows. “This may feel very easy in the first half of the ride, but as the ride continues, the sensation of work will accumulate,” Holloway adds.

Bookends

“In competitive situations, it is rare that an effort is very evenly paced. Frequently, riders will surge to establish a gap, or start a short climb very fast, settle in, and then sprint over the top,” Holloway explains.

By focusing on your ability to change pace and precisely modulate power output, you’ll train your body to be capable of handling a wider variety of terrain and events. These efforts simulate this undulating intensity.

“This type of interval trains the body to make and clear lactate by alternating maximal and sub maximal efforts,” Holloway adds. “By manipulating cadence during these efforts, we change the focus from fast-twitch fibers to slow-twitch. These efforts are about making steady tempo power with very intense standing efforts on either end.” Precise execution of the prescribed intensities is the best way to get the most out of these efforts.

Look for a grad of 2 to 4 percent for surges workouts, and keep recovery effort light, with an easy spin on the pedals.

Recovery

Riding at a light pace will activate muscles and flush toxins by promoting circulation, according to Holloway, so it’s important not to skip this step. This is the time to focus on easy pacing with an emphasis on cadence.

“By practicing intensity discipline, we ensure proper recovery which helps with execution of intensity on days with intervals,” Holloway says. “One of the easiest mistakes to make in training is to ride too fast on the recovery days and not fast enough on the interval workouts. Focus on nasal breathing for recovery rides. Ideally the entire duration will be completed with the mouth closed.”

This workout is ideally done on a flat route, Holloway adds. While keeping the overall load light, this workout can be used to do some cadence drills to improve pedaling efficiency. During high-cadence efforts, engage the core and minimize bouncing in the saddle, focusing on developing a smooth pedal stroke.

“Any improvements we can make to pedaling efficiency translate to free speed,” Holloway says.

4 Tips to Crush Crit Race Day

1. Make Sure to Warm Up

When race day finally arrives, it’s crucial to warm up before you hit the start.

“Be present in how the body responds to the warmup. When the legs and lungs are open and ready, receptive to pressure, you are ready to race,” Holloway says.

  • 10 mins recovery pace

  • 10 mins endurance pace

  • 3 mins at 100+ rpm in zone 3

  • 90 secs at 100+ rpm in zone 4

  • 30 sec at 100+ rpm in zone 5

  • 5 mins recovery pace

2. Eat Right and Hydrate

Before you hit the starting line, make sure you have something to eat and drink. “A gel about five minutes before the start works well for most riders, but you have to find your own timing,” Holloway says. “Beware of eating sugary foods too far out from the start, as this can cause an insulin response.”

3. Plan Ahead

Another tip from Holloway to ease race day jitters is to be well-organized ahead of time and to leave yourself plenty of time to get set up so that you’re not rushing around and therefore, getting stressed. “Organized equipment will help avoid scrambling to look for a bottle or gel at the last minute,” he says. “Allow time for a final trip to the bathroom, to put on gloves, or check tire pressure. The more rehearsed this routine is, the smoother it goes on race day.”

4. Focus on Skills You Built in Training

Pacing your efforts during a crit and optimally managing your energy and strength is something that comes with practice and experience, Holloway explains.

“In a crit, there is no real pacing strategy,” he says. “You can monitor your efforts by cornering efficiently, using momentum and following the rhythm of the race to know when best to expend energy correctly to either attack or position yourself for the finish.”

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