russell finsterwald

How Russell Finsterwald Won Big Sugar Gravel and 3rd Place in the Lifetime Gran Prix

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Catching up with gravel and mountain bike pro Russell Finsterwald is no easy feat. He even goes on vacation fast.

The day after winning the final major gravel cycling race of the 2022 season, Big Sugar in Bentonville, Arkansas, and finishing third overall in the Lifetime Gran Prix, Finsterwald flew directly to Mexico for some well-deserved down time. For perhaps the first time all year, he didn’t take a bike. With the season over, he shipped his bike back to Colorado and went to Mexico with nothing to distract him from the sand, surf, street tacos. I caught up with him a few days later to talk about his season, working with his longtime CTS Coach Jim Lehman, and what age group gravel racers can learn from the riders at the pointy end of the pack.

 

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Transition from Mountain Bike to Gravel

Like many of the best gravel racers, Russell Finsterwald transitioned to gravel following a successful career in other cycling disciplines. He is a 5-time US National Champion, including the 2019 XC Marathon National Championship. Earlier in his career he won a U23 American Continental Championship in 2012, and more recently he won the 2021 American Continental Championship with Team USA as part of the Team Relay.

The transition to away from short track and cross-country mountain bike racing began after the 2019 season. That year, Russell and a few other mountain bike racers traveled the world to earn UCI points to qualify an additional starting position for Team USA at the Tokyo Olympics. In the end, their efforts fell short. With the Olympics out of reach, and a desire for change and new adventures, Russell gravitated to gravel races and longer mountain bike competitions, like the Pikes Peak APEX and Breck Epic mountain bike stage races.

 

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When the inaugural Lifetime Gran Prix was announced for 2022, Russell was one of the 28 men selected to compete in the 6-race series, consisting of the Sea Otter Classic, Unbound Gravel, Crusher in the Tushar, Leadville Race Series, Chequamegon MTB Festival, and Big Sugar.

Serious Training for Fun Events

The laid-back vibe of the gravel scene belies how seriously the athletes at the front of the peloton take their training and performance. Because although the “spirit of gravel” lends itself to greater camaraderie among the competitors, the events are brutally difficult, and money and livelihoods are on the line. Russell built the foundation of his training for the 2022 season in the winter through big blocks of high-volume endurance rides in Tucson, Arizona.

“These gravel races are almost a competition of who can hold 300 watts the longest,” Russell told me. “So, to get ready for that I did a lot more volume and a lot more Sweetspot work than before. It was a lot of 7- and 8-hour rides in the winter, which was exciting for me. I’d rather go ride my bike for 7 hours and go see more places than do sets of VO2 intervals.”

Coach Jim Lehman confirmed the ultralong adventure rides were a good fit for Russell’s personality and training maturity. “Some athletes struggle to stay engaged and motivated for really long rides. Russell thrives on them because he enjoys the adventure aspect of it,” Jim said. “He has also been training for many years so he has the durability to handle a very high workload. With other athletes I take different approaches, but those big rides work for Russell.”

 

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Russell’s winter training blocks started with one 7-hour ride every two weeks early on, interspersed with shorter endurance rides and interval workouts. In the leadup to June’s Unbound Gravel race, the frequency of long rides increased, culminating in a two-week block featuring 3-4 seven-plus hour rides per week and total weekly hours of 33-35 hours on the bike.

High Intensity Matters, Too

Ultradistance athletes may spend the majority of their competitions at relatively moderate intensity levels, but race-winning moves require high-performance fitness. On top of that, high-end fitness (i.e. high VO2 max value, high Functional Threshold Power as a percentage of VO2 max power, high anaerobic capacity, and high FTP) increases an athlete’s sustainable effort level. It means maintaining the pace of the front group less taxing, or extends the length of time an athlete can hold that pace.

For intensity, Russell’s favorite workout is “40/20s”. These are all-out efforts for 40 seconds, with very short 20-second recovery periods between them. “I really like those. I seem to be able to hit good power numbers because you can just focus on those 40 seconds,” Russell said. “The 3-minute intervals… that’s a long time to focus. The 40/20s appeal to me, and they apply well to gravel racing, because it’s lot of surging rather than sustained attacks.”

How the Blocks Were Built

“I noticed Jim would give me more intensity early on in blocks, when you’re still fresh and can get peak numbers. Then it would transition into Sweetspot, and then by the end we were just doing endurance,” Russell explained. A typical training pattern might include two back-to-back days of interval training, followed immediately by two big days of endurance rides, then one or two rest days.

On days when Jim and Russell were after a mix of intensity and endurance, they relied on Tucson’s iconic “Shootout” group ride when Russell was in town. He would start with the intensity of the Shootout, then continue after to rack up the hours and miles for endurance work.

Russell’s Game-Changing Nutrition Strategy

Russell Finsterwald owes much of his success in the Lifetime Gran Prix to his stomach. To fuel the effort required to “hold 300 watts as long as possible”, he trained his gut to handle consumption of 100-120 grams of carbohydrate PER HOUR! For comparison’s sake, the standard recommendation for carbohydrate consumption is 40-60 grams/hour during endurance exercise.

Consuming 400-480 calories of carbohydrate per hour for 5+ hours – without experiencing gastric distress – is astonishing. It’s also difficult to physically accomplish. That’s a lot of food and fluid. Russell used those long endurance rides to experiment with foods he would be interested in eating consistently, that he could digest, and that he could carry or obtain.

For races, he says he consumes about 75% of his calories from drink mix, frequently by using Never Second or Carbo Rocket in his hydration pack. (Note: CTS has no affiliation with either Never Second or Carbo Rocket, although Never Second is available through TheFeed.com) “For a really hot race, take Unbound for example, I had all my drink mix in the Camelbak,” said Russell. “That way I wouldn’t lose my nutrition if I lost a bottle. And in my bottles, I just had water and some electrolytes. I think it’s important to have plain water or water with electrolytes, especially on hot days.”

Russell’s Tips for Age-Group Gravel Racers

Russell’s blocks of 7-hour endurance rides are not specifically applicable to most age-group competitors, but many of the principles behind his training are essential for all gravel racers. Here are some of the tips he has for age-groupers and first timers.

Overall Tip: Take your preparation seriously

“In some races we catch the shorter distances toward the end of our race, and there are a lot of people suffering out there. You see people with both legs locked up, completely cramped on the side of the road. Similarly, lots of people are motivated to stay with the lead group as long as possible, because it’s almost a free ride. But the second you’re dropped… I think that’s when a lot of people realize, ‘Oh, I went too deep for those 30 miles and now I’m going to pay for it.’ Gravel racing is lots of fun, but you have be ready for it and it’s more fun when you’re well prepared,” he said.

Training Tip: Focus on consistency

“Consistency in training is key when races are that long. You have to allow your body to adapt to training week in and week out. I feel like a lot of age groupers I see are super motivated for two weeks and they smash it, then they take two weeks off to recover or because they’re busy. Ideally, they’d be better off doing less on a weekly basis but sticking with it week after week.”

Skills Tip: Get a feel for sliding around

“Mountain bike skills translate really well. All the mountain bikers, we seem to get a lot of benefit from our skills. Every descent we seem to pull 10 seconds or so on all the other guys. The guys with road backgrounds aren’t comfortable with their tires sliding around. So, I’d say rip around the trails on your mountain bike if you have one, and get a feel for what it’s like to have your tires sliding around underneath you. Don’t be afraid to take your gravel bike places that seem questionable. Today’s gravel bikes are very capable; you can ride some gnarly stuff on them. And a gravel bike can make a kind-of-boring green or blue mountain bike trail really interesting.”

Nonetheless, you don’t have to do this…

 

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Nutrition Tip: Mix up what you’re eating

“It’s really easy to get stuck with something that tastes good in the moment and works for you, but eventually you experience flavor fatigue or that food stops working for you. So, consume several different things, including solid foods, drink mix, gels, sandwiches, and snack foods.”

Even burritos…

 

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By Jim Rutberg,
CTS Pro Coach, co-author of “Ride Inside“, “The Time-Crunched Cyclist”, and “Training Essentials for Ultrarunning


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Comments 1

  1. Thank you, enjoyed your story. Not being a mountain biker ever, very true, it’s the going down that separates us.
    Looking for any suggestions for desert touring , gravel roads from Southern California to Phoenix, than to Albuquerque?
    Long may we ride! Dr Jabb.☮️🌎🚴

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