Training for a 1100 km MTB Race
I have had a lot of questions about my training and preparation for the Great Southern Brevet. In this article I thought I would open up and lay it all out there so you could see the training or lack of training that I did.
Lining up for the Great Southern Brevet I was nervous to see how my training had prepared me for this demanding 1100 km event. I had been quite limited with my training, juggling my coaching load, day to day running of Exponential Performance Coaching and family life as a part time stay at home dad. With these other commitments I was keen to maximise the training time that I did have. On the start line there was talk of epic training rides and huge training weeks. I did not dare mention that my longest training ride in the past 9 weeks was just over 4 hours! In fact my average weekly training volume for that past 9 weeks clocked in at 5.5 hours.
Graph of my total weekly training duration (hours) in the 9 weeks leading into the GSB
So how did I prepare for such a demanding endurance event without performing a lot of traditional endurance training? When looking at the event I identified 4 key factors that I thought would give me the best return for my time investment. These were metabolic efficiency, strength endurance, training specificity and anaerobic threshold. Below I have outlined each of these factors in some more detail.
For ultra endurance events this is the corner stone of your performance. If you can become very efficient at burning fat as a fuel and burn a higher proportion of fat to carbohydrates at higher workloads when you ride you are going to be able to ride for longer. This is your 'endurance'. Traditionally this is developed in training plans by long slow distance training which works well but takes up a lot of time. To reduce the amount of time required to get the desired gains I used a lot of muscle glycogen manipulation or nutrient deprivation training methods (you can read more about this here). Sessions such as performing my long ride before breakfast and without eating meant that my body was put under a large amount of metabolic stress without having to ride for hours on end. Or performing twice a day sessions. The first a high intensity session to deplete your muscle glycogen stores and then the second a steady hill ride so you ride on depleted muscle as would happen at the end of a long ride. All of this added up to being able to get good endurance training adaptations without having to put in lots and lots of hours.
I suspected the course would include many, many long sustained climbs and I was not wrong with the 14000 m of climbing over the course. This was also going to be amplified by the added weight of a bike loaded with gear which links partly into training specificity. To maximise this aspect of my training I rode lots of hills. Steep hills, long gradual hills and short hills. Whatever types of hills were going, I rode them. Once I had my gear bags organised (approx a month before the start) I loaded them up and rode with them on the hills to get use to the added weight
Elevation profile of GSB 2014 course
Because I had never done such an event before the specific nature of it required some special attention. As noted above I did a lot of my rides with a loaded bike which not only got me use to the weight but also the handling of the bike and my riding position. I did quite a lot of my riding early in the morning and at night. This allowed me to keep the day free for other commitments as well as getting my body clock use to riding at the different times and it gave me time to practice and refine my lighting systems. I felt that during the actual event itself that this aspect of my training paid off greatly.
While it may seem strange that I would pay attention to my anaerobic threshold for an ultra endurance event. I knew that a high anaerobic threshold is the primary predictor of endurance performance. This is because when you ride a given distance/ time you will ride at a certain percentage of your anaerobic threshold power. The longer the event the lower this percentage is. However, the higher your anaerobic threshold is, the higher that absolute power/ speed will be at that given percentage. Anaerobic threshold is also highly trainable and responds relatively quickly to training so I knew I would be getting good bang for my buck with the training time I put in here.
Training on the Dunedin hills fully loaded.
So with those 4 key training aims in mind what did my actual training look like? Below are some of the key sessions that I included in my training.
Nutrient deprivation ride: 'Long ride' 2-3 hours before breakfast without taking on any fuel and minimal fluids, clocking up as much climbing as possible while loaded with gear. These were often performed early in the morning starting in the dark, so they were also a good oppertunity for the specificity aspect of training as well as developing my metabolic efficiency.
Long hill intervals: 2 sets of 4x4 min seated hill intervals with 2 min uphill recovery between, loaded with gear. Great for developing your anaerobic threshold and strength endurance.
Short hill intervals: 2 sets of 5x1 min standing steep hill intervals with 1 min downhill recovery. This is a great time efficient session that had benefits across a range of areas.
General ride: Steady - tempo paced ride clocking up some climbing, single track and road. My commuting would often make up part or all of this ride. If I was tired or busy then this would be the first session that would get dropped as it 'ticks' the least number of boxes in terms of the 4 key points I outlined above.
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I knew I had a good base fitness and that with a training block focused on specific sharpening that I would come up in decent physical shape. What I was not sure on was the mental aspect of such a demanding event. I was both excited and nervous at the prospect of riding as much of the course as I could solo. While I had raced in a number of long adventure races, they had all been done as part of a team where if you were having a bad patch you had the others around you to help you get through it. It was this solo aspect and the challenge of getting yourself through the hard times that I knew would be the biggest challenge of the Brevet. With this in mind I added some additional focused breathing and visualisation sessions to my regular morning routine to help mentally prepare myself for the self imposed suffering that was going to be all consuming. Looking back it was this mental training and preparation that really paid off during the brevet. When things were hurting and not going my way I was able to bring my focus back under control and get back to the job at hand.
So there you have it. That is how I prepared for a 1100 km MTB epic on an average of 5.5 hours of training over 9 weeks using some smarter training methods.