Is racing the best form of training?

Road cycling

There is a saying that “racing is the best form of training”. While this is true in a lot of cases there are times when it is not. This article discusses a common mistake that cyclists make with their “race training” and what they can do about it.

Below is an example of HR race data from one of the people we (Cycling Informare coaching during a race. As you can see they are not spending much time in their red zone (VO2). This this case it was 5 mins and 45 seconds for the hour’s racing. This is what I would call bunch riding training. The quality of high intensity training is lacking. This is an example of a race that is not really going to improve your performance that much. Don’t get me wrong. This race was still hard. But what we are looking for is “really hard”.


An example of heart rate data from a race that’s not going to help your performance – In this case the rider rode for only 5 mins and 45 second in their VO2 HR zone over the hour. Hard but not hard enough. Left plenty out in the race and was able to sprint it out at the end (see the rise in HR data at the end).

Here is another example of a ergo effort from the same person performed earlier on in the week. In this example they rode for 51 mins; of that 6 mins were spent in their VO2 HR zone. This is better use of their time. You can do a session like this at home in less than a hour rather than spending half a morning travelling to and from a race. Ok, no bunch riding skills here though but you have a whole morning to spend with your family, friends or partner after you have finished!


An example of ergo data from the same person – 6 mins in V02 HR Zone

Below is an example of what your race data should look like if you want to get the maximum amount of benefit from your training. In this example the person spent 19 mins and 45 in their VO2 HR zone. This is what we are looking for in our data. A really hard race. You want to be fighting for a wheel for the whole race. It toughens you up both physically and mentally. When you move up a grade you get to experience attacks that are faster, go for longer and come more frequent… and your average speed will be higher.  ALSO… In these races you will learn very quickly how to get in and sit on a wheel close, race smart and Ride very efficiently. For the whole race you’ll be looking for the best sheltered place in the bunch just to survive and working hard to conserve the most amount of energy. These are very important skills to learn as well.


An example of good racing HR data – 19 mins and 45 sec in their VO2 HR Zone. Notice that the person was so shattered that they didn’t contest the sprint! Yep, this is what I’m talking about – really hard race training.  Also, look at the speed… Lots of big 50+ km peaks. This will get you fit fast!

Graded scratch racing is a great way to race with others of a similar level. This is really good for the sport in that you can rock up to a race and have a good ride. The issue is that if you are training for a specific future event; perhaps a club or national race… Or you want to go up a grade or do well at a club championship – then you’ll need to stretch yourself. This is where riding in a “comfortable” grade is not going to help you. I have a better motto that replaces the “Racing is the best form of training”. It’s this… “If you want to be a A grade racer then you have to race in A grade”. None of the other lower grades are going to stretch you enough for you to get the “race training” that you need to ride these higher grades.

Now lets get one thing clear. I’m not saying that if you are a C or D grade rider that you jump in on an A grade race and get yourself smashed over and dropped in the first 60 sec…  That is not what this is about. It’s about riding one grade higher in some races that you think will give you an enhanced “race training effect”. Local club run criteriums races an a ideal place to do this because if you get dropped then you can have a lap out and then get back racing again. Yes, make it a whole race of pain.

Important: If you are going to ride up a grade then you’ll need to clear it with the race commissaires first! Also, check with them to see if you can rejoin the race if you get dropped and if there is any special protocol involved if it happens. At local club races this is usually not a problem. Most commissaires will understand if you let them know that you are training for a specific future event and that you want to race in a higher grade to improve you fitness.

Ok, so you are riding A grade already? In this case you’ll have to find a harder fast race that you are doing at the moment. These may be in the form of State and National Events or international races.


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