Doing more cycling in the 'sweetspot' training zone could revolutionise your fitness - here's why
The ‘comfortably hard’ zone just below FTP promises sweet rewards for your aerobic fitness, but how much and how often is best for you? Pro coach Brendan Housler explains
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“I need a plan this year, otherwise I’m just going to end up riding around doing random workouts,” said my mate Chris as we caught our breath at the side of the road. It was a crisp day earlier this winter, and we had just completed one of those spontaneous sprints, the kind with no clear training objective. “At best, it’ll involve trying the latest thing I’ve read about. I’m just not sure what I should be doing at the moment.”
As much as Chris loves riding and racing, he can’t currently justify the cost of a coach, so he started to look around at online templates and training plans, desperate for some structure. He was baffled by the number of different plans on offer, but one specific type caught his eye.
“I see a ton of sweetspot plans, so I’m going to give that a try. It’s the one I’ve come across the most, so it has to be good, right?” added Chris.
He’s right in one sense – sweetspot training plans are extremely popular, and understandably so during these uncertain times when many of us still don’t have any race targets on the calendar. But how much can we rely on this level of intensity to maintain and build our fitness? Let’s dig a little deeper to understand how you can use sweetspot training to get faster.
How are sweetspot sessions beneficial?
This intensity of training provides many of the adaptations that threshold intervals provide, but cause less fatigue and less stress on the body. Making fitness gains is always a balance between intensity, volume and recovery, and most athletes are able to do more volume at sweetspot than at threshold, simply because the stress is less and mentally it’s less forbidding.
The physiological gains made from sweetspot cycling are increased blood plasma volume, increased mitochondrial enzymes, increased lactate threshold, and increased glycogen storage. These are all very important ingredients for cycling success. However, your body adapts best to new stresses – you can’t just do the same thing all the time. This holds true for training in any zone; after a while, you need to change things up.
Most of the physiological changes that take place as your body responds to training stimuli happen over the course of the first four to eight workouts, depending on the athlete and training zone. You then recover, the body gets stronger, and you come back and train slightly harder – that little cycle happens over and over.
For those who race, sweetspot training increases the tolerance for holding a high intensity over long durations, which means you’ll last longer in the break. Of course, if you are racing riders who are faster and fitter than you, do not expect sweetspot preparation to keep you in the mix; you will also need other workouts including threshold bursts and VO2 max intervals.
The big advantage of sweetspot intervals is that you can recover faster from them compared to harder efforts, which allows you to do more of them in a week. On the other hand, this repeatability has led to the overprescription of sweetspot. “OK, mate! I’ve got my plan,” concluded my pal Chris. “I’m going the sweetspot route, mainly because I know these intervals are fun to do.” It was time to offer some advice.
How often can you do sweetspot training?
Sweetspot, AKA high tempo/low threshold, is a great way to get aerobically fit during the base period. You can do two low-end sweetspot sessions during the week to complement your strength training in the gym. If you enjoy interval structure or are riding indoors on the trainer, add one higher-end interval set at the weekend. Sweetspot saves time; it’s more efficient than sitting on the turbo trainer or indoor bike for hour after hour at endurance pace.
There is nothing wrong with doing sweetspot intervals during the race season, especially if you are short on time. Again, you should not rely on sweetspot alone. Although you might prefer riding at sweetspot to 100 per cent FTP sessions, remember that it is not a replacement for riding at 100-105 per cent of FTP, and you still need to do some over-under type intervals too.
Sweetspot may be “comfortably hard” but don’t get too comfortable and familiar with it – it is not a complete training plan in its own right. Once you can nail sweetspot intervals and increase their duration, you need to go harder so you don’t stagnate or plateau.
How long can you ride at sweetspot?
A classic sweetspot session is three times 10 minutes or two times 20 minutes, and if you're training with a power meter the correct intensity is 84-97 per cent of your FTP power. Once you’re ready for it, you can build up to intervals of 30-45 minutes – after which 20-minute intervals will seem a cinch.
How effective is sweetspot training?
“I worked on my ability to go above threshold last year,” said Chris, “so that I could make the break with the elite group, but was finding I didn’t have anything left at the end.”
Do you find yourself making the break or lead group but getting dropped or not having a kick at the end? This can be extremely frustrating. One thing that could be wrong is that you don’t have the capacity for that final high-intensity work. You’re zapped when you really need to be able to hit it hard.
Sweetspot is going to help you increase your workload and allow you to get further down the road with the lead group, so that you have more matches to burn when people really start throwing down the pain. If you are making the break but just hanging on, training at 90-97 per cent of FTP can help you elongate your long-duration wattage.
But you will also need to spend time in the other training zones, working on your threshold, FTP and VO2 max intervals. I worked with one racer who was struggling for kick at the end of the race even though his sprint power was at an excellent level. Whenever he was able to sit in and save watts, he could win, but from a hard break, he would have nothing left. When we reviewed his 45-minute power and did some test blocks at 95 per cent of FTP, he ended up with a personal best power for two hours – he’d simply never trained that hard for that long. The conclusion was obvious: aim higher, go longer.
Don’t keep doing sweetspot over and over again, as this can become an ineffective obsession. Each session needs to have a specific purpose.
“Sweetspot will make you an effective team-mate,” says former pro road cyclist Grant Koontz. “You can ride on the front, you go in a break, but you’re not going to win many bike races if all you’re doing is sweetspot.”
How much sweetspot training is it worth doing?
It is possible, and even tempting, to do too much sweetspot training. Doing so will only lead to burnout. We need to change up the stimulus, not only so that the body adapts, but also to avoid getting mentally fatigued.
The same applies to ‘FTP builder’ plans – once you have built, you need to use those adaptations for racing or training at a higher intensity, otherwise they will eventually fade away. True FTP building comes when you step back and look at your watts, year to year. FTP as a one-off measurement is just a snapshot.
High-sweetspot and FTP-building workouts are best saved for two to three months before your race season starts. These plans get the body used to harder aerobic efforts. During the race season, you need to dial back these sessions.
“When I’m putting a programme together, sweetspot is like adding on the second or third floor,” coach Owen Shott of Shott Performance explains. “You can use sweetspot to stretch out the duration at a certain power, rather than focusing solely on power over a fixed period of time.”
Unless you have a race coming up imminently, you do not need to be doing huge volumes at sweetspot. Focus on gaining strength and power in the gym, ride tempo, graduate to low threshold, and prepare your body for the massive training blocks that await down the road once racing is under way. And remember: use it or lose it.
Pro rider view - ‘Ride sweetspot by feel’
US ProTeam rider Stephen Bassett (Rally Pro Cycling) suggests taking an informal approach to sweetspot.
"I try to make sweetspot training as organic as possible by just riding climbs bottom-to-top rather than timing specific efforts. I also do a lot of sweetspot intensity riding on gravel climbs, and feel like the small variations of power required, coupled with the added focus of keeping forward momentum on changing terrain, is a good simulation of the demands of riding a climb in the bunch in a road race. Both scenarios require an extra dimension of focus on top of just maintaining a set effort."
This feature originally appeared in the print edition of Cycling Weekly, on sale in newsagents and supermarkets. You can subscribe through this link here (opens in new tab).
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Brendan Housler of evoq.bike is a cat-one cyclist and professional cycling coach from the USA.
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