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Riding slow to go fast

The power trace for an endurance ride. Despite varying terrain and wind, the power remained at roughly 200W. Obviously, stopping for traffic lights.

Riding slow to go fast 04/03 2014 by Alain Devolder

"Don't make the mistake of doing your easy rides to hard and your hard rides to easy"
You have probably read this many times as it appears in almost every training book.

However, whenever I go riding with amateur riders, I can see that nobody takes notice of this. They always want to destroy themselves. If you want to go fast and win races then you need to train more sensibly, as explained below.

If you ride too hard on every ride you will soon become exhausted. Over a period of weeks you will become over trained. Enthusiasm will wane, legs will be permanently dead, and riding will feel like a huge effort.

You do need to ride hard sometimes, once or twice a week (See article about VO2 cycling intervals for tips). For the best training effect those hard days need to be really hard, and you need to be fresh enough to be able to do that. (The most effective regime for increasing FTP, VO2 etc was shown to be 4 x 8 mins flat out, twice a week.) This should take up around 1 in 5 of your training sessions (20%).

The other 80% of your training sessions should be ridden in zone 1 or 2, i.e. at endurance pace. Riding in the middle zone, i.e. below threshold but above endurance pace should be avoided.

! Note that if you ride at endurance pace all of the time you will get slower. You need work at threshold and above to get the speed gains, but you need to do the long riding hours too !

Here are a few symptoms of riding too hard on every ride. Does this sound like you?
- You dread speed work days as you feel just too tired and might instead feel it is more sensible to just do an easy ride instead. 30 minutes into the ride you might start feeling better, so push a bit harder on the hills. You come home tired but sweaty and feel like you did a good workout. Next day you feel just as tired as before.

- You don't feel that there's any point doing 'easy' endurance paced (zone 1 or 2) rides. You prefer to go out and smash it every time. Otherwise what's the point of training unless you are training harder than a race? 'No pain no gain.'

- I'm a busy person with a family, so don't have time to spend riding for hours. I'm a 'time crunched cyclist'. I'm going to spend my training time doing the good stuff.

- You go on a group ride at least once a week, which is an unofficial race. You meet up with the usual crowd, ride flat out for perhaps an hour, really sprinting up hills and usually don't contest the sprint, as you're happy to roll in with the front group.

- Your endurance rides are usually with a group as you find it too boring to do alone. The ride will be a fairly social speed for 3 hours, perhaps with a coffee stop. There will be a pick-up in pace for the last 30 minutes ending with a sprint. You are exhausted afterwards.

- You frequently pick up colds: at least 3 times a year.

- You go through phases of being totally exhausted, and turn up to races thinking that you'd rather not be there. You ride to preserve yourself so only give a 90% effort and therefore finish up mid-pack. You attribute this to stress from work and family life.

I was prone to many of the problems noted above. So are many club riders, probably the majority. Despite having a trainer who gave me correct advice and having read books on the subject, I could never bring myself to ride around slowly for hours. What was the point of that? Only when I began to train hard/ easy did I start winning races.

Most of us are competitive types at heart, that's why we love cycling. We are driven to get the best out of ourselves. If we have a poor result, such as getting dropped on the local group ride, we feel bad about it and start planning on how to get faster. The usual conclusion is to train more and harder. You want to teach those legs a lesson. If you train harder than you race then racing will seem easy. This is the wrong approach.

What you need to do is to ride your endurance rides correctly - this is explained below. You will get the aerobic benefits of the endurance ride and your legs will recover quickly in order to do the fast interval parts of your training.

Endurance training
We'd all like to take the 'time crunched' approach and get it all done quickly, but there is no shortcut to getting your aerobic base other than to go and do the hours. On the plus side, if you do the training correctly, you won't be an exhausted heap at the end of the ride and you'll be able to enjoy the rest of your day.

Team Belkin training in Sardinia before the 2013 Tour De France.
Team Belkin training in Sardinia before the 2013 Tour De France. Most riding should be undertaken at a steady state, i.e. quite a reasonable pace, otherwise you will be toast within a few months.

Approximately 75%-85% of your training sessions should be this endurance work. There should be more volume in the off season and less when racing. If you are riding 20 hours a week, as elite athletes do, then that's 16 hours at endurance pace. That still leaves 4 hours a week of interval training sessions.

How to do it
Endurance training is performed at zone 1 - 2 level which is under 85% of your threshold heart rate/ under 74% of your threshold power (or under 2mmol lactate and below 75% max heart rate). I find that maintaining 200W works nicely; top riders would ride at around 200W-230W. Keep your pedal RPMs between 90-100.

The key is to maintain the power up and down hills, with no freewheeling.

A flat course works best for this sort of training. Up hills you'll need to get into the small ring, perhaps even the 39x27 to maintain this power and leg speed. It will feel like you are barely pressing on the pedals and cyclo tourists with panniers and ruck sacks will scoot past you. However on the crest of the hill you'll need to shift to the big ring and possibly get on the 13 sprocket to maintain 200W. Now you'll be doing 50kph and you'll overtake people who came past you on the uphill. The wind will buffet you and you'll feel like you are flying, even though it is 200W. Remember, no freewheeling. Doing this sort of training without a power meter is difficult, unless you are on a flat and windless road or on a turbo, which is either unlikely or dull.

The first hour of this sort of riding feels like nothing at all. It feels like you could go on all day. By the third hour you are beginning to have to concentrate to maintain the power. By 5 hours you will be feeling it and will be glad to get home. You will need to have patience to keep going at this steady power for the first 2 hours. The temptation will be to ramp up the speed, but this must be avoided.

The effect of this ride
What you will find is that after such a ride you will be tired, but the legs won't feel shredded as you won't have invoked high torque or power. Eat and drink properly, have a good night's sleep and you'll find that you'll be fully recovered within 1-2 days. That means you will now be able to do your very hard intervals, or race, without feeling exhausted.

You will have gained massive aerobic benefits of an endurance ride without delving into your physical and emotional energy stores. You'll be better able to utilize fat as an energy source and will be developing more muscular capillaries but will still have energy after the ride to do other things.

Eating for an endurance ride
Ensure that you eat properly before, during and after the ride. Riding in a fasted state is advocated by some riders but I don't recommended it.

For example a rider might wake up, drink coffee and go riding, taking only water. The idea is that it trains the body to burn fat as a fuel. However it causes increased cortisol release. This stress hormone will drive you to crave more sugary food and will weaken your immune response. Muscle tissue is catabolized for fuel. Riding in a fasted state too often will eventually exhaust you to the point of sickness.

It is better to have a light snack of protein (2 eggs or some fish) before the ride and to consume some carbohydrate during it. According to Carlos Sastre's nutritionist, he would set off on a 5 hour endurance ride with only a single power bar as food. He'd eat half of it after 2 hours and the other half if he felt he needed it. The idea was to consume just enough carbs to fuel his brain, and force his body to take the rest from his fat reserves.

Best of all is to eat enough so that you finish the ride tired but not about to bonk. You are allowed to eat during a race, so you should eat during training.

A few other details about the endurance ride
After an interval session, you can top up the hours by riding in this way. The hard work will have been done, and now all that will remain is an hour or two of steady endurance work.

On true easy days, or rest days, just try to spin the legs very gently. Don't even look at the power meter. Give your body a chance to heal and regroup. The gentle exercise will help the muscles to take on nutrients and flush toxins.

On longer rides, which are not easy days, throw in a few short 5-10 second sprints to keep the body awake. Not too many or too long, as this is not a sprint training session.

If you ride like this you won't be afraid to go for a ride. Actually you'll be looking forward to it.

Remember that this sort of riding doesn't lend itself to a group, as sooner or later someone will start racing. The guys at the front will be going too hard and the guys at the back will be going too easy. Spin class also doesn't work as usually the trainer is screaming for 'more resistance'. I'm afraid you've got to do your endurance alone or with only one training partner.

A note on heart rate decoupling PW:HR
Users of WKO+ software may know about the decoupling variable. This is a noted as Pw:HR (Pa:HR is for runners, so can be ignored by cyclists). It is an indicator of how your heart rate responded to the power output. If you are maintaining 200W for the entire ride, then your HR should not be too different at the start of the ride compared to the end of the ride. You should be able to keep the difference under 5% for a 3 hour endurance ride. If it isn't, then keep working on your endurance rides. Note that Pw:HR won't work for variable paced rides. Just use it for endurance rides.

It took me years to properly understand how to spend 80% of my training time. Group rides were too much fun, and slow miles didn't make sense. I was thinking that if I wanted to race fast I'd need to always train fast.

This is wrong.

If you can cultivate the patience to ride your endurance rides correctly, then you will see the benefits in terms of more power and more wins.

Joe Friel Blog - about Hard/ Easy training. Either train at level 1-2 or above FTP and avoid the middle ground

Again, Joe Friel Blog - an excellent article about the endurance ride

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