Training for ultra-endurance MTB events – Part 1
The Philosophy Of Training
One of the biggest misconceptions, and often the biggest stumbling block for novice to expert riders, is the belief that to compete well at longer distance events you have to complete huge volumes of training. With most riders having considerable demands on their time with regards to family, work and life commitments, following a large volume training plan will often lead to burnout, both physically and mentally, and subsequent illness or poor performance.
With the right quantity of ‘quality’ training, it is often possible to achieve much, much more. Most readers will be aware of the reports and diaries of professional riders and elite endurance mountain bikers riding upwards of 25/30hrs a week, covering up to a 1000km. This first philosophy of training relates directly to the Long, Slow Distance training (LSD). This old-school method follows the quantity/volume approach. Very well known coaches, such as Carmichael and Friel, base their programs on this method.
This theory sits well with the history of training and the approaches of most institutes of sports going back to the Eastern block and Russian camps of the 70’s. In their diaries from those days, pros write of 5 -8 hours of training a day, or so we are led to believe! It is, however, these large volumes of training which cause immune suppression and the feeling of general fatigue and exhaustion. This method of training is also much harder to fit in to most people’s busy daily routines.
These types of programs can seem attractive due to the fact that most of the base period of training is at lower, easier intensities. With the recent development of bicycle mounted power meters, scientists and coaches have been able to study the physiological demands placed upon athletes in race situations. This has led to coaches being able to target more accurately the energy systems that need to be developed to compete at these events.
This then leads us into the second training philosophy or approach, championed by Lydiard, Allen, Coggan and Greg Lemond, who are all advocates for less is more, if it is done right. Using science has shown that the optimum intensity to create the physiological adaptations for the development of an athlete’s Functional Threshold Power (FTP) occurs at between 88 and 105% of the athletes current FTP.
These adaptations include increases in mitochondrial density, capillarisation and oxidative enzyme concentrations. These adaptations make a rider ride faster and, if this has been proven through science, then this is the area that we should base our training.
The ideas proposed are that if we can raise our FTP then at any given percentage of that threshold, we will be producing more power and therefore, will be going faster. An example of this could be an athlete competing at a 24 hour event. Elite solo riders have been documented riding at an average of around 70% of their FTP for the duration of the 24 hour race. Now if FTP has been increased for instance by 20watts through specific training targeting increasing FTP from 260 to 280watts for instance, then this rider could theoretically produce nearly 15 more watts at 70% FTP and this could equate to 0.5 – 1km/h difference in speed.
It is then obvious that this increase in power could give the athlete up to a 24km advantage at the end of the race. So, if we have established that 10hrs of training per week could give us the same, if not better, results than 20hrs per week, then how do we do train? The fundamental processes of training are the same whatever approach you use. The basic principles of training are that we create continually increasing physiological load overtime, interspersed with recovery, to allow for optimal physiological adaptation. This physiological load should be specific to the demands of the event or the activity performed, e.g. to get good at riding a bike – you ride your bike.
This means the basic principles are: – Specificity of exercise, progressive overload and recovery. Create a plan with these simple principles in place, with the correct dosage, and the athlete should get fitter, stronger and faster. Unfortunately, by its simple definition, progressive overload is open to misinterpretation and what may be progressive overload for one person may constitute overreaching for another, and when carried out over a number of months may lead to over-training.
As a coach, the biggest problem I face is educating riders on the benefits of the long haul and the simple analogy that “Rome was not built in a day”. Magazine articles and pro riders’ diaries paint a picture of long and hard training days and massive power outputs. The fact is professional riders have been riding for many years and when they started they were not cranking out massive Km’s. Even those who have made it into the pro ranks are held back and looked after by the best managers and coaches, so as not to push the rider too hard too soon.
The Tour de France is often the last of the major races for an aspiring pro to race; again this is just an example of progressive overload. The next thing to consider, then, is the different workouts to structure into a program to elicit a gradual, progressive overload on the body’s systems. It can be done with lots of volume (if you have nothing else to do!) or with less volume and higher intensity. It can be built with bigger, harder weekend rides and maintenance through the week, or more consistent workouts throughout the week. One method digs bigger holes (greater physiological stress) and needs more recovery built in and one method is more consistent and builds without the need for as much recovery in the program.
Glossary of Terms
Functional Threshold Power (FTP) this relates to around 85 – 92% of max heart rate. Long Slow Distance (LSD) typically around 60 – 75% of max heart rate. Base Period typically the first 2 – 3 months of aerobic development.
Mark Fenner (Fenz)
I’ve been involved with cycling since I was 10 years old. My passion for cycling has led me to race both road and mountain bikes in England and Europe, which led me into learning more around the science behind the sport. I love helping others achieve their absolute best – I’ve lectured Sports and Exercise Science, Anatomy and Physiology in England, been an outdoor educator and motivator at The Scots College and have received several qualifications from degrees to certificates.