By Reid Beloni,
CTS Senior Coach
We are about 12 weeks from SBT GRVL, which might be your first gravel race ever, or after last year, it might just seem like your first. In fact, it will be the first big event on my calendar since SBT GRVL in 2019! To help you (and me) get ready, I will break down what we should be doing over the coming weeks to set the stage for having a great race. We will look at assessing fitness and skills, and coming up with a plan that addresses the unique demands of long gravel races, including nutrition and equipment.
Assessment (14-12 weeks out):
The first thing that will set you up for success is to analyze your starting point. What is your fitness like right now? What are your strengths and weaknesses, and how do they complement the demands of the event? To get a baseline idea of your fitness level, I recommend doing a CTS Field Test or INSCYD Test. Both of these tests are designed to provide you with accurate power and/or heart rate training ranges for performing intervals.
Additionally, assessing your baseline endurance is vitally important for an event like SBT GRVL. To do this, plan out a course that is 20 percent longer than your typical weekend long ride (bonus points if the terrain is similar to the event). Do the ride, and take notes on what went well and what didn’t. Did you lose steam halfway through? Did your stomach get upset? Did your upper body fatigue because of the bumpy terrain? Repeat this process periodically in the weeks leading up to the event so you know how your training is adding to what works and minimizing what doesn’t.
Planning (12-10 weeks out):
Now that you know the current state of your fitness and preparedness, you can start to lay out a training plan. A structure that works well for many time-crunched athletes is to focus on a combination of interval workouts during the week and longer rides on the weekend. If you don’t know what intervals you should be doing, take a look at these free SBT GRVL training plans from CTS, which are scaled by intensity and time. You may need to modify the provided plans based based on your individual strengths and weaknesses and other events on your calendar, but overall your plan should progress from general to more specific as you approach the event. Additionally, your preparation should include a focus on skills for riding gravel, gravel-specific workouts, long rides, and nutrition.
Skills (10-7 weeks out):
While you are still doing rides and workouts that are more generalized (the race-specific workouts come closer to the event), it’s a good time to start addressing technical skills. I have seen that a lot of time-crunched endurance racers tend to focus a lot on structured interval training––and for good reason––but they often leave some extra speed or confidence on the table by not working on technical skills. Ideally, spend at least one day a week riding on gravel, and spend some of that ride paying attention to what you are doing well and what you can improve upon. For some concrete tips, Coach Nina Laughlin wrote this post about how to work on your gravel riding skills.
Gravel Specific Workouts (7-4 weeks out):
The closer you get to race day, the more gravel-specific your workouts should become, which will really help you reach the next level in your event performance. Even if you primarily train on the road or indoor trainer, there are ways of replicating the different demands gravel presents, such as pedaling at lower cadence and higher torque. Modify your existing workouts to make them more gravel-specific by using a lower range of cadences, training into headwinds, and accelerating from low speeds against heavy resistance. Off the bike, consider doing some basic upper body strength work, like pushups, pullups, overhead presses, and tricep dips. Check out this article on training for gravel which includes more on how to do long rides, mixed surface training, and different workouts that are great for gravel.
Long Rides (4-1 weeks out):
During your training plan you should have already been increasing your weekend mileage, but it really becomes important in the final 4 weeks. On the weekends, your ride time should progress from within your comfort zone by about 10% per week until you are approaching your goal distance. Ideally, these long rides should be on gravel so you can pull together your road/trainer fitness with the gravel skills and gravel-specific fitness you have been developing over the previous 8 weeks. As a rule of thumb, if your race duration is within what you would normally do on an endurance ride, then your long endurance rides will be the same time as your goal race duration. If you normally do a 3-4 hour Saturday ride and you think you can do the Red Course in 4 hours, then you’ll want to stick with 3-4 hour long rides. If your goal race is much longer than your normal weekend rides, then you will work up to training rides that are about 75% of your goal race time. So, if you normally do 3-4 hour Saturday rides and think the Black Course is going to take 10 hours, then your longest training rides need to be about 7-7.5 hours.
A note on Mental Toughness:
Your longest long rides are more useful from an experiential standpoint than a physical training standpoint. It is during these long rides where you really begin to figure out what challenges you, and how to push through those challenges. For most people doing the longer routes at SBT GRVL, or any long gravel race, you will be spending considerable amounts of time alone. It is wise to ride with people and share the work when you can, but eventually people spread apart and end up on their own. You’ll likely be alone with your thoughts, your pacing, and your nutrition. Preparing yourself for the solitude by learning what negative thoughts tend to creep in for you. How you work through those challenging dark spots is vital for success on event day. Use these long rides to develop resilience and fortitude, and remember that something will go wrong with everyone’s race plan. Being adaptable and resilient in the face of those unforeseen challenges is what separates the most successful racers from the rest.
Nutrition (4-1 week out):
Regardless of what course you decide to challenge yourself with, nutrition will be an important part of your race and should be an important part of your training. While good nutrition is important throughout your training program, you should put your event-specific nutrition strategy to the test during the final 4 weeks of long rides. Eating and drinking hundreds of calories, every hour, for several hours as you pedal over mountains and rough terrain is a challenge on its own. Fortunately, the gut is trainiable, and if you start working towards your nutrition plan now, you will be able to really dial it in during the final 4 weeks so you know what foods and fluids work for you, how much you can take in without causing stomach upset, and how to modify your nutrition and hydration strategy based on changes in heat, sweat rate, and exertion. Here are some rules of thumb for you to start with, as well as a comprehensive guide to eating and drinking on the bike:
- Start eating and drinking early, as you are guaranteed to be out on course for a long time and you don’t want to get behind in either calories or hydration status.
- Drink 20-24 oz per hour, this can be water or mix or a combination of both. Increase as needed if temperatures increase.
- Eat 150-300 calories per hour, or 25-30% of the calories (roughly equivalent to kilojoules for the sake of your strategy) you are burning on your long rides. Your food can be bars, blocks, gels or a combination of all of these.
- Be aware of your event’s aid stations and what will be available at them.
A note on Equipment:
Equipment is another important piece of the puzzle for long gravel races. The gearing and tires that you use at home might work well for SBT GRVL, but for many people SBT GRVL will present some new challenges that might warrant different equipment. I can’t tell you what setup will be perfect for you, but I can give you some advice that will help guide you to making good choices.
For the type of terrain at SBT GRVL, a narrower and faster rolling tire is usually a good starting point because most of the gravel is fairly hard-packed and fast. However, if you need more cushioning for comfort to ward off fatigue later in the ride, you may want a higher volume tire. If you struggle with how gravel bikes slide on loose surfaces, you may choose a tire with more grip, even if there’s a cost in terms of rolling resistance. There is no perfect tire that is fastest for everyone. The best tire for you is the one that behaves how you want it to.
The same can be said for all of your equipment choices. Start spending some time on your gravel bike, and pay attention to how it feels and how you want it to feel. Start making choices with tires, gearing, clothing, and bike fit that are specific to you and your goals at SBT GRVL. If you are aware of how your bike is set up and how it’s going to perform, you’ll go to the race with more confidence and a bike that matches your race strategy.
Bonus tip on enjoying the experience!
Twelve weeks out is also a good time to start looking into your logistics for race weekend. Steamboat is a special place, which makes it all the more worthwhile to take in some extracurricular activities while you are in town. Look into staying for a few days before or after the race to explore what else Steamboat has to offer. Plus, giving yourself some extra time on the ground before the event can help calm the nerves before race day. In 2019 I missed riding on the Mountain Coaster and I won’t let that happen again this year!