RBR Newsletter

Speedwork for Faster Long Rides

This concept in a nutshell: To ride long distances faster, do short-distance speedwork in training.

Conventional wisdom says that if you include one endurance training ride each week, your time for long events such as centuries will come down.

Unfortunately, improving long-distance speed isn’t that easy. It requires going beyond the lactate threshold in training, and this is painful. It makes you breathe hard and perspire.

Research and experience shows us that training fast for short distances improves cruising speed for long distances. It helps you ride as much as 2 mph faster for several hours but without an increase in perceived exertion. And if you raise your average speed from 17 mph to 19 mph for 100 miles, you’ll cover the distance nearly 40 minutes faster.

There are other important advantages, too. Speedwork can be done in a much shorter amount of time than endurance slogs, glad tidings for time-challenged recreational riders. And fast workouts are fun. They don’t have to be head-down pain-fests if you know how to do them right.

What Research Tells Us

A 20-year-old study from the University of California at Berkeley gives us a clue about how speedwork increases endurance performance. Researchers put 10 rats on a 4-week fast training program. The rats worked out just 5 minutes every day for 4 weeks. On the treadmill, they warmed up for 3 minutes, ran hard on a 15 percent grade for 50 seconds, recovered for 10 seconds, repeated the 50-second hard effort and cooled down for 10 seconds. (How’s that for a time-efficient workout?)

Results were impressive—the rats increased their VO2 max by 15 percent, and the maximum speed they attained in the 50-second repeats increased 25 percent.

At first researchers were puzzled when they found that although VO2 max and speed had risen so impressively, the concentrations of aerobic enzymes in muscles didn’t rise. How could rats use more oxygen when levels of oxygen-using enzymes stayed the same?

Apparently, the rats had enough enzymes before their sprint work but didn’t have the neuromuscular coordination to sustain fast running. The rapid repeats gave them the muscular and nervous system abilities to do so. For rats, as for humans, the faster their maximum speed, the greater their aerobic potential.

Now, you may smell a rat in this research. How do we know that rat running translates to human riding? The scientists know that muscles and cardiovascular systems in rats and in humans work nearly the same way. The rats’ VO2 max translated to about 70 ml/kg/min in people—approaching the level of elite human cyclists and runners.

Next week, I’ll talk about how a RAAM winner put this speedwork into practice.


Adapted from Coach Fred Matheny’s Supercharge Your TrainingCoach Fred Matheny has decades of experience as a competitive racer and cycling coach. He is the author of 13 RBR eBooks and eArticles.
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