Peaking for Endurance Cycling Events
Effective training is really the least amount of training necessary to result in continuing improvement.
by John Hughes
© John Hughes, All Rights Reserved
John Hughes, the former director of the UltraMarathon Cycling Association and editor of UltraCycling, has been certified by the National Strength and Conditioning Association as a personal trainer and by USA Cycling as a coach.
We all like to ride our bikes, and most of us wish we had more time to ride. Further, early in the season (and early in our cycling careers) riding more seems to produce increased fitness. The result is that we often keep riding more and more miles, thinking well get fitter.
In fact, effective training is really the least amount of training necessary to result in continuing improvement.
Current training theory uses the following model:
- Overload > Recovery & Adaptation > Improved Performance
Notice that the body adapts during recovery, not during the training interval. Therefore, in order to get improved performance recovery is key. If a rider keeps piling on the miles, at some point theres insufficient recovery and performance declines. Oops!
Further, once the body adapts to overload, in order to get more improvement we need to increase the overload, either by increasing the quantity or quality of the overload. Since continually increasing the volume often results in overtraining and poor performance, most coaches change the type of overload every 4-8 weeks.
Most of us understand that hard workouts should be followed by easy days in order to recover and get stronger, although we dont always take days off. Do we also recognize that hard phases should be followed by a recovery interlude? A recovery week will allow us time to:
- Repair muscles with overuse injuries.
- Replenish glycogen stores which may become chronically depleted during hard training.
- Rebuild the immune system which may become worn down.
- Regain enthusiasm and emotional energy
- Reconnect with family and friends, and catch up on the honey-do list.
During the rest week going out for a few short active recovery rides at very low intensity will improve recovery.
In Colorado, we rode our 200 km, 300 km, 400 km, and 600 km brevets in a six week period. While no Brevet Week, I was plenty tired when I pulled into the parking lot at the end of the 600 km. The week after, I went for a 15-mile ride with a friend to get coffee, and then a 45-mile bike walk with another friend. We averaged 10 mph on the bike and included stops to watch rock climbers, study a photo history exhibit, and admire the architecture of the University of Colorado campus.
During the Base phase of training, the primary purpose was to increase the riders endurance. Since there is a good correlation between training volume and endurance, we rode more and more miles. We rode at moderate intensity and were training the beta oxidative (fat burning) and aerobic glycolysis (carb burning) metabolic systems.
During the Build phase the primary purpose was to increase the riders power. Increasing volume has minimal effect on power, so the key rides were the various types of hard workouts described in Intensity Training. We rode hard, utilizing anaerobic glycolysis for energy. The training benefits were to raise our anaerobic thresholds, so we can go harder without going anaerobic, and to increase our power output at any heart rate. We did just enough long rides to maintain endurance, remembering to keep the legs relatively fresh for the intensity workouts.
Okay, so now you can get through a 600 km within the qualifying cut-off. And you can hammer up your local hill-climb and keep your breakfast down. During the next phase, the Peaking phase, the goal shifts again: to improve the riders cruising speed for long rides, the ability to ride at a steady effort for a long time slightly below anaerobic threshold.
During the Tour de France, a contending team will sometimes ride tempo at the front of the peloton, pushing the pace hard to discourage attacks, but at a level of effort they can maintain for several hours. At this pace the riders are using primarily aerobic glycolysis for energy.
This same tempo-style of riding is the most effective way to increase our cruising speed. If youre training for a 1200 km, instead of doing 200-mile weekend rides at the pace you expect to ride in France, go out and ride 100 km hard, trying to find the optimal pace where you couldnt go any faster without blowing up. Build up over the course of 4-6 weeks to a fast century or 200 km. If you are training for a double century, start by pushing the pace on a hard 50-mile ride, and build up to a fast century, perhaps trying for a personal best.
How hard? The objective is to ride for a sustained period at the upper end of your aerobic range (utilizing aerobic glycolysis), taxing it to the max, without going anaerobic. This takes concentration and discipline. Often riders go too hard.
It will take some experimenting to determine the pace you can maintain for several hours. If you like looking at your HR monitor, then try to ride 5-10 bpm below your lactate threshold. The goal is to maintain the same intensity +/- a few bpm, rather than going harder and then backing off.
If you dont own a HR monitor (or even a speedometer), then pay attention to your perceived exertion. You should feel like you are riding hard, but you can still talk in short phrases. Youre right at the edge where you could push the pace a little harder, but then would have to ease up for a few minutes.
During this phase, you also want to maintain your power and endurance, without trying to improve either power or endurance. A typical week might include:
- a tempo ride of 90 minutes to three hours
- a longer tempo ride of 2 to 5 hours
- an intensity ride of 75 to 90 minutes, including warm-up and cool-down
- several active recovery rides of 60 to 90 minutes
Every other week, you could add an endurance workout. Do your longer tempo ride on Saturday, and then your (relatively easy) endurance ride on Sunday.
A second and equally important purpose of the Peaking phase is training the brain and nervous system to optimize performance. The tempo and endurance rides should be as event-specific as possible. If you are training for a 1200 km, pick courses with rolling hills instead of flats or sustained climbs. Practice riding at night, to get used to navigating by lights and also to learn to keep your pace up using perceived exertion without the visual feedback from your speedometer. Practice getting in and out of rest stops very efficiently. Practice getting provisions and then eating on the bike. If you arent turning the cranks, youre not getting down the road! Work on your pace-line skills; learn how to handle your bike in a fast-moving group. Preparing for PBP in Colorado its difficult to replicate the French cuisine on brevets, but I ate as many ham and cheese sandwiches as possible.
If you are training for the a non-drafting 24-hour race, practice riding efficiently on your aero bars. Your race pace for 24 hours will be slightly slower than your tempo rides; get used to dialing in that level of exertion and maintaining it for hours. Practice cornering at speed in the dark. Practice taking hand-offs without slowing down.
The last few weeks before a big event are the taper. The purpose of the taper is to store energy for the event. In general, the longer the event, the longer the taper. For a 1200 km, I generally taper 2-3 weeks. For a 24-hour race, I taper 1-2 weeks. If in doubt, its better to taper more: at this point, doing more miles wont make you faster, it will just make you tired!
Endurance takes a long time to developthats why the Base phase is 3-4 months long. Once developed your endurance will last through the taper without any really long rides. However, studies show that power will decrease if you dont do any intensity workouts.
During the taper you significantly decrease the total volume from week 3 to week 2 and decrease it further in week 1. You keep doing the same frequency of intensity and tempo workouts, while decreasing their duration, e.g., two shorter tempo rides and one short intensity ride. The week of the event, you do a few short, intense rides just to keep your legs sharp.
As noted above, effective training is the least amount of training necessary to result in continuing improvement. The best way to get continued improvement is periodically to change the type of training. Over the course of the season we move from slow endurance training, to hard intensity training, to specific event training. And dont forget to have fun!
Originally printed in UltraCycling