The Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift started how many expected with the Netherlands’ Lorena Wiebes winning for the 16th time this season (15 stage and one-day victories plus overall at RideLondon Classic). Wiebes looks near unbeatable in the sprinting amphitheatre, delivering that winning combination of high power output and tactical acumen. It begs the question: how do the likes of Wiebes, Marianne Vos and co train and fuel for optimum performance?
Race specific training
The key tenet of optimising each and every session is training to match the demands of the race. Which brings us to a notable 2018 study by Jeremiah Peiffer and crew in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance entitled ‘Sprinting for the Win: Distribution of Power Output in Women’s Professional Cycling’. The Australian team analysed 31 race files, representing top-five finishes, from seven professional female cyclists, for sprint characteristics including mean power and peak power output, velocity and duration. Key highlights from the research were…
- In 31 professional races ending with a bunch sprint, the average peak power output came in at 886 watts with some riders exceeding 1,000 watts. (Bear in mind this study was four years ago and professional women’s cycling has accelerated since then. According to Wiebes’ Strava file, she peaked at 1,211 watts during that final sprint into Paris.)
- The final sprints lasted an average 21.8 seconds at 670 watts. This is greater duration than in men’s races, which averages 13.2 seconds.
- Peak and average power is around 20-30% lower than in the men’s competition. That’s hardly surprising as it’s well-accepted that hormonal differences between men and women means men have greater functional lean muscle mass than women.
- Women’s races feature a “density of high-intensity efforts”, meaning that female sprinters may need to complete several very high-intensity efforts in the final 20 minutes of a race, plus numerous sprints throughout the stage.
Benefits of strength training
One of the key takeaways here is that natural difference in lean muscle mass. Soon after crossing the Parisian finish line, Wiebes told reporters she’d undertaken more strength training this season. Team DSM has form in this area with Marcel Kittel often highlighting the importance of leg squats to his sprint power. “In the winter I’m really busy in the gym, doing a lot of squats – around 120kg – and core workouts,” he told me several years ago. “The focus then is on high weights and low repetitions to build power output. In the summer, weight sessions are less frequent and the workouts comprise lower weights and more repetitions. This adds sustainability to your sprints.”
Much of this gym focus is down to a 2010 journal by Per Aagaard and Jesper Anderson who examined the effect of strength training on endurance capacity in top-level endurance athletes. After poring over years’ worth of studies, the researchers concluded that strength training can lead to endurance, power and strength benefits for highly trained cyclists especially, though not exclusively, by employing a high-volume, high-resistance weight protocol.
In 2021, Team DSM began collaborating with FitLift, a strength-training application that allows the coaches to monitor the efficacy of each session. The likes of Wiebes strap the FitLift device to their wrists, pair with the app and lift. The data from the device includes reps, how far you went down (particularly useful for the squat) and velocity of movement, all to maximise good form.
(Image by James Startt)
The speed and efficiency of the squat’s more important than the weight. Trek-Segafredo trainer Josu Larrazabel often extolled the virtues of a similar velocity-based system known as T-Force. “For the loads we’re looking to use, ideally the riders are performing a full squat in 0.9m to 1.2m per second,” Larrazabel revealed. “If they do it faster than that, we increase the weight but it’s never usually beyond 40 or 50kg. Key, though, is that we’ll never take them past five or six repetitions as we’re looking to ‘strengthen’ the neuromuscular system rather than bulk up their muscles. It’s taken the riders a while to adjust because they’re a species that’s used to suffering.”
Intensity of training
So, strength training matters. As does intensity of training. Ineos-Grenadiers’ sports scientist Teun van Erp spent nearly nine years at Team DSM and its various incarnations . In that time, he undertook a number of studies including one where he collected training data from 20 male and 10 female DSM cyclists over four seasons. During that time, the women’s team finished in the top-10 of the elite rankings; for the men, the first year’s data derived from ProContinental efforts, followed by three years at WorldTour. Similar to Peiffer and co, van Erp highlighted some core differences…
- When it came to the men, the longest one-day effort is up to 300km and longest multi-stage race is a Grand Tour at 21 days. For the women, the longest one-day race is around 160km, while the longest multi-stage race is the Giro d’Italia Donne, which features 10 race days.
- Women’s races were proportionally more intense as women spent longer periods in the higher heart-rate zones. In zone four, men spent 20% compared to women’s 33%. Zone five was even more noticeable: men 3-4% compared to women’s 12%. Overall, the men spent much longer in the lower zones.
- This has training repercussions and is why it’d be better for the elite women to, say, do a three-hour ride with five hard efforts of five minutes while the men follow this template over a five-hour ride. In essence, a higher-intensity, lower-volume model.
Fuelling more speed
This higher intensity has nutritional repercussions. At cruising speed, it’s much easier to drink, nibble and chew. It’s something Lisa Nijbroek, the head nutritionist across all DSM teams, explains: “With the women it’s often full gas from the beginning. That’s why before the season started, we really focused on their in-race nutrition. We’ve seen in the women’s peloton in the past that they didn’t eat at all and drank just a little bit.”
“That’s not just down to intensity, either,” adds Nijbroek. “It’s to do with the whole body-composition story, too. So, early in the season, we ensured they undertook optimal training with regular feeding (gels, rice cakes…) so they can practise and avoid stomach complaints in the race. We use what we call a ‘handlebar plan’, certainly at one-day races. This is a plan on their bike where they might see at kilometre 30, it’s time to have a bar or at 60km it’s time to consume a gel. It’s important because that intensity can lead to missed feedings.”
As expected, Nijbroek says the female riders will take iron supplements but not at a blanket level. “We don’t provide any supplements to our riders if we don’t know they’re lacking, so they’d need blood test first. What are their ferritin levels? We don’t want to do something just based on a general feeling rather than blood levels.” And before the season started, bespoke hydration was ticked off via individual sweat tests and products from British company Precision Fuel & Hydration.
So, there you have it. The next time Wiebes wins – which might not be very long – you’ll know it’s down to intense training, strength work and a meticulous feeding strategy. Oh, and genetics that she must forever be indebted to her parents for!