Question: What is the most important ability to work on for endurance racing? What is the focus for training and why?
Answer: This is the second part of our discussion on important abilities to train for various mountain bike race disciplines. You might think the answer to this one is easy: just do long endurance rides. While this is true to a degree, there is a little more to it if you want to be competitive in long events. First, not all “endurance” MTB events are created equal. Cross country races lately have a relatively narrow definition from a duration perspective, generally they are around 2 hours long. Anything longer; marathon, 50 miler, 100K, 100 miler, and even longer distances (or timed events such as 6, 9, 12 and 24 hour races) all fall into what is considered the endurance race category. Training for a marathon race (maybe 3 to 4 hour duration) would be quite different from the training for, say, a 100 mile race. With this in mind, let’s talk about the specific demands of endurance racing in a very general sense.
We know that you will have to be able to stay on your bike for a long period of time. We know that the majority of the race will be performed well below your lactate threshold, although there will be times when you will need to do relatively short high power efforts on steep climbs and other sections. We know that pacing will be a big issue. We also know that nutrition and hydration strategies will play a big role in your result. There are plenty of other variables that come into play, like the amount of climbing, altitude, bike handling if the course is technical etc., but we need to paint a very general picture for our purposes here.
Obviously the longer the race, the slower the race pace needs to be. Why? Primarily two reasons. The first is fuel. The harder you ride, the more glycogen you burn. The slower you go, the more fat you are able to burn as a percentage of energy substrate used. You probably know that the body has a limited ability to store glycogen, but that our fat stores are vast. You probably also know that you are only able to process so many calories per hour and that you will be burning far more calories than you can digest. Correct pacing is essential in order to not run out of glycogen entirely and avoid bonking. The second pace limiter is fatigue. This includes both muscular and central nervous system fatigue. While the mechanisms of fatigue are still not completely known, anyone who has done a cycling event knows that it is real and needs to be considered for race pacing as the events gets longer.
Just answer the question already! Ok, ok, So our initial thought was primarily correct. Working on the aerobic energy system as the primary focus is the answer. However, the aerobic training range (below threshold) is wide and where you train within that range is very important. We have found that spending large amounts of time high in the “endurance miles zone” or approximately 62 to 80 % of threshold power is very effective. 12 or 13 bpm below your lactate threshold heart rate will get you in this area. Note that this is NOT easy cruising pace. This is a step above what feels relatively easy on the perceived exertion scale. Also building in long blocks of tempo zone training is great to develop this high end aerobic fitness. Tempo zone is approximately 88-94% of threshold power or about 10bpm below LTHR. This type of training will help your body increase its ability to burn fat at endurance race pace and will help you deal with the build up of muscular and CNS fatigue.
If your goal is just to finish an endurance event, then building the duration of your long training rides up close to the expected duration of the event will get you across the finish line even if you train at low intensities. However, if you want to be competitive, or if the cut off times out on the course require a faster pace, you will need to up the intensity of those long rides, pushing the pace for chunks of time above your comfort zone to get you ready to meet your goals. Note that for races 12 hours and longer there are other long ride strategies that can be employed such as back to back long ride days rather than trying to build up to a ride longer than 9 or 10 hours. Another good strategy would be to use other shorter distance/ timed events as training for the long goal event. For example doing a 6 or 9 hour race as part of the training build up to a 12 hour or longer event is a great plan.
If you have a training device that records heart rate and / or power data, you can download it and look at the time spent in the zones listed above. Try to increase the percentage of time in that high endurance miles zone as your training progresses. Also add tempo interval work starting with 4×8 minutes or 3×10 minutes at tempo (use 2:1 work to recovery times , so for example a 10 min effort would get a 5 min recovery ). Build the total amount of tempo up to well over 60 mins per session. You can also shorten the recovery between efforts to make sessions more difficult.
This certainly is not the only type of training you should do as you work toward an endurance event. There are many reasons why adding high intensity training would benefit endurance race performance, but if you put the primary training focus on aerobic fitness you will be heading in the right direction.
Andy Applegate is a Pro level coach with Carmichael Training Systems. He has over 20 years of racing experience and has been coaching cyclists full time since 2001. His passion is endurance mountain bike racing. You can find out more about Andy and his training programs at www.trainright.com