When very cold weather hits, outdoor endurance riding isn’t possible. Or it it? My client Elizabeth Wicks who lives in Massachusetts rode 75 miles one very cold Sunday. Another client Rob (also in Massachusetts) reported, “Our weather continues to be ‘rideable’. Thursday ride was cold at 18 degrees but so far the only snow we’ve seen is flurries.” He rode 50 miles on Monday. Ted in Virginia rode four hours on Monday and Joe in Pennsylvania rode three hours on Monday.
Why Base Endurance Training is Important
Base training prepares your cardiovascular system and your leg muscles, ligaments and tendons so that you can do harder training later in the season without injury.
Year-round endurance training brings about certain physiological changes, which do not take place when you train harder! In Serious Cycling Ed Burke, Ph.D. lists these benefits of base training, which I have annotated. Endurance training improves:
- The endurance of the cycling muscles by increasing the number of mitochondria.
The mitochondria are subcellular structures in the muscles where aerobic energy is produced.
- The respiratory system, providing more oxygen to the blood supply.
- The efficiency of the heart so it can pump more blood to the muscles.
Endurance training improves the stroke volume, the amount of blood pumped per heartbeat.
- The capacity of the liver and muscles to store carbohydrates.
Your body can store approximately 1800 calories worth of carbohydrate as glycogen. You can exhaust your glycogen stores during several hours of hard riding. Through endurance training you can increase your ability to store glycogen by 20 to 50%!
- The neuromuscular efficiency of pedaling.
Power is a function both of the strength of the muscles and coordinating the firing pattern of the nerves to activate the right muscle fibers at the right time so you go forward with less wasted energy. Endurance training is a great time to work on pedaling with a rounder stroke and spinning smoothly at a higher cadence.
- The capacity to burn fat during long rides.
Through endurance training your fuel mix on endurance rides shifts to more fat and less glycogen, sparing precious glycogen stores. Note that this doesn’t automatically result in weight loss; that is a function of calories in and calories out.
- The thermoregulatory system by increasing the blood flow to the skin.
Your skin is your largest organ and ability to dissipate heat will pay off later in the season.
Less is Better
In the Cyclist’s Training Bible Joe Friel writes, “An athlete should do the least amount of properly timed, specific training that brings about continual improvement.” (Emphasis added) You only have limited time, energy and rideable weather this winter — spend your time doing endurance exercise not intensity. Although harder workouts on smart trainers and spinning classes are popular they do not bring about the above physiological changes!
How to Build Your Endurance in the Winter
If the weather cooperates and you have the time then doing multi-hour endurance rides like my clients is the best way to increase your endurance. If you don’t have the time or tolerable weather here are six ways to build your endurance.
Have a clear goal. This will motivate you to ride even when it’s not comfortable or fun. Elizabeth turned 75 this year and her goal is to do (at least) 75 rides of 75 miles or more. Each of my clients is committed to reaching a goal that necessitates building endurance this winter.
Ride tempo. Endurance rides are ridden at a comfortable conversational pace. If you’re pressed for time or it’s cold outside do a slightly brisker tempo ride. You should still be able to talk comfortably but not whistle.
Ride laps. I had a client who was committed to riding a century every month of the year. One January she rode eight laps of a 12.5-mile loop from her house … and on each lap she rode a different bike! In between each loop she could go indoors, warm up, eat and drink and adjust clothing.
Outdoors then indoors. If you can tolerate two hours outdoors but want to do a three-hour ride then ride in the chilly weather for two hours and then hop on the trainer to finish the ride.
Split up your rides. You’ll get the most training benefit from a continuous multi-hour ride; however, split rides are also very beneficial. Instead of a continuous 4:30 hour ride you could ride two hours in the late morning when it’s starting to warm up, another 1:30 mid afternoon before it cools down too much and then a final hour on the trainer before dinner. Note that you do the longest ride first so it’s psychologically easier to do each successive ride.
Cross-train aerobically. Last week I wrote about 10 Ways to Cross Train. Each of these builds endurance. In the winter the muscle specificity of cycling is less important so cross-training is a good option.
Practice good ride nutrition. About her 75-mile ride Elizabeth observed, “I realized I don’t eat regularly and enough on my local, home-loop, non-racing rides. It’s hard to grab food without stopping (which I don’t like doing) when wearing winter gloves. I had Fig Newton’s and dates with me, which I gobbled at one point and wow, what a burst of energy. I then did stop a few more times to eat more.” Discipline yourself to stop at least every hour to eat something. For more information see my column Nine Tips for Eating and Drinking During Winter Rides.
Dress Appropriately. Read Elizabeth’s column Dial in Clothing Choices for Enjoyable Winter Riding.
The pros spend about 80% of their time doing endurance rides at a conversational pace. Here is one of Peter Sagan’s December training programs. He rode about 19 hours a week, almost all of it at an endurance pace. He did short intervals to introduce a small amount of intensity.”
If you’re in your 50s, 60s, 70s (like me) and beyond my eArticle Off-Season Conditioning Past 50 includes recommendations for outdoor and indoor cycling, cross-training, circuit strength training, flexibility and core strength. I include a sample 12-week program incorporating all of these. I explain how to tailor the program to your own interests: health and recreation rider, club rider or endurance rider. You can also tailor the program if you have limited time to train or are a beginning cyclist. The 26-page Off-Season Conditioning Past 50 is just $4.99.
Also useful for all of us mature roadies is my Cycling Past 50 Bundle of four eArticles:
Healthy Cycling Past 50 – what happens as we age and how to incorporate cycling and other exercise activities into our daily lives to stay healthy and active for many more years.
Off-Season Conditioning Past 50
Healthy Nutrition Past 50 – what to eat and drink to support both a healthy lifestyle and continuing performance.
Performance Cycling Past 50 – how to train to achieve more specific cycling goals given the physiological changes of aging.
My Cycling Past 50 Bundle totaling 93 pages is just $15.96, a $4 savings off the full price of all four eArticles. (Only $13.57 for our Premium Members with your 15% discount, a savings of $6.39 off the full price.)
Coach John Hughes earned coaching certifications from USA Cycling and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. John’s cycling career includes course records in the Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200-km randonnée and the Furnace Creek 508, a Race Across AMerica (RAAM) qualifier. He has ridden solo RAAM twice and is a 5-time finisher of the 1200-km Paris-Brest-Paris. He has written nearly 30 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John’s full bio.