The #1 Most Important Training Ride You Do Each Week
Everyone wants to know: what’s the best way to get faster with the time I have? The vast majority of riders are time-limited. We read and hear about how professionals train and think, “if it works for them, it’ll work for me!” The reality is, professionals often dedicate 20+ hours per week to their craft. They spend a lot of time in the saddle, and most of it is spent riding very slowly… well, slow for them anyway.
There are a lot of ways that the average rider can accomplish great things without 20+ hours in the saddle – no one way is “The Way” (Sorry, Mandelorians). If you’ve read or heard about various training methodologies, you’ve no doubt heard about Polarized training, Sweet Spot training, VO2Max, HIIT, high volume, and dozens of other buzzwords that are out there.
There is one thing all of those training methods have in common: for athletes to progress in aerobic sports like cycling, they need to build aerobic endurance. Every cycling discipline (with the exception of BMX and track sprinting) is primarily and largely aerobic. Anything greater than 90 seconds in duration will place a large demand on your aerobic energy system, so it is critical that you build your aerobic capacity. And there is one “best way” to do that: The Long Ride.
What makes a proper “Long Ride”? First off, ignore mileage. Mileage is a vanity statistic that is relatively meaningless. Focus instead on consistent time spent pedaling the bike forward at a moderate pace. Sure, your Strava ride time might be 4 hours, but if most of that time was spent in someone’s draft pedaling at less than half your functional capability, you coasted for 30% of it and you left your time running at stop lights and rest stops, the reality is you pedaled much less than that. A properly executed long ride is one where you are challenged by the length of time you spent pedaling, not how hard you pedaled.
The duration may vary based on your experience and goals. You should build your long “base” rides to be at least as long as your goal event, and no shorter than 2 hours in any case. Most “A” level riders will see tremendous aerobic benefits from getting up to 4 hours or more.
A properly executed long ride is done at a “conversational” rate of perceived exertion (4 out of 10) – you’re breathing at an increased rate, but not so hard that you can’t complete a sentence without gasping. For those with heart rate monitors, you’re aiming for something about 65%-75% of your Max HR (e.g. I do my aerobic long rides at 130-145bpm with a max HR of 191). For those training with power, I advocate monitoring HR alongside power. When your HR starts to stray high at the same aerobic power level, you’re either cooked or you’re going too hard. But if power is your thing, you should aim to keep power at 65-75% of your functional threshold (more on this later!) and limit surges at or above threshold to only when necessary, even on climbs.
So how do you best put this into practice? Here’s my breakdown:
OK: Get out with your friends and ride a long conversation-pace ride, including stops, stoplights, water, coffee, and nature breaks. Take turns at the front but keep the effort at the levels discussed above.
BETTER: Get out on your own or with a similarly fit and like-minded partner. No drafting – if you need to ride single file, get six bike lengths or more apart. Do your own work. Pedal on the descents. Aim for zero “coasting” time and limit your stops to only what’s necessary. Keep the effort level as discussed above. Don’t worry about speed on climbs; keep your effort consistent.
BEST: Embrace the trainer. There’s no more time-efficient way to build your engine – no traffic, no stoplights, and no hills. Jump on the trainer, set up erg mode if you’ve got a smart trainer, or ride your trainer with power/HR as discussed above. Set out your bottles and nutrition out when you start. Only stop if you absolutely need to. Build your duration pedaling straight through.
I know that most people don’t like sitting on the trainer for long periods. There’s nothing wrong with the long ride outdoors, just make the most of it. Limit your stops, avoid coasting if you can, and keep the effort consistent. Build your duration, and it will pay off when you start to train harder!