“Damn…” I thought, that will be one long day in the saddle. Yet the challenge of training EFL member Alex for the Cascade Cream Puff, a 100 Mile mountain bike race was intriguing. The Cream Puff is known for the brutality of the climbs, difficult terrain, and hot August temps. This year’s race looked to be an especially tough course that consisted of two laps around a 50 mile course. Each loop had about 10,000 feet of climbing, which should strike a bit of fear in the heart of anyone with a clue as to what that means.
As we began discussing the race we began by listing the physiological, psychological, and time demands, then ranking them in order of importance. The following is our thought process in developing a program to systematically progress those qualities right up to race day.
Alex is already a skilled cyclist with years of riding experience, so a good foundation was already there in terms of technique and base aerobic development. Our initial priorities were to start working on developing resiliency in order to counteract the demands of the high volume of aerobic work on the bike, and body composition. The primary factors guiding the program were:
1. Body composition.
Alex knew from experience that if he got his bodyweight down to around 180 from a starting weight of just over 200 that the 100 miles would be vastly easier. There is a reason great climbers are very light – it takes a tremendous amount of energy to drag more bodyweight up a mountain. We figured that if he was doing a 10,000 calorie expenditure day then a 10% reduction in bodyweight would give a 1,000 calorie swing in terms of energy demand. That makes a big difference. Alex periodically did food logs, and particularly made sure that he was getting in enough nutrients from vegetable and protein sources. Carb levels were varied to match demands. A few weeks out from race week he weighed 180 and was ready to go.
2. Build a higher level of aerobic capacity.
The vast majority of this was accomplished on the bike with rides of 1-4 hours after work on the weekdays and longer rides on the weekend. In Oregon this is no easy feat during the winter, and he spent quite a bit of time riding on a trainer indoors. He used a heart rate monitor on the indoor and outdoor rides, which helped track cardiac efficiency and being able to stay in the proper training zone. On many of these rides the goal was to keep the heart rate from going above 145, and try not to get up above his lactate threshold very often. By April and May the volume would build up to 6 hour rides on the weekend. June and July saw some rides approaching 8-10 hours with some serious vertical, but then shorter easier recovery rides during the week.
In the gym we periodically tested by putting a HR monitor on and doing from 12 up to 30 minute time trials to test efficiency and wattage. Over time his heart rate continued to drop at a given intensity, and wattage (power) consistently rose at a given HR. More power with less demand on the cardiovascular system means better performance, and this takes time. There are no shortcuts, and this had to be kept in mind throughout the duration of training.
Lactate threshold was an important part of the equation too, which we improved by adding in longer LT intervals, and intervals slightly under LT (which for the non-geeks is the point where you red line and have to back off the gas) of up to 20 minutes, 1-2 times per week as June came along. Although we were careful to not go overboard here, as aerobic capacity is by and far the most important factor. Another often overlooked aspect to building these qualities is avoiding group rides – most cyclists who go out in groups tend to go too hard too often and end up not training the intensities most beneficial.
Going too hard too often, especially in an endurance event, is counterproductive. Being vigilant to not overtrain was huge for Alex, and kept him on a path of steady progress. On days when his legs felt like lead he either cut the ride in half or skipped it altogether. The same held for gym training – on days when he felt tired we reduced volume and worked on other qualities. Essentially we didn’t want to hit high levels of fatigue very often, and planned in rest days and back off weeks in order to see the positive adaptations be realized in the subsequent training sequence.
He timed rides during the week so that Thursday and Friday were recovery rides which helped improve aerobic capacity while preparing him for the demands of big weekend rides. Monday was usually a rest day, and a shorter intense ride or recovery ride on Tuesday depending how he was feeling. Through trial and error Alex discovered that a “shorter” 3 hour ride two days before a big ride would result in him feeling stronger during the long ride so that he could fully reap the benefits of the big training rides, and also help him recover more quickly for subsequent training.
3. Improve resiliency
Mountain biking, especially a 10+ hour day, is extremely hard on the back, neck, midsection, and shoulders so improving tissue quality, alignment/posture, and position on the bike was going to be crucial – and it proved to be key. As we improved alignment and posture Alex’s program was set up to concurrently build strength, and strength-endurance in those positions. In addition to the physical Alex has said that improving total body strength gave him more confidence on the descents, where he reached 35 mph, and the strength for climbing. In addition he felt this gave him an overall psychological boost in knowing he could handle the terrain without hesitation.
Concerning building durability we looked at extensibility of the hip and midsection, and endurance in that position vis-a-vis the position of the spine so as to provide a good platform for delivering power without leaking energy. You often see rounded low backs among cyclists, and those same people will often complain of pain which will eventually shut them down. So we focused on good core endurance, thoracic mobility, and hip mobility to help prevent fatigue from developing into discomfort or pain.
Considering overall training volume and intensity and rest are the big picture factors, while managing stress on particular areas of the body are a narrower focus we managed in the gym . What I mean by that is at in cycling there will be large demands on the anterior (quads for example) and posture in general, and so in the gym Alex’s program focused more on balancing that stress by working on more posterior dominant movements, joint alignment, and mobility. This sort of exercise also helped alter position on the bike so as to mitigate fatigue on the low back/neck/shoulders.
5. Managing total training volume and proper sequencing
From January through April he did 4 sessions in the gym per week, with 3-4 days of riding. As we got into May we decreased frequency in the gym as cycling volume increased, and also did less volume of direct leg work in the gym to help with recovery and optimize on-bike performance. June and July the gym training was decreased to twice per week, sometimes once, and in late July we were very careful to save all his efforts for the last few big weekend rides. However we continued to maintain upper body and “core” strength and strength-endurance in order to keep increasing his ability to stay strong and relaxed on hard rides. Since MTBing involves a lot of upper body demand, when the shoulders and back fatigue riding gets sloppy and crashes are more likely to occur.
Thankfully this all paid off with no big crashes or accidents, and no other physical setbacks in training. And if there is one thing that prohibits success among many endurance athletes it is having to back off or stop training due to pain or other issues due to fatigue-related problems. All in all Alex was happy with the results and I was quite satisfied with the balance we struck in training in order for him to enjoy the event and not get injured.
The take home I hope others who may see this think about is to consider carefully the total stress – training and otherwise – of the person, and when in doubt be conservative. Rest a bit more rather than push through, stay flexible and don’t feel married to the training plan. Go ahead and decrease the training volume when needed, or adjust intensity to match the readiness of the person.
Plan and begin to train well in advance of intense events such as this one. I believe that many people end up injured doing marathons or bike races when they try to do too much too soon, and end up thinking they can cram a big volume of training into a couple of months. These events are no joke – despite the fact that Alex trained hard for more than 8 months specifically for this day, five days after the race at times he still felt like vomiting as his body struggled to recover. Train smart.