Friday, December 28, 2007

Zen and the Art of the Endurance Ride

Most of us remember Eddy Merckx's response when he was asked for his advice for young riders aspiring to become professionals: "Ride Lots". Though Merckx is thought by many to be the greatest rider of all time, this sort of simplistic training methodology bares little resemblance to the highly specific and periodized, science based training plans of the stars of today. And in truth, even the great Eddy had a lot more structure to his training than he let on.

The difference between "just riding" and actually training with a purpose is that when you train you must recognize that every workout has a purpose. This is easy for us to forget in the fall and winter months when many of us are coming off of less structured periods of training and beginning base training composed primarily of endurance rides. Yet many of us look forward to this time of the year as a time when we can enjoy the longer, lower intensity, more social rides without the stress of a lot of intensity training, racing and traveling. Don't be misled though; there is much more to an endurance ride than "just riding". Like any other workout, an endurance ride serves a specific purpose and if done incorrectly can at best be of little training value and at worst lead to over-reaching (and ultimately over-training), injury and burnout.

Purpose of endurance rides:

- Mechanical efficiency. Though one-legged drills, fast cadence drills, riding a fixed gear bike and rollers can all help make your pedal stroke more efficient, the simple act of pedaling thousands or even millions of pedal strokes may do the most to make your pedaling as smooth and even as possible. All of this repetition should also help you to identify any bike fit or body misalignment issues (i.e. if you need to see a doctor or a chiropractor)

- Metabolic efficiency. Lower intensity rides (zones 1-3) will help teach the body to burn fat as a primary energy source. When we do Lactate Threshold tests in our lab, we can always tell when people need to spend more time developing their aerobic base because they accumulate lactic acid even at relatively low intensities (zone 1-2). Since lactic acid is a bi product of anaerobic energy production, premature lactate accumulation is a sure sign that these riders need to develop the ability to efficiently metabolize fat for energy. Burning muscle glycogen (which is in limited supply) for energy rather than fat (which there is a large supply of even in the leanest athletes) means that you will not be able to make the key high intensity efforts when it really counts.

- Improve the body's ability to transport blood and oxygen. When we talk about "aerobic fitness" this is primarily what we are talking about. High intensity exercise can also accomplish this, but these levels cannot be sustained as long and repeated bouts of high intensity exercise every day can lead to overreaching, illness and injury. Development of aerobic fitness will mean that the body will respond better to the intensity workouts that come later on.

- Muscular strength. Though muscle mass will be generated more effectively in the gym, on the bike strength training is what will make this muscle mass more functional on the bike. In order to keep heart rate and power in zone 2 uphill, it is often necessary to pedal at very low rpms. If you are able to stay seated with good form this can be an opportunity not only to keep your heart rate and power down, but also to work on cycling-specific muscular strength.

- Fat Loss. Though you will more fat in a 1 hour ride at LT than you will on a 1 hour endurance ride, you won't be able to do 1 hour LT rides every day, whereas most experienced riders are capable of completing 4, 5, and even 6 hour endurance rides on a regular basis. A typical cyclist will burn 350-800 kCal.hour on the bike, so if you need to shed some extra pounds before spring there is no better way to do it than to add endurance volume while monitoring your Caloric intake. You will still have to consume more Calories when you increase your training volume though. Cut out desserts, junk food and alcohol and cut portion size at dinner, especially on your light days or off days. Don't starve yourself on the bike. The more you eat on your rides, the more Calories you will burn and the better you will feel. If you are losing more than 1 pound per week (a caloric deficit of 500 kCal), you are losing weight too fast and should increase energy consumption and/or reduce training volume.

So how do we accomplish all of these goals most appropriately? When I examine power files from an athlete's endurance ride, this is what I look for:

- No more than 5% of the time above zone 2 heart rate. There will be times where it is difficult if not impossible to keep your heart rate down in zone 2. A little time in zone 3 is OK, but try to avoid extended periods above the upper limit of zone 2 HR.

Two graphs of heart rate distribution by zone. The first shows 11% in zone 1 and 89% in zone 2. The second shows 25% of the time above zone 2.

- Average power in zone 2. For most riders, average power for an endurance ride will fall in the low end of zone 2. Many riders go way too hard uphill and then coast or soft-pedal downhill on their endurance rides, which is more like hill sprints than endurance. Most will see power numbers at the high end of zone 3 while riding uphill and at the low end of zone 2 while riding downhill.

- Normalized power in zone 2. Normalized power better quantifies the difficulty of a ride with non-steady state efforts. I look for normalized power to be a bit higher than average power, but still in zone 2. A good endurance ride should be a relatively steady state power output, which means that the normalized power should not be dramatically higher than average power. We often describe this as "using your power meter to flatten the ride".

- Average cadence over 85. Though there will be periods of low cadence (uphill) and periods where cadence is zero (coasting), if you are pedaling, your cadence should be be 90-100 rpm unless otherwise prescribed by your coach. Factoring in uphills and coasting should produce an overall average cadence of 85 rpm or higher.

- No more than 10% coasting. Any ride will include periods of coasting such as approaching lights and stop signs and riding down steep and windy descents and this is fine. However, it is important to try to keep pedaling whenever possible. Time spent coasting is essentially time wasted. Practice shifting regularly so that you can keep your power where it needs to be on any grade. If your significant other ever gives you grief about riding your bike too much, just think of they would say when you tell them that you spent 20% of that time coasting!

A graph of cadence distribution during one group ride shows 19% of the time coasting (0 rpm)

- Steady power output and heart rate throughout the ride without a significant fade.
If a rider's power drops dramatically towards the end of the ride, it is probably a sign that they didn't eat enough. If their heart rate rises dramatically, it is usually a sign that they didn't drink enough. Unless you are pushing way too big of a gear and tearing up your leg muscles, if you fuel and hydrate properly you should feel just as good at the end of the ride as at the beginning.

A smoothed power curve from a 3.5 hour ride shows a definite drop in power. This rider did not eat enough and his power dropped 38% in the last hour of the ride.

One of the big questions riders ask about endurance-base rides is "Can I do group rides?". Group rides can often be "hammer-fests" with periods of very high intensity (usually up hills and in sprints) even if advertised as "easy winter endurance riding". For most riders, keeping heart rate and power in zone 2 and coasting time limited is difficult if not impossible. These rides may serve a purpose, but let me be clear here, they are not endurance rides. If you want to ride with a group and still accomplish the goals of the endurance ride, my advice would be to find the rides that the local pros and elite racers do. These guys may be able to race fast, but they also know how to ride slow (and do their endurance rides the right way). If you compete 9 months of the year, you look forward to the 3 months of the year when you can ride easy. Riding with experienced athletes can also be a great opportunity to pick their brains and get valuable insight into training and racing.

On the other side of the coin, if you happen to be of the stronger riders yourself, you may find that the group rides available are simply too easy. This is where riding a fixed gear bike can be extremely valuable. The uphills will help you work on cycling specific muscular strength, the downhills will help you develop leg speed and overall the fixed gear acts as a "handicap", allowing you to get a bit more out of the ride while still being able to enjoy the social aspects. If you are riding a fixed gear when other riders are on road bikes, make sure use fairly light gearing (e.g. 39x16 or 42x17), install at least one brake, and make sure to stay out of the way of the other riders on the downhills, as you will not be able to go as fast as you would on a bike that can freewheel. If you are not confident in your handling ability on the fixed gear bike, you should probably ride towards the back of the group.

As your aerobic base starts to develop, I recommend increasing the length of your longest rides to just over the duration of your longest races or events, so if your longest race will be 4 hours, your longest rides should be 4 hours. Rides much longer that this will be of limited benefit to you unless you need to lose a great deal of weight. In the later stages of base training, start to incorporate in more hills into your rides. While you should still try to stay seated and keep your heart rate in zone 2, try to carry your momentum over the small climbs better even if it leads to a short spike in power.
A good aerobic base will help prepare you for higher intensity training and racing to come. It will allow you to respond to theses stresses better and recover faster. Many may view endurance rides as "just riding", but paying attention to the details of these rides, being disciplined and patient will lead to results. Riding how you feel and ignoring the details will lead to fitness built on a shaky foundation and it will ultimately fall over like a house of cards.


  1. Colin.

    Thanks for the post. It’s very helpful to outline the purpose and focus of these rides, as opposed to 'just riding'.

    Currently, my training schedule incrementally increases the length of endurance rides each week, going from (2)-(4) hrs, and then they drop back down to (2) hrs. Are there any advantages or disadvantages to doing constant (4) hr rides every week?


  2. Jason-

    Thanks for the great question. The reason for incrementally increasing the duration of your long rides is to allow your body to get used to the increasing intensity and duration of your workouts. The shorter rides are on rest weeks when the main priority is for your body to completely recover. If you were to continue doing 4 hour rides every week it would be of limited benefit (unless a lot of your races are 4 hours or more) and the risk would be that you would not recover enough to handle the intensity workouts. At best, this would mean that you wouldn't hit the numbers you should be hitting and in worst case you could get sick or injured.

    As a matter of clarification here for anyone reading, although I believe that endurance riding serves a purpose and doing your endurance rides right is very important, I am by no means an advocate of doing no intensity work in the off-season. Every period has it's high intensity and low intensity workouts. The bottom line is that there is a purpose to every workout, be it VO2 max intervals, a long endurance ride, a hard group ride or an easy recovery ride. Understand what this purpose is and have the discipline top do what you are supposed to be doing!