Coach Hughes: Training for Cycling Brevets, pt.1
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Intelligent Cycling Training—Training

Training for Cycling Brevets, pt. 1
Base Training for Endurance

Ride More, Ride Hard, Ride Specifically.

by John Hughes
© Randonners USA 2011, Reprinted with permission.

John Hughes is the author of Distance Cycling and many articles on training, nutrition, psychology and medical issues for RoadBikeRider.com. He is a veteran of Paris-Brest-Paris ’79, ’87, ’91, ’95, ’99, Boston-Montreal-Boston ’92 (course record), Rocky Mountain 1200 ’04, Furnace Creek 508 ’89 (course record) and ’93 (first place) and the Race Across America ’96.

[  Training for Cycling Brevets:   Pt. 1 Base Endurance Training   |  Pt. 2 Building Power and Peaking  ]

Ride more, ride hard, ride specifically—but not all at once! To train most effectively for brevets divide your training into different phases:

Phase Duration Purpose
Base 3-4 months Increase endurance
Build 1-2 months Build power
Peaking 4-6 weeks Combine endurance and power in specific event training
Taper 2-3 weeks Recover fully and store energy for the event

In part 1 of this two-part article I describe Base training. During your Base phase you increase your endurance and the same principles apply whether your goal is to earn the R-12 award, to complete the 200, 300, 400 and 600 km brevets, or to qualify for and finish a 1200. In part 2 I will discuss the Build, Peaking and Taper phases.

What are your objectives during the Base phase?

Burn Fat
When you ride a brevet, approximately equal amounts of the energy for your muscles come from fat and glycogen. The fat used for fuel may come from both food you eat during the ride and stored body fat. The glycogen also comes from food you eat and glycogen stores in the body. Even if you are lean, you have enough body fat to ride a brevet, whether a 200 km or a 1200 km; however, your glycogen stores are limited. After three or four hours of brevet riding you’ll start to run out of glycogen and unless you replenish it the bonk lies ahead.

When you do a long ride at an easy conversational pace you train your body to rely more on fat for energy, thus sparing glycogen. This training effect doesn’t happen if you ride harder. Riding at that conversational pace is the key to effective base training.

Training your body to utilize more fat won’t change your weight. Endurance training is not a miracle diet: complete a brevet series and lose 20 pounds! Ah, were it so simple. You only lose weight by burning more calories than you consume.

Ride Economically
In Serious Cycling, the late Edmund Burke, Ph.D. emphasizes the importance of endurance cycling because it:

  • Enhances your ability to burn fat during long rides.
  • Increases the glycogen storage capacity of your muscles and liver.
  • Improves your respiratory system, providing more oxygen to the blood.
  • Boosts the stroke volume of your heart so it pumps more blood to the working muscles.
  • Increases the blood flow to the skin thus helping your thermoregulatory system.
  • Brings about increased neuromuscular efficiency of pedaling.
  • Improves your muscular endurance by increasing the number of mitochondria where aerobic energy is produced in your muscles.

During the endurance phase you train your body to ride more economically, i.e., go farther or faster for the same amount of energy. Particularly for brevets of 600 km and longer many of us worry about making the time cut-offs and getting a bit of sleep! During the Base phase, by training to ride more economically you start to increase your cruising speed. Then having built the endurance you need for the longer brevets, in the Build phase you will shift gears and work specifically on power and speed.

For now, patience. Ride the brevets with friends, admiring and chatting about the scenery. Only if you ride at this conversational pace will you accrue the benefits described by Ed Burke.

Go Long
The 200, 300, 400 and 600 km brevets provide a structured increase in training volume and if spaced out about four weeks apart allow you to use the brevets to ramp up your endurance. Over the years I’ve developed these rules of thumb for training:

  1. Increase the total week-to-week volume by 10-20%.
  2. Increase the monthly volume by 15-25%.
  3. Increase the weekly long ride by 10-20%.
  4. For rides up to 600 km, build weekly long ride until the duration is 2/3 to 3/4 the duration of the target ride.
  5. Every 4 to 6 weeks cut back the weekly volume by 10-25% for a recovery week.
  6. Every 2 to 4 months include a very easy week as a physical and mental break.

We build fitness through progressive overload. You ask your body to do a little more than it’s accustomed to and you improve. You don’t provide some overload and you don’t get better. You lay on too much so that your body can’t handle the load and instead of improving you get break down, you can’t ride as well as you can last week.

Follow the above simple rules of thumb and you should progressively get fitter.

Go Hard (but not too much)
To improve you also need to ride at different levels of intensity. I describe intensity in terms of perceived exertion:

  1. Digestion pace: Active recovery outings at the pace at which you ride or walk after a large meal.
  2. Conversation and scenery pace: Riding along enjoying the scenery and talking about it with friends. These rides build endurance.
  3. Headwind pace: Riding a bit faster. If you can whistle you aren’t going hard enough; if you can’t talk at all you’re going too hard. These rides increase cruising speed.
  4. Sub-barf pace: Riding just below the level where you lose it. These rides build power.

For more training at different levels of intensity, including using a heart rate monitor, see my eArticle on Intensity listed at the end of this article.

Catch the Wave
Imagine that each of the brevets is a successively bigger wave. You want to time your training so that you catch each wave and ride it, rather than getting knocked down. To do this, set up your training so that between the big waves you catch smaller waves (rides) so that you are ready for the next big wave.

Assuming that your brevets are four weeks apart here’s how to prepare:

Week 1 after the brevet, playing in the breakers:

  1. A short (1-4 hour) endurance ride on the weekend.
  2. Two or three easy recovery rides.

Week 2, a moderate wave:

  1. An endurance ride of 1/3 to 1/2 the expected duration of the next brevet. (The previous brevet satisfies the rule of thumb to complete a ride 2/3 to 3/4 the length of the next brevet.)
  2. One brisk ride of an hour or two primarily at the headwind pace.
  3. One hard ride of an hour or so including some sub-barf riding.
  4. A couple of easy recovery rides.

Week 3, a small wave:

  1. An endurance ride of 1/4 to 1/3 the expected duration of the next brevet.
  2. One brisk ride of an hour or so.
  3. One hard ride of an hour or so.
  4. A couple of easy recovery rides.

Week 4 brevet week, the next wave:

  1. One brisk ride of up to an hour.
  2. A couple of easy recovery rides.

As you develop your personal plan for each week, pay attention to a few more rules of thumb:

  1. Ride three days a week to maintain fitness.
  2. Ride four days a week to improve.
  3. Include no more than three hard rides a week (a long ride, a brisk ride or a sub-barf ride).
  4. Take at least one day off a week.

Less Is Better
Many riders assume that if some is good then more is better. As a coach I often I tell my clients to train less! The desired physiological adaptations only occur when we aren’t riding. Our muscles adapt during recovery, not on the bike. Too much riding and you’re not recovering and getting stronger. If you aren’t recovered then you won’t get the maximum benefit from the next workout. Each of us responds differently to training loads and we each have other commitments to family, work and/or school. I hope this material gives you the information to design your personal Base training program that fits your life. In the next article I’ll discuss the Build, Peaking and Taper phases.

More Information
I have written a number of pieces directly relevant to randonneurs, all available from RoadBikeRider

  • Endurance Training and Riding—The three article bundle covers training, nutrition and the skills for finish rides of 100km and longer. 48 pages available for just $13.50 from RoadBikeRider.com
  • Brevets—The 16-page eArticle on how to train for 200 km to 1200 km and longer brevets is available for just $4.99 from RoadBikeRider.com.
  • Intensity—The 13-page eArticle on how to plan and gauge your most beneficial training efforts is available for just $4.99 from RoadBikeRider.com.
  • Nutrition—The 16-page eArticle on what to eat and drink on rides of 100 km and longer is available for just $4.99 from RoadBikeRider.com.
  • Butt, Hands, Feet—The 12-page eArticle covers how to prevent and treat pain in cycling’s pressure points. It is available for just $4.99 from RoadBikeRider.com.
  • Mastering the Mental—The 17-page eArticle teaches you how to prepare for the inevitable mental challenges and how to deal with them on a ride of 100 km or longer. It is available for just $4.99 from RoadBikeRider.com.
  • Riding the Long Ride—The 16-page eArticle covers the final preparations for a ride of 100 km or longer and then managing every aspect of the ride. It is available for just $4.99 from RoadBikeRider.com.
  • Showstoppers—The 65-page eBook on factors other than training that stop you from completing a ride is available for just $14.95 from RoadBikeRider.com.
  • Other articles by Coach Hughes