Friday, 15 March 2013

So You Entered Your First Sportive Part 3 - Getting over those pesky hills!

This post is intended as a follow up to my previous posts which contained the Pixies thoughts on lessons learnt over the the last 12 months or so in respect of training for that first sportive, long charity ride or maybe the first attempt at riding a century (whether that is 100 kilometers or 100 miles). You probably don't need to read those posts for this one to make sense, however in case you haven't read them, they can be found by searching the March 2013 blog archive.

I should also say that it is entirely possible to complete that first sportive without doing any strength training or any of the type of training that follows in this post. However, my experience has shown that sportives are a much more comfortable and enjoyable experience if a well rounded training programme is utilised in the preparation for the event.   
So, we have made the decision to supplement our regular training rides with one or two trips to the gym each week and we have developed legs to rival Chris Hoy or Mark Cavendish, the time has come to turn that strength and power into performance on the bike.

Before we consider specific training techniques, lets take a look at Time Trialling and, how in some circumstances, Sportive riders may find it beneficial to train as if they were preparing to compete in a time trial.      

Time trials are strength intensive,  they require the competitor to have the ability to ride a high (or large) gear over a long period of time. Similarly in sportive we sometimes need to put in efforts that also require us to be able to produce high levels of power for a period of time e.g. bridging (or catching) up to a breakaway group of riders to take advantage of the protection from the wind that the group will offer, catching back up to a group after getting dropped and riding up long, gradual ascents.Power is required to accelerate quickly and strength is necessary to maintain the effort until the group is caught or the hill is crested.

All of these scenarios are easier to complete if as a sportive rider we have some ability to deploy a sustained increase in power for a period of time or distance. The effort is gradual and constant as we ride the knife-edge between blowing up or taking it too easy.

For many people reading this post, in all probability their main goal will be completing their first long sportive or perhaps they will be simply trying to make their second or third sportive a little less painful? It is entirely possible that they may decide that all this strength work and the further work that is required to properly take advantage of time spent in the gym to be worthless. For a sportive that is held on a calm day over flat terrain, they would be right. However, as anyone who has completed a UK based sportive will already know, such perfect conditions never exist. Hills will be a feature somewhere along the route and for most of the time in the UK, there will be a headwind for at least part of the route - Welcome to the world of sportives!

It was the frequency with which relatively steep hills appear on the average UK sportive route that encouraged me to seek out training methods that would potentially make getting up the hills easier and less traumatic. One of the draw backs for the unprepared (trained) rider of having to ride up a number of steep hills on a sportive route, is that the hills require the expenditure of increased amounts of energy and this in turn can have a negative impact on how comfortable (or not) the rider feels for the remainder of the route. If the route is particularly hilly and a succession of hills are encountered within a short period of time, the energy sapping effect of the hills can become cumulative and can have a potentially dramatic effect on the ability to finish the route.

Hills are inevitable, therefore it makes sense to consider training that equips the body with the strength and power to tackle them. 

Quantity V Quality   
As I explained in my earlier posts, one of my biggest problems is that I simply don't have the time available to commit to the "base miles" approach of preparing for a long distance ride. With the help of Simon Vincent from Total Cycling Performance, the trainers at my local gym and through plenty of reading and internet research I discovered that with the right mental attitude and the right type of training beforehand, it is possible to prepare for and complete those first long distance rides without committing to endless hours in the saddle.      

Doing a few intense interval sessions of 25-35 miles each, a few aerobic workouts and at least one 50+ mile ride each week, along with a recovery ride or two, will sufficiently prepare you for rides as long as 100 miles. By focusing on the quality of your workouts and getting the most out of your time on the bike, you will potentially achieve greater fitness than the cyclist who does 300-miles a weeks with no intensity training.

In pursuing the completion of your first sportive, long charity ride or simply riding that first 100 kilometers or 100 miles, it is not necessary to complete a single ride at your target distance during training (obviously you can if you want, and mentally it will probably easier if you go into the event knowing you have completed at least one ride at the event distance) All I'm saying is that with the right training content, it's not a ride breaker if you don't. I know this because I have tried it and proved it to be possible. 

I must at this point restate one of the points from my first post on this subject. If you are at all unsure about whether this type of training is right for you or you want to get the very best results from the time you will be investing in your training, seek professional advice from a coach or fitness instructor that understands cycling and the use of interval training for cycling. It will be time and money well spent if you want to achieve the best result you are capable of on the day of your ride(s)   
Interval Workouts
I introduced  regular interval training into my training programme last summer and to be honest, I found them (and still find them to be) hard work and at times just downright painful to point of nausea. What I didn't really understand then, that I do now, is that it is the interval training sessions that convert the strength developed in the gym into power on the bike.   

If you are new to interval sessions or haven't done any cycling specific interval training for some time it is best to start off with short intervals at maximum or near maximum intensity of between 10-30 seconds duration. The sessions will still be very hard on the muscles and cardio system, but they will be tolerable.
Interval sessions can be conducted either on the bike out on the road, on the bike indoors utilising a turbo trainer or indoors using an indoor trainer such as a Wattbike. 

The following are descriptions of intervals that I use regularly and which work for me. They are not the only interval sessions I use, but they are the ones that I initially found to be the easiest to understand/remember and actually use on a regular basis. Hopefully they will illustrate how interval training can be deployed enough for a newcomer to try it out and then maybe seek further guidance from a professional coach.

Speed Intervals
Speed intervals develop the speed at which the legs rotate, whilst also producing power and can help develop a smoother pedaling action at high cadences. Speed intervals should be completed by sprinting in a moderate gear ratio.

Warm up for 10-20 minutes of spinning in an easy gear, whilst also gradually increasing your heart rate. Ride 12 x 30 seconds at maximum effort in a moderate gear that allows a cadence of 115+ rpm whilst still making you work. Spin in an easy gear for 1 minute between intervals. After completing the 30 intervals cool down with 15-20 minutes of spinning in an easy gear.

Power Intervals
Power intervals develop power in the legs by focusing on pushing against resistance. The intensity is the same as in speed intervals, in that they are completed at maximum or near maximum intensity. The difference is that power intervals are completed in the bikes highest gear or against the indoor trainers highest resistance setting.

Warm up for 10-20 minutes spinning an easy gear, whilst also gradually increasing your heart rate. Ride 20 x 10 seconds at maximum effort in the bikes highest gear (maximum effort is the effort that you will be able to sustain for all 20 intervals). Spin an easy gear for 1 minute between intervals. Cool down for 15-20 minutes by spinning an easy gear at a relatively high cadence.

Short Hill Intervals                  
Short hill intervals are performed outside on the bike. They are maximum intensity hill climbs, performed out of the saddle and on a gradient on a steep gradient of perhaps 5-8 percent (or a hill steep enough to make you work at maximum effort)

Warm up for 15-20 minutes spinning an easy gear, whilst gradually increasing your heart rate to a point where you are working quite hard but not at maximum or near maximum heart rate. Ride 15 x 20 seconds at maximum effort ascending your chosen hill (I would try to utilise a gear that is slightly higher than you would normally use to ensure work at maximum effort). Coast down the hill for 1 minute between intervals, whilst also spinning your legs in an easy gear. Cool down for 15-20 minutes riding on easy terrain in a gear that allows you to spin your legs freely without undue effort.  

All of these interval sessions can be further developed if regularly deployed by either gradually increasing the number of reps in each set or increasing the time spent in each rep. Their is a sensible maximum by which each of these can be extended though, before they just become to painful to endure. If you try interval training and see some benefit from it, as always my advice would then be to seek help from a professional trainer to devise a properly tailored training plan - Have I stressed that enough in this series of posts? :)      

Each of the above workouts, require the same outright effort (everything you are able to muster) however they each produce slight differences in performance benefits and fitness on the bike. Speed intervals will develop your ability to pedal smoothly and with power at high cadence rates. Power intervals will simply help convert strength developed in the gym into maximum power through the pedals and ability to tackle long gradual gradients. Short hill intervals will will help to develop and enhance ability to tackle short steep hills.

Warning! Interval training is hard work, it will stretch you and it will hurt if you are doing it at the correct intensity. They will however make climbing hills, bridging gaps to the next group of cyclists or simply finishing the sportive easier to achieve.

Don't take my word for it though, try doing two of the three intervals I have described in this post each week (utilise a different day for each chosen interval workout) for a period of 6-8 weeks and then ride a course where you have a known time from a ride prior to commencing interval training. My guess is that you will cover the ground faster and you will be finding hills a less daunting proposition.      

These intervals should hurt and hurt a lot! The potential gain in power is so great, however, that it is worth considering going through the pain during training to make completing that sportive or long ride a potentially easier proposition. They work for me and to be honest the results I have seen justify the short term pain each week.

The Pixie doesn't profess to be an expert, nor does he ever expect to be an expert. The Pixie is however very curious and as a result tends to research everything he does in an attempt to understand what works and sometimes even why it works. These thoughts are simply the Pixie documenting what has worked for him in the hope that somebody else can gain from his pain and experience, and that they do not have to do quite as much research as he has done. 

As always thanks for taking the time to pop along and read the ramblings of the Pixie and he'd be pleased to see you pop back again some time in the future. 

Right, that's enough writing about training, I'd better go and actually do some training.   

Dha weles diwettha


Thursday, 7 March 2013

So You Entered Your First Sportive Part 2 - Building Power & Strength

This post is intended as a follow up to my last post which contained the Pixies thoughts on lessons learnt over the the last 12 months or so in respect of training for that first sportive, long charity ride or maybe the first attempt at riding a century (whether that is 100 kilometers or 100 miles). You probably don't need to read that post for this one to make sense, however in case you haven't read it, it can be found here HERE 

In my last post I said that I believed that the introduction of strength training into my training programme had made a significant difference on my ability to ride longer distances, climb hills without having to walk or take a rest at the top and it has probably increased my average speed over a given distance. (Actually the introduction of a formalised and documented training plan, did this as well) So convinced am I of the positive contribution strength training makes to sportive performance, it is now an ongoing fixture in my weekly training programme, that rarely gets missed.

I think i should also probably point out that I am no expert, indeed I still consider myself to be a "newbie" in the world of sportives. What follows is really just me reflecting on what works for me in the hope that it might encourage other "newbies" to think about how they are going to prepare themselves for their first sportive or properly long ride?  

What I am not talking about is the type of weight training that is practiced by body builders, their goal is strength and bulky muscle. Our goal is strength and no unnecessary bulky muscle.

Not convinced about whether strength training is worth it or beneficial?

Strength training seems to work for Chris Hoy 
OK, so Chris Hoy is a track cyclist and needs thighs like tree trunks for sprinting, but in any sportive, the same muscles that are used for sprinting will be used for climbing those pesky hills.

"Road cyclists need to be light and avoid the bulk that weight training produces!" I hear you say. This article about Bradley Wiggins' winter training regime seems to indicate that he can see some benefit from strength training Bradley Wiggins's TDF preperation article - Cycling Weekly       

Doesn't look like the gym work added any unwanted muscle bulk to Wiggo

Completing the type of distances we are talking about, over the types of terrain typically encountered on an average UK sportive requires strength. Strength is principally required (in my own experience) to avoid a situation where those steep hills that organisers always include don't completely drain the rider of the ability to finish the route. When the hill gets steep, the muscles in the leg and core of the body are making a significant contribution to our ability to get up and over the hill - If the leg muscles aren't strong enough to turn the pedals, forward motion is lost and guess what? Its time for the "oh my god, I can't get unclipped from my pedal" and kissing the tarmac moment - Yep, been there, done that, got the T shirt.

Sportive organisers have a habit of including these on their routes

I guess I should stop labouring this point and simply say that I have come to the conclusion that performing select upper body exercises gives me greater power in sprints and on short, steep climbs where pulling on the handlebars increases the force applied to the pedals. I'm sure I use less energy (for a given speed and gradient) on climbs now than previously and that can only be contributing to an increased ability to go further and faster than before.

Strength training will help you get up hills like this one

I have also found that doing training exercises that work my lower body strength in addition to performing upper body, abdominal and lower-back training exercises has resulted in better comfort on the bicycle, which again must be contributing to less wasted energy and increased potential for going further and faster. 

After some experimentation with different exercises I have found that the best strength and resistance exercises for me are the following:
  1. leg press and squats, multi-muscle group exercises which focus on the quads and hip flexors,
  2. calf press or raises,
  3. back extension to develop lower back strength,
  4. stiff-legged deadlifts or leg curls to strengthen the hamstrings and gluteus maximus,
  5. abdominal curls, and
  6. seated or bent rows to develop the middle and upper back and the posterior surface of the shoulders.
In addition to the above exercises I also have a number of core conditioning  exercises that I complete, however I'll save talking about those for another blog post.

Extreme core conditioning exercise
My own research (Thanks Google) and conversations with Simon at Total Cycling Performance and the trainers at my local gym have confirmed the need for developing a strength training programme that works all of the muscle groups that work with and against each other e.g. Hamstring exercises are important because over-development of the quadriceps, typical in most serious cyclists, must be balanced with development of the hamstrings to avoid hamstring tears. Also, hamstrings are used in the bottom part of the pedal stroke where a slightly backward force is applied. Squats offer many benefits. I have found them to be very effective at strengthening the large quadriceps muscle in the inside/front of the thigh. Performing leg press and squats will also strengthen the hip flexors potentially preventing hip pain after battling up those long and/or steep hills.

Always useful to be able to identify specific muscles

If you have never used weights for strength training before, I would recommend that you consult a cycling coach or physical trainer to help you devise a weight training program that addresses your own development areas. They will also teach you the proper way to do of all exercises included in that program. 

If you suffer from any form of joint pain, like me, always start off with a light weight after any break from your strength training programme as this will help to avoid instigating back, hip or knee pain. (Yep, I've got that T shirt as well) 

Now that we are starting to get into the Sportive season I am starting to reduce weights I am lifting and placing greater focus on the workouts I am performing on the bike and Wattbike. My reason for doing this is to reduce the risk of injury in the weight room which could force me to skip sportives and lose valuable training time as I get ready for the Dragon Ride, l'etape and Newcastle to London. 

If you do decide to include some strength training in your sportive preparations, be guided by a professional trainer about volume of exercise until you are comfortable with making that decision yourself. 

So you've entered your first sportive and you want to do everything possible to maximise the chances of having an enjoyable and successful day? 

I'm pretty confident that if you visit the gym at least once or twice a week during the build up to the event, you will notice a significant increase in your power on the bike. Try it you might like it! 

Oh, and before I forget to mention it. It's perfectly normal to feel a little nervous about going into the strength training section of the gym, thinking everyone will be looking at you and asking what steroids and supplements you are taking. The reality is likely to be that you will be left to your own devices and nobody will be that bothered about the fact that you are there - Most of the people that you will encounter will be focused on their own training programme and will be friendly if you want them to be.

As always thanks for taking the time to visit this blog and read the ramblings of the Pixie as he documents his own journey to l'etape and Newcastle to London. I hope you have found some of this post interesting, and maybe even useful? 

Pop back again some time and find out whether I am on track to get up that big French Mountain and whether it looks like I will be able to ride from Newcastle to London in under 24 hours in August.    

Dha weles diwettha



Wednesday, 6 March 2013

So you entered your first sportive or long charity ride?

Spring is just around the corner, we've had a few sunny days, the temperature is warming up and quite naturally it now feels OK to start planning and dreaming about, what we want to achieve this season.

For some it will be completing more sportives than last year, it might be achieving better times over a certain distance or on events that have been completed previously or it might be entering and finishing one of the major sportive events such as l'etape. 

This year I suspect their will also be a significant number of people who will be planning to enter their first sportive or long charity ride. Interest in participating in these events is already high at the moment, with events selling out within days/weeks of entry opening. Events such as Ride London 100 will be introducing a significant number of people to the delights of riding a 100 miles on a bike for the first time, some of whom may not have ridden a bike for many, many years.

So how do you prepare for your first sportive or other long distance ride of perhaps 100 kilometers or 100 miles duration? 

There are many training plans and guides written by far cleverer and experienced individuals than me, that can easily be found on the internet which provide varying levels of detail as to how an individual could train for one of these events, so I'm not going to reinvent the wheel by detailing my own training plan or by putting another generic plan out there in Google land. What I can is perhaps share some of the things I have learnt in my very short sportive career in the hope that other sportive newbies can avoid some of the mistakes I made or simply prepare a little more effectively for their first event.

Credit for some of the things that I have learnt and more effective practices I have subsequently adopted must go to Simon Vincent at Total Cycling Performance who set me off on the path to training enlightenment with the 16 week training plan that he designed for me in 2012.      

Chances are that for a new sportive rider their first event is likely to involve  riding a century, whether this is a 100 kilometers or a 100 miles, in one day. Riding 100 miles in a day may sound extreme, however what I now know is that almost any leisure cyclist is capable of completing either of these distances if they prepare for the event in a structured manner.

Preparation for that first century can probably be broken down into the following categories;

  • Bike and equipment
  • Training
  • Nutrition
  • Attitude
Over the coming weeks I will share in more detail some of the Pixies experiences and thoughts on each of these subjects, however lets have a little introductory look at each one.

Making the right choices with equipment will increase your comfort on the bike and being comfortable will mean that you are not wasting energy trying to make yourself comfortable and you will not be distracted from the task in hand.

A badly fitting bike was one of the biggest contributors to the pain and suffering I endured in my first weeks of trying to embark on rides of more than 20 miles. If you experience pain in the knees, hips or back and you aren’t sure what a correctly fitting bike should feel like get a proper bike fit from a professional - Google "bike fit" and the name of your county or nearest major town/city and you will find the names of some people to contact or ask for recommendations from other cyclists. If your bike is new and the shop you bought it from adjusted the seat, sat you on it and asked you how it feels, chances are it isn't going to be set up properly - just because it feels right to you, doesn't mean it is actually set up right for efficient and pain free riding over long distances.  

Many of the training plans and guides that can be found on the internet will say that the majority of training for a first century ride should focus on endurance training or "base miles". Building up base miles is something that I include in my own training, however as a new sportive rider I found that I didn't have the basic or core strength in my muscles to be able to cover distances in excess of 35-40 miles without being physically to tired to regularly increase the distance covered. Additionally my average speed remained stuck at around 10-12mph. The other problem I found with trying to simply ride further each week was that I didn't have the time available for 3 or 4 long rides per week. If I had relied on the "building up mileage" method of training for my first event I think it would have taken me so long to get to a point where I was capable of completing a 100 kilometers that I would have given up trying long before I actually completed a sportive.


The answer for me came with the integration of interval training and strength training into my regular training plan (and not forgetting that to have a "regular training plan" I needed to have a properly thought out and documented plan of what I was going to do and when I was going to do it - Obvious but easily overlooked) Why include strength training? Riding a bike at a reasonable pace over any significant distance requires muscular strength in the lower body and the core of the body and in my case I didn't have the required level of strength due to many years of inactivity. Developing muscular strength by visiting the gym has undoubtedly helped me develop more power on the bike, which means that i can go faster for longer and find climbing hills much easier. 


How long should you allow to prepare for that first sportive or long charity ride? The general consensus seems to be that you need to train in a structured way for at least 12 weeks before the ride, personally if the time is available I would look at a 16 week training window, this should provide you with ample time to prepare for that first century. 

Some things that are worth considering when training for that first sportive include; 

  • Aim to increase mileage on your long ride by around 10% each week
  • Aim to hit at least 70% of the target distance of your chosen event no later than two weeks before the event
  • Be aware of any minimum speed requirement for your chosen event and train with a view to achieving that average speed during training
  • Think about cadence (pedal revolutions per minute), what cadence suits your style and physique best? 70-90 revolutions per minute seems to suit most newcomers to sportives
  • Plan to reduce your training mileage in the week before the event and consider limiting riding to one or two short easy rides

How much time should you devote to training each week? How long is a piece of string? With the right training plan it is entirely possible to train for that first century devoting as little as 8-10 hours per week to training. Currently I would say that I average around 10-12 hours of  focused training per week.  

What does my training plan currently look like? At a very high level it contains the following;

  • Four sessions of specific core strength exercises e.g. press ups, planks etc 
  • Two sessions per week in the gym concentrating on building my upper body, abdominal, lower back and leg strength
  • Two sessions per week which focus on completing speed and power interval training either on the bike or on the Wattbike
  • One or two sessions on the bike or Wattbike of 1-2 hours duration which concentrate on maintaining a specific % of maximum heart rate 
  • Two rides at the weekend, one of around 2-3 hours duration at a relaxed pace and another which is of longer duration and focuses on completing a set distance whilst maintaining a specific % of maximum heart rate (it is this ride that I currently use to gradually increase my mileage each week)
  • One recovery day per week with no exercise or an easy spin on the wattbike   

The content of each persons training plan should be specific to them and based on a proper assessment of their current abilities and physical performance and I would say that enlisting the help of a professional cycling specific trainer has lifted my performance on the bike far beyond where I thought I would be at this point in time. I guess if the thought of engaging a coach seems like a step to far or maybe funds won't allow it, a training plan based on the structure I follow will probably provide better results than simply going out for a ride 2-3 times a week hoping that each week fitness will improve.

One last thought on training, it is important to understand the distinction between a training ride and a leisure ride and don't let a training ride inadvertently become a leisure ride. A training ride has a purpose and objectives that need to be achieved e.g. cover 75 miles in 4 hours and 30 minutes with one rest stop of 5 minutes. A leisure ride is simply a ride with no fixed objective or target, a ride undertaken simply for the pleasure of riding and with no real focus on fitness improvement. Allowing training rides to become leisure rides is a sure fire way to make any training plan ineffective and probably why the building up base miles method of training does not work for most newcomers to the sport.  

As the day of the first sportive approaches, what you put in our body becomes of critical importance for a successful sportive. In the days prior to the sportive you should start hydrating. Drink plenty of water and consider cutting back on caffeine and alcohol. 

In the days leading up to the sportive you should consider adding additional carbohydrates to your diet to ensure that your reserves of energy are completely topped up. There is a limit to how much carbohydrate the body will store as an energy reserve before it simply turns it into fat, but we'll save the details of that topic for another blog post. 

On the day of the sportive, eat a light breakfast of low GI high-carbohydrate foods and drink lots of water. If your sportive means that you need to travel to the event by car for a few hours before the event, consider taking your breakfast with you to eat when you arrive at the event HQ (When I find myself in this situation I always take an instant porridge and a flask of hot water, which I eat 2 hours before the scheduled start time and I also take a banana, honey and peanut butter sandwich which I eat about 30-40 minutes before the start time).   

On the ride keep sipping your drink and try to avoid becoming thirsty. Water or a sports drink are the options here.Water is easy to obtain and top up during the event at feed stations if you run out, sports drinks can provide a source of electrolytes and easily absorbed carbohydrates and can be used to replace energy/carbohydrate whilst riding.

Don't under estimate the importance of consuming some solid foods, eat easily digestible, high carbohydrate food including energy bars, bagels, fruit or sweets. Personally I have found that jelly babies and flap jacks work well for me and they are now my food of choice for rides over 50 miles. 

Whilst it is important to eat while you are riding, try not to over indulge as it is possible to have to much of a good thing and ruin that first sportive by having an upset stomach, being sick or simply being bloated and lethargic. Use your training rides to fine tune your feeding strategy and once you know what works for you, avoid disrupting your routine on the event.  

One last thought on nutrition, try to avoid consuming food and drink that you haven't tried during training, to avoid an upset stomach or cramping.  

Attitude is everything. There will be days when you are training and it seems like nothing is going right, its a fact that this will happen, accept it and move on. There will also be days when everything clicks into place and progress will come easily (these days are the payback for the tough days) understand when these days are occurring and delight in your new found cycling prowess.

Preparing yourself to arrive at the start of that first sportive in the best possible condition is actually not very complicated but it will probably require some planning and will require some will power to stick to your training plan.

 A first sportive of either 100 kilometers or 100 miles is well within the grasp of most relative newcomers to cycling if they are prepared to commit to a structured training plan and invest some time in increasing their cycling specific fitness.Time invested in training prior to the event will mean that on the day you will be able to sit back and enjoy the experience of your first sportive (and you will probably be able to have an inward laugh at those people that didn't train very well as you pass them on the first significant hill of the day)

What is that "they" say "fail to plan - plan to fail"

Crikey, this has turned into a long blog post! I hope some of the above is of use or interest to somebody and if you are entering your first sportive this year, enjoy your day, don't worry everybody will be really friendly and hopefully you will make some new friends while you out on the ride.

As always thanks for taking the time to visit my blog and read the ramblings of the Pixie. Hopefully you will be able to find the time to visit the blog again some time in the future.

Dha weles diwettha