Joe Lowry writes, “I’m 64 years old, in good health and have been physically active including riding bikes off and on my entire adult life. I have been riding for about two months and built up to riding 28 miles at an average speed of 14.5 mph. I ride the long ride 1 time per week with shorter rides of 15 to 20 miles 2 times per week at the same speed. Am I riding too fast to build endurance? I’m trying to understand the conversational pace you reference on the website.”
Coach Hughes, “You’re asking a good question. You’ve figured out riding at different intensities results in different physiological changes. At an endurance pace you should be able to talk comfortably with a companion (or out loud to yourself) just like you were talking at home.”
Joe, “Thanks for the quick response. Sounds like I’m going a faster pace than conversational. I’m clearly building more miles and speed as I ride more. I’m confused why that isn’t building endurance? Or is it just not the most efficient way?”
Coach Hughes, Joe training at an endurance pace brings about important physiological changes, changes which don’t happen if you ride harder. There are two levels of endurance riding:
- Aerobic pace. This is the classic LSD (Long Slow Distance) training at a conversational pace. You should be able to easily carry on a full conversation. On a 1 – 10 Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) scale where 1 is a slow walk and 10 is a full sprint, endurance training is at an RPE of 2 – 3, by heart rate 69 – 83% of Anaerobic / Lactate) Threshold (AT) and by power 55 – 75% of Functional Threshold Power (FTP)
- Tempo pace. This is slightly brisker like you’re riding into a headwind or climbing a sustained hill. You can still carry on a full conversation but you can’t whistle. An RPE of 3-4, AT 84 – 94% of AT and FTP of 55 – 75%. The RPEs overlap because exercise intensity is a continuum.
Both aerobic and tempo riding produce the benefits below; however, you can ride a lot longer at an aerobic pace than a tempo pace. Riding at an aerobic pace provides more cumulative stimulation to your body to adapt, which is why I have my clients ride at an aerobic pace unless they’re climbing.
Benefits of Endurance Training
- Reduce cardiovascular risk and reduce all-cause and cardiovascular mortality.
- Increase muscles endurance by increasing the number of mitochondria and oxidative enzymes in your muscles’ cells. The mitochondria are subcellular structures in the muscles where aerobic energy is produced. The enzymes are necessary to metabolize fat and glucose for energy.
- Increase efficiency of the heart so it can pump more blood to your muscles. By increasing the size of your heart endurance riding increases the stroke volume, the amount of blood pumped per heartbeat.
- Increase oxygen transport by increasing the red cell mass and increasing the plasma volume.
- Increase VO2 max, also called aerobic capacity, which is the maximum amount of oxygen your working muscles can utilize. Your VO2 max increases because of the increases in the efficiency of the heart and of oxygen transport. You could also increase your VO2 max with very high intensity intervals — but that hurts!
- Spare precious glycogen. Your muscles burn a combination of fat and glucose. Your body can store approximately 1800 calories worth of glycogen, which is metabolized to glucose. The glycogen comes from carbohydrates. You can exhaust your glycogen stores during a multi-hour ride. At an endurance pace you’re metabolizing more fat than glucose. Endurance training increases the proportion of fat and reduces the proportion of glucose your muscles metabolize at a moderate pace, which saves glycogen. Note that this doesn’t automatically result in weight loss; that is a function of calories in and calories out.
- Store more glycogen. The glycogen is stored in your liver and muscles. Through endurance training you can increase your ability to store glycogen by 20 to 50%!
- Increase 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 increases the coordination.
- Increase the blood flow to the skin to dissipate heat from your core. Even in very hot conditions, most of the heat is generated by your body. For every four calories you consume, only one calorie provides energy to move you forward—and the other three calories produce heat.
Time not miles. How quickly your body adapts depends on how much time you ride, not how many miles. (How many miles you ride depends on whether it’s flat or hilly; it’s windy or calm, etc.) 28 miles at 14.5 mph is just under two hours riding. If you back off from 14.5 mph to 12 you could ride another 30 minutes or so, 25% more training.
Four to five days a week. When you exercise you ask your body to do more (overload). When you give your body time to recover it adapts. Days you don’t ride your body regresses just a little. Riding three days a week is sufficient to maintain fitness. To improve you need to ride four to five days a week. The two or three recovery days are critical to allow time for your body to adapt.
Total volume more important. The more cumulative overload during the week the greater the adaptation. Each week you’re doing one ride of 28 miles (2 hours at 14.5 mph) and two rides of 15 to 20 miles (1 – 1:20 each at 14.5 mph) totaling 4 – 4:40 hours a week. Riding at 12 mph for example, you could do one ride of 2:30 hours and three rides more rides of 1 – 1:15 each. Your total would be 5:30 – 6:15 hours a week. When you’re increasing your saddle time by this much it’s critical you also reduce your speed significantly so you don’t get injured.
Build fitness progressively. You need to increase the weekly workload periodically to continue the overload-and-recovery pattern. Three rules of thumb:
- Week to week increase weekly riding time by 5-15%.
- Month to month increase monthly riding time by 10-25%.
- Year to year increase annual riding time by 10-25%.
For my older clients I increase the volume by 10 to 15% every other week. The alternate weeks have less riding for more recovery.
Congratulations on getting back in the saddle two months ago and working to build your endurance! Have fun!
- Anti-Aging: How Much Base Endurance Training?
- Correct Endurance Training
- 14 Training Rules for Older Cyclists
- 8 Mistakes Older Riders Make
- More on 8 Mistakes Older Riders Make
My two-article Cycling Past 60 bundle includes:
Part 1: For Health gives you six different health maintenance objectives for different components of your physiology, including comprehensive fitness programs that address these objectives. It shows you how to measure your “Athletic Maturity” to assess your relative fitness in terms of all aspects of good health. This eArticle includes three balanced, full-body exercise programs for different cyclists of different athletic maturities. 24 pages
Part 2: For Recreation uses the concept of “Athletic Maturity” to design programs for riders of different athletic maturity. It includes six different structured workout programs, three each for Endurance and Performance cyclists, based on levels of athletic maturity. 23 pages
My eBook Anti-Aging: 12 Ways You Can Slow the Aging Process has chapters on the training principles to build endurance, how to gauge intensity, cardiovascular endurance exercise and recovery. I include plans you can easily modify for different amounts of riding. One plan increases over two years your annual riding from around 4,000 miles (6,500 km) to over 5,000 miles (8,000 km) a year. I give you plans to build up to 100 km and 100-mile rides. I discuss the importance of recovery and how to gauge if you are getting enough recovery. The book includes chapters on how to meet the American College of Sports Medicine’s recommendations on aerobic, high intensity aerobic, strength training, weight-bearing exercises, balance and flexibility. I include sample weeks and months for different types and amounts of exercise. I combine the different kinds of training into programs that balance training and recovery. The 106-page Anti-Aging: 12 Ways You Can Slow the Aging Process is $14.99.
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 over 40 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John’s full bio.