Interview with cycling training expert Marcel Wyss

Andreas Gonseth 27. February 2023

Former professional cyclist Marcel Wyss is extremely successful in amateur and marathon races and helps numerous upcoming and amateur athletes reach their athletic goals. The Swiss Olympic trainer for competitive sports explains how to train for races like L'Étape Switzerland or bike marathons, the benefits of polarised training and the maximum duration of an interval.

You were a professional cyclist for eight years and competed in around 600 professional races. On your website you write that you did some things wrong in your career as a professional. What were your three main mistakes?

I was too thin and attached too much importance to controlling my weight. Secondly: I didn't do enough polarised training and focused more on the motto «more is better». And thirdly, I would probably have been more successful if I hadn't cycled in individual tours for the overall classification but had concentrated on individual stages.

In your opinion, what are the three main mistakes that most amateur cyclists make?

The same ones I made: They don’t do enough polarised training, rarely take a break, and don't listen to their bodies enough.

What exactly does polarised training mean?

Polarised means not always training at a moderate intensity, as most people automatically do. It's better if you frequently cycle at a very relaxed tempo and sometimes at a really strenuous tempo and not always in between. This means roughly 80% at a relaxed, talking tempo and 20% at a high intensity.

The second mistake you name is «taking a break too seldom». Average amateur cyclists may cycle around 2,000 - 4,000 kilometres a year. Isn't the motto in mass sports simply: train more?

You can definitely improve your performance with optimal training without increasing the volume. At 4,000 kilometres a year, an athlete spends a good 150 hours in the saddle, i.e. around 3-5 hours a week during the season. But sure, at a certain point and level, a further boost in performance only comes with more training volume. Therefore, if it brings you joy, you should compete in lots of races in order to gather experience on how to invest or even save energy in important situations. 

«Listening too little to your body» is your third main mistake. Many amateur athletes record everything from their average tempo and heart rate to their frequency and watts. How do you learn to listen to your body?

By not relying solely on the multitude of numbers. Checking your average speed from time to time during training is completely normal, but also dangerous. Because you tend to continually cycle as quickly as possible to ensure your average is high enough. Above all, if you always want to look good or collect kudos by sharing your data on Strava, for example, you run the high risk of your training being rigorous but not polarised enough.

What do you recommend for athletes who «only» want to train by feel?

I usually recommend that out of five training units, they do one at a very high intensity, two in the medium-intensity range and two at a very relaxed tempo in the low-intensity range.

And for three training units a week?

The traffic light version is a sensible solution here. This means, one very easy green unit, then one moderate orange unit and one very rigorous red unit. Under no circumstances should you pack all colours into every training unit.

What do amateur cyclists need to do if they want to be successful in a race like L'Étape Switzerland?

They need to read the race and be able to move well in the peloton.

What does that mean in concrete terms, and above all: How do you learn that?

You have to be in the fastest possible group right from the start so that you can drop back into the next group if things get too fast. You have to be used to cycling elbow to elbow and wheel to wheel. If you brake for every bump or slight curve, you lose too much energy. You can only learn that by cycling in a race or in a training group, as it requires routine, confidence, and a certain racing instinct. At a L'Étape, slipstreaming is extremely important, as it saves an incredible amount of energy.