Question: I’m 78 and a life-long rider. Four years ago farm dogs ran me down and, as a result, a fix of the femur required a pin. My goal after the recovery was to gain fitness and motivation to take on club rides and do a few metric rides. That has not happened, and I have tried training plans, i.e. climbing, cross-training and have not completed the plans due to the boredom of indoor training. My motivation is lacking. Is there still a way to get faster, with endurance?—Joe Cursey
Coach Hughes Replies: Joe, You are asking three common questions, the answers to which can help all roadies:
1. How to get and stay motivated, which I answered last week: How to Get and Stay Motivated
2. How to build endurance.
3. How to get faster.
I’ll answer the second one this week and the third one in the following issue.
You Need Endurance for Road Riding
Two Sundays ago I DNF’d. The forecast was for a high of 96F for Boulder, Colorado. Boulder is at 5,430 feet (1,655m) elevation, and very hot days like these are becoming more frequent. Fortunately, it’s not humid.
I decided to get an early start and ride up Left Hand canyon to Ward, 4,000 feet above Boulder (so, 9,400 feet, or 2,865m). The road climbs for 16 miles through the forest along Left Hand creek. After about an hour and a half I shifted into my left hand gear (the granny) and my left hand biggest cog and started grinding up a 2-mile steep section. After about two hours I took a break.
Although I’d eaten 300 calories of granola bars every hour and drank two bottles of tea and half my CamelBak, my legs were suggesting that perhaps the ride was a bit ambitious. I plugged on and after about three hours got to the 15-mile mark. The road turns right and climbs steeply for a mile up to Ward. My legs told me that the climbing to Ward would hurt much more than usual, so I headed back down the canyon. I didn’t have the endurance.
As I mentioned several weeks ago, I’ve been enjoying my mountain bike this summer. Mountain biking features short, very hard climbs, which peg my heart rate, and sustained sections that I have to ride at more than a conversational pace. After rides of 1.5 to 2 hours, I’m tired! From all the mountain biking, I have explosive power and can ride hard for a couple of hours; however, I don’t have much endurance because I haven’t been riding at a conversational endurance pace.
Benefits of Endurance Training
Put simply (in automobile engine terms) endurance riding increases your:
- Fuel economy — When you’re riding, you’re burning a mix of fat and glucose for energy. Endurance riding shifts the mix to more fat and less glucose. (This doesn’t mean you’ll lose weight faster because you’re burning more fat. Weight loss results from burning more calories, from any source, than you’re consuming.)
- Size of the fuel tank – Every rider has plenty of body fat for even a long endurance ride. However, your body can only store about 1,800 calories of glucose as glycogen in the liver and muscles. You can exhaust your glycogen stores during several hours of hard riding or 3 – 4 hours of endurance riding. Through endurance riding you can increase your ability to store glycogen by 20 to 50%!
- Air intake — Burning both fat and glucose takes oxygen, and endurance riding improves your respiratory system.
- Size of the fuel pump —Endurance riding increases the amount of blood that’s pumped every time your heart beats.
- Number of cylinders in your engine — The mitochondria are the subcellular structures in your muscles where aerobic energy is produced. Endurance riding increases the number of mitochondria in your muscles, which increases the muscles’ endurance.
- Timing of the engine — Your body has different muscles (the quads, hamstrings, glutes, etc.), and each muscle is composed of many muscle fibers. Endurance riding improves the coordination of the firing of the individual muscle fibers.
- Size of radiator – Endurance riding increases the blood flow to the skin.
Note that I’m stressing endurance riding. Riding harder like I do on my MTB doesn’t increase your endurance, although it does have other performance benefits.
How to Increase Your Endurance
You can get the above benefits by doing specific endurance riding. If you ride either too hard or too easily, you don’t improve your endurance. Here are the key principles:
- Level of Effort. You get these benefits by riding at a conversational pace. If you hammer for a couple of hours with the club on the weekend it’s not endurance riding. You’re demanding that your body produce sustained power, not endurance.
- How long? Any ride of about an hour or more at a conversational pace is an endurance ride.
- Overload. To improve your endurance you need to do longer rides than you are used to doing.
- How much Overload? You can safely increase the length of your long rides by about 10 – 15% per week. For example, if your weekend ride is 20 miles, you could increase to 22 – 23 miles next week and then 25 miles or so the week after.
- Recovery. You get stronger during recovery, not during the endurance rides. You should only do two or three challenging (longer or harder) rides a week. The other days should be recovery days.
- Active or Passive Recovery. If you’ve been riding for several years, then going for short, very easy rides will speed your recovery. However, if you’ve not been riding much, then stay off the bike on your recovery days.
- Consistency. To improve your fitness you need to exercise at least four days a week, including both endurance and recovery rides. If you’ve been riding for several years you probably can handle five or six days a week of riding. If you’ve not been riding much, then start with four days a week.
- Ramping. You build fitness progressively. You need to increase the workload from week to week to continue the overload-and-recovery pattern. Four rules of thumb:
- Increase weekly volume by 5-15%.
- Long ride is no more than 50% of total weekly volume
- Increase monthly volume by 10-25%.
- Ramp up to long rides to 65-75% of the duration of your planned event, e.g., 65 – 75K if you’re preparing for a 100K or 65-75 miles if you’re preparing for a century, or 135-150 km for a 200-km brevet.
What Should Joe Do?
Research shows that if you stick with something for three months, it becomes a habit. Here’s a simple three-month plan that Joe can use to build his endurance following the above principles. You can adapt the plan to your riding by adjusting the length of the rides.
|Week||Long Ride #1||Long Ride #2||Recovery Rides||Weekly Miles|
|1||10 miles||7 miles||2 x 5 miles||27 miles|
|2||8||6||2 x 4||22|
|3||12||9||2 x 6||33|
|4||9||7||2 x 5||26|
|5||14||10||2 x 6||36|
|6||3 x 5||15|
|7||10||6||2 x 6||28|
|8||17||10||2 x 7||41|
|9||8||6||2 x 5||24|
|10||20||12||2 x 7||46|
|11||7||5||2 x 4||20|
|12||25||12||2 x 6||49|
- Joe does two long rides a week, which builds endurance faster than just one somewhat longer ride per week.
- The longest weekly ride is always less than half of the total weekly miles.
- Rather than linear increases week by week, both the length of the rides and the total weekly miles follow an alternating pattern of longer and shorter rides. Every other week is an easier recovery week. This alternating pattern works better with riders age 50, 60 and beyond.
- Similarly, the total weekly miles increase every other week.
- The distances of the longer rides and the total weekly miles only increase 10 – 20% every two weeks.
- Week 6 is a full recovery week before Joe continues building up his riding.
- After week 12 Joe has a choice of:
- Continuing to increase proportionally the distances of each ride, especially the longest ride, building up to a long ride of 100K, or
- Keeping the longest ride at 25 – 30 miles and building up the other rides to a higher weekly volume of 60+ miles per week.
Next issue I’ll discuss how an endurance rider can get faster.
For more information, see my 3-article bundle Endurance Riding and Training, which contains:
- Beyond the Century describes the training principles and different training intensities you can use to build your endurance, both for centuries and for shorter endurance rides.
- Nutrition for 100K and Beyond provides the information you need to fuel your engine before, during and after endurance rides.
- Mastering the Long Ride gives you the skills you need to finish your endurance rides.
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.