Century Road Club AssociationThe CRCA Presents a Day with Chris Carmichael

The CRCA Presents a Day with Chris Carmichael


The Carmichael Training System

What is the Key to Cycling Performance?

Carmichael started coaching in 1990 and would take the US National Team to races around the world. They had success, but each year would be beaten at the World Championships. Carmichael asked experienced coaches from around the world about this, but each gave conflicting answers.

So Carmichael and his staff asked themselves:
What is the primary success factor for endurance cycling events?

Before answering that question, what is the physiology of cycling? Endurance cycling involves:

  • The heart -- pump that moves blood to working muscles
  • The lungs -- exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide
  • Muscles -- produce mechanical work.

"Endurance cycling" means any event lasting longer than one minute. Even the kilometer time trial on the track is an endurance event because, although much of the early power is produced anaerobically, the event is won or lost in the last eight seconds as competitors with the best aerobic system slow down less.

What energy systems? Muscles need energy, which is supplied by the foods we eat. At the highest levels of the sport -- such as in professional stage races -- getting enough energy is difficult due to the sheer volume of food that must be digested.

How and when energy is produced impacts training. The intensity (effort of work) and duration of work affect which energy system(s) is used.

Physical work requires constant re-synthesis of ATP which can occur through two energy systems:

  • Anaerobic -- involves complete breakdown of carbohydrate as key energy source and takes place in the absence of oxygen; lactic acid is a byproduct of this process
  • Aerobic -- involves re-synthesis of ATP in the presence of oxygen with the breakdown of protein, carbohydrate or fat; no negative byproducts are produced.

The more work is produced aerobically, the more carbohydrate is conserved and the less lactic acid is produced.

A VO2max test identifies the maximum aerobic capacity of an athlete but Carmichael does not agree that VO2max is key benchmark for real endurance sport.

Rather, a key indicator that is closely related to racing performance is power produced at lactate threshold (LT).

Lance Armstrong's Physical Development
Year  LT power (watts) VO2max
1993       342    78.9
1994       364    74.2
1995       381    73.8
1996       403    72.2
1997       263    64.1
1999       416    77.1

Note that for Lance Armstrong, there was no positive relation between VO2max and his performance. Indeed, his VO2 max actually went down as he became more aerobically efficient -- that is as his LT power increased, VO2max dropped and race performances improved. Watts per kilogram of body weight at LT is a critical value to see how physically competitive a rider is.

So for endurance cycling events the key to success is:
Increasing aerobically produced power.

Benefits of increased aerobic power.

  • Improved delivery of oxygen to working muscles
  • Increased efficiency of cardiorespitory system
  • Reduced reliance on glycogen (carbohydrate stored in body)
  • Improved cycling economy (more work produced with less energy)
  • Faster climbing and time-trialling
  • More energy left for finale of ride/races.

Model of Cycling Performance

But Carmichael wanted a model to look at all aspects of cycling performance. The model is the Carmichael Training System Pyramid for Success.

CTS Pyramid for Success
Pyramid for Success

Mental Foundation

Involves shedding thinking about what you cannot do.

Dream Goals

Goals that could be achieved if everything happened right. It is important to share dream goals with other people because the rider will need their support. The dream goals are the pinnacle of the goal spectrum, pushing the limit of possibility.

Midterm Goals

Goals made along the way that athlete should achieve at the end of each training or racing cycle. Reaching them boosts confidence, re-stoking commitment and desire.

Micro Goals

Very specific actions on a daily basis. An example is sticking to specified heartrate (HR) for a workout. Every workout should have one or more micro goals which might be defined by HR, cadence, etc. Micro goals are motivators that provide a daily link to themidterm and dream goals.

Four Periods of the Carmichael Training System

It's hard to control the peak of the Pyramid for Success (being 100% prepared) but it is possible to control the process of getting there. For added control, Carmichael uses periodization -- breaking down training into periods of time with different goals and activities for each period. There are four main periods.

Foundation Period

  • Low volume of workouts
  • Pedal cadence is high
  • Fixed gear work may be included in moderation
  • Significant resistance (strength) training
  • Cross training possible
  • 12-14 weeks.

The workout volume is low to help the athlete deal with resistance training on the bike and in the weight room. For some individuals, Carmichael lets them do cross training if that is what is needed for the riders' mental health and commitment. In general, however, more specific training (bike riding and work in the gym) is best.

Preparation Period

  • Highest weekly training volume
  • Training intensity slowly increases
  • Resistance training only on the bike
  • Training competitions are integrated into training goals
  • Volume of training at LT is key
  • 8-12 weeks.

(Other prominent coaches such as Joe Friel advocate weight training year-round for certain groups -- such as older riders; Carmichael thinks this may be correct.)

Training at LT must be precise -- the HR varies a lot from person to person and optimal volume also varies a lot. For masters and most lower level riders, more than one hour at threshold requires a long recovery -- 48 hours. One hour or less requires only 24 hours.

An ideal LT workout is one hour of continuous work, but this can be hard. For the first LT workouts, the rider should start with short intervals and then, from workout to workout, increase the amount of working time to reach one hour. Then decrease the recovery periods until he/she is working continuously.

This sort of work is possible on the trainer, but great care must be taken to avoid increased body temperature and dehydration; they can make the workout destructive.

Specialization Period

Chris Carmichael wins the 1985 La Jolla Grand Prix from future 7-Eleven teammate and Tour de France stage winner (and CRCA member) Jeff Pierce.

Richard Bryne photo

  • The optimum "performance window"
  • Up to eight weeks in length, often less due to intensity
  • Very demanding, but "light is visible at end of tunnel."

There is a large mental cost to this period, in which the athlete is doing both hard workouts and racing, so specialization must be applied at the proper time. Training must be specific to the needs of competition and is no longer focused only on developing the aerobic energy system. Rather it is diverse to help athlete adjust to the diverse demands of racing.

Ideally the athlete is racing a lot in competitions that are strategically integrated into the training plan.

Overtraining is common in this period, so be cautious. Extra recovery time should be added if needed. Often an athlete gets a little too ready and worries that increasing the number of recovery days will result in loss of fitness. This is bad.

Nonetheless, some de-training of the aerobic system is inevitable in this period and must be accepted.

Transition Period

  • Mental decompression
  • Regeneration of muscles and energy systems
  • Active recovery
  • Cross training.

The key element is being active but relaxing/recovering. Carmichael does not prescribe specific workouts or training; rather the active lifestyle of any serious athlete will result in unstructured exercise (walking, games, ball sports, etc).

Skills Development

Tactics win races. And tactics are decided on the fly. Tactics are learned by experience and are difficult to coach or even describe. Experience imprints them on the brain subconsciously.


But some factors can help develop strategy (the overall plan for a race), including:

  • Teamwork (and the behavior of opposing teams)
  • Terrain (how it effects the rider and his/her opponents
  • Weather (it is possible to train to prepare for adverse weather)
  • Competitors
  • Physical condition of the rider.

Mobility and Coordination

It is important to learn to handle a bicycle at high speed. Because most training is done at low speed, this skill requires special attention. Carmichael coaches former US pro road champion George Hincapie, who uses downhill sprinting, sprints with a downhill run-in and motorpacing to improve his skill at higher speeds.

Also essential is becoming comfortable riding in a group.

Personal experience is essential, with continuous practice.

Confidence Building Activities

A coach cannot provide confidence -- it must come from within the athlete. Internal desire is essential -- it keeps the athlete on a path of commitment to preparation.

A training plan must have checkpoints at the ends of training and racing phases to help build confidence. When Lance Armstrong quit the sport (temporarily, it turned out) after his return to racing in Europe after his cancer, it was partially because he lost confidence. His training plan through that point lacked appropriate checkpoints to maintain confidence. He was actually in a foundation period whereas most of his opponents were in Preparation or even Specialization, so comparisons based on racing results were destructive to his confidence.

Peaking Process

When an athlete is at a peak he/she may not be aware of it andinstead think something is wrong with opponents. Ideally a peak will be planned, but that is not always possible so the athlete must be ready to step beyond pre-conceived notions of what is possible and seize an opportunity.

Carmichael regrets not realizing he was at a peak in the 1986 Milan-San Remo classic, in which he might have been able to go with winning move (Kelly, LeMond and Beccia) if he had had more confidence.

Key to the peaking process is reducing training volume, sometimes to almost no training at all between competitions.

At the same time there should be an increase in speed training -- training above expected race intensity.

The number of recovery days must be increased -- this can be tough for many athletes to accept.

There must also be fine-tuning of psychological issues to offset pre-competition anxiety at key events. Athletes should establish an effective pre-event routine and practice it in training.

The 100% Ready Athlete

The athlete is mentally focused and the process of reaching this point makes the athlete ready. The goal is not winning or losing, but being 100% ready. That is where joy comes from.

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Introduction | Carmichael Training System | Designing a Training Program
Resistance Training | Establishing Training Intensities Using Heart Rate

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