How to train for a gravel race

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Working with endurance cyclists and runners I am increasingly aware of the trends towards off-road events, including many of the people I coach who have taken part in off-road events over recent years. I thought it would be useful to write about how to train for a one day gravel race, which is a great way of getting into off-road cycling.

So, how to train for a gravel race?

  1. Train for the distance with longer endurance rides, these should be fun rides and don’t need a structure;

  2. Train for the hills, big hills with tempo/sweetspot training of 20 minutes to over an hour. You can do these on-road, off-road or indoors;

  3. Train for shorter, steeper hills; build your VO2max and FTP with efforts of 1 to 12 minutes at higher intensity;

  4. Train your skills according to your needs, either with specific sessions or as part of your other riding;

  5. Build your overall fitness and resilience by adding volume from regular shorter rides according to your available time and energy. To a large extent the more you train the fitter you will get;

  6. Eat properly and make sure you get enough rest and recovery and don’t build up too fast - this is critically important.

The basics

Gravel events vary widely in both distance and technical difficulty, but fortunately the basic requirements of the events are quite similar, so you can work out a structure that works for you and tweak it a bit to make sure you are prepared for your specific goal event. I will go through some basic requirements of fitness here and then talk in more detail about specific training sessions you can do for each and then how to fit it into a plan.

Endurance

If you are unsure whether you can cover the distance of your chosen event, building your endurance will be a fundamental part of your training and so you will need to ensure you include some long rides that gradually develop your ability to ride longer. Also bear in mind that riding at a sensible, sustainable pace as well as eating and drinking the right things regularly will contribute to your ability to ride further. By adjusting these practical aspects of your riding, you may find that are already capable of the distance.

Irrespective of whether you can do the distance of the event, it is worth including progressively longer training rides in your training plan to build your endurance and aerobic fitness. These rides are often the most fun and may well be what you enjoy about cycling, so definitely something you want to continue.

Uphills

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People often find riding up hills difficult, particularly if they are off-road on loose surfaces with varying gradients. The speed you can ride up hills is dependent on your technique, choosing an appropriate pace as well as most fundamentally, your fitness.

The best way to develop your hill climbing fitness is by doing efforts that are much harder than you will ride in the race but also shorter. You can do these on-road, off-road or on an indoor trainer. This is known as interval training and will form an important part of your training as you get fitter and want to get faster.

Downhills

Cycling down hill on loose, tricky terrain can be daunting at first but with practice it can become one of the most enjoyable parts of cycling. Once you understand the proper technique, there is no substitute for practice to help you improve your skills in downhill riding. The more you practice, the better you will get and importantly, the more energy you will be able to save on downhill or rougher sections. If you can’t find exactly the right surfaces to practice on, just spending time on your bike and learning to handle it on a variety of surfaces will make a huge difference.

Choosing your event

There are lots of events to choose from and if you are an experienced endurance cyclist you can probably try your hand at anything that takes your fancy. You may already have an event in mind.

However, if you are less experienced, or unsure of your capabilities it makes sense to look around for something that you think is manageable but challenging.

Think about the longest ride you have done recently and use that as a guide. You need to work with how long this ride took as well as considering the distance because a gravel ride of a given distance will take longer than a road ride and probably less time than a mountain bike ride. Think about how long you have to train for the event, how much time you want to commit and then make a choice. Be sensible but also choose something you find exciting that you feel will be an achievement.

Equipment

Bike

You can do a gravel race on almost any reasonably good quality and well maintained bike that has enough clearance to take suitable tyres. The clearance is the space between the outside of the wheel and the frame, which is often very limited on road racing bikes to optimise the racing geometry and aerodynamics, so some bikes of this style may be unsuitable.

Tyres

If your event is going to be mostly off road and include rougher terrain, your tyres need to be of bigger section both to provide grip and smooth out the impacts of rocks and bumps. Conversely, if you plan to use a mountain bike for the event you may want to fit narrower tyres than the standard, with a lighter tread to improve the rolling resistance on smoother surfaces. There is no need for a heavy tread pattern if your route is predominantly dry and on gravel roads.

There are some great tyres on the market nowadays and choosing a good quality tyre that suits your bike, riding style and the expected terrain of your race can completely transform the feel and effectiveness of your bike. Have a look around and go with manufacturers recommendations, to a large extent you get what you pay for, so don’t skimp on tyres.

Bags and bottles

You will need a way of carrying water, food and any equipment that you may need to keep your bike going in the event of a mishap. You can either carry things on the bike, with bags, water bottles, etc., or in a backpack with a water bladder such as a Camelback. What you choose is very much down to personal preference but whatever you do choose should have been tested in training.

Bike computers

A bike computer or GPS device may seem like a luxury, which it is, but it is a very valuable luxury. Many people have a GPS device nowadays but if you don’t, it is worth getting something that measures distance, which can be a cheap bike computer or something more sophisticated. By having a printout of your route either stuck to the frame or in a handy pocket and a readout of the distance you have covered, you will know whereabouts on the course you are and can prepare for significant events such as hills or motivate yourself to get to the finish or the next feed station. This makes a bike computer of some sort an incredibly useful device.

If you are riding in a group and feeling tired, you can anticipate hills and get to the front, which means that you can drift back through the group on the climb and still stay in touch at the top, ultimately making your race easier and improving race tactics if you are in a competitive situation.

Kit

Kit is also very personal and depends on the weather that you are likely to encounter during the event. If you are going into remote areas you need to be able to keep yourself protected from the elements both whilst riding and in the event that something goes wrong. The organisers may have a mandatory kit list, which you should abide by because it is for everyone’s safety. Otherwise, just give it some thought and be sensible, you will learn a lot from your longer training rides so make notes and make sure you are safe.

You don’t need fancy kit to get going. I certainly recommend investing in some good quality cycling shorts but other than that you can get away with normal clothes that are appropriate for the environment. Specifically designed clothing tends to be better than non-specific or cheaper kit but it isn’t the most important area to invest your money if it is limited.

If you have a limited budget I suggest you focus on good tyres and shorts as a priority then use your longer practice rides to identify other things you need.

Once you have some experience of gravel events, you will have a feel for the sort of events you enjoy and will be able to select the equipment that best suits your needs.

A weekly schedule

In almost all cases, it is best to work with a structure that fits around a standard working week, which means working on a 7 or 14 day cycle. This is because most people either have to fit their lives around a working week with weekends, or want to interact with other people that are constrained by a working week. Events are usually at weekends as well, so if you want to incorporate events into your schedule, it is easier to do with a weekly routine. If this isn’t the case for you, you can work with a different structure, although I recommend that you have some form of standardisation.

Another reason for a standard routine is that it allows you to be systematic about planning training sessions and understanding how these impact both your fitness and fatigue levels so that you can make adjustments as necessary. Working with a more ad-hoc schedule makes this difficult to achieve, although it is by no means impossible.

Plan your long rides first

The most difficult rides to fit into your plan are likely to be long rides, because they are the most time consuming. For a one-day event it is good to build up to having ridden for the duration of the event, or close to it, at least once in training. Also bear in mind that you don’t need to do several long days in a row to train for a one day event. Aim to be rested before your long ride and recover after it, before doing any further hard training. You may have more time at weekends, so plan your longest rides for the weekend and identify some key dates when you will ride a long practice ride with your race setup on representative terrain. These rides should progress from a duration that you can do now towards the expected duration of your main event. Schedule one main practice ride every 2 to 4 weeks and make other long rides shorter so you don’t over do it.

I like to make Mondays and Fridays easier days, which means that you will have planned recovery that gives you the flexibility to do your longer rides on either Saturdays or Sundays and recover afterwards.

Ride to duration, not distance

Notice that I refer to duration rather than distance. This is because there are so many variables when cycling and particularly when riding on mixed terrain that it is very difficult to work to a distance. Just imagine if it turns out to be windy one day and you have to ride into the wind for most of the day, you will cover a lot less distance in a given time. Similarly, you will ride further on a flat ride than on a hilly ride in similar weather conditions.

Make an estimate of the time you think you will take for your event and work towards that, with a bit of contingency in case things don’t go to plan.

Make a note of any fixed commitments during the week

If you have some fixed commitments during the week that you want to retain, you will need to work your training around these. It all depends how much you want to commit to your plan and how much you want to sacrifice, you can certainly get fit to complete a gravel event by just riding once or twice a week but that wouldn’t really require the effort of putting a training plan together, so here we are talking about at least 3 rides a week, including at least one hard, focused session during the week.

If you play other sports or go to gym classes

If you go to a gym class, or play other sports, you may want to incorporate these into your plan. Doing something other than cycling once or twice a week is quite a good idea because it develops overall strength and resilience to complement the more limited, specific fitness that you develop from cycling. The important consideration with other physical sessions, which could be quite hard, is to make sure you have sufficient recovery before you attempt a harder cycling session.

Plan your week including your hard bike sessions

The next thing is to fit everything together, including at least one hard bike session within your weekly plan. A typical week might look like the one in the table, where you have your long ride at the weekend and one interval session on Tuesday with gym or an exercise class on Thursday.

Suggested 14 day schedule

Suggested 14 day schedule

You will notice that there are some other rides added into the plan, these are optional but within reason, the more you ride the fitter you will get. A good way to add extra volume to your weekly schedule is to use your commute, or do two short sessions morning and evening. Just be aware that you need to be rested to get the most out of any gym work or harder interval sessions, so don’t over do it and make any easier riding easy.

Training Zones - How hard is hard?

It is useful to have some guidance regarding how hard you should do any given training session. A good way to do this is by using either a heart rate monitor or a power meter, although you can work very effectively by how hard it feels, which is formally known as RPE (Relative Perceived Exertion).

Training zones are ways of understanding how hard you are training. You can base heart rate training zones on maximum heart rate or what is known as your threshold heart rate.

It is best to use a measurement you have taken yourself, so if you ride with a heart rate monitor regularly you can look at your training data and use the maximum heart rate you have recorded. You can probably get this from one of the graphs in an on-line diary, such as Garmin Connect or Strava, or it may be extracted for you by the app. You can estimate your threshold heart rate as 90% of your maximum heart rate or take it from a test, such as the one described in my article on using a Wattbike to start training with power. In my experience, using 90% of your maximum is a good starting point.

Remember to calculate your own values using the percentages in the tables and not to use the heart rate and power values that are in there, which are based on a FTP of 250 Watts and a heart rate threshold of 159 bpm.

Remember to calculate your own values using the percentages in the tables and not to use the heart rate and power values that are in there, which are based on a FTP of 250 Watts and a heart rate threshold of 159 bpm.

If you have a power meter, it is best to work with power for many reasons. Power training zones are generally based on FTP (Functional Threshold Power), which is the power that you can sustain for a duration of around an hour. There are many ways to estimate it but as long as you use the same way you will get repeatable, comparable results and can set your sessions accordingly. If you are unsure of your FTP you can use the test described in my article about using a Wattbike to start training with power. Using a Wattbike is also a great way to start working with power if you don’t have a power meter, you can use the same principles on a smart trainer or if your indoor trainer is calibrated to work with an app such as Zwift or TrainerRoad.

Once you have your training zones you are ready to set the intensities of your main training sessions.

The tables are reasonably self explanatory, with zones that correspond to the descriptions in the suggested schedule. However, bear in mind that if you are using heart rate zones, it takes time for your heart rate to respond to any change in effort, so your VO2max sessions won’t work well with heart rate because the efforts are too short. This doesn’t matter because you should do these as hard as you can anyway, just aim to make your best effort for each of the intervals.

Training on race-specific terrain

Events usually take advantage of natural terrain, which may significantly different from that of the area where you are based, particularly if you live in a city. However, with a bit of thought it is often possible to include some useful elements of training to develop your technical skills and then supplement with some short trips further afield or specific training camps.

Once you have established a base of fitness, your long practice rides should be on terrain that is as close as possible to that of your main event. However, mix it up a bit if you want to ride on the road sometimes to avoid the mud or to ride with friends. Just make sure that you include a good component of off-road riding in your longer rides.

It is best to do most of your high intensity interval sessions on good surfaces where you can be sure of working hard without worrying about distractions or having to think about avoiding obstacles. Using an indoor trainer is often a good way to do a focused session of harder work, but of course, indoor trainers are often something people love or hate, so go with what works for you.

The only slight caveat to the above is that it is worth doing a few of your hard workouts on representative terrain so that you develop your skills for off-road riding at a harder effort. If you prefer, you can do separate skills sessions where you do a few sprints and hard efforts to develop the feel for things and work purely on fitness during your hard sessions.

Pacing and using your energy wisely

Riding at an appropriate pace is fundamental to success in any endurance event. If you go too fast early on, you will have to slow down a lot and end up with a slower time over all at best and at worst you may not be able to finish the event. If you go too slowly you won’t ride to your potential.

Fortunately, you have planned some long practice rides that you can use to develop your pacing strategy for the big day. Make sure you use them wisely and learn as much as possible.

Ride harder on the harder sections

Because of the way wind resistance and gravity work against you, it is more effective to ride a little harder on uphills, keep a steady pace on flat sections and ride easier, getting some recovery on downhills where you are going faster and therefore the wind resistance is more powerful. Spend some time thinking about this and getting it clear in your mind because it can be a little counter intuitive, particularly when you are riding. It is very easy to want to push hard on downhills because if feels faster and like you are making great progress, don’t be tempted, back off, be as aerodynamic as possible and get some recovery then push harder on the hills.

As a guide, you can aim to ride mostly in Endurance training zone (see training zones), so this should dictate your pace on the flat sections. Go a little harder on the hills, maybe upper zone 2 if it is a longer event that will be close to your limit or lower zone 3 for shorter events. Stick to zone 1 and the lower end of zone 2 on downhills. Try this in your training rides and see how well it works. It may feel too easy at first but you will find you can ride longer and ultimately faster overall by using this type of approach.

Use other riders and groups to save energy - drafting

You can save a lot of energy by riding behind other riders, particularly when you are going faster or if you are going into a headwind, so take advantage of this. You can either sit behind stronger riders or groups if they pass you or work with other riders if you either catch them or find you are riding at a similar pace. Don’t spend all your time dragging other people along, do your share but don’t push too hard when you are on the front of a group. Like with downhills, it is easy to get carried away and tire yourself out, which will mean you have to slow down and might lose the benefit of being in a group.

Riding with friends or a cycling club is a great way to practice group riding, so have a look around and see if you can find a training ride that suits your ability level. If you do this, try to ride behind more experienced riders because they will be much smoother and safer. Keep an eye out for erratic riders and keep your distance, even if it means getting dropped from the group - it is always better to be safe than sorry when riding at speed in a group.

Group rides with more experienced and slightly faster riders is also a great way to build your fitness and endurance to ride longer.

Nutrition

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Eating and drinking the right things can make a huge difference to both your performance during longer rides and how effectively you recover from training sessions. Making sure that you are well fuelled and hydrated before the event is obviously crucially important to your success. There are some really good books on nutrition for cyclists, one I particularly like is Fuelling the Cycling Revolution by Nigel Mitchell.

On the bike

It is worth paying special attention to what you eat and drink during any ride that lasts longer than an hour and for shorter rides or sessions, make sure you are well hydrated and fuelled up beforehand.

For your longer rides and the event itself you need to start eating and drinking early on. How much you need to drink will depend on how much you are sweating, which in turn depends on how hard you are riding and how hot it is. Food is also dependent on how hard you are riding but you can work with some guidelines to start with and adjust them as you go along.

As a guide, you can start by drinking at least 500ml of liquid every hour and eating a minimum of 30 grams of carbohydrate per hour. Note this is 30g carbohydrate and not just 30 calories so you will need to prepare a bit so you know the nutritional content of your foods. You can take in quite a lot of carbohydrates by putting energy products in your bottles.

What you choose to eat and drink is very much a personal choice but it may be worth doing some testing with purpose made energy bars, gels and powders to get an idea of how much you need to eat. These products are usually clearly marked with carbohydrate content so you can work out how many bars/gels an hour you need to consume to be properly fuelled.

I am sure you will notice a big improvement if you haven’t been fuelling effectively in the past, experiment on your long rides and figure out what works for you.

Off the bike

Off the bike, if you have a balanced, healthy diet you will be on the right track. Despite what many people say, there isn’t really a magic formula.

Make sure that you are eating enough because it is very hard to build fitness if you don’t eat enough. If you aren’t going to eat a meal within an hour of finishing your training sessions, it will make a big difference to have a snack containing a combination of carbohydrates and protein soon after you finish training, particularly your harder sessions. This doesn’t have to be anything fancy but it should be predominantly carbohydrate with some protein and not just protein. You may need to be careful here, since many products that are recommended for recovery are almost exclusively protein and therefore not what you need. Something as simple as a peanut butter sandwich would work nicely.

Related questions

How can I judge pace if I don’t have a heart rate monitor or power meter? A really good way to judge pace is to use a technique based on an imaginary rev counter. To do this, imagine a rev counter, speedometer, or even traffic lights and break up the dial into green, amber and red zones. While you are riding, think about how hard you are working in relation to your internal gauge and whether the level of effort is sensible. In a long event like a gravel race, you will want to be in the green most of the time but may move into amber on some climbs or if you need to work to stay in a group. You need to keep away from the red zone unless you are very experienced and understand how your mind and body will react if you go over your normal limits. Try it during your rides and hard sessions, even if you have a heart rate monitor or power meter, checking back to how you feel in this way can be really effective.

How long does it take to recover from a big race? This is a great question and as usual, the answer is: ‘it depends’! It depends on your level of fitness, how hard you had to work in the event, how long it was and the quality of rest you can get afterwards. For example, if you are rushing back to work in a stressful job and have to look after a family, it will take longer than if you are going on holiday for a couple of weeks to chill out. A good rule of thumb is that you should probably give yourself a bit more recovery than you feel you need. Wait until you feel the power back in your legs and energy in your body then try some riding but take it slowly and don’t go hard for a while. Be prepared to back off again if you feel tired, as with many things in endurance sport, it is better to be on the safe side than over the line and make yourself ill.

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