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Training for Crits

A few weeks ago, Cyclingnews reader Carlos Cruz wrote to our letters page asking how he could improve in crits. This response from USA Cycling coach Dave Palese* gives some useful insight into going faster in the US's most common type of racing.

Carlos' original letter:

I'm currently in a Cat 3 Crit. Racer in South Florida. I've been experiencing some difficulty in some races lately, probably due to the increased technicality of the course and my inability to recover. I noticed that right before I get dropped I'm consistently in my 5c zone ~190 bpm for about 3-4 minutes. So, my question is. Is it possible to increase the amount of time one can stay in the 5c zone? If so, what work-outs will help in this effort? In addition, how many sessions would be required to see a significant improvement (I know the last one may sound dumb).
Carlos Cruz

A more productive way to approach this problem would be to work on increasing your body's efficiency at high intensities. What I mean to say is, what you'll want to work towards is getting your body to handle the intensity of the race, in this case criteriums, more efficiently (at a lower heart rate) rather than working to get it to run longer at its max before popping. What is the difference?

The difference is that by doing the former, you start to give yourself more options in the race. As you develop, you'll be able to do more in the race than just hang on. Wouldn't you rather have the ability to go with the breaks or go for a prime as opposed to just being able to hang on as the rest of the field raced their bikes?

As far as how to develop this energy system there are many workouts you could add to your training.

First you'll want to make sure you have a solid base in the aerobic intensities - Endurance (Zone 2), Tempo (Zone 3) and Threshold (Zone 4). I refer to the intensity zones by names rather than numbers. I think it makes them more user-friendly.

Try Standard Intervals

I recommend doing these intervals on the turbo trainer, as the situation is controlled so you can achieve uninterrupted, consistent workloads during individual workouts as well as consistent comparison from session to session. Keep your cadence high, 100+ rpm, to keep the intensity high. Reduce gearing or resistance to manage the intensity. Do not reduce cadence.

The table below offers suggested interval formats for given total Submax amounts. The "WI" columns indicate the "work intervals" or the efforts, while the "RI" columns indicate the "rest intervals" or rest between efforts, which is always easy spinning. The last column shows the total time, in minutes, that it would take to complete that row's combination of work and rest intervals.

Start with a low total amount of Submax (Zone 5) work. Try starting with five minutes total. Eachweek, add one to two minutes.

      WI    RI    WI    RI    WI    RI    WI    RI    WI    RI    WI    RI     WI Total
 3   0.5     1     1     1     1     1   0.5                                          6
 4   0.5     1   1.5     1     1     1     1                                          7
 5     1     1   1.5     1   1.5     1     1                                          8
 6     1     1   1.5     1   1.5     1     1     1     1                             10
 7     1     1     2     2   1.5     1   1.5     1     1                             12
 8   1.5     1     2     2     2     2   1.5     1     1                             14
 9   1.5     1     2     2     2     2   1.5     1     1     1     1                 16
10   1.5     1   2.5     2     2     2   1.5     1   1.5     1     1                 17
11   1.5     1   2.5     2     3     3     2     2     1     1     1                 20
12     2     2   2.5     2     3     3     2     2   1.5     1     1                 22
13     2     2   2.5     2     3     3   2.5     2     2     2     1                 24
14     2     2     3     3   3.5     3   2.5     2     2     2     1                 26
15     2     2     3     3     4     4     3     3     2     2     1                 29
16     2     2   3.5     3     4     4     3     3     2     2   1.5                 30
17     2     2   3.5     3     4     4     3     3   2.5     2     2                 31
18     2     2   3.5     3     4     4     3     3   2.5     2     2      2     1    34
19     2     2   3.5     3     4     4     3     3     3     3   2.5      2     1    36
20     2     2   3.5     3     4     4     3     3     3     2   2.5      2     2    36

When doing these intervals, break the work intervals up into thirds. A 30 second interval would have thirds of 10 seconds each; a two minute work interval would have thirds of 40 seconds each.

Start by riding at a moderate pace for the first third. Pick up the pace for the second third, and again for the last. The idea is to be going faster at the end of the effort, rather than going all out at the start and dying by the end. Don't cheat yourself. Be sure that your initial pace is not so easy that you aren't challenged.

You can monitor the change of pace throughout your efforts by feel. Or, if your trainer gives you feedback like speed or power (watts), set output goals that you can increase each week to make sure you are working hard. For instance maybe you start all your efforts by riding at 24 mph. Then in the second third you lift the pace to 26, then to 28 in the last third. You get the idea. As your fitness increases, you'll want to up your output to ensure maximum benefit. After a couple weeks you might be doing 26mph to 28, to 30.

During the rest intervals your heart rate may or may not drop into the Recovery/ Endurance zone. That's ok. The more you do this type of training the better your recovery will get after hard efforts.

You should only perform Submax training once or twice per week, including racing.

Crit Sprints

Another good workout is Crit Sprints. One note though, Crit Sprints should only be done after you have progressed through several other types of sprint sessions.

Crit Sprints are very specific in preparing you for the repeated jumping out of corners that is often a limiter in criterium racing. Slightly different than other sprint workouts, Crit Sprints are done in sets. Each set contains a prescribed number of sprints and each sprint is measured in pedal strokes (One pedal stroke is equal to one full revolution of the cranks. A good way to count pedal strokes is to count every time your right or left foot goes down.). The rest interval between each sprints is also measured in pedal strokes. When performing multiple sets of crits sprints, the rest interval between sets should last until you feel ready to do the next set. Five minutes is usually a good amount of rest to start with for most people. You may also shift gears during a set of Crit Sprints.

A typical Crit Sprint session might be specified as follows: one set of five sprints, each sprint is 20 strokes. Rest between sprints is also 20 strokes. The notation for this set of Crit Sprints would be written like this: 1 set of 5x20(20) Crit Sprints.

To perform this set of Crit Sprints, you would start from a slow roll. A suggested gearing would be 53x16 or 53x14. Jump hard out of the saddle with an explosive effort to get on top of the gear. When you have reached maximum cadence, sit down and maintain maximum intensity for the entire length of the effort, 20 pedal strokes. Then spin easy for 20 pedal strokes. Then, jump hard, with maximum effort for 20 pedal strokes. Then spin easy for 20 strokes. Repeat this process until you have completed the specified number of sprints, in this case five. Perform these sprints on a flat to slightly uphill stretch of road or an indoor trainer. You will find that you need a long stretch of road for Crit Sprints. So keep that in mind when seeking out your training grounds.

By the way, these two training regimes aren't a quick fix for bad crit legs, but rather a type of training that should be part of a well-rounded training program. Even if you only race crits, these types of workouts should not be your sole form of training.

Good luck!

Got a fitness or coaching question? Drop us a line at Please include as much information about yourself as possible, including your age, sex, and type of racing or riding.

Dave Palese ( is a USA Cycling accredited coach and masters' class road racer with 16 years' race experience. He coaches racers and riders in southern Maine, USA, where he lives with his wife Sheryl, and two cats, Miranda and Mu-Mu.

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