You don't have to train yourself to death to smile during a race.
I have a big year of racing ahead since I’m doing both Unbound Gravel 200 and SBT GRVL for the second time. These world-class events are super hard (200 miles and 140 miles respectively), which means it's a good idea to train for them. But with a needy toddler at home, a full-time job, and a million other commitments, my life is super busy and stressful. Every time I try to stick to a structured training plan, I fall off the training wagon within a few weeks.
Last year though, I finally found an "easy" training strategy that works for me. I now approach training for big races in a simpler and more relaxed way. This has reduced stress, improved my fitness, and it even helped me finish Unbound and SBT GRVL within my goal time. I plan to use the same training strategy this year, and I think it’s a great way to approach training for anyone new to endurance events or who doesn’t want an overly-complicated training plan.
Consistency is king
Consistency is one of the most important factors when it comes to performance.
Perhaps you've heard this quote from the great Eddy Merckx? When a reporter asked what advice he would give to aspiring riders, Merckx just replied, “Ride lots.” It sounds simple, and it is. To improve at riding your bike, just ride your bike more. Of course, there is more nuance to it. If you try to go as long and hard as possible on every single ride, you’ll dig yourself into a fatigue hole that will be difficult to recover from. And who has time for that anyway?
For regular people with busy lives, “ride lots” basically means achieving a decent level of riding consistency. What exactly does that mean? Let’s consider this hypothetical situation: you only have 5 hours a week to ride your bike. Is it better to do five 1-hour rides throughout the week, or a single 5-hour ride once a week?
The answer is five 1-hour rides. Even if you’re not doing longer rides, you’ll still improve your endurance and get fitter because you’re riding on a more regular basis. The key to success is slowly and consistently building your riding volume.
You may have heard of the concept of “greasing the groove,” a training technique coined by Pavel Tsatsouline, a former Soviet trainer. Greasing the groove essentially means not working your muscles to the point of failure so you can work them more often. For example, if you want to do more pull-ups, you do a few reps at a time, throughout the day, every day. This way, you’re never working yourself to exhaustion, so you recover faster, while building a large amount of training volume over time. By consistently doing sets of 4-5 pull-ups throughout the day, I actually worked up to doing 20 at once.
I’ve since applied this concept to my riding. I ride a lot, but I don't destroy myself during my rides. Since most of my rides are short and easy, I can ride more often, up to 5-6 rides per week, for many weeks in a row. This sort of riding volume is what I mean by consistency.
“Consistency is one of the most important factors when it comes to performance,” explained Coach Johann Van Zyl, a former World Tour pro and coach for Catalyst Coaching. “There’s no point in training hard for a week, then doing nothing the next, then getting back on the trainer the week after, etc. Consistency is key. You’ll be better off averaging 5 hours a week, consistently, than having these big spikes and gaps in your training.”
Coach Frank Overton of FasCat Coaching said the same. “Rome was not built in a day and, similarly, neither will your fitness,” he said. “Ride 4-5 times each week, every week. No matter how long you have to ride each day, riding consistently will net you improvement. Honestly, 1 hour a day, 5 times per week is a great place to start. That's 5 hours per week and then you can layer more time onto those 5 days to improve even more. Riding 5 hours on Saturday but no hours during the week is like being the hare, and the tortoise (riding 1 hour a day 5 times per week) beats the hare every time.”
I've tried following tougher training plans that incorporated a lot of intervals and threshold or sweetspot efforts. In the end, these programs always added a huge amount of stress to my life. They would sap some of the joy out of cycling, until eventually, I’d start missing workouts and quit. I’ve gone through this cycle countless times.
Last year, instead of going through it again, I retooled my training to make consistency the primary goal. The only thing I focused on was riding regularly every week and increasing my riding volume. This kept riding fun and made it easier to fit more rides into my busy schedule.
My “easy” Unbound Gravel / SBT GRVL training plan
1. Do 3-6 rides (30-90 minutes) per week
2. Do one long ride (3-8 hours) every 1-3 weeks
If it seems simple, it’s because it is. That’s the point. The simpler the plan, the easier it will be to stick to. This is what kept me consistent. There's a lot of flexibility too. You can choose the number of rides per week and the time on the bike to accommodate your fitness level and life circumstances. You don’t have to stress about anything besides riding regularly.
To prepare for Unbound Gravel last year, I tried to ride my bike 4-5 days a week. I did both indoor and outdoor rides and fit them in whenever I could — early morning, lunch, or after my kid went to bed. The vast majority of my rides were done at an easy pace and were only about an hour long. My Sundays were generally reserved for a long (5+ hour) endurance ride. I didn't do more than one long ride per week. By doing this, I managed to get fit enough to beat my goal finish time for both Unbound and SBT GRVL.
If your goal is to complete long-distance events that are 100 miles or more, I consider 3 rides per week the bare minimum. Both Coach Johann and Coach Frank said that 5 one-hour rides per week is a good starting point for moderately fit cyclists, and that’s where I started as well. Experiment with what works for you, and if you start to feel too fatigued, back it off. If you feel good, try adding more.
When training for long-distance events, it’s a good idea to incorporate occasional long rides into your routine too. This will familiarize your body with the effort and boost your confidence. While it can sometimes be a good idea, you don’t necessarily need to do the full race distance in training. Most riders will be able to go around 50% longer than their longest training ride. For Unbound (200 miles), I didn’t do any training ride longer than 8 hours.
Here are a couple more tips to consider before diving into any endurance training…
Think in hours rather than miles
Not all mileage is the same. Elevation gain, terrain, weather conditions, fitness, and equipment will all affect the “value” of a mile. An hour of pedaling, however, is much a more consistent measurement. For building and tracking your riding volume, it’s much more useful. Many racers think in hours, measuring their workload in training hours per week. For me, it reduces stress too because I don’t get hung up on distance.
If I'm trying to increase volume and build fitness for my target events, I just focus on increasing my time on the bike per week. In the 8-10 weeks before the event, I'll slowly increase my weekly time on the bike by about 30-60 minutes each week, either by adding more rides or lengthening rides.
Volume vs. Intensity
“In a world where we're time-crunched and searching for the best ‘bang for our buck,’ we often make the mistake of riding too hard too often,” Coach Johann said. “While following a high-intensity program will quickly raise your performance to an acceptable level, you’ll plateau and won’t be able to hold that shape very long. Incorporate more low-intensity workouts into your training to help build your aerobic foundation, ultimately allowing you to reach a higher level once you add intensity on top of that.”
Last year might be the first time I took that advice seriously. By doing the vast majority of my rides at an easy pace, I recovered faster, so I could ride more and stay more consistent. Remember, my goal is to grease the groove, not wreck my body. It also left me with more energy for my family, work, and other hobbies. If I felt good, I would ride hard, but I’d only do that once or twice a week.
Fuel the work
I've always struggled with eating on the bike. Last year, I made a point of always eating something during any ride longer than 45 minutes. Not only does this improve performance and recovery, but it also trains your gut to handle the amount of eating you’ll need to do during your goal race. Again, I don’t do anything too complicated. I just eat something every 30-45 minutes. You can use bike-specific nutrition or simpler store-bought items. I like Rice Krispies, Pop-Tarts, and other treats like that.
It goes without saying that training is only part of the equation. Diet and recovery are equally important. To get the most out of your time on the bike, eat well and get enough sleep off the bike!
I call this training plan “easy” because it’s uncomplicated and extremely adaptable. Most of the rides are done at an easy pace too. As long as you’re regularly on the bike throughout the week, every week, you will get much fitter. But you still need to put in the work and actually ride. Remember, consistency is key.
Will following a super basic plan like this help you finish your next endurance race? Yes. Will it maximize your potential? Probably not. If you're an experienced rider who wants to dial in your performance and compete, then you’ll need something a bit more advanced that focuses on things like intervals, power zones, and other data. This is where cycling coaches or training services like TrainerRoad can help take you to the next level.
For me though, a simple program like this works for me. It’s easier to manage, and it fits in better with my life. If your main goal is to simply finish a long-distance cycling event at the edge of your capabilities, and not feel miserable on the bike, then this will work for you too.