Ride Training for Gravel

Jesse Southerland
Photo credit: Cody Mann TEST NOT FOR USE
Photo credit: Cody Mann TEST NOT FOR USE

From Bicycling

Key Points

  • Training for gravel events is more about “doing the distance.” Your training is focused on more than just getting fit or developing speed, for instance.

  • The more specific you can make your training rides—especially the long ones—the happier you’ll be on event day.

  • For a 200-mile race, you'll want to hit at least 130 to 150 miles for your longest training ride—you'll get through that last 25 to 30 percent through race-day energy management.

  • Take your recovery as seriously as you take your training.

Gravel events are designed to be tough, and DNFing sucks. But being prepared makes even the most arduous events a healthy dose of type 2 fun. That’s why training is a must. How much time you dedicate to training largely depends on your goals. If you’re looking to compete (score a podium spot or make the top 10 in your age group), you’ll generally have to put in more training time than if you’re simply looking to complete (beat the time cutoffs and get to the finish line in one piece).

A good general strategy is to aim for the middle ground between those two ends of the spectrum, which will, barring mishaps, help you perform your best without sacrificing every spare moment of your life to training.

Aim for four rides a week, though you can get the job done by consistently riding three days a week. Your overall weekly time commitment will vary as you get further into the meat of your training. In the early stages, expect to spend about six to eight hours on your bike each week. As the training ramps up, you’re looking at a few weeks of eight to 10 hours of saddle time, the bulk of which will come from your long rides. During the week, your rides will be shorter, but a little bit harder. On the weekends (or whenever you have days off), they’ll be longer and a bit easier.

Coaches often describe training as a bridge between where you are and where you want to be. The longer the event, the bigger your bridge, and the farther out you should start training to build it. Use these basic rules to gauge your training time:

If you’re training for gravel rides in the 50- to 75-mile range: Give yourself six to eight weeks, especially if you’ve not been riding regularly.

If you’re training for anything in the 100-plus range: Give yourself at least 10 to 12 weeks. If you’re an experienced rider, you could get away with eight to 10 weeks to get up to speed.

If you’re preparing for an ultraendurance gravel event in the 200-mile range: Start at least 16 weeks out — this will also give you plenty of time for some trial and error to get your gear and nutrition sorted out on those long rides.

For double century length events such as Dirty Kanza and Michigan’s Coast to Coast, both of which take place in June, you may need to start putting in some miles before it’s ideal “putting in some miles” weather, depending where you live. Fortunately, the long rides aren’t terribly long at that point and indoor training options have improved exponentially over the years.

Our expert guide includes a training plan for a 200-mile event. You can use it to structure a plan for shorter events. A typical training week should include the three types of targeted training, plus one or two days of cross training (strength and core training), rest days, and Rider’s Choice days, where if the spirit moves you and you have time, grab your bike and go ride.

A good plan should undulate and mix hard, moderate, and easier weeks. That’s to give you a psychological and physical break so you can recover and training doesn’t become a grind. Go ahead and rearrange training days as it suits your schedule. Just give yourself adequate recovery following long and/or hard days.

The final week to 10-day period before your event is time to “taper.” That means you significantly dial back the volume of your training, while maintaining a few efforts to stay sharp. The goal is to allow your body to completely recover and to restock all your glycogen stores, so you are good to go. Do not blow off your taper week. You cannot gain anything by going out and doing one more long, hard ride to try to “cram” for the event or test your legs. You will only get tired. Aim to go into your event as rested and fresh as humanly possible. It’s natural to feel antsy, irritable, or a little heavy (you’re storing glycogen and water after all), during this period. Many riders hate it. But you’ll love it when you have energy to burn come race day.

Obligatory disclaimer: Nothing takes the place of a coach who can hone your training to your personal needs. The advice and training plan you’re getting here can serve as a framework, but you’ll inevitably need to make adjustments as life gets in the way. You can try to adapt on your own, but these disruptions to your plan are when a coach is most helpful.

Types of Training Rides

I recommend three types of targeted training rides, each with a specific mission.

➥ 1. Haul It

These are long rides, during which you haul yourself and your gear out and have some fun for a few hours. Long rides are the keystones of your training plan, as they give you the opportunity to experiment, practice, and dial in your long ride form and fitness, plus packing and fueling strategies.

Use a pace close to what you hope to maintain for your goal event, aiming for a Zone 2 effort level. That means you want to keep moving along. At this intensity, you move along moderately, from beginning to end, but you can still have a conversation. On a 1 to 10 scale, where 10 is the hardest, you’re at a 5 or 6, with a little more intensity sprinkled in here and there. While it seems almost too easy when you first roll out, by the time you finish, you should feel as though you’ve done some work.

When you spend 70 to 80 percent of your training time at this intensity, you build and maintain a strong foundation of endurance fitness. You’ll optimize fat burning and capillary development, which will serve you well during long events.

Keep these rides adventurous and fun. Recruit some friends, explore new places, and if possible, replicate the terrain you’ll face at your goal event. Most riders will inevitably put many of their miles in on the road—that’s what most people have access to. But do yourself a favor and ride the bike you plan to use on event day for at least half of your long rides, even if it means you’re riding fatter tires on the pavement. It’s good practice.

There’s no getting around it: The really long Haul It rides are going to be hard (that’s the idea, after all). But they don’t have to be a logistical nightmare. One trick is to build them around surrounding rides. When I was training for the Michigan Coast to Coast Gravel Grinder, I would stay with a friend in Philadelphia, and we would ride the 15 or 20 miles to our local spring events on the New Jersey border, do the 65- to 85-mile rides, and then ride back.

Using that approach, we could get a massive 125-mile training day in but didn’t have to worry about where all of our water and refueling stops would be. We used the event aid stations, just like we would in the actual events we were training for. It also makes the miles fly by because you have lots of people to ride with and talk to along the way. Another good trick is to join a shop ride in a nearby town. With a little creativity, you won’t have to go out there like a pack mule and try to put in all the work alone.

How long will your longest Haul It ride be? By no means do you need to ride 200 miles before going out to Michigan or Kansas. But try covering at least two-thirds and preferably three-quarters of the distance/duration you’ll be riding in your event, if at all possible. The hardest part of any long gravel grinder is the tunnel through no man’s land, when you’re about two-thirds of the way through, and you’re getting tired but nowhere near done. That’s when fatigue does weird things to your mental state. Seeing that in training is enormously helpful so you know how to get through it during your event.

For 200 milers, that means trying to hit 130 to 150 miles. Smart race day energy management will get you through the last 25 to 30 percent. Note: The plan prescribes rides in time, not duration, because ultimately you need to train for how long you’ll physically be sitting on your bike. Make note of your mileage and do some math. You need to move along at an average speed of more than 10 mph (including stopping time) to make the cutoffs at most gravel events.

➥ 2. Push It

Push It rides will include longer intervals. During these rides you’ll push the intensity up a notch to increase your breathing and elevate your heart rate to around 80 to 85 percent of your max heart rate, as if you're pedaling with someone slightly faster than you. These rides will train your body to ride more briskly while maintaining comfort, so you can finish faster and fresher.

These steady, tempo-to-threshold efforts are particularly important to prepare for gravel events. When riding gravel, you can expect to spend a lot of time pushing a bigger gear at a lower cadence than you would on a typical road ride to stay in control and maintain momentum over rough terrain. You’ll also spend much of your event working pretty hard to make forward progress in the wind, mud, rolling hills, and whatever else the course throws at you.

Push It days build your stamina by including increasingly longer Zone 3 and Zone 4 intervals, when you’re hovering right under, sometimes pressing just over, your threshold—the place where your legs start to burn and things get uncomfortable.

By the time you reach your goal event, a pace that felt uncomfortably hard should feel closer to just right. You’ll do one or two of these rides each week. They’re not long, but definitely a little hard.

Here are the three types of Push It intervals you’ll do:

Tempo Time: Ride at an intensity that feels hard, but you can maintain. Aim for an effort of 7 to 8 rating of perceived exertion (RPE). Hold that pace, without letting off for 10 to 20 minutes, as prescribed. Recover at an easy pace for half the interval time (so five to 10 minutes in this case). Repeat the prescribed number of times.

Ramp It Up: Increase your effort to the point that you’re working at a hard but sustainable effort level (7 to 8 RPE). Hold that pace without letting off for eight minutes. Then push your effort a little further to threshold (Zone 4/8 RPE) for four minutes. Recover at an easy pace for half the interval time. Repeat as prescribed.

Cross the Line: Increase your effort to your threshold heart rate (Zone 4/8 RPE) and hold that intensity for five to six minutes. Then increase your effort to about three to five beats above LT heart rate (low Zone 5/9 RPE) for one to two minutes. Then drop it back down to LT for five to six minutes. Repeat for the prescribed number of sets.

➥ 3. Drill It

These fairly short and easy- to moderate-pace rides include high-intensity intervals, seated climbing, and big gear drills that mimic the type of fitness you need for gravel events.

Although you don’t really need to be sprinting or doing super high-intensity interval training (HIIT) for endurance gravel riding, there will be times when you find yourself needing—or wanting—to push into the red to catch up to a group ahead of you, crest a really hard climb, or race a segment within the event. There’ll be just enough HIIT to raise your top-end fitness and prepare you for those moments.

Here are the three types of Drill It intervals you’ll do:

Flying 40s: In a medium to large gear, push as hard as you can for 40 seconds. Recover for 20 seconds. Repeat 5 times. Rest five minutes between the prescribed number of sets.

Just Two Minutes: Crank up your intensity until you’re working very hard (a 9 on a 1 to 10 RPE scale). Hold that intensity for two minutes. Recover for two minutes. Repeat as prescribed.

Gravel Power: Do these on a mild to moderate climb. If you have no hills, use a big gear while riding into a headwind. Shift into a relatively hard gear and maintain your cruising pace while pushing hard into those pedals at a low cadence of about 55 to 60 rpm. Crank away for about five to 10 minutes. Recover for as long as the interval time.

Recovery

There’s a saying in coaching circles everyone would be wise to heed: Recover as hard as you train. We all love to go out for long rides, crush ourselves up climbs, challenge ourselves in the gym, and otherwise “do the work.” But the work is only half of the training equation. The other half of that equation is recovery, the downtime when your body repairs and gets stronger so it can do all that work again and then some.

“Dialing in my recovery has been an extreme performance booster,” says professional mountain bike racer Karen Jarchow, who has recently taken to gravel racing. “It took me a long time to get that—that I have to recover just as hard as I train!”

For Jarchow, that means having a recovery drink after hard workouts, eating plenty of fruits and veggies, drinking lots of water, meditating, and practicing yoga, along with flushing her legs with self-massage tools like Elevated Legs.

All of those are excellent recovery strategies. If you don’t have high-tech recovery tools like Elevated Legs (inflatable leg sleeves), foam rolling is also a good way to reduce soreness from hard workouts.

Most important, get good sleep. Bedtime is prime time for bone, muscle, hormone, and immune system restoration. As the weekend rides get longer (and therefore harder), getting at least seven to eight hours of sleep will help you repair and rebound from all that hard work.

Training Zones

For simplicity, I like using five training exertion zones. These zones are based on your heart rate or power, which you can measure using a heart rate monitor or power meter respectively. If you have neither, you can rate your effort level by your breathing and ability to speak, but that is considerably harder because it requires that you really pay attention to how you’re feeling the whole time.

➥ Zone 1: Easy/Recovery

Light and relaxed breathing, barely above normal. You're at 60 to 64 percent of your heart rate training zone, calculated with heart rate reserve (or HRR, the difference between your max heart rate and resting heart rate).

You can talk easily.

➥ Zone 2: Endurance/Base

Deep, steady, rhythmic breathing. This is your aerobic, endurance training zone, requiring 65 to 74 percent HRR. You can speak short sentences but start to breathe more heavily.

➥ Zone 3: Tempo/Intensive Endurance

Slightly labored breathing. This is a steady tempo pace, requiring 75 to 84 percent HRR. You're working just above your endurance comfort zone—similar to when you're riding with someone who is a bit faster than you. You can speak just a few words at a time.

➥ Zone 4: Threshold/Lactate Threshold

Short, fast, rhythmic breathing. This is your lactate threshold zone, requiring 85 to 94 percent HRR. You're hitting your sustainable user limit. It's also known as race pace. You can only speak one or two words intermittently.

➥ Zone 5: Above Threshold to Max

Hard, heavy breathing. This is your VO2 max training zone, where you're at 95 to 100 percent HRR. You're utilizing as much oxygen as possible, and going as hard as you can. It is impossible to speak!

200-Mile Training Plan

This 16-week plan will help you get to the finish of a 200-mile gravel event with a smile on your face. That doesn't mean you’ll be smiling the whole time! You’ll definitely have dark spells when you'll wonder why the hell you signed up for this infernal thing. But they won’t last. And when you roll across the line, you’ll be giddy with glee.

This plan assumes that you’re already able to ride two-and-a-half to three hours. If you’re not there yet, build up to that first.

Remember, this is a blueprint. Feel free to substitute in events, group rides, Zwift sessions, and/or group exercise classes like Soul Cycle along the way. Just be sure to use some of your long rides to practice your setup and nutrition. And of course try to get off the pavement when you can. If you can find a couple of long gravel events to use for your long rides, do so.

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