Friday, 10 August 2012

Training and the place of long rides – part 1

I’ve divided this post into two parts because it’s long.  The first part considers the place of long rides in an endurance cycling training programme.  The second part, which is longer, is an account of one such ride, the one I did last Saturday.

I’m relatively new to endurance cycling (just over 2 years), have hardly got a solid cycling/fitness base, and yet keep upping the distances that I’m racing.  My next race is going to be in November – the 640 km Taupo Maxi Enduro.  It’s a mean distance and not one that I can achieve without taking it really seriously.  My usual approach has been to rely on toughening it out and being prepared to suffer.  That’ll also be a key part of successfully completing this race, but it will not be sufficient in itself.  Other things will also be vital … which brings me to the topic of training.

I’ve been surprised at the heat and debate around this subject.  Essentially the argument comes down to one of quantity versus quality. Most people agree that training should incorporate a mix of long rides and shorter rides, with the latter focussing on speed, strength, and lifting the heart rate.  Recovery should also be an important component of any training plan.  The controversy focusses on the place of those long rides – just how long and how frequent should they be?  A frequently mentioned phrase is “empty miles”.  Long rides risk over-training.  They require longer recovery periods, with consequently less opportunity to fit in other parts of the training.  They can also result in the cyclist losing enthusiasm.

Despite what I’ve read and what friends tell me, I think that (very) long training rides have a place in a training programme, especially for some cyclists.  By (very) long training ride, I mean a ride that is of a distance that would really stretch the rider.  I think they are important for me and so have incorporated them into my training, albeit with the flexibility to alter the plan if things aren’t going well.

The reason why very long training rides are an advantage for someone like me is that I just don’t have the depth of necessary experience in the sport.  The long rides give me an opportunity to see what it’s like; to test and experiment.  How can I develop a good feeding approach unless I test it on a long ride?  How else can I be sure about my riding technique or racing strategy?  Importantly, how else can I get my mind around the pain and discomfort that result from the many hours on a bike?  Successfully accomplishing these very long training rides also has another advantage – it boosts your confidence; you know you can do it.

More than anything else, the last-mentioned point of the previous paragraph helped me with my first endurance cycling race, the 320 km Taupo Enduro in November 2010.  I was poorly trained and had developed a cold with flu-like symptoms.  The race was a long, lonely suffer-fest.  However, at no time during it did I ever contemplate not being able to finish.  Surviving those long, shitty training rides (which also, incidentally, probably contributed to my poor physical preparation for the event!) meant that I knew I could do it no matter what.

For this reason, my training programme has a long ride scheduled for every alternate Saturday, to be cycled at endurance-race pace, i.e. fast and efficiently, but in a way that I can keep up for hours and hours.  This ride will get progressively longer and longer.  One of the other alternating Saturdays will have a shorter long-ride that will probably be of around 4 hour’s duration; the other Saturday will be in a recovery week with only a 2 hour ride.  These will be balanced by stretches, core strengthening exercises, weights, two shorter tempo/brisk rides during the weekdays, and maybe a 3-4 hour slowish group ride the odd Sunday.

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