Endurance Training is Boring? Are You Kidding?

More and more scientific evidence piles up in favor of training programs that are heavy on high-volume, sub-threshold endurance work and light on harder efforts. Studies of elite and world-champion runners, cyclists and cross-country skiers show that they typically spend around 90 percent of their annual training hours at less than 85 percent of their maximum heart rates, and often lower. Most of the remainder are done well above lactate threshold.

endurance ride on tree lined path - Get Faster - Wenzel CoachingStudies on the effects of different training regimens in beginning athletes show that those who do a lot of aerobic base training and a small amount of above threshold training perform better than those who do a lot of time near LT. Even riders who train only a few days per week see more gains in power at threshold and VO2 Max if they do most of their hours as aerobic endurance and perhaps ten percent of the their total training anywhere near or above lactate threshold.

The old “no pain, no gain” wisdom is being replaced with “more pain, less gain.” You have to do your hours, but most of them should be at a mellow pace. Hard training is important too, but a little bit goes a long way.

As the evidence in favor of aerobic base training accumulated, products and methods appeared to make aerobic training less boring. For indoor training, you can watch videos while you ride. Outdoors, you can wear a music player or watch power numbers and speed as you pedal along. Lots of things can distract you from the supposed monotony of endurance training, but such efforts are completely misguided.

Endurance training done well is anything but boring – there’s simply too much to think about.

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Practice Makes Habits

Research in the past decades has shown that elite performers in most high-skill activities accumulate upwards of 10,000 hours of training before they reach the world elite level. In the last few years though, it became clear that it is not simply the volume of training, but also the quality that matters. No one gets to be good without putting in the time, but the time doesn’t help much unless the training is specifically designed to develop essential skills.

In order to improve performance, training must be performed mindfully. You have to think about what excellent performance looks like and feels like and constantly strive towards that. Otherwise training will solidify bad habits rather than forge new, better ones.

Complacent or distracted training wastes opportunity. Training undertaken with attention to specific details and areas for improvement brings the greatest gains. There are dozens if not hundreds of things you have to do right, even during a routine bit of endurance training, to reach the elite level in cycling.

Things to Think About

There are so many things to attend to during endurance training rides, that your mind will be busy most of the time. If you are relatively new to cycling, the thinking will mostly be at a conscious level. If you have a few years of experience, a lot of this stuff will be tracked subconsciously, but still, the mind will be busy processing thoughts.

I’m about to list a bunch of things that riders should consider, consciously or unconsciously, when they endurance train. Some apply when training alone outdoors or on a trainer. Others apply only when training outdoors or only when in a group. The most important considerations for any given rider will depend entirely on an athlete’s current abilities.

Is Your Head in the Right Space?

Before riding, check your emotional state, and continuously monitor during each ride. You can’t do a good endurance ride if you are tense, angry, frustrated or scared. Those emotions dominate your mind and keep you from being aware of more important details of riding style, position, and so on.

If you have any strong negative feelings, take a few deep breaths and some time to let them pass before performing your main training set. If those feelings return later in the ride – after a driver cuts you off for instance or you almost slide out – take some deep breaths and let the tension go before you continue your ride.

Relaxation

Success in bike racing is all about efficiency, directing energy where it is needed and never wasting it. Tension anywhere in the body ¬– other than the muscles that power the bike or that provide a stable foundation for those power muscles,– wastes energy. Even the muscles that drive the pedals should be relaxed between power cycles. Check yourself from toes to head for any unnecessary tension. If you find any, take a deep breath and relax that body part. Once finished, recheck again, starting from the toes, or choose your own sequence so long as you monitor the whole body often enough to keep the tension down.

While you are checking your body for tension, also check for pain or awkward movements. Are any muscles or joints getting sore? Are muscles getting tired? Is there any chaffing? Jerkiness? Are shoes fitting well? Cleats letting your lower legs take a neutral rotational position? Tension that keeps coming back even after you remind yourself to relax is often a sign of a cleat, shoe or bike fit problem. If anything doesn’t feel right, either stop and fix it or make a mental note to take care of it before the next ride.

Warm Up and Cool Down

A good warm up makes the body stronger and more efficient. It also increases endurance compared to going hard without a good warm up. The length of warm up needed depends on how hard you are riding, how much you’ve been riding recently and other variables. Of course you don’t want to warm up a lot more than you need to, since that wastes time and energy.

As you warm up, and throughout a ride, pay attention to how your legs feel. Keep track of how they need to feel before you go hard. Identify the feelings of being well warmed up so you can know when you are at that point before races.

There may be days when the good feeling never comes – when for one reason or another your legs are sore or tired, Be aware of those feelings. Soreness or fatigue means that you will benefit more from a recovery day than from more training.

Cool down helps speed recovery better than jumping off the bike after hard effort. Pay attention to how you feel during cool down so you’ll know when you’ve done enough.

Body Position

On a trainer or outdoors when you are not going fast, it’s tempting to sit high since there is no wind resistance to overcome, but this strengthens a bad habit. You should ride with your hands in the drops and elbows bent often enough to prepare for riding long distances in that position. Are you keeping your shoulders low, elbows bent and elbows and knees in tight to reduce aerodynamic drag? Is your head high enough that you can see where you are going but not higher? If not, make corrections. If you can’t get in a good low position and comfortably stay there, make a note to have your bike fit checked.

Pedaling Efficiently?

Many riders waste piles of matches pushing unnecessarily large gears. Pushing big gears at low cadence a day or two per week develops power and the ability to push bigger gears in races, but making power at cadences below 90 rpm (other than when soft pedaling) brings unnecessary fatigue. Therefore, unless you are already a fabulous spinner, do most of your endurance training at the highest cadence you can sustain really smoothly and with good power.

Staying in the optimal gear requires checking in every few seconds to see if a shift is needed. One of the big differences I see between beginners and better riders when I take them for assessment rides is the frequency of shifting gears in changing wind or terrain. Elite riders shift with tiny changes in conditions, where beginners tend to plow along for much longer in the same gear.

Dropping the heel during the down stroke, leaving the weight of the back foot on the pedal during the upstroke, and actually pulling up against the back pedal are all bad habits that rob you of power. Consider the following repeatedly as you ride:. Are you driving the pedal with the ball of the foot during the entire down stroke, starting by pushing forward over the top and finishing by scraping your boot at the bottom? Are you completely unweighting the rising pedal but not pulling up? Until you are an expert, smooth spinner, check in on these questions frequently and make corrections.

Are you staying smooth, relaxed and efficient when riding harder or climbing? You do want to engage some core and upper body muscle when making more power, but not so that you perform pushups on the bars. Bobbing the upper body wastes energy, even if it makes you feel powerful. Be sure to avoid it.

Taking Care of the Body

Training efficiency drops rapidly when you are glycogen depleted or dehydrated. That doesn’t mean you should constantly guzzle sports drink or stuff your face while riding, but it does mean you need to pay attention to how much you eat and how often. Most riders do well with a big bite of something high in carbs every 15- 20-minutes, adding up to somewhere around 175-350 Calories per hour depending on body size, fitness and work rate.

Between one and three water bottles per hour may be needed depending on the heat of the day. You have to figure out how much fuel and fluid you need and make sure you are on schedule to get it. Eating and drinking appropriate amounts at the appropriate frequency is a habit that must be practiced until not doing it feels weirder than doing it.

It’s not enough to be able to eat and drink on an easy ride or at calm moments. You must be able eat and drink even during a long series of attacks, on a climb, while descending or on a twisty stretch. Make your fueling and drinking schedule and stick to it no matter where you are on a training ride.

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While checking comfort and eating and drinking, be sure to ask your stomach how it is doing. Keep track of whether any particular foods or drinks cause problems so you can avoid them in races. Keep track of what foods and how much makes your belly feel good. If you can’t keep your tummy happy with the current amount of calories or energy intake, make a note to seek out some new options.

Training efficiency also falls rapidly if you overheat or become too cold, so while you are checking everything else, check your temperature. If you are wet with sweat, your body is struggling to cool itself. Blood that could be carrying oxygen to muscles is instead carrying heat to your skin. On a hot day that may be unavoidable, but if you have any clothing left to strip, strip it before you really sweat. If you have plain water, spray yourself when you start getting hot. Those two habits can win or lose a race.

Cold muscles are weaker and less efficient than warm ones. Keeping the body at a good temperature boosts power and endurance in races, but you won’t remember to strip or add garments in the heat of battle, or even know what to wear, if you don’t make a habit of checking temperature and changing clothing in training.

Working on Skills

Every corner you take is an opportunity to work on efficient cornering. Every ride with another rider is an opportunity to improve your drafting and close riding skills. Every ride, solo or group, is an opportunity to work on being smooth rather than surging, riding a line rather than wobbling and riding defensively rather than making yourself a victim. Every stop sign or light is an opportunity to improve your track-stand. Every pothole or manhole cover is an opportunity to work on your bunny-hop. Stay aware of your surroundings, even as you are aware of what’s going on all over your body. Practice the skills that go with what you see.

Training Intensity

We’re deep into this article and we still haven’t even touched on how hard you are training, so yeah, along with everything else, make sure you are making the right heart rate or power. Check back often enough to be sure to stay in zone. If you tend to drift up a lot, check in frequently. If you tend to drift below the endurance-training zone, you have your zone set too high, or you are tired and should be taking a recovery day rather than pushing yourself.

Avoid Distractions

With so many things to repeatedly check in on, most riders find it almost impossible to do a good training ride while listening to tunes or watching video, while a very few are so distractible that they need tunes to block out all the other noise.

Many riders get so absorbed by their power numbers that they have difficulty focusing on all the important variables. Few riders in their first years can stay properly attuned on a group ride. I heard an interview recently with an elite ultra-distance runner. He explained that when he’s out on a 100-mile run, which takes all day and all night, people often want to talk with him. He tries to be polite and friendly but is really tempted to tell them to shut up so he can focus. As he says, “I’m trying to work here.”

After a few years of practice, you may be able to attend to all the important things subconsciously, even while chatting with teammates, but even elite riders who do that tend to get very quiet once in a while when they are noticing or correcting something that is not quite right.

Too Busy to Be Bored

If you are making good use of your endurance training time, you can’t possibly be bored. There are too many things to think about. Only the habits that are strongly established in training are going to survive in the heat of battle. If you want to be efficient, strong and confident in races, you have to train away anything that might keep you from getting there. Practice your position, cadence, pedaling movements, nutrition, hydration and relaxation on every ride. Above all, be aware in endurance training so you can perform optimally in races.

If you have many things to work on, you won’t be able to keep them all in mind at once, so pick a few things on which to focus. When you’ve made a bit of progress, add more items. Then you’ll be making rapid progress toward elite performance, and, as a bonus, you’ll rarely be bored on the bike.

Scott Saifer. M.S. and the coaches of Wenzel Coaching will help you figure out what you need to work on to improve your cycling and then help you train for the desired improvements. To inquire about working with Scott, call 503-233-4346 or visit us on the web at www.WenzelCoaching.com.

This article first appeared in ROAD Magazine in May of 2014