By Nina Laughlin,
CTS Expert Coach, 2019 Land Run 100 Champion & 5th place SBT GRVL
Once the excitement of registering for a great new gravel race has subsided, the reality sets in that you have committed to a major challenge. Most gravel races are 100-200 miles long, and with lower average speeds than road events, many riders need to be prepared for many long hours on the bike. Training for a gravel race shares a lot in common with training for road or endurance mountain bike events, but there are some unique differences you need to prepare for. While this article doesn’t include specific training plans (you can check some out here) here are some answers to big questions CTS Coaches get asked again and again when it comes to training for gravel racing.
Long Range Training Schedule
While the field of gravel racing is relatively new, the demands these events place on the body are not novel, and the training methodology we use for gravel is similar to other disciplines. One of the first things you need to think about when planning out your training for a big gravel event is timing and periodization. Knowing when to schedule process-goal events, when to focus on riding the greatest volume in your training, and when to begin your taper are important in sketching out how your training will evolve in the months leading into your big event.
Process Goals and Training Races
Process goal races, or “B” races, can serve as trial runs ahead of your main “A” race goal. This is important because it allows you to test your equipment, nutrition, skills, and mental tactics in a race setting ahead of your goal event. These events can also serve as a good training day on the bike, and can be a good way to boost confidence if everything goes smoothly. If things go badly, B races teach you what you need to change in order to be successful when your A race rolls around. Ultimately, you should shape your gravel race calendar around one or two A races, and select a handful of B races to include for training and experience. As far as timing goes, your final B race should be around four to eight weeks before your A race. This timeframe gives you an idea of your fitness level while also giving you enough time to make some changes before the main event if necessary.
Train General to Specific
Once you’ve chosen your calendar you can think about how to structure your training and workout blocks around those races. Typically, a good plan is to start with more general workouts and move to more specific workouts as you get closer to your main event(s). For example, if your gravel race is 150 miles, the most race-specific demand is the ability to tap out a steady pace for many hours. As a result, you may start your training plan with more high-intensity intervals and move toward more Endurance and Tempo-based work as you get closer to your event. In contrast, if your race is 50 miles, you may do the opposite and start with Endurance and Tempo and move to high-intensity intervals because the physical demands of the race will favor high power outputs and repeatable hard efforts.
Plan Your High-Volume and Taper Periods
The next thing to think about is when to schedule your higher-volume weeks and when to taper. Volume in training is an important aspect of any solid cycling plan, but it is especially crucial in gravel racing, where 100+ mile races are the norm. A week or even 3-4 days of high-volume back to back rides can have a significant impact on boosting fitness and getting the body adjusted to long hours on the bike. If you are like most Time-Crunched Athletes and have a full-time job and limited hours to train, creating time for a long endurance block will take some creative scheduling. If you have the luxury of choosing when to fit in your higher volume training, then around 4 weeks out is a good time to schedule a challenging week or long weekend of high-volume training. That way, you can expose your body to greater training stimulus than normal to prime the body for peak fitness, and then transition into some lower-volume, higher-intensity training as you begin to taper for your event. Tapering for a big race can be an art on its own, so if you are unsure how to arrive at the start line with the perfect amount of fitness and freshness, be sure to check out this article which describes pre-event tapers in detail.
Train for Early Intensity
Two of the most appealing aspects of gravel racing are the mass start and mixed peloton. The gun goes off, and men and women of all abilities are in the same field as World Tour pros. This chaos and community are some of what makes gravel awesome, but they can also make for a very hard start before the race breaks up.
From my experience and analysis of many power files from my athletes, it’s clear most gravel races follow a pretty similar intensity pattern:
- The first hour is often the highest normalized power output, whether you’re in the front or the back.
- Due to the surface, there will be more pedaling – even when drafting in a group – compared to road or mountain bike events. This can lead to an increase in hourly energy expenditure compared to what you’re accustomed to. You will spend roughly half of the race in your endurance range, and the other half will be spent at higher intensities, but only a small fraction of time will be spent coasting.
- You will spend a lot of time riding at Tempo (up to 25% of the race!), and a lot of time dipping above your lactate threshold.
The goal is to be able to meet the early demands without having to dig deep into your energy reserves. You want to be able to start fast, but many people over-extend themselves trying to stay in a fast group early on and end up paying for that effort hours later. To get a good start and ride strong later on, you want to maximize your sustainable power for long efforts. You should devote 2-3 days per week to medium- and high-intensity workouts, including Tempo, Steady State, and Power Interval work. Tempo (moderately hard aerobic intensity) is extremely important for gravel racing because you may spend hours riding at this intensity over the course of a long gravel race.
Train for the Long Haul
Good quality Tempo work means riding prolonged intervals (20-60 minutes, depending on fitness level) at a pace above your conversational endurance pace but below lactate threshold. Because Tempo is a challenging but sustainable intensity, athletes can accumulate a lot more time at this pace – compared to higher intensity intervals – before getting too fatigued to continue. Accumulating time at this intensity is extremely effective, as it also elevates power at endurance and lactate threshold paces.
Tempo work can be a workout on its own (a 2-hour ride with 3×20 minute Tempo Intervals, separated by 10 minutes recovery) or Tempo can be incorporated at the end of long endurance rides or after a set of harder intervals to simulate the late-race demands of a long gravel event. An example might be a 3-hour ride that includes 3x10minute lactate threshold intervals, 10-15 minutes of recovery after that interval set, and then 30-45 minutes at Tempo intensity on the way home.
Train for Soft Surfaces
If you’ve ever been bogged down in deep sand or mud, or felt your tires slip on a climb with loose gravel, then you’ll know that being able to muscle your way through high-torque, low-cadence situations is key to gravel success. Two workouts that can help develop more power for high torque are MuscleTension intervals and PowerStarts. MuscleTension intervals are seated, low-cadence intervals (50-55 rpm) best performed on a slight uphill grade (can be performed on a trainer, too). These intervals help develop power for high torque efforts, particularly by increasing engagement the glutes, for low cadence efforts like climbing or riding through sand and mud.
- To try it, do 5×5 minutes of MuscleTension (50-55 rpm, big gear, seated) followed by 5 minutes of recovery between intervals. Make sure to focus on keeping your upper body and core strong and concentrate on maintaining a smooth pedal stroke.
PowerStarts are essentially big-gear accelerations (8-12 seconds) that start from a near standstill and work to increase muscular power. They are traditionally performed on a flat road.
- To try it, start from a very slow speed in a very hard gear. Jump up on the pedals, out of the saddle, driving the pedals down as hard as possible. Pull on the handlebars using the leverage to move your body over each pedal as you drive the pedal downward. The PowerStart should not last longer than 8-10 pedal strokes or 8-12 seconds. Recover for 7-10 minutes and shoot for 5 to 8 reps.
How Long for the Longest Training Rides?
One thing people often fixate on when training for a gravel race is how long their longest training ride should be compared to the distance of their race. In short, riding 140 miles in a single training ride before SBT GRVL (also 140 miles) may not actually be the smartest use of your training hours. While long rides are important, consistency in training and overall fitness are much more important than the specific length of one training ride. If you are doing a long event and are anxious about the distance, then read this article on the purpose and recommendations for your longest of long rides.
Training on Gravel vs. Pavement
Once you have your races planned and a general idea of your workout schedule, you will probably start to wonder how much of your training should take place on gravel roads. Riding gravel regularly can sharpen your bike handling skills and improve upper body strength, but it can also detract from the quality of your workouts if the effort of staying upright reduces your focus and ability to maintain consistent intensities. If you have gravel nearby to train on, then aiming for around 2 gravel rides per week is a good place to start.
You may find you can sustain higher power outputs on gravel than on the road. If this is the case, then doing intervals on gravel can produce quality intervals and give you a feel for riding gravel at race speed. However, if you have a lot of rolling hills where it is hard to sustain power for intervals, you may find that it makes more sense to do your intervals on the road and dedicate your Endurance rides to gravel.
Gravel Training Tricks of the Trade
If you are reading this and panicking because you signed up for a gravel race and you have no gravel in your area to train on, fear not! I have some tricks that can help mimic the physiological adaptations that you may gain from riding gravel often:
- Incorporate more climbing into your training, or ride into a headwind if you live somewhere flat. Gravel races tend to be lower cadence than equivalent events on the road, so spending a lot of time climbing or riding into a headwind can mimic that lower-cadence grind so your body will adapt.
- Tempo Intervals at lower cadences. Similar to the previous bullet point, doing your long Tempo efforts at 70-75rpm will condition your body to be more comfortable at lower cadences.
- Go mountain biking. Riding trails requires similar stabilizing muscles to riding gravel. If you live near some mountain bike trails, try to incorporate at least 1-2 trail rides per week to get your body used to the jarring nature of gravel. Don’t be afraid to ride a drop-bar bike on moderate singletrack, too.
- Do some upper body and core strength training. Gravel racing can be hard on the upper body and lower back. Even if you train on gravel regularly, you can benefit from incorporating some simple upper body and core exercises into your training twice a week. Shoot for exercises that target the triceps, lower back, trapezius, and forearms.
Although a training plan and specific workouts are a big part of the picture in preparing for a gravel event, there are still several other factors to consider if you want to truly race at your best.
Nina Laughlin is a CTS Expert Coach with an extensive history in road, mountain, and gravel racing. Following two years away from competition, she returned to win the 2019 Land Run 100 and place 5th in the 2019 SBT GRVL race. Nina lives and coaches in Brevard, North Carolina. For information on coaching and camps, visit trainright.com.