Everybody knows that building “endurance” should be a primary objective for any serious cyclist. The best way to do that is to do a bunch of long rides at an “endurance” pace right? Well, maybe.
While we used to think that “endurance” could only be improved with long slow rides, we now understand that high intensity interval training (HIIT) can also improve our endurance .
If you can improve your endurance with HIIT, why would you ever worry about spending long hours on the bike riding at an easy pace? The simplistic answer to this question is that while both methods of training improve cycling performance, they seem to do so via different molecular pathways .
It seems reasonable then to conclude that challenging both of these metabolic pathways in training is key for maximizing cycling performance and this is exactly what you see with the best endurance athletes in the world. Lots of riding at low intensity, combined with some riding at high intensity .
Zone 2 Rides
Endurance rides should ideally have you spending 2+ hours at a moderate intensity.
If you can improve endurance via different metabolic pathways, how then should you divide up your training time?
My perspective is that the shape of your training should be mostly driven by the total amount of training time you have, in addition to the maximum duration available for your rides throughout the week.
Here are a few examples:
- Rider A has 10 hours a week to train, but realistically the biggest chunk of time he/she has to ride at any point during the week is about 2 hours. In this case, does it make sense to spend the majority of ride time in a Zone 2 range like you might see with a pro cyclist? I would say no, and contend that a more appropriate training distribution would be to invest more training time at a moderate intensity, while sprinkling in consistent high intensity rides.
- Rider B has about 10 hours a week to train, but enjoys more flexibility on the weekend where he/she can regularly stretch their ride time to six hours on one of the weekend days. While the total training volume is the same as rider A, the training options afforded by Rider B’s 10 hours is very different. For Rider B, it makes more sense to invest a greater proportion of their ride time at a low intensity, while sprinkling in consistent HIIT throughout a season. You can see in this scenario there would naturally be less time spent in the moderate intensity range as our training is more naturally “polarized” in an effort to reap the reward of of long endurance rides, coupled with HIIT.
The graphic below illustrates this continuum of training intensity and how it might change based on your training availability.
In your coaching you’ll see this concept represented throughout your training plan. Are you crunched for time?
In general you’ll do less endurance paced rides, and more HIIT, all with an eye toward squeezing in a few long rides when you can.
Is you training time wide open? You’ll see a progressive increase in the amount of long slow rides you do, with HIIT strategically layered throughout your training.
Of course none of these training distribution strategies matters more than finding the blend of training that is interesting and sustainable for you. Whatever the “optimal” blend of training might be, it never matters more than your ability to be consistent.
Training can be confusing. In our free eBook, we’ll show you four ways to use your data and insights from science to ride better than ever.
Energy System Target
So which energy system are we targeting if our objective is to try and improve our endurance?
It depends. If we’re time crunched, we can improve our “endurance” most efficiently by targeting all three energy systems utilizing HIIT.
If we have more time to train, our target is more squarely on the oxidative energy system improving our ability to utilize fat as an energy source on longer, lower intensity rides.
While some will make a strong case for trying to improve maximal rates of fat oxidation via carbohydrate restriction on longer endurance rides, in general I think you’re better off using long endurance rides as an opportunity to practice the high carbohydrate availability approach to fueling.
In short, the more you practice your fueling on long rides, not only will the overall quality of your ride improve (via an increase in power output), but you’ll be training your gut to utilize greater quantities of carbs, which will come in handy when you’re ready to ride long and hard at your next cycling event.
Check out the short video below for a quick primer on fueling before and during your rides.
Remember that executing a great race nutrition strategy doesn’t simply happen on race day because you planned it out, great race nutrition happens as a result of methodically practicing your nutrition (and capacity to maximally digest carbs) week after week in the leadup to your event.
On your next long endurance ride skip the low carb stuff, and build confidence and competence in your high carbohydrate availability strategy.
As best as possible, you should ignore your cycling computer on big endurance rides. OK, you don’t have to completely ignore it, but long endurance rides should feel markedly different than HIIT sessions. Endurance rides are great opportunities to explore new routes and soak up the intangibles that make riding a bike so magical. Freedom to roam, being outside, and seeing new sites.
Screen for Endurance rides
If your endurance rides feel the same as your interval session then not only are you making a mistake, you’re missing out on what makes riding a bike so magical.
Your cycling computer can help in this regard by giving you a few big picture metrics that keep you on task over the course of a long day, while at the same time not providing enough feedback to suck you into the vortex of “training”.
Our suggested computer screen reflects this attempt to move away from immediate feedback like power while shifting your focus to how long you’ve been riding (elapsed), and how much work you’ve done over the course of the ride (kilojoules).
To this end as much as possible endurance rides should be fun. Friends, a few stops for food, and the most interesting rides you can find. Anything you can do to reduce the overall RPE on a long endurance ride will free up more focus and intentionality for days on the bike when you may need it most (like mind bending HIIT workouts).
- Gibala, M.J., et al., Short-term sprint interval versus traditional endurance training: similar initial adaptations in human skeletal muscle and exercise performance. The Journal of Physiology, 2006. 575: p. 901-911.
- Laursen, P.B., Training for intense exercise performance: high-intensity or high-volume training? Scand J Med Sci Sports, 2010. 20 Suppl 2: p. 1-10.
- Seiler, K.S. and G.O. Kjerland, Quantifying training intensity distribution in elite endurance athletes: is there evidence for an “optimal” distribution? Scand J Med Sci Sports, 2006. 16(1): p. 49-56.