Last week I described how to train effectively this spring. Today I’m focusing on a specific real-world example of how to prepare for a June event. Reader Randy Brich wrote in using the Ask RBR a Question feature open to Premium Members. My answer to Randy’s query follows. (Quick reminder: Premium Members, if you have a specific cycling-related question you can’t find an answer to on our site and would like to ask one of our experts directly, fire away.)
Here’s what Randy wrote:
Since October 1 last year I’ve been training for a 110-mile, 7,000-feet-of-climbing Gravel Grinder in the South Dakota northern Black Hills with an online coach. I did Tempo [upper aerobic] last fall then transitioned to Steady State [just below threshold] of gradually longer intervals. My hardest SS was the first two weeks of January: 2 sets of 20 minutes [just below threshold] twice a week. Then Power Intervals (VO2Max) 7 intervals of 3 minutes with 3 minutes of recovery twice a week. Then Speed Intervals (VO2 Max) 20 intervals of 20 seconds each with 20-second recovery twice a week intervals. My longest ride so far was 63 miles with 2,297 feet of climbing, 3:54:49 moving time, 4:25 total elapsed time.
As the weather improves, what should I focus on for the next two months starting April 17? My worry is that I’ll focus too much on intensity at the expense of duration (i.e., improving my FTP at the risk of not doing enough volume). Last September I rode 106 miles, 3500′ in 9:16 total on the Mickelson Trail (a rails to trails) packed limestone surface on my Salsa Crosso but I haven’t raced a true gravel grinder (i.e., self-supported, mixed gravel and FS roads, etc.). I guess I’m wondering if there’s an equation that says: to do “X” miles and “Y” vertical on 700×32 knobbies and average 12 mph you need to train “Z”. Any advice, however general or specific, would be appreciated. I’m 64 and have unlimited time to train. I’m leaving on vacation and will be back mid-April.
My Training Advice to Randy
What a wonderful goal to ride the Gravel Grinder in about 9 hours. I live in Boulder, Colorado. Since Paris-Roubaix just took place, my buddy and I rode the Boulder-Roubaix course this week, which is half gravel. Riding on gravel, particularly the climbs, is great training. You have to pedal with a round stroke or your rear wheel just slips. Here are my thoughts:
Vacation: You’ve trained very hard all winter with high-intensity intervals. I’m glad you’re taking time off the bike so that you’ll be fully recovered physically and mentally for training to peak for your event.
Winter intensity: While I admire your ambition and willingness to suffer, I wouldn’t prescribe such tough intervals for a rider training for a long endurance event. The tempo intervals last fall were great – that’s the intensity at which you will be climbing on the Gravel Grinder. If you were training for a season of road racing, then sub-threshold, VO2 max and speed intervals would make sense.
However, they were not a good use of your time. A rider can only handle so much intensity. Although you have unlimited time to train, you, too, have limited capacity to train hard. Over the winter you used your limited capacity riding too hard. You should have been doing somewhat less intense but longer intervals to increase your sustainable power.
But all is not lost! When you get back from vacation you will have 9 weeks to peak for and then taper to the Gravel Grinder on June 11. Plan on 7 weeks to peak and then a 2-week taper. That’s plenty of time to develop both peak endurance and peak power. Here’s how:
Endurance: Every other weekend do increasingly long rides building up to 2/3 to 3/4 of the time it will take you to do the Gravel Grinder. Duration, not distance and climbing, is the key metric. Your goal is to finish in about 9 hours — I’m assuming that’s riding time, not total time. Your longest ride has been 4 hours, so you need to build to a longest ride of 6 – 6:45 hours. For riders our age (I’m 67 next week) it’s best to ramp up the long rides every other weekend.
You could safely increase the volume by about 15% every other week, which would be about 25% / week. This weekend, on Saturday, April 17, you ride 4 hours plus 15% = 5:15 hours. Keep increasing by 15% every other weekend and you’ll build up to a long ride of 6:45 May 28, with 2 weeks to taper to the Gravel Grinder.
Simulation: Make your endurance rides as similar to the GG as you can. Ride at the pace you’ll be riding on the GG, even if you feel like you could ride faster on your training ride. You want to continue building your aerobic endurance. If you’ll be riding with a group and drafting on the GG, then it’s okay to train with a group at your pace for the event. If possible, ride routes with about as much climbing per mile as the GG. As much as you can, ride gravel.
Ride the bike you’ll ride for the GG with all the same equipment. Wear and carry the same clothing you’ll use on the GG. Test all your food and drink you plan to use on the GG.
Tempo: On the alternate weekends when you aren’t doing a long ride, then do a tempo ride. Each tempo ride is less than half of the duration of the previous weekend’s long ride. You can ride these faster than your planned GG pace. These would be good rides to do with your buddies.
Power: The best way to maintain your power is to do intensity sessions riding in the Sweet Spot: 88 – 94% of FTP. You should still be able to say a few words, but not talk in full sentences. This is in between the Tempo rides and the Steady State intervals you were doing in the winter. The weeks with a long ride do just one Sweet Spot session. The alternate weeks do two Sweet Spot sessions. Allow at least one recovery day between the Sweet Spot workouts.
Start with 4 – 6 reps of 6 – 8 minutes each with recovery between each rep that’s 50% of the duration of the hard efforts. Build up to 2 or 3 reps of 20 – 30 minutes with recovery between each rep that’s 25 – 50% of the duration of the hard efforts. These are lower intensity so you can build to more volume than what was prescribed by your online coach.
If you can’t get your power up to the Sweet Spot in a workout, quit and try the session another day. Trying unsuccessfully to do the workout, you’re just fatiguing yourself so you’ll need more recovery before a proper intensity session. Always end an intensity session feeling like you could do one more rep.
Recovery: The above is 2 or 3 rides / week:
- One Endurance ride and one Sweet Spot workout.
- One Tempo ride and two Sweet Spot workouts.
The rest of the weeks, do just 2 or 3 active recovery rides, each less than 90 minutes. Ride at less than 55% FTP — you should be going so slowly you’re almost embarrassed to be seen on your bike!
Taper: During the two-week taper you want to gain freshness without losing much fitness. You have plenty of endurance and your endurance fades slowly so you can cut back your endurance rides significantly. The weekend before the GG, do a moderate ride that’s 1/3 to 1/2 your longest ride – not more!
You lose power faster so still do a couple of shorter Sweet Spot workouts two weeks before your ride and then one short Sweet Spot ride and one short Tempo ride the week of the GG.
Also do a couple of short recovery rides each week.
Remember: Stress plus Rest equals Success. When in doubt, do less.
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My eArticle Spring Training explains all about how to train smart this spring and includes four focused 10-week programs for riders with different goals: health and fitness riders, recreational riders, fast club riders and endurance riders. Each 10-week program is in two 5-week blocks so that you can tailor a program to your available time. Spring Training: 10 weeks to summer fitness is 27 pages packed with information, available for only $4.99 ($4.24 for Premium Membersafter their 15% discount).
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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.