Training for ultra-long distance cycling events – The theory and the practice

Before the start

I recently completed the 1400km (900miles) London – Edinburgh – London endurance Audax/Randonee ride and thought I’d share with you an overview of my training prior to the event, mistakes made and lessons learned.

I secured my place on the ride in January I think, so that gave me around 6 months of solid preparation time.  I’d never undertaken any ride of this magnitude before and therefore had no prior experience to base a plan on.

The demands of the ride would be a relentless mile after mile, level 2 endurance, with probably the occasional bit of level three on any big climbs.  The distance had to be covered in around four and three quarter days meaning that I’d have to cover 190miles every 24hours, taking the opportunity to eat and sleep at the predetermined rest stops.  I’d done the odd ride over 150 miles during my cycling career, but I’d never backed them up day after day with more of the same, so it really would be a journey into the unknown.

The following table shows my power and heart rate numbers at the end of December 2016.  Cycling power is always expressed in watts/kg so that useful comparisons can be made between a big powerful 100kg guy who might produce, say 400watts (4 watts/kg) in a 20minute test, to a smaller skinnier guy at 60kg who might only produce 260watts (4.33 watts/kg).  In this case, although the smaller guy produces nowhere near the absolute power of the big guy, his lactate threshold power (the power he could maintain for one hour) is higher than the big guy when we “scale” them for their weight.

My own numbers were rather pathetic, just over 3watts/kg.  I can’t quite remember whether it was due to illness or laziness (or both) but I think I’d had quite a lot of time off the bike in the late autumn/early winter of 2016.  I’m a very skinny build too, so it wasn’t that I’d put loads of lard on! No, I’d lost a lot of fitness.

27.12.16. 206.15Adjusted for FTP (was 217)  158 
20 minute testAllen & Coggan Functional Threshold Power
Level%FTPPower%FTHRHeart rate
1Recovery<55115<68107
2Endurance56-7511515569-83109131
3Tempo76-9015718684-94133149
4Lactate Threshold91-10518821695-105150166
5VO2 max106-120219247>106167
6Anaerobic capacity121-150249309N/A
7Neuromuscular powerN/AN/A
7Neuromuscular powerN/AN/A
Big ring 4th gearWatts/Kg=3.013888889AARGH!!

 

 

My thoughts therefore were to get as “race fit” as possible so that I could generate maximum power, and thus top end speed.  I had, perhaps rather optimistically, hoped that I would get to 4watts/kg by the summer. That meant improving my fitness by one third, quite a big demand.  That’s the great thing with cycling fitness, it’s measurable provided you have the correct bit of kit.

Of course I’d be riding at nowhere near those lactate threshold intensities.  For long drawn out 3 hour plus rides, and for the LEL ride I would mostly be riding in the aforementioned zone 2.  However with the low power I was generating I didn’t think that I would maintain the 15.5mph average speed I was planning to ride at.

A word about average riding speed

To be honest, 15.5mph doesn’t sound that fast for a decent club rider.  I can ride a chaingang and average 25mph on the flat. I can ride the velodrome and hit 30mph in a chase or dash for the line. I could go out for a fast one to two hour ride and aim to average 20mph on the flat.  However this long distance riding challenge is a totally different beast.

For starters most riders, including myself, would be using a slightly heavier bike than their best summer bike.

Secondly, even if they used a lightweight bike, it would be loaded with all the kit they would need to be self-sufficient; food, clothing, waterproofs, tools, electronics, lights etc, this means keeping it all in saddlebags, panniers, frame bags, handlebar bags etc.  To support all this kit you will also be using heavier more durable tyres. Plus, the LEL covers much of the length of Britain during a British summer, it would more than likely rain, so mudguards would be essential too. So the bikes are heavy, they are loaded, they are nowhere near aerodynamic, they feel awful when you ride them.

Thirdly, and most importantly for this section, a rider burns a different mix of fuels for energy depending on the intensity (speed) and duration (distance) of any ride.  In simple terms we burn a mix of fat and glycogen (sugar).  The harder and faster the ride the higher the proportion of glycogen we use, the easier and slower the ride, the higher the proportion of fat we utilise.  The body possesses a finite amount of glycogen, whereas, even thin riders, possess an almost limitless amount of fat, so, in theory one can ride great distances on one’s fat reserves, provided one doesn’t ride too fast.  However, most riders are habituated to consuming carbohydrates (sugars) and fat burns in the flame of carbohydrate, so we need some carbs coming into the body on a regular basis to allow us to burn the fat.

(As an aside, some ultra-endurance athletes have gone more or less “fat only” in their food consumption, the so called high fat low carb diet, but that’s a whole different topic.)

The good news is that the more we train, especially in the endurance zone, the more efficient we become and burning fat and sparing glycogen.  Coupled with shorter, harder more intense training efforts, we become fitter. It’s like a car engine getting a gradual tune up over a period of time, not only will it use less fuel, it will run smoother and also go faster.

 

The training

So, in January, I started on a structured training programme.  It was a mix of long steady road rides of 1 to 4 hours, intervals on the turbo trainer of either short 3-5 minutes at VO2max intensity power, or lactate threshold intervals of up to 20 minutes x 2.  Some overgeared strength training on the turbo or road and track racing at Manchester Velodrome.

I love the buzz of track racing, the adrenaline rush, the competition, the excitement.  At my veteran third category level, typical track races include a scratch race, usually 20 laps and the first over the line at the end wins.  A points race with sprints every 4 or 5 laps over 20 or 25 laps, the person with most points at the end wins.  A “Course des Primes” where the first rider over the line each lap gets half a point, these are often flat out races and very hard to manage unless you are in very good form.  A “Devil takes the hindmost” known more recently as the “Elimination race” where the last rider over the line gets pulled out of the race until the last three remaining riders sprint it out for the win.  The Devil is my favourite race as it’s a bit more tactical.

A track league night will have me riding at anywhere between zone 2 and zone 7 depending on how each race unfolds.

Locally we have some big training “Reliability” rides that start in February.  These have become more or less unofficial races for the big hitters over a predetermined route.  In the last number of years I’ve chosen to go with easier groups as I don’t believe I would be able to keep up with the real fast lads any longer.  The fast guys are the Olympians Jonathan and Alistair Brownlee, world junior cyclocross champion Tom Pidcock, Protour and Tour de France rider Scott Thwaites plus a load of local pro riders and top amateurs.  It would be the equivalent of most normal blokes trying to play a Sunday league football game against their favourite Premier League side.

However in the slightly easier groups, in some of the rides I was having some good feelings on the bike.   I wasn’t getting dropped when it got fast on the flat, to which I credit the track racing, and I could hold my own on the climbs.  That’s not to say it was all perfect, on one of the rides I was well below par and turned for home early on.  By the middle of February, the good feelings I’d experienced on the bike showed some positive improvements for the next test:

15.02.17 242.25Adjusted for FTP (was 255)  156 
20 minute testAllen & Coggan Functional Threshold Power
Level%FTPPower%FTHRHeart rate
1Recovery<55135<68106
2Endurance56-7513618269-83108129
3Tempo76-9018421884-94131147
4Lactate Threshold91-10522025495-105148164
5VO2 max106-120257291>106165
6Anaerobic capacity121-150293363N/A
7Neuromuscular powerN/AN/A
7Neuromuscular powerN/AN/A
Small ring 9th gearWatts/Kg=3.552052786

 

 

I’d jumped up 36 watts in 6 or 7 weeks.  My weight had only reduced by 0.2kg so my improvement was over 17%, very good news, how could I continue it?  Could I continue it?

I carried on a similar programme through the rest of February and March, but unfortunately at the end of March or so, I picked up virus that knocked me for six. I had to have two weeks entirely off the bike, or any training, and felt extremely lethargic, lacking any normal energy, getting headaches etc. I lost so much fitness so quickly that I never got back to the Track League before it finished around May time and felt, to some extent, that I had to re-set my training and start over again. Very frustrating and disappointing.

As the Spring days became longer I was able to get in some longer rides, over 100 miles in some cases. However I was somewhat inconsistent with my training and never backed up a long ride with another one the next day.  Due to the virus I’d had I never got to the “race fit” level that I’d hoped for earlier in the year.  Another problem was that I’d often get a bad headache the day after a long ride…it didn’t bode well for LEL.

I’d also planned to get in a number of Audax (organised long distance rides) in preparation, however due to other commitments, family event and holidays, I ended up starting only one, The 3 Coasts 600km.  I figured that if I could successfully complete this ride, a little under half the distance of LEL, then I’d be fine. Unfortunately, it was held on the hottest weekend of the year and I ended up feeling really ill and vomiting at the end of the first day, so didn’t even contemplate riding the second day.

So with six weeks to go to LEL, a history of inconsistent training, headaches and illness, my confidence in completing it was pretty low.  As it happens, I did get back to the level of fitness I’d had in February but it fell short of where I’d hoped I be.

12.06.17 250.8Adjusted for FTP (was 264)  160 
20 minute testAllen & Coggan Functional Threshold Power
Level%FTPPower%FTHRHeart rate
1Recovery<55139<68109
2Endurance56-7514018869-83110133
3Tempo76-9019122684-94134150
4Lactate Threshold91-10522826395-105152168
5VO2 max106-120266301>106170
6Anaerobic capacity121-150303376N/A
7Neuromuscular powerN/AN/A
7Neuromuscular powerN/AN/A
Small ring 9th gearWatts/Kg=3.748318637

 

I didn’t do any more tests before the ride as I felt that I’d not improved much.  In summary, and speaking as a coach, I’d say that my own training fell short of the requirements of the event.

  • I never backed up one long ride with another
  • I had several episodes of illness
  • I was getting regular headaches after long rides that put me off doing more long rides
  • I fell short of the level of fitness and power that I’d wanted to achieve
  • I didn’t complete any Audax events in preparation

 

Read my next blog to see what happened next…..coming soon

       

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