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Specificity - How to build cycling power? Or the red herring of performance?

It was something that crossed my mind as Kenny and I recently were having one of our many training related discussions, how relevant is the specific nature of a training session/programme to the adaptation that we seek to improve performance, and is there a true correlation between the two?

Or, if an athlete is following a programme filled with sessions designed to replicate races or sections of a race, are they actually inhibiting their performance and would they be better served instead by training areas of their physiology which are relevant to the areas of their performance they seek to improve?

How to make time trial performances gains

What is specificity?

For the sake of this blog, we can refer to it as the degree to which your training replicates that of the event you are preparing for.

And in the most basic sense, it would appear that this is important, and few would be wrong in saying that. Marathon runners run middle to long distances in training, competitive cyclists, professional or amateur do the same, as powerlifters train by lifting heavyweights.

However, when does this no longer ring true?

As a cyclist, should you go out and train on every session as if it were a race?

Most likely not, as you would end up very fatigued, very quickly. However, take this back a step and say, should you go out and do this, with an adequate amount of recovery, would the adaptation be desirable and see you in a condition that you would be content to race in?

Some would argue so, and this has been an approach followed by many cyclists both today and in the past, completing a winter of long miles at moderate-low intensities, and then using racing to put the cherry on the cake, so to speak.

Is there compelling evidence to suggest that this is optimal?

So science tells us…

Some pieces of research have made suggestions that this may not be the way to prepare for an event if peak performance is what an athlete has in mind. A review by Paul Larsen (2010) suggested that ~75% of total training volume should be performed at low intensities, in other words, intensities which would not be considered entirely relevant to the somewhat painful intensities that competing brings about.

Dr. David Costill remarked in on this notion in 1991, that for those not familiar with the physiological implications of such intensities, “it is difficult to understand how training at speeds that are markedly slower than competitive pace for 3–4 h/day will prepare (an athlete) for the supra-maximal efforts of competition.”

When the implications of anaerobic work are considered; autonomic arousal and the associated impacts of that, the production of catabolic hormones, and potentially damaging parasympathetic activity if carried out over a prolonged period to name but a few, it makes perfect sense that we should only dip into this kind of work sporadically.

The research states as much, with six to eight sessions over approximately four weeks, being noted as all that is required to bring about the benefit that can be obtained, before the beneficial adaptations produced by the AMP - activated protein kinase pathway has been exhausted. Following this, the negative implications of the work required to induce these adaptations begin to inhibit your overall performance.

Here is the flip side however: Larsen stated that although this work should only be carried out over a short period (often in the immediate build-up to an event), that there are distinct and significant benefits to be had from it, with examples from various pieces of research being cited, including that of a 40km TT.

Why? As markers such as mitochondrial biogenesis and type one fibre hypertrophy were improved via the stimulation of this pathway, a pathway which cannot be activated without highly anaerobic activity.

And both aerobically and anaerobically stimulated pathways run through one pathway, referred to as the ‘master switch’ for one of the key adaptations for endurance athletes, the aforementioned mitochondrial biogenesis (Adhihetty et al- 2003).

This is relevant to our time trials, long-distance, endurance events, even though the 20/10 Tabata workouts and maximal thirty-second sprints may not seem ‘specific’ to the demands of the event itself.

So do I need to be specific?

Improve your cycling climbing with specificity

You betcha! Although the psychological impact of knowing what your limits are in a specific environment cannot be overlooked, the biggest takeaway cue here is that every session does not need to replicate a race to see you increase performance, and will potentially hinder you if not done in a methodical way.

Instead, be specific regarding your physiology, what do I need to improve in that respect, and in turn how will this impact upon my performance?

The study highlighted above echoed this, with the takeaway message being that it is more so about the balance of high and low-intensity work, and the relationship between them, which will determine to what extent you achieve a peak in your performance, not about how this reflects the event you are preparing for.

Too much of one or the other will either see you under-cooked having not maximised the potential gains provided by one or more pathways or over-trained, regardless of who you are or what you are training for.

Another take away here is that no one training session or short term plan will see you reach your potential, no matter how well it is marketed or who claims to have used it.

Consistent work, accumulating over months and years is what will see you become the best you can be, and trump any ‘four-week race-ready plan’.

And finally, most importantly, spending time planning your season, balancing that distribution of high and low intensity and being consistent with your work, is much more valuable than designing workouts with various and frequent changes in pace and duration, attempting to mimic something which is in essence, unstructured.

It is an adaptation that you are looking for, not a replication, which can be and are often two entirely different things. Don’t be impatient with your fitness in December, have a plan and trust in that, even though it may be difficult to envisage how your long, steady weekend rides are relevant to your attack from the breakaway in May.

You are training your body to perform or race, not racing your body to train.

If you would like our help at Elevation Coaching to formulate a progressive training plan to smash your goals and keep the fun in cycling get in touch at

We offer a range of bespoke plans ranging from £75.

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