QUICK GUIDE: Nail Your Long Ride
I previously discussed how to execute your long rides. In review: it’s about constant pressure on the pedals for progressively longer and longer time; you should be fatigued by the duration of the ride, not how hard you pedaled.
Most novice riders, and even many experienced riders make the mistake of riding too easy, and then WAY too hard on their longest rides. They'll plan a 3-hour long "endurance ride", but then spend more than half the time coasting or pedaling very lightly (not doing any work) and then go very hard because they get passed by someone or just have to
smash that Strava KOM. In the end, the ride looks good on Strava, but the reality is they incurred a lot of fatigue for not much benefit, and their aerobic energy system remains relatively untrained.
An example of an all-too-common "long ride". Not a lot of quality aerobic work, and too much intensity. While it was fun, this ride didn't do much except make me tired.
The most effective way to get faster over the course of your racing career is to ride long and steady and do it regularly. So how can you ensure proper pacing on your long rides?
There are three widely accepted metrics for pacing long, aerobic endurance rides:
Heart Rate (HR)
Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE)
Power is a wonderful metric for a lot of workouts, especially as power meters have become much more accessible to riders of all levels. That said, when we’re talking about aerobic endurance work, I would rank power as my third of the three preferred metrics above. More on power at another time, but if you’re familiar with power and know your threshold, aim to ride steadily at around 65% of your functional threshold power for your basic aerobic long rides.
Another great way to pace your endurance rides is to aim for a heart rate around 75% of your maximum HR (I’ll cover how to determine your maximum HR in my next write-up). This means that you might pedal at a lower power later in a ride as most of us will experience some cardiac drift (your HR will rise the longer you ride at a given power) on rides that challenge our endurance. The fitter you are, generally the less cardiac drift you’ll experience over the same duration and intensity of riding.
So, over the course of a long ride, as you fatigue, you’ll see your HR go up. You can reduce your effort slightly to maintain your heart rate relatively constant, and if you’re able to sustain close to that target heart rate (within about 5bpm) for two, three, or four (or more!) hours, you’ve got yourself a heck of an aerobic workout.
I personally pay more attention to HR than power on my long rides.
Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE)
Believe it or not, I think RPE is king when it comes to many rides: VO2max work, threshold, and aerobic long rides are all enhanced when you have a good feel for your effort. Admittedly, this takes time to dial in. As you gain experience, you should be comparing your power and heart rate to how you feel when you’re riding at certain intensities. This is a skill that is critical in racing since you won’t be staring at your computer when you’re in the field.
For your aerobic long rides, one way to dial in your effort is to think about your breathing. At a good effort of moderate intensity aerobic riding, you should:
Be able to complete a sentence without needing to gasp for air (this is called the “talk test”)… BUT…
Not be able to sustain breathing only through your nose for more than a few breaths.
Notice that your breathing is elevated from resting, but not have to focus on respiration.
All of those things come out to about a 3 or 4 out of 10 on the RPE scale – you’re doing some work, but it’s not hard, and you should be able to sustain it for a very long time.
In addition, on an aerobic long ride, you shouldn’t ever feel a “burn” in your muscles. This is where riding too hard comes in. Once you start adding in hard efforts into your easy rides, you’re compromising your body’s ability to burn fat as its preferred fuel, as it will start to seek more sugar (glycogen) in the muscles to fuel those hard efforts. Our goal is to teach our body to utilize its aerobic energy pathway, burning more fat for fuel, for as long as possible to preserve glycogen in our muscles for the end of a race or ride when you need to make a big, decisive effort.
Regardless of the equipment you have at hand, you can always pace your workouts with RPE. You can calibrate your sense of RPE by watching your HR and power and focusing on how that effort feels. All the data you record when riding should serve to inform those feelings and teach you how to pace by perceived exertion. Once you have it dialed in, it is an incredibly valuable tool that you’ll use almost every time you’re in the saddle.
How do I know if I nailed it?
If you spent at least 75% of your time (on an outdoor ride) meeting the above metrics: ~65% FTP for power, ~75% of max HR, or a 3 to 4 out of 10 RPE; and the rest of the time was slightly easier (“zone 1”), or just above those efforts, you nailed it. It’s OK to go slightly harder as you accelerate or climb hills. Just avoid going either too easy or too hard for too long if you’re looking to maximize the benefit of your long rides in the saddle.