My favourite training climb, Col d’Ordino in Andorra
This season will be my first year racing gravel. After a long-time racing on the road, I have tried a lot of different training strategies, interval workouts, and different pre-season preparation. There has been a lot of experimentation, but I believe my coach and I have found the sweet spot for what works best for me. My goal for this year is to increase my yearly riding hours, adapting to longer races, improving my bike handling skills (particularly for the gravel), and finding the right fueling strategy for long races. Training is very personalized and different so what may work for me may not be the best approach for you. But I also really appreciate reading and listening to other riders speak about their training and the different approaches everyone takes. This can inspire me to try something new that I have not done in the past; especially being new to the gravel, I am really interested on how other riders prepare for the gravel season. How much time do they spend on the gravel? What do you do to work on your skills and technical riding and how often do other gravel riders train for 6 hour + rides? As you can see, I have a lot of questions! If you resonate with that and are curious about my approach this blog will be dedicated to my preseason preparation featuring a Q&A with my coach, Mark Walker.
Mark has been a cycling coach for over 18 years coaching world tour, elite, and amateur riders. Mark has a master’s degree in Sports Science and has coached athletes on the road, track, mountain, cyclocross, enduro, and Grand Fondo racing. Mark coaches from a very scientific approach (which I love!) and is always up to date on all the latest research in both training and tech. Whether I am asking Mark about his thoughts on milk, power meters or my HRV, he always has the answer. Mark’s vast knowledge of all cycling disciplines has been instrumental on my switch to gravel. I fully trust Mark’s guidance in helping me to be at my best and ready for a successful gravel racing season. So, what better way of learning more about my preseason training than asking Mark himself! I hope you enjoy this blog and maybe you will find something new to add to your training.
First off, what has changed in my training? Was it a hard shift when I changed to gravel racing?
As you know, we had a lengthy discussion in the spring of last year about the training approach for the road and decided to make some significant changes. The new approach worked well, but just as you were coming into some very good form, you had a massive collision with a car and had to undergo a lengthy rehabilitation process. Following the recovery, and by the fall of 2023, we had spent several weeks following the same approach and you came into some great form for the final races of the year. This gave us (I like the coaching process to be reasonably democratic) valuable information going into the winter preparations and much of what we learned we’ve been able to put into practice.
I think, first and foremost, a prerequisite of being a good endurance athlete is the need to build a big aerobic engine. It doesn’t matter if you are riding a pursuit on the track or a multi-day gravel race, the training is very similar. This means lots of long slow distance training (LSD) to build what many people refer to as ‘base’. There has been a lot of talk on social media, and in the cycling press, about the importance of zone two aerobic training - like it’s a new thing - but the real news is that, as far as I’m concerned, it never went away! For decades good endurance athletes and their coaches have always followed a prescription of steady LSD training. Unsurprisingly this has been a staple of your road training and now the gravel preparation. As you know, we have been upping the volume and you’ve had some pretty hefty weeks!
The big change we made last year was to change the training distribution to include more tempo or zone three work. I don’t want to describe our approach as a threshold model as there is a lot of debate about training distribution and what it means to follow a threshold, polarized or pyramidal approach. And importantly, the appearance of the training distribution largely comes down to the way it is calculated - and that can vary in the scientific literature. Essentially what we did was to do more tempo riding and training close to FTP. You still did HIIT to get some attacking punch for the road races, but the long aerobic (3 to 8 minute) HIIT intervals were dropped in favor of more work at race pace efforts (zone three and 20-to-40-minute power output). I’ve largely carried this approach through to gravel racing because you need the high level of efficiency which that form of training brings. There is still some HIIT in the training but that’s in the form of micro-HIIT efforts to build VO2max and some race finishing sprints too as we can’t completely neglect sprinting!
What have we added to my training to prepare for longer races? Specific training, strength, or cross training sessions?
There have been some changes to training, but they have been fairly subtle. One area where we have made a much bigger change is in including technical work. Riding on the road is reasonably technical so you’ve always had to pay attention to cornering, braking, bunch riding, time trial pacing etc. but all of that is generally done on asphalt. Riding on loose, potholed surfaces is another matter, and something you haven’t previously had much experience of so, as you know, I’ve included specific technical training. We’ve also thought about the technical aspects of the bike by getting the right set-up, including tire choice, and learning how to make repairs mid-race should the worst happen.
We’ve experimented with cross training this winter by including circuit training and running. Cyclists spend a lot of time sitting down and turning their legs in circles and although it is effective for developing aerobic fitness there are limitations for developing overall health and wellbeing. Cycling is a non-weightbearing activity, so it isn’t great for building bone density and skeletal health - this is problematic for all athletes, but particularly women. Anything that is weightbearing like running, dancing, skipping, resistance training etc. encourages the body to lay down more bone mass. This is important for women’s health because post-menopause, when hormonal changes lead to a loss of bone, it’s better to start with as high a density as possible.
Given that gravel racing has a greater level of physicality than road cycling we felt it was important to work the upper body much more and to develop greater overall athleticism. This is an idea that has carried over from my experiences working with cyclocross and mountain bike athletes. Clearly gravel isn’t going to stress the body in the same way as those sports, but long events on rough roads can take their toll on the arms, shoulders, and neck so it’s worth training these key muscle groups.
Have we taken anything out of training? For example, were there specific sessions I did for the road that I don’t do anymore?
We’ve been doing less of the punchy HIIT, although there has still been a prescription of that type of training. In fact, in preparing for the final races of the road season last year we did find that you don’t need too much HIIT.
Another area we don’t have to worry about is time trial training on a TT bike. You do have an uphill TT in your first race but that’ll be on a gravel bike so the training for that is incorporated into your general program.
How has planning for nutrition changed for racing?
I would say this is largely similar because you were doing some pretty big training weeks on the road, and you were able to manage your nutritional needs pretty effectively in the long stage races. You follow a high carbohydrate diet and we both have a good understanding of how that affects you when you race and train so that knowledge is very useful going forwards. An example of something we learnt is how to manage overreaching with short-sharp recovery periods combined with an acute increase in carbohydrate intake.
We have also focused on increasing your tolerance of high carbohydrate intake during races and you seem to manage larger doses of carbs (~90 g/hour) pretty well. So, overall, I think we have the approach well dialed.
Ultra-distance gravel events are ridden at a low enough intensity that high fat strategies could potentially be effective. This could be a complete high fat diet or merely train low strategies to bring about better metabolic tooling to use fat. It’s something we should think about, but the current strategy is working well enough so it’s not something I think we should risk changing just yet. I think it’s more important to prioritize learning the sport before we experiment with completely new approaches.
For more information on Mark, you can find him here, https://markwalkercoaching.co.uk/about/