Developing Fitness for Criterium Racing 1130x600
Training Tips

Developing Fitness for Criterium Racing

By: Jim Rutberg  September 02, 2021

Learn the fundamentals of race fitness and how to specify your workout for criteriums

In a previous blog post, Learning the Cycling Skill for Your First Criterium, we talked about developing the skills necessary to have fun, stay safe, and be successful in America’s most popular form of road racing: the criterium. In addition to skills, however, you also need the fitness to stay with the pack and the cycling power to accelerate repeatedly as you exit corners, move through the field, and sprint for primes and the finale. The good news is that a strong base of aerobic fitness from generalized cycling training is exactly where you should start, so all the riding you’ve been doing – on the road, gravel, track, or trail - has been great preparation for some criterium-specific workouts.

First, the fundamentals

Criterium racing is characterized by the high-speed, high-intensity spikes in power output and exertion. With a course that’s typically less than a mile and 4-6 corners per lap, there’s a lot of accelerating going on during a 20-, 40-, or 60-minute race. But the best criterium riders don’t just have the strongest sprints or biggest anaerobic capacities (more on that later); they have highly developed aerobic systems that enable them to sustain a high pace and power output throughout the race so they have more energy for super-fast finishing kick.

A thorough treatise on how the body produces energy for exercise is beyond the scope of this article, but a quick review of the basics is in order. First, realize that the body doesn’t recognize distinct energy systems or have switches that turn on and off. You are always producing energy through aerobic and anaerobic pathways; the relative contributions change depending on how quickly energy is needed. When energy needs are relatively low, like when you are sitting and reading this article, cruising the bike path with your kids, or even on a conversational-pace endurance ride with friends, the aerobic system contributes the majority of your energy.

As exercise intensity increases, you start demanding energy faster than the aerobic system can supply it, so the contribution from the anaerobic system starts to increase to fill the gap. At your maximum sustainable intensity or lactate threshold, your aerobic and anaerobic systems are working together; the anaerobic system partially breaks down carbohydrate to (quickly) produce energy and lactate, and the aerobic system (more slowly) burns fat, carbohydrate, and that lactate from the anaerobic system.

When energy demands spike due to a big acceleration, a hard hill, or a sprint, the anaerobic system ramps up even more, and the lactate accumulates because you’re producing it faster than the aerobic system can process it. Now sports scientists would say you have crossed your lactate threshold. The amount of work you can perform above this threshold is known as your anaerobic capacity, and it’s limited. It’s also different from your maximum aerobic capacity, or VO2 max, which is the maximum amount of oxygen you can take in and utilize.

The point of all that explanation is that a strong aerobic system from moderate intensity endurance rides and group rides enables you to perform more work (ride at a higher pace for longer) before reaching lactate threshold. Long intervals (10-20 minutes) at or near your lactate threshold increase your maximum sustainable power and how long you can sustain it. All of that fitness reduces the anaerobic system’s contribution to your power output while you’re riding at moderate or even high intensity, so you have more of that limited anaerobic capacity at your disposal when it’s time for repeated maximal efforts.

Next, Criterium Specificity

Once you’ve developed a strong aerobic system and boosted your sustainable power at lactate threshold and the amount of time you can sustain that effort, it’s time to train your anaerobic capacity so you can meet the energy demands of repeated accelerations and sprints. To be effective, the training efforts must be very hard, but they are also quite short. If they are either too easy or too long, then the ever-helpful aerobic system will contribute too much energy and you won’t create the training stimulus needed to provoke a positive adaptation in your anaerobic capacity.

Two examples of workouts that help increase anaerobic capacity are Anaerobic Power Intervals and 30/30 Speed Intervals. If you are working with a USA Cycling Certified Coach or using a training book you will find these are just two of many workout variations aimed at improving anaerobic capacity. In all cases, it’s important to realize that a small amount of this type of work is all that’s necessary to yield substantial improvements. Integrate these workouts into your training program 1-2 times per week in the 4-6 weeks prior to racing criteriums. Before that, focus more on aerobic development and building power at lactate threshold.

Anaerobic Capacity Intervals

Anaerobic capacity intervals differ from Speed Intervals in that each effort is a bit longer (30-45 seconds) and the recovery between efforts is long (5 minutes). The goal is to drain the tank you have of available capacity to perform work anaerobically, and then allow enough recovery time for that tank to replenish itself mostly or completely before the next effort. Begin from a rolling start and make each effort as hard as you can go. Aim for 4-12 intervals in a workout session, using the lower end of that interval range (4-8 efforts) if you’re new to these intervals or the upper end (8-12 efforts) if you’ve done them before. These are listed first because you’ll want to do a block of these workouts first, to develop anaerobic capacity, and then move on to Speed Intervals to work on repeatability of anaerobic efforts.

Speed Intervals

These are 30-second, high power, high cadence accelerations separated by 30 seconds of easy spinning recovery. In practice, they will feel like revving your legs for 30 seconds, spinning easy while you naturally slow down, and then revving your legs again. Start with two or three, 4- to 6-minute sets (30 on, 30 off for 4-6 minutes) with 5 minutes of easy spinning recovery between sets. Use gearing you can spin up to a high cadence (100+ rpm) during the efforts. Each effort should be at least 125% of your lactate threshold power or a rating of perceived exertion of 9-10 on a 10-point scale.

Bonus: High Speed Sprints

Another workout that will add speed to your sprints and accelerations is called High Speed Sprints. Sprints that start from a standstill or slow rolling speed are effective for creating the torque needed to accelerate against a heavy resistance. Sprints that start from a high speed are great for developing the speed, power, and cadence needed to finish fast. In an area that is safe for sprinting, pedal downhill until you have reached a speed of 20-25 mph. Whether still going downhill or as you transition to flat ground, sprint at maximum effort for 15-20 seconds. Take at least 5 minutes of easy spinning recovery. Aim to complete 5-10 sprints in a workout session.

The workouts mentioned above are good starting points for cyclists who are new to criterium training. They can all be scaled up for more advanced competitors.