What's Cool In Road Cycling

Toolbox: The Long Ride

We ride and race for different reasons, but the baseline is always about riding the bike. Those moments when life responsibilities take a back seat and we just enjoy the road unfolding before us are a form of salvation. Unfortunately, with life running at the pace it does we are often forced to “maximize” our training under shorter time standards than we might otherwise choose, but don’t forget the long ride.

The beauty of the long ride is hard to beat – especially if it just happens to be in a beautiful place like here in Chianti, Italy.

The Rise of Efficiency
The rise of optimized training has been rapid and nearly unimpeded. We have spent many words on this ourselves, nearly always espousing the training benefit of for those who have limited training time. Ride every day with focus, don’t squander those hours.

One of my favorite examples is the difference in overall training stress in a 10-hour week of optimized versus non-optimized training.

The classic Training Stress Score (TSS) model offers 100 points for a maximal 60 minute effort. So if you did 10 hours at max you would have 1000 points for the week. Of course no one can do maximal efforts all day long, so we have to dial down a little, but let’s say you did the prototypical 20 minute warm up and 10 minute warm down per ride and you rode for two hours five times a week. This would mean that you “wasted” 25% of your ride time on minimal TSS activities – such a squander, right?

Polarized Training
Not so fast.

With the start of the New Year many are eager to jump into hard training and get after building some race fitness. We coaches appreciate the work ethic and desire to get fast, but more and more I’ve come to see hard training* as the metaphorical icing on the cake, rather than the daily necessity often pushed by the ‘efficiency’ crowd.

*Hard training defined as above threshold in this case

Yes, focused training is essential for those with very limited schedules (under 10 hours per week), but that focus can range from endurance to “sweet spot” intensities without forcing the athlete into a hole every ride. The use of a polarized approach to training can be a viable alternative for those who may flounder under a constant barrage of threshold and above efforts.

By definition a polarized approach is one where training is split between very very easy efforts and very very hard efforts. Total training volume on a polarized approach is usually above 12 hours per week, but doesn’t have to be, and tends to follow the 80/20 rule – 80% of training time under 2m/mol of lactate and 20% above 4m/mol of lactate as defined by Seiler and Tonneson in 2009. Will this approach work for time limited athletes? I’d argue that it will for those with less than 2 years of focused training on the bike as nearly any imposition of structure – even lower intensity – will pay dividends. But this article isn’t about polarized training, it’s about the long ride.

The Long Ride Returns
So, where is the middle ground? Well, I think it might lie in the long ride. I say that because long rides build you in many ways that shorter rides do not. More total caloric expenditure, more mental toughness, more efficiency. Long rides reset your baseline of what is possible and help you to feel connected to riding in a way that short rides cannot. Long rides are a reward for good planning and a stepping stone to higher fitness. So what do I mean by long? Essentially anything more than 200% of your average ride time – but ideally anything over 4 hours, and occasionally over 5 or 6! Sounds blissful right?

I’ve been fortunate enough to have several rides over five hours this year and feel more connected and “racer” about my training than I have for a few years. It is almost comforting to get on the bike for long periods of time and certainly feels like real ‘training’ at the end of a big block. Big for me is above 15 hours a week, so it’s all relative I suppose. I am lucky that I can do long rides during the week from time to time, I realize that not everyone can. But, with planning, everyone can get in a long ride on one weekend during the month when the weather allows. It’s a question of commitment.

My long ride template is always the same; Start out very very easy and stay there. That goal is easy in the first hour or two, but since most of my long rides include some amount, usually substantial, of climbing, it often comes to pass that I spent long minutes in that “sweet spot” zone anyway. Of course if the ride is long enough the end of the ride is always a physical challenge too. Later in the year, when fitness is better, I’ll add some specific intervals and possibly some HIT work to augment the duration, but for now the mere riding of the miles is enough to push my fitness higher.

Remember to Eat
One thing I’ve noticed on long rides is that I have to think about eating more. On those short 1.5 – 2 hour stints I can get by with little or no food, but not so on a long ride. A couple of week ago we headed out for what would become a five hour ride and I started a bit low on calories. The whole way out to the coast I was just flat and a bit grumpy. Climbing went well, but the headwind flats were killing me.

Fortunately, there was a rest stop at about the half way point! Coffee and a big bear claw were the right solution to get me the rest of the way home, although I was taxed. I wouldn’t trade that ride for anything because we had no agenda, just a route. We had no need to push and could just roll along. I felt no guilt over the bear claw and survived the climbs at roughly 80% of my threshold power, so it was a good training day. In the end I tallied just over 300 TSS and an IF of 0.81, perfect.

As with most things there is more than one way to skin the proverbial cat. Sweet spot and circa-threshold based training has many merits and lots of supporters. Polarized training, low intensity volume alternating with high intensity bouts, is also efficacious when applied appropriately. To those models I’d like to reintroduce the long ride as a viable training alternative. We all got on bikes to explore, enjoy the solitude and reap the physical benefits of our passion – so why not throw down a long ride once a month (or more) and re-visit those days when it hurts less to keep pedaling than to stop!

Seiler, Stephen, and Tonnessen, Epsen. Perspectives in Training: Intervals, Thresholds, and Long Slow Distance. The Role of Intensity and Duration in Endurance Training. Sportscience, 13, 32-53, 2009.

About Matt McNamara: Matt is a USA Cycling Level 1 coach with over 20 years of racing, coaching and team management experience. He is the founder and president of Sterling Sports Group. If you have any questions or comments please feel free to contact him directly at [email protected]. You can learn more by visiting his website at www.sterlingwins.com.

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