Gravel Toolbox: Gravel racing has exploded over the past few years, forging a powerful niche in the cycling world with its blend of the more laid-back but challenging gran fondo, the power and speed of road racing, and the good old-fashioned fun of mountain biking. As more and more riders take the plunge and sign up for their first gravel event, they often have questions on how to prepare and train for it.
Just like training for any other event, one of the first steps is to identify the specific demands of gravel cycling. There are generally four:
1. Handling skills
2. High aerobic and muscular endurance
3. Frequent, smaller pace/power changes
How do we train for these demands? Let’s look at each one.
This one is simple enough: train on gravel as much as you possibly can. There is no better way to build the skills required than to practice. And don’t just ride gravel on your easier days; ride it on the harder workout days, too, so you get used to handling at speeds. Also, be aware of the “type of gravel” the event features. Loose and rutted? Hard packed? This will help you both prepare and select the right equipment.
High Aerobic and Muscular Endurance
This demand should shape the core of your training program. Based on your current fitness and ability, I recommend building two or three days a week of both tempo and sweet spot training (SST) into your schedule with some threshold work as you get close to the event.
As an example, let’s say you have five days a week to train. Here’s a sample training schedule of five days per week:
So how much tempo and SST should you do? It depends on multiple factors, but the simplest answer is “as much as you can, then progress it.” Let’s say you can currently do 45 minutes of tempo-paced effort on gravel before you can’t hold power any longer. That’s your starting point; your first tempo workout should include 45 minutes of tempo. After that, I would do a simple two-ride progression, which means that you’ll do two rides with 45 minutes of tempo, then try for 50-60 minutes in your next two workouts. Focus on building duration at tempo until you can complete at least 90 minutes of tempo for someone newer to training and up to 2+ hours for a more experienced rider.
Tempo workouts should be targeted at 80-85% of your FTP, and sweet spot training should be 88-93% of your FTP. As you progress your duration, don’t focus too much on increasing power; you’re better off building your endurance at tempo first. Once you can hold tempo power for your target long duration, start progressing the power targets or move to threshold intervals. For cadence, target 1 or 2 bigger gears than normal, about 10 rpm below your self-selected cadence.
As noted above, gravel riding requires numerous small changes in power output. Building a training program to better adapt to these demands is important. I recommend building this into your tempo and SST days by simple adding some over/under elements to those workouts. What does that mean? Let say you are completing a SST workout of 3 x 15 minutes try adding at 15-30 second “over” at 120% of FTP approximately every 3 minutes to the intervals. You can do the same for tempo but be careful of doing too many as the fatigue from these will build fast so consider breaking down the tempo effort into equal parts and doing the over/under efforts in select parts. For example, if you are doing 60 minutes of tempo, mentally break the effort into 4 x 15 minute segments and make the first and the third “over/under” style.
This one is probably the hardest one to accomplish, because family, work, and other responsibilities often limit the amount of training time we have. Weekdays tend to be especially limited (often 1-2 hours a day), while many of us have a little more flexibility on the weekends. So here’s a tip: duration is a specific demand of gravel events (well, for most gravel events) and should be built as you get closer to the event. During the last 6-8 weeks of your preparation, make one weekend day a progressively longer ride. For example, let’s say you typically ride three hours on Sunday. Starting about 8 weeks prior to your event, find a way to progress that time, adding 15-30 minutes each week. Even just one longer day a week will really help you prepare for the duration demand of a gravel event.
These tips are simple advice, but I hope they help you get started if you are taking the self-coached approach.
Want to learn more about gravel training and racing? I’ve partnered with Factor Bikes and Champion Systems to host a three day gravel camp in Nebraska, where we’ll be teaching gravel skills and training in a personalized setting with some of the coolest bikes around.
Tim Cusick is the TrainingPeaks WKO4 Product Development Leader, specializing in data analytics and performance metrics for endurance athletes. In addition to his role with TrainingPeaks, Tim is a USAC coach with over 10 years experience working with both road and mountain bike professionals around the world. You can reach Tim for comments at email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about TrainingPeaks and WKO4 visit us at TrainingPeaks.com.