train for endurance riding
Improve your Endurance Cycling Fitness
The usual approach to train for endurance riding is lots of long rides. On paper this makes sense but in practice it isn’t the most effective way to train. A targeted approaching building all facets of cycling fitness will improve your endurance cycling fitness faster than a diet of long steady rides. Learn how to put the pieces together and see your performance increase. There are many fitness factors that let you do well at endurance events. You need high threshold power, good recovery ability, aerobic endurance, muscular endurance, core strength and upper body muscular endurance. If any of these areas are weak you will find your performance drops quickly in the later miles of a long event.
Long rides do need to be part of your training program but not the foundation. I advocate a periodized approach that builds functional threshold power and speed with a progression to longer rides as the season progresses. Speed is the hardest thing to build so we spend a far amount of time over the winter increasing sustainable speed and force development which allows you to do your longer rides with a higher average power.
The training year will brake down into a number of phases with different goals. Here is how the average year should break down.
Training to Train Phase (4-8 weeks depending on how long your end of season lay-off was)
At the end of each season should be some sort of lay-off or reduced training load to let the body recover from the season. The Training to Train phase gets your body back into the swing of things after a layoff. Over the course of this phase, you will gradually increase the workload to get the body ready for harder work to come. Workouts will include Aerobic and Tempo rides, Yoga, light cross training and core/balance training.
Speed and Muscular Endurance Building Phase (12-16 weeks)
The goal of Speed Building is to increase you Functional Threshold power and build full body muscular endurance. Intensity is high with an overall training volume of 6-10 hours per week depending on training experience and schedule. For most of my athletes they will be on the bike at least 5 days per week with a mix of 2-3 hard workouts and 2-3 Aerobic or Tempo rides of 60-90 minutes between the harder workouts. The hard workouts are a mix of threshold repeats, Velmax Intervals, Tabata Intervals, 4 x4 intervals and time trials. Keep mixing the workouts up but make sure that you do a little more each week. If you did 4 v02max intervals this week, do 5 next week. I plan increases for 3 weeks with the fourth week eased off for recovery ( depending on how well the person’s recovery and daily life is). During the recovery week I take out the intensity work and have athletes do 4-5 Aerobic rides. This is enough to allow the body to recover without losing cardiovascular fitness. In fact after a recovery week you see a noticeable increase in performance as the fatigue built over the three week build goes away.
In addition to the rides, there is cross training and Yoga done during this phase. Crossfit full body circuit workouts done 3 times per week pay huge dividends with very little time spent training. Crossfit’s recipe of functional movements done with constant variety at high intensity is the most effective cross training I’ve found for endurance athletes. Over the course of 4 weeks we will do 10 cross training workouts ( 3 per week during the build weeks and 1 during the recovery week). All 10 workouts will be different. This keeps hitting the body in different ways, not allowing it to adapt to the training, therefore you will keep making progress. An example of a Crossfit workout is: 5 chinups, 10 pushup, 15 bodyweight squats – Do as many repeats of this circuit as possible in 20 minutes with as little rest between exercises as you can manage. Another approach is to take 3 compound exercises (ones that hit more than one muscle group) and do 3 repeats of the circuit in as fast as possible.
In addition to the Crossfit, incorporate 20-60 minutes of Yoga 2-3 times per week into your program. The Yoga builds flexibility, static muscular endurance and speeds up recovery between workouts. Hard training makes muscles tight so you need to focus on keeping things loose and supple. Yoga is the best way to do it as it hits the whole body and builds cycling specific fitness at the same time.
Endurance Phase (8-16 Weeks)
Now is the time to start building the miles. This will start in the spring so you can get outside again. For most people, this means you can do a few hours a night during the week and build longer rides on the weekends. I’m in favor of doing a couple of interval workouts during the week along with a 1-2 steady rides with the longer rides on the weekend. Interval workouts will be split between one with shorter high intensity intervals and one with longer intervals. Try to get a long ride in both Saturday and Sunday on the weekends. Make one a harder workout with hills or a fast group ride and the other a steady aerobic ride. Just like the previous phase build your volume over three weeks and ease off on the fourth week. Keep the increase per week to no more than 10%. If you are aiming to do a century (100 miles) the time of your long rides should build to at least 5 hours.
During this phase you want to keep doing Yoga at least twice a week and do a couple of cross training workouts with a focus on the core and upper body muscular endurance. It doesn’t take much work each week to maintain the gains you made over the winter. As your legs are getting tons of work we don’t need to do cross-training for them.
You want to build a quality that I call “Fatigue Resistance”. This is the ability to do repeated harder efforts without a decrease in performance. For endurance riding people think in terms of steady pace, but unless you are riding a perfectly flat course, you will have repeated hard muscular efforts with every hill climb. There is no way to do hills at the same level you do flat terrain, without going so slow you fall over. In endurance events, you want to pace yourself on the climbs but they are still harder than riding on the flats. This is why we still have harder work during the Endurance building phase.
Competition Phase (4-8 weeks)
This is when we put the finishing touches on your fitness leading up to your key event for the season. It’s hard to maintain peak fitness for a long period so it’s important to plan your events ahead of time. During this time we will add some over distance rides as well as multi-day blocks to build capacity in the body. With block training, your will do 3-4 days in a row of either long or hard workouts with a corresponding number of easy or rest days afterward. You want to time this phase so the week before your event is an easy week. During that week you want to cut hard intervals to one short session at least 5 days from the event and cut your volume by 20 % to give the body a chance to recover to a higher fitness level. During the last week before an event you can’t build any more fitness so you need to focus on recovery so you are as fresh as possible. This takes experimentation as some people do well with 5-6 days of recovery, while other can need a taper of up to 2 weeks depending on the workload and recovery ability.
Recovery Phase (2-8 weeks)
A recovery phase can be at the end of the season or used mid season after a hard event to let you recovery to rebuild for the last half of the season. The rides are light and fun. Keep the workload mainly aerobic and recovery pace. Keep up the Yoga to loosen up the body and don’t start thinking about hard training until your body is fresh. After an event like a 24 hours solo mountain bike race, it can take up to 2 weeks for the fatigue to go away. When you start feeling like you want to go hard again, give it a few more days.
At the end of the competitive season, it’s a good idea to give your self at least a full week off the bike. Enjoy yourself and make sure that any riding you do is fun, not training.
As you can see from the number weeks in the phases, there is a lot of variation to how much time you spend in each. This is both a function of doing a given phase more than once during the year and how long your competitive season is. While the actual mechanics of a program can be pretty complex, the basic outline is pretty simple: get the body ready to train, build speed, add endurance, peak for your event and then recover. If you are self coached it can take a few seasons to work out the loads and durations that work for you but if you start with a plan you will get much further ahead than just trying to ride more.