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From the Field: How RAAM Riders Train

Training methods employed by accomplished RAAM racers

by Bernie Comeau

Bernie Comeau, a veteran of RAAM and Furnace Creek, edits "From the Field" - a series of articles on what accomplished RAAM racers (the elite of the ultra community) do and use in order to be successful.

Introduction


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As ultra cyclists, we are all faced with the question of how much training is enough to perform well at the distances we choose to ride. We need to make sure that we have trained enough so that our bodies are comfortable riding at desired speeds for particular distances. But one of the common misconceptions regarding training for ultra events is that more is better. The logic behind this training philosophy is clear enough. If ultra cycling is about riding to exhaustion, then why not train to simulate those conditions as much as possible?

While such high-volume approaches have proven to work for some riders, it has also become clear in recent years that these efforts are not necessary; nor are they the most effective means to train for ultra events. Such approaches may, in the end, be counter-productive. As one accomplished long-distance rider and coach has noted, "one of the biggest [training] pitfalls is to get into a grinding mega-distance mode early in the year and try to carry that through to a race.... the body just cannot take long miles all year without breaking down before your race performance."1

"One of the common misconceptions regarding training for ultra events is that more is better."

How much training is enough? What is the optimal amount that will leave us feeling neither stale from too many miles nor unprepared from too few? Accomplished RAAM riders are have clearly trained successfully, and they can provide valuable insights into optimal training practices. By examining not only the number of miles these riders are riding, but more importantly the principles behind how these athletes train for RAAM, we might better hone our own training efforts.

Most cycling coaches agree that, regardless of the distance of an ultra event, the most effective training program is one that divides training into four distinct phases, generally given titles such as: 1) base; 2) speed work; 3) peaking; and 4) taper. Simply put, "the right approach is a cycle of long base-building early in the year, followed by a period of shorter sharpening workouts, then a final push of longer endurance training, and a taper."2 Over the past few years, John Hughes has produced a number of excellent articles which have outlined the philosophy and particulars behind this training approach, and he has employed this approach in coaching several riders to successful RAAMs.

To be at your physical best for a specific race, the general rule of thumb with this training program is to use four months for base, 1-2 months for speed work, 6 weeks for peaking, and 1-3 weeks for tapering. In other words, it's what you do in the 7-8 months prior to an event that will most determine your physical fitness level for that event. I queried accomplished RAAM riders regarding their training practices during the 7-8 months before RAAM.

From their responses, it was clear that the specifics of RAAM riders' training schedules varied from person to person. This seemed the result of their own time commitments for training, and their geographical locations. While not all RAAM riders trained specifically according to the four-phase model outlined above, it was clear that there were elements of each of these phases in each person's training approach to RAAM. As such, it may be most beneficial to consider accomplished RAAM riders' training schedules from the perspective of this model.

Base

As the name suggests, the purpose of this phase is to produce a solid base for subsequent more intense training. In this phase, you are essentially "training to be able to train."3 Many riders understand this to be "the opportunity to lay a foundation for the entire year of racing and training."

These are longer, strictly aerobic workouts that are "mildly uncomfortable" in terms of duration. The goal is to increase slightly the time of the workout each week, so that by the end of the four month period you are able to ride for about 50-75% of the total time you would be on the bike for your event. If training for a 12 hour double century, the goal of base training would be a six to nine hour ride. (For events that last 24 hours or longer, the goal would be to finish the base phase with a weekly ride of 12-18 hours.)

In terms of miles ridden, one rider noted that his base-phase monthly mileage was a steady progression of 780, 1250, 1600, and 1850 miles. The overall base phase for typical RAAM riders consisted of about 5,500 miles over the four month period. Although RAAM riders kept logs of their monthly totals, overall mileage was not their main objective in the base phase. As one rider pointed out, "for endurance riders, total volume is less important than the long ride of the week."

"For endurance riders, total volume is less important than the long ride of the week."

The notable exceptions to riders putting in 5,000+ miles during the base phase were those who lived in northern climates, where snow and slush typically cover the ground until the end of March. These riders compensated with activities that would provide them with a strong aerobic base so that they could ride long hours on the bike as soon as conditions permitted. Although they may have logged many fewer miles during the base period, their goal was still achieved รณ to lay a strong foundation for subsequent intense training. Their primary means for building and maintaining a strong aerobic base were cross-country skiing and ice skating. Both of these activities, in addition to being good aerobic exercises, also employ many of the same muscle groups as used in cycling.

The overall goal of the base phase, then, is simply to "build into your muscle memory the knowledge of what it takes to work out for that long a period". Not surprisingly, RAAM riders regarded this as an important phase not to be overlooked. One rider said "the first long rides of the season are slow and exhausting for me. They are important because doing several long rides reminds me of the reality that pains that come and go, staying on the bike for 12 hours or more, etc."

Speed Work

Speed work is an important part of endurance training that is often neglected by ultra cyclists. We all know the theoretical benefits of pushing our anaerobic thresholds, but few of us consistently train this way. As a result, we are often slower in long-distance races than we think we should be. After RAAM 1998, John Hughes polled RAAM riders, asking them what they would change about their training if they were to do RAAM again. Many of them responded, "more speed work."4

During this phase of training, riders typically maintain their one long ride per week of 12-18 hours, but now substitute high-intensity training at least once per week for the previous aerobic rides. For accomplished RAAM riders, this intensity training typically took the form of intervals (about 10 minutes each), time trials (about 25 miles), or hill climbs (about 10 minutes each), done once per week. Many riders, to alleviate the tedium, rotated these activities, using the time trial specifically to gauge their progress.

Other riders used less structured means of high-intensity training, such as sprinting at specified points of a training ride, or doing group rides. As one rider explained, "I try to get in the long miles on the weekends (about 250 miles on Saturday), and during the week, I try to maintain my regular road-racing training regimen of group rides, time trials, sprints, etc.".

The result of substituting speed work for some of the longer aerobic rides of the base phase is that one's overall weekly and monthly mileage drops slightly. The rider noted above, for example, had his monthly mileage drop to 1,600 during his speed work phase. These riders regarded overall mileage as less important than the type of miles that were being ridden: at least one long ride, and at least one episode of speed work each week. As John Hughes has stated in an earlier article, "whatever the method, RAAM riders realize that by training at high intensity, they improve their aerobic capacity and power so that they can ride for days at low intensity."5

Peaking

The peaking phase involves a final push to reach peak fitness level before the desired event. Lasting about six weeks, this is "where racers generate the fitness that allows them to ride one half mile an hour faster without going anaerobic."6 In the words of one rider, "basically, you are trying to load your body with as much as it can take without injuring yourself."

During the peaking phase, riders continue with speed work, though the duration is typically longer than the previous phase. Many RAAM riders, for example, began riding 100-mile time trials every week. As John Hughes has explained, "after a rider has built the base and improved the endurance capacity of the heart and lungs, then these long time trials are a great way to improve the body's ability to process fuel and produce energy. In ultra rides, this ability to process fuel is often the limiting factor on pace."7

In addition to this continued speed work, riders increased their weekly long rides. Some, for example, rode back-to-back weekend rides of 250 and 150 miles. Others rode 300 miles as their long ride. The most common strategy, however, was to increase the long ride to 24 hours. Many RAAM riders rode three 24-hour rides during this phase; one 24-hour ride every other weekend, with a 200-mile ride during the in-between weekends.

The weekly and monthly mileage of these riders increased greatly during this phase. The rider noted above, for example, had his monthly mileage rise to 2500 during his peaking phase. However, overall mileage was not the goal. As this rider explained, "long rides are the key!"

Taper

After completing the peaking phase, it is necessary to back off on the workload (to taper) to allow your body to fully recover and regenerate. Though vitally important, this phase is often overlooked by many ultra riders. As one coach has explained, "the most committed training program means nothing if you don't taper correctly and are too tired to reap the benefits on race day, or if you have begun to lose any of the fitness that you have banked during the months leading up to the race".8 And, as John Hughes has explained, "what's important is that the taper is not rest, but reduced volume so that the athlete is fully recovered". As a coach, he advocates that his RAAM riders allow three weeks for the taper phase, cutting the high-mileage ride at least in half, and maintaining only short-distance speed work.

This, indeed, is how many accomplished RAAM riders described their taper period. As one rider explained, "I always plan to do my last long-distance weekend about three weeks prior to RAAM. It takes me over a week to physically recover from a long-distance weekend, and the extra two weeks are good." Typical mileage during the taper phase included a long ride of 100-150 miles on weekends (at "race pace"), and speed work of about 20-30 minutes. Average monthly mileages during this phase were about 600 miles, a clear decrease from previous months.

Conclusions

From their responses to my queries, it is clear that most accomplished RAAM riders are not simply going out and riding long distances for the sake of distance. They typically have very clear goals in mind with respect to their training and each ride is done accordingly. Accomplished RAAM riders typically ride about 10,000 miles in the 7-8 months preceding RAAM (riders from colder climates notwithstanding), but they are clearly focused on their weekly long rides (and speed work) as opposed to their overall mileage.

  1. Mark Allen, "Get a Grip on Ironman Training", Triathlete, 179, p. 20.
  2. Mark Allen, "Get a Grip on Ironman Training", Triathlete, 179, p. 20.
  3. Paula Newby-Fraser, "7-Months to an Ironman: Base Tarining", Triathlete, 180, p. 88.
  4. John Hughes, "Training for Ultras: Are Mega-Miles Necessary?", Ultra Cycling, 7(6), p. 22.
  5. John Hughes, "Training for Ultras: Are Mega-Miles Necessary?", Ultra Cycling, 7(6), p. 21.
  6. Dan Empfield, "Ironman Countdown", Triathlete, 197, p. 78
  7. John Hughes, "Training for Ultras: Are Mega-Miles Necessary?", Ultra Cycling, 7(6), p. 21.
  8. Mark Allen, "Get a Grip on Ironman Training", Triathlete, 179, p. 18.
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