Items filtered by date: April 2014
Tuesday, 01 April 2014 00:00


Any sport with events lasting more than a minute or two can be defined as an endurance sport but today I'm going to write about those sports at the more extreme end of the spectrum. Milan Sanremo has been and gone for another year and once again we were treated to that wonderful spectacle of the top pros trying to sprint at the end of 300km in the saddle. MSR is the longest one day race that the professional peloton now races but it hints at a theme that is pervasive throughout both the professional and amateur cycling world - the subtle difference between fitness and endurance. Alexander Kristoff summed it up nicely with his post-race press conference when he said (and I paraphrase), "I would not normally expect to beat Cavendish and Greipel in a sprint but it's different after 300km and I tend not to lose too much power".

So if we think if fitness as the ability to produce a certain amount of power, ie your power at lactate threshold or your power at VO2max for example, then endurance is the ability to maintain that power over a long period of time, or to produce that power at the end of a long ride. It's one of the key factors in deciding professional road races where the result is often decided by a short maximal effort late in a race, but it's also important in amateur races, in sportives (for example the Etape this year finishes with the climb of Hautacam after 150km in the saddle) and also in multistage events where fatigue accumulates through the week. The concept of endurance has been vital in the last few years for some of the PBscience athletes: it's been a key area of focus for Nic who races professionally for Team Vorarlberg, also for the guys and gals we've worked with in preparation for the Haute Route sportive and it goes without saying that endurance played a key role in Pete winning the National vets 24 hour title. Here are some of the strategies that we've used to enable our athletes to produce their best efforts when they count, be that at the end of a tough road race, or several days into a mountainous endurance event.

Consistent mileage - it's hard to look past an accumulation of time in the saddle when it comes to building endurance. An increase in muscle glycogen stores is one of the first adaptations that takes place when you begin a program of endurance training but that tends to max out after 10 weeks or so (Griewe, 1999). We're also looking for a homogeneity of muscle fibres - as you fatigue a set of motor units, you're forced to recruit new fibres that initially may not be as well conditioned as the slow twitch fibres that are the first port of call. It takes a little while to develop the condition in the whole muscle bed so that you don't get wild ups and downs during a long ride. And having spoken about maximising carbohydrate stores, another fuelling issue is the need to become fat adapted, that is to develop the ability to efficiently use fat as a fuel in order to preserve your precious carbohydrate stores until later in the race.

Nutrition - beyond simply riding your bike, a little care can be taken with fuelling to improve or speed the adaptations we're looking for. For example fasted riding or train low race high is a strategy that can be used to aid process of fat adaptation. Of course beyond that, 60-80g of CHO per hour during the race itself is vital to keep stores topped up.

Specific training - I guess the most specific ride you can do in this situation is the long base ride. By long I mean efforts in excess of 3 hours as going beyond this duration places a demand on fuelling beyond the stored glycogen in your muscles/liver/etc. There's something about a 5 or 6 hour training ride that seems to cause an adaptation that is hard to replicate! In terms of a progression, or if you're short on time, you could try a 'tempo finale' or a 'tempo sandwich' (makes me hungry just thinking about it), or a very specific workout for road racers is to complete high intensity intervals at the end of a long ride. Alternatively, if you're fitting training around work, a steady endurance ride in the morning followed by intervals in the evening is a popular way of learning to make a hard effort when fatigued (or atleast not fully recovered).

Weight training - the jury remains out on whether strength training improves cycling performance and the sports science research isn't too enlightening in that respect in my opinion. There are an abundance of studies that are open to criticism; for example studies involving:

  • strength programs involving nothing but leg extensions (who would do that in reality?!)
  • untrained participants
  • unmatched total workloads between strength and non strength training groups
  • etc

That said, there have been a few good studies such as those by Bent Ronnestad that I think do carry weight in this area. One such study for example tested the effect of adding strength training to endurance training on a five minute all out effort. Interestingly for the purpose of this blog, the five minute effort was completed after 185 minutes of endurance riding to simulate the latter stages of a road race. Sure enough strength training improved average power in the strength plus endurance training group by almost 30W. Performance improvements aside, anecdotedly I've found that some element of strength training does allow for improved comfort on the bike on very long rides, whether that's improved core strength, addressing muscle balances or just an increased level of general conditioning I'm not sure but it's a mental boost to know you've ticked another box. Wishing you'd devoted some time to a core program is quite distracting in the 9th hour of a 12 hour ride for example!

Pacing - the above strategies are all ways to improve your endurance, but there is also much you can do in practise to make best use of that endurance. Avoiding hard efforts early in a ride will protect muscle glycogen stores that can be called on later in the ride. The perfect example for this is in road racing where top riders will give themselves sliding room on climbs. If you start the climb at the front of the bunch, you may be able to ride a hill 30s slower than the rest of the riders and still retain contact with the back of the bunch as you summit. It's risky if you think the race might split but otherwise you can move back up when the race eases off having saved yourself a few watts on the climb. Alternatively if you can't climb for toffee then this might help you stay in contact on a hilly course but that's a topic for another day.

Tracking improvements - the scientific method requires that we quantify endurance in some way to ensure that we're actually making improvements. Aerobic decoupling or cardiac drift is one way to assess your endurance (see Helen's presentation below or our factsheet on decoupling). Alternatively, something I've used a little more is a specific performance test where the athlete is required to produce a max effort over a set duration at the end of a long ride. For example, try completing your 20 minute FTP test after a three hour zone 2 ride, or ride a 5 minute VO2max type effort at the end of your long ride. You can come up with something that matches the demands of your event, but make it repeatable.


Published in Blog