I've seen a lot of articles lately either espousing or questioning the benefits of endurance training for cyclists. While I would certainly fall into the "pro-endurance" camp, as usual, it's not quite as simple as that and the devil is in the details.
In a nutshell, I am a strong believer in the power of endurance rides for building "base" fitness. Just like building a house, the higher you want to build, the stronger your base has to be. To build endurance to a level that is necessary to train and compete as a top level road racer, endurance mountain biker or Ironman triathlete takes many years. While muscular strength, sprinting, and even VO2 max can be improved dramatically in a single season with the proper training, there is only so much your endurance can improve in a single season. Though some take that to mean they should focus their efforts on the higher intensity training that can provide more immediate results, I believe that endurance training should be viewed as a long term investment.
If you are interested in reading more on the physiology, I highly suggest reading this 2014 article by Iñigo San Millán. Some of the benefits of endurance rides are:
1. Improved fat metabolism
2. Better flow of blood, energy and oxygen to the muscles
3. Improved pedaling efficiency
4. Becoming more comfortable on the bike
5. Losing unwanted fat
Much of the skepticism about endurance rides has to do with misconceptions and misunderstandings about what an endurance ride is, so I think the best way to make my counter argument is by first talking about what an endurance ride is not.
- An endurance ride is NOT just a ride where you average heart rate falls in zone 2. I can drive 75 in a 25 but still average under the speed limit. The number one rule for an endurance ride would be to spend zero time above zone 2 heart rate. Realistically, there may be short periods of time where your heart rate rises into zone 3 because you have to ride over a steep hill, you have to sprint away from a chasing dog or you get upset because a car tries to run you off the road. During those times, if you do your best to stay calm and limit the periods of time where your heart rate rises over zone 2 to less than 1 minute. Although it's a huge oversimplification to say this, a good way to look at it is that for every minute you spend over Zone 2 heart rate, it will take 15 minutes of riding at Zone 1 to get your body back into "Endurance Mode", which effectively means that you have just wasted 15 minutes. It might seem frustrating or close to impossible to ride slow enough to keep your heart rate in zone 2 but plan your routes accordingly and try your best. Most of all, try to resist what I call "What the hell" mode, as in "Well, I've already spent 2 minutes over Zone 2, so what the hell, I'll just do the rest of the ride in Zone 3" or "I'm already 2 beats above Zone 2, so what the hell, I might as well be 20 beats above Zone 2".
- An endurance ride is NOT "Just Riding" with no structure. An endurance ride is a steady effort that will take focus and concentration. "Steady" means that you keep your power output relatively even. For most people that means going a lot slower than they are used to uphill and a lot faster than they are used to downhill. Needless to say, be careful and don't do anything dangerous. There are going to be stop signs, red lights and descents that are too technical to pedal down and that is fine. Try to limit your coasting and soft pedaling time to less than 10%. If you can't do that, you might want to rethink your route.
- An endurance ride is NOT necessarily long. It has been said that you don't start to get the benefits of an endurance ride until you have ridden 2 hours, which is not true... well, not exactly. If you just slammed a pack of energy chews and a couple gels, your body will burn through that energy first because it is more easily accessible. You can take a shortcut into the so called "optimal fat burning zone" by simply reducing or eliminating carbohydrates before your endurance rides. This works particularly well for those training for longer events as well as those short on time. If you only have an hour to ride, you don't have to make every ride a high intensity one. You can still get in an effective endurance ride by doing it first thing in the morning (before breakfast) and carrying only water with you.
- An endurance ride is NOT a group ride. I know that it's a tough pill to swallow for many of you, but endurance rides are best done alone. Most group rides go very hard up hills and very easy down hills. While this might be OK for a race simulation or hill interval training, it's not an endurance ride. Even if you are riding with a slower group and you are able to keep your heart rate in zone 2 the whole time, you won't be able to keep your power steady and coasting/soft-pedaling time below 10%. Riding endurance with a single training partner is difficult, but not necessarily impossible. You just have to make sure that you are evenly matched, both completely committed to riding endurance (i.e. you don't start getting competitive) and you ride side by side whenever possible since drafting will immediately put one of you into zone 1 rather than zone 2.
Most of my athletes have heard me use the term "real endurance ride" to distinguish between just going out and getting miles in and actually doing proper endurance training. The 3 basic guidelines of "real endurance rides" are a) Keep heart rate in zone 2 100% of the time, b) Ride at a relatively steady power output, reducing power spikes and c) Keep coasting/soft-pedaling time under 10%. Follow these guidelines and you will be pretty much set. If you really want to make the most of your endurance rides, here are a few other tips:
1. Use endurance rides to work on riding technique. Since you don't have to worry about doing any intensity work, focus on pedaling smoothly and even pedal strokes with the workload shared between left and right 50/50 (many new power meters including Quarq and Garmin Vector can measure power balance). Think about your posture on the bike, keeping your shoulders and arms relaxed and minimizing excessive upper body movement. And since you're pedaling downhill and keeping your power as smooth as possible, it's also a good time to work on cornering and descending
2. Use endurance rides to tweak your bike fit as needed. Most people aren't thinking too much about whether their bars are too high or low, their cleats are properly adjusted or if they are using the right saddle when they are racing, doing a hard interval session or fighting to stay with the leaders of the group ride over a climb. On an endurance ride however, you should have an easier time noticing these things because of the lower intensity and you can use this time to identify tweaks that need to be made to your fit. If you don't know what you are doing or if you feel like more substantial changes are in order, it's probably worth it to make an appointment with a good bike fitter, but the more details you can provide about what you are feeling, the more effective the bike fitter will be.
3. Vary your cadence. I usually prescribe flat endurance rides in early base training, followed by more rolling terrain and then larger climbs later on. The primary reason for this is to become efficient at a larger range of cadences and to slowly transition off the bike strength work to on the bike strength work. Cadence will always be lower going uphill and higher going downhill. If you live in a flatter region or you aren't able to throw in the hills just yet without your heart rate getting out of control, just vary your cadence every 5 minutes by shifting into different gears. If you live somewhere that is really hilly, make sure you have gearing that allows you to sit and spin uphill. Note: it's still important to keep heart rate in Zone 2; hillier terrain should simply allow for a wider range of cadence.
4. Gradually increase the length of your endurance rides. An endurance ride might not feel hard at any given moment, but a steady power output can sneak up on you. Make sure you bring adequate food and fluid. Even if you are trying to lose weight, bonking won't help anything. As you become more efficient, your body will be able to handle longer rides and you shouldn't need to eat as much since your body will be able to tap into your fat stores more easily. Add 30 minutes per week to the length of your longest rides until you are riding at least the amount of time of your longest races.
5. If you feel comfortable riding with headphones, endurance rides can be great for listening to podcasts and audiobooks. If you are like me you love to read but you find it difficult to find time when you can actually sit down and read without interruption. Endurance rides can be the perfect time to listen to an audiobook or podcast because you aren't distracted by the pain of high intensity work. Not many people can absorb the finer points of Ulysses during anaerobic capacity intervals. Obligatory disclaimer: only ride outdoors with headphones if you are completely comfortable with it. If you aren't sure, you might want to start with just one side in.
6. Timing is important. Since fatigue hits you from the top down you should be able to complete an endurance ride even when you are tired, but you won't be able to do a sprint or attack interval workout properly when you are tired. This makes endurance a good way to finish off a training micro-cycle. For example, if your 3 day plan is to do 2 interval workouts and an endurance ride, it will usually work best to do the higher intensity interval workout on day 1, the moderate intensity interval workout on day 2 and the endurance ride on day 3. If you have a choice about what time of day you can ride (and yes, I recognize that many people don't), this is an important consideration as well. If you are trying to complete a depletion ride to encourage fat metabolism, this is best done in the morning before breakfast. If you're trying to lose weight, you might be able to get away with skipping lunch by starting your endurance ride in the mid-late morning and finishing up in the mid-late afternoon. If you are trying to acclimate yourself to the hot weather, it may make the most sense to do it on endurance rides where you don't have to worry as much about the heat decreasing your ability to complete high intensity work.
7. Factor in the weather. Always take a look at the 5-7 day weather forecast at the beginning of the training week. Interval workouts can usually be done indoors and in fact they are often better done indoors in a more structured setting. Endurance, on the other hand, is something no one wants to do indoors if they can help it. If you see rain, snow or frigid temperatures in the forecast, move your longer endurance days to the days where the weather will be more accommodating and move your interval and gym workouts that can be done indoors to the rainy and snowy days. If it's a particularly bad weather week you may be forced to dig a little deeper in your toolbox. If you have a mountain bike or a fat bike you may be able to ride outside on days when it's too dangerous to ride the road bike outdoors. If not, you can make indoor riding a little less painful by riding a smart trainer and/or a virtual reality cycling program such as Zwift. Just don't get caught up in "group ride mentality" and get sucked into riding harder than you should be.
It never ceases to amaze me how many experienced riders I see who continue to make the same training mistakes over and over again. Usually their story goes something like this:
" I was doing great with my training until ___, and then I started to lose motivation. I came into the season flying but by ____ I felt burned out. I feel like I get to a certain point every year but then I plateau and can't push any further. I feel like I have nothing left at the end of a long ride or race. I can never hit the intensity I want to hit on my hard workouts. I can't recover after hard rides or hard blocks of training."
These problems might seem all over the place, but they all may go back to a common problem: the lack of a proper endurance base. For all the talk I hear of people not having the time, the problem is much more often a lack of quality rather than a lack of quantity.
Colin Sandberg is the owner and head coach of Backbone Performance, LLC. He is a Cat. 1 roadracer, a USA Cycling Level II coach and a UCI Director Sportif. He is also head coach at Young Medalists High Performance and race director for Team Young Medalists. If you have questions or comments, feel free to use the comments section or email us. Thanks for reading!