Specialty Phase Training: Everything You Need to Know

To refine our cycling abilities and achieve peak fitness, making both highly specific to our cycling discipline and racing demands, we will progress through the third (and potentially final) training phase: the Specialty Phase.

Specialty Phase training plans integrate the principle of specificity into training. Each training plan in this training phase strives to be as specific to your target events or riding discipline as possible. So the workouts you’ll find in this training phase focus on the specific cycling goals/efforts that you’ll be faced with on the road, mud, gravel, or whatever tickles your fancy.

A quick note: We visited TrainerRoad in Reno last year to discuss the concept of a blog series designed to educate athletes about the principles of exercise physiology. This series is the result. Thanks to coach Chad and the team at TrainerRoad for all of their hard work putting this together. Links to all articles in the series are listed here.

Be sure to listen to or watch our podcast interview with TrainerRoad.

What You’ll Gain from Optimal Specialty Training

Athletes will achieve their fitness “peak” by emphasizing the refinement of cycling specific activities during Specialty training. This is not exclusive to anatomical and physiological adaptations; specialization applies to psychological, technical and tactical features as well. No matter what cycling specific activities you take part in, these are the skills you’ll sharpen to “peak” for important competitions (or rides you want to be flat out fast in).

Time trialing, sprinting, attacking, climbing, descending, team tactics, individual strategy — each are examples of cycling-specific capabilities that we want to perform within our highest capacity at. Research demonstrates, integrating specialization into a dedicated training phase spurs the human body to adapt specifically to the activities the individual participates in.

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How to Approach Specialty Training to Peak At the Right Time

Moving into a focus on progressively increasing competition intensity and volume to specific performance capabilities, optimal Specialty training transitions out of Base and Build Phase training. I suggest athletes spend 8 weeks in this training phase. By keeping workout intensity high, and by transitioning training volume to be relatively moderate, conditioning is maintained and a layer of “freshness” for the athlete is revealed.

Integrating a progressive training load throughout the season, ultimately leading up to achieving a “peak” in abilities, operates on the basis that your body’s capacity for work gradually increases over an extended period. In other words, there’s a direct relationship between your individual rate of improvements in performance and the rate and manner you increase your training load. The point is, you’re shortchanging yourself on the fitness peak you can actually achieve by cutting your time short in Base and Build Phase training.

My recommendations for Specialty Phase training depend on a rider’s racing and/or riding discipline. Here’s a few examples of the workouts you’d find in time trial-, criterium-, and triathlon-specific Specialty Phase training plans:

Full-Distance Triathlon Specialty Phase workout:

Polar Bear: is a workout I’ve created that is composed of 120 minutes of continuous riding where you’ll spend 105 of those minutes between 80-85% of FTP (Tempo and Sweet Spot power zones). The workout begins with a ramping 12-minute warmup ranging from 50-82% FTP and ends with a 3-minute cooldown ranging from 40-30% FTP.
With no recovery intervals built into the workout, this extended period of aerobic endurance may be uncomfortable, but this is the intensity you’ll find yourself during competition or during a similar duration triathlon effort. We recommend riding in your time trial position to continue dialing in the proper balance between your aerodynamic positioning and power output, and also your nutrition/hydration/pacing strategy.

Time Trial Specialty Specialty Phase workout example:

Unicorn +1: is a workout that predominantly falls into the Threshold power zone with a 60-minute continuous interval ranging from 95-102% FTP. The workout begins with a 13-minute ramping warmup ranging from 50-120% FTP, and ends with a 8.5-minute cooldown ranging from 40-30% FTP. There are also 3 short “clearing efforts” at 160%, 130%, and 200% FTP to clear muscle glycogen prior to this hour-long effort. This helps tax the aerobic system and reduce reliance on maintaining nutrition during extended rides.
This is classified as a “practice time trial workout” during the Specialty Phase of training to simulate the demands of the time trial efforts these riders will face. We recommend riders perform these practice TT efforts in their aero positioning for the same reasons we’d recommend it for the triathlon-specific workouts.

Criterium Specialty Specialty Phase workout example:

Nevada City Classic +2: is a workout with 25 lap-like intervals that each begin at 71% FTP, move to 111%, then include minimized “recovery” periods at 91% FTP before repeating efforts back at 111% and 71% FTP … yes, all in the same interval. The workout begins with a ramping 6-minute warmup ranging from 40-100% FTP, and ends with a 4.5-minute cooldown ranging from 40-30% FTP. The recovery valleys between each interval are an unrelenting 45-seconds.
This is classified as a “practice criterium workout” during the Specialty Phase to simulate criterium racing’s repeating, brutally intense efforts. I recommend these workouts to train the highly specific power delivery required in crits—anaerobic sprinting power coupled with a robust aerobic engine to repeat these efforts over and over again.

How to Approach Racing During the Specialty Phase

Throughout the Specialty Phase, many athletes will be weaving lower-priority events into their training. This is assuming you’ll be racing a high-priority event at the end of the training phase. While this is the assumption, you don’t have to be racing to achieve a fitness peak.

If you do have a race on the weekend but also have a workout scheduled that same day, consider this a “training race”. Forget about the scheduled workout for that day as you’ll be getting plenty of training stimulus from your race. In these cases, you may also need to adjust your scheduled workout that follows with a lower-intensity ride to maintain a good progression in your training plan. Sometimes a heap of stress from a race can necessitate these kinds of small adjustments.

Tapering for your Event

I manufacture a tapering strategy into each Specialty Phase training plan I design. The goal of a taper is to minimize the negative physiological and psychological stresses of daily training to optimize sports performance. Instead of trying to eke out further positive physiological responses from increased training, our aim is to enhance performance by reducing training stimulus in a way that reveals a layer of “freshness” in the athlete.

To properly taper for an event, I recommend 1-2 weeks of a progressive, nonlinear reduction in training volume while still maintaining a large portion of training intensity. Since many races will land on a Sunday, I design the taper week to leave out the Sunday workout in anticipation for the event. Should your event land on a Saturday, feel free to leave out Saturday’s scheduled workout in lieu of your event.

Skipping Specialty Phase training amounts to missing out on the opportunity to capitalize on your season of hard work. Specialization is meant to sharpen your skills like a fine blade — should you establish your fundamental skills, build upon them in a slightly more specific manner, then why stop there? If the confines of timing ‘til your event are what you face, reducing the amount of time spent in Specialty training is an option.

Summary of Specialty Phase training

Establishing base fitness paves the way for workloads that are heaped higher & higher during build training. With both forms of conditioning buttoned up, the intent is now to top off your fitness, uncover a high level of freshness and lock down your confidence over these final 8 weeks of training.

Continue reading this series.

Off-season Re-build

About this guest post series:
To help you achieve your fastest season, Chad Timmerman, TrainerRoad’s Head Coach, shares his proven, science-backed training process that takes busy athletes from base to peak fitness. Coach Chad’s complete “How to Coach Yourself to Peak Fitness” guide was originally published on TrainerRoad’s blog.

About TrainerRoad:
TrainerRoad makes cyclists faster through their proven, all-in-one training system. Riders of all disciplines and fitness levels use TrainerRoad to perform structured indoor workouts, follow science-backed training plans, and analyze their training with easy-to-use performance analysis tools.