How to Overcome a Cycling Plateau


No matter where you are in your cycling career, a lot of athletes find a time where they’ve hit a plateau and feel like they can’t find a way to improve their cycling performance. Many times, the plateau happens at a weak spot in their cycling arsenal. This occurs because most cyclists know that they have to train their weaknesses in order to really get better. As they train these weaknesses over and over, they eventually hit a wall that cannot be overcome. Instead of taking a step back, they keep hammering after this weakness, which can often lead to disappointment and frustration.

How To Avoid Training Plateaus And Stagnation in Cycling

Part 1: The Mental Side of Interval Training

Lost Motivation

Sometimes the athlete has lost motivation to go after the weak spot where they can no longer make a serious gain, and feel like that have plateaued. Sometimes it’s the mind that is holding them back, as they psych themselves out, and it’s the fear of the pain that the wattage will create that paralyzes themself. Don’t believe it? Put them in a race scenario that has that same or similar duration in it, and if they segment is at the right time of the race (someone else attacks and they are hanging on for dear life), and they no longer are anticipating and thinking about the pain, they JUST RIDE HARD, an we see a lifetime Personal Best come out of it.

Post Race Data Encouragement

They see the data afterwards, and they think, “I CAN beat that personal best I had before!” While it is very hard to recreate race-paced efforts on your own, simply seeing that you can improve will often lead to even more improvement.

Don’t psych yourself out. Be calm before the most intense intervals.

All that mental talk aside, there are also physiological things than can be hampering your performance, which are what we’d like to look at in this post.

Part 2: The Physiological Side of Interval Training

If you’re stuck and in a rut, you’re probably going to need to increase your training load. You can only go so far on each dose of stimulus, so it’s a good idea to add another day to the routine (increase frequency) or make your total training time in the zone go up (volume).

You can achieve the latter by adding another interval set, or making the interval sets longer in duration. Said differently: spend more time at the area you are plateauing at. You’ve reached your max capacity at what you’re currently doing; switch things up for a couple weeks and then come back it this, but with longer intervals or more of them.

Intensity also increases training load, but it most likely won’t improve your stagnated weak spot; it will however, snap you out of stagnation.

Telling someone to simply “Ride Harder” is irresponsible; they could be getting burnt and maybe almost overtrained, which caused the stagnation, so riding harder will only crack them. One must ride smarter, and we’d suggest switching up the workouts you’ve been doing.

VO2Max Plateau

For VO2Max Plateaus, spend more time hitting that 85-90% VO2Max power. If you’re newer to cycling and find training the really strenuous loads very difficult to handle, take a look at some very short, but highly repeatable, 20 second tabata intervals. 6 x 20s at full gas, resting just 10 seconds in between. Rest 5 minutes between, and do it two more times. These will really hurt, but they will mentally prepare you for the intensity that longer VO2Max sessions demand.

If you’ve been throttling VO2Max efforts in hopes of increasing your 5 minute power, and have worked up to 5 x 5m, for ease of the numbers, let’s call that 25m of work. Yes, we are ignoring the 95% VO2Max hot button right now to make a point.

Lower the duration to 3.5 minutes, and only do 4 of them on your hard day. Your body will still get a high stress stimulus, but will be able to recover so much more.

This change  increases the intensity but decreases the duration. You could also decrease the intensity but increase the duration, but stay within the same physiological zone. Both will help you break out of stagnation from a lack of training stimulus.

Pushing out your VO2Max ceiling is a great thing to do anyways, as it will allow you to have more room to grow your FTP and Threshold power. Have you plateaued at FTP? Keep reading.

FTP Plateau

If you’ve been working on building out your FTP and can’t seem to get past X Watts, take 95% of X watts and ride slightly longer.

Another option is to work on some long sweet spot efforts. If you haven’t done these before, start with 20 minute intervals and eventually shoot to ride at this pace for 1.5-2 hours. Yes, hours. It sounds like a lot, but if you can achieve this, you will no doubt see massive gains in your FTP.

BONUS: Use the Power Duration Curve

Take a look at your Power Duration Curve, and see if there is anything lacking on the edges of where you are plateauing. If you’ve plateaued at FTP, is your VO2Max really weak? Or, the exact opposite could be the case: maybe your endurance isn’t as efficient as it could be, and this translates to some struggling FTP efforts.

Many times we see the latter. Athletes who come in without many base miles and have a lack of, or almost nonexistent, aerobic base, really struggle in improving their FTP. Those that put in the work and develop this begin to see huge gains.

This rider could work the edges of their 5 minute and 1 hour power if they were plateauing at these durations

This rider could work the edges of their 5 minute and 1 hour power if they were plateauing at these durations

Warning: this endurance growth cannot be fast tracked. There are very few shortcuts in cycling, and developing your aerobic base is not one where you can do this. That leads us to a base miles plateau. It’s really more of a crash.

Base Miles Plateau Crash

There is no such thing. But here’s what is a thing...just riding too much at one intensity for a long time will make you tired. When I completed this massive block for the CTL blog post, I came out feeling, and physically being, crushed. Don’t let yourself do that.

This won’t be a problem for most cyclists; many of us are trying to find MORE hours, and not restricting ourselves because we ride too much. But for those young guns and flexible scheduled humans out there, don’t overdo the volume at the wrong times; you’ll plateau, and crash.

Interested to learn more? Let’s start a conversation. Respond with your thoughts in the comments or reach out to us directly!

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