Why a weekly longer effort with your Campagnolo gear is essential for summer success.
Many of you who enjoy great adventures – whether that’s a one-day road event like L’Etape du Tour or a multi-day gravel challenge, projected by your ground-breaking 13-speed Ekar groupset – will have followed some form of training plan that includes a weekly long ride.
But why? More precisely, in this age of sport science, what exactly is happening on a physiological level that makes a long ride core to every level of cyclist’s training plan? It’s time to find out.
TIME OR DISTANCE?
Firstly, decide whether your long ride will be based on time or distance. From there you can then incorporate small progressive overloads ( an increase in time or distance) each week.
By doing consistent weekly progressions, over the course of, let’s say 12 weeks you will hope to see small weekly improvements which at the end of the training block will add up to larger overall improvements without the risk of injury or burnout.
So your long ride over a 12-week period could look as follows (in kilometres, easy week in bold): 70, 80, 90, 70, 100, 110, 120, 100, 130, 140, 150, 130…
This time in the saddle is essential because, whatever your goal distance, if you’re a road or gravel cyclist endurance is key. And core to endurance is aerobic capacity; in other words, the capacity to grab oxygen from the air and swiftly deliver it to working muscles to burn for fuel.
Favourable aerobic adaptations of long rides include: your heart's ability to pump out greater volume of blood with every beat; your lungs become more efficient, allowing for larger amounts of air to be inhaled and exhaled with every breath as well as improving oxygen uptake; and increased and more efficient mitochondria. (Mitochondria are the powerhouses in your cells, generating the energy to help you reach your cycling goals.)
INTENSITY IS IMPORTANT
To stimulate these aerobic adaptations requires elevating your heart rate to at least 60% of its maximum, so if your maximum is 175 beats per minute (bpm), we’re talking 105bpm.
This sounds very low but this is the minimum.
That said, studies have shown that world-class endurance athletes, from cycling to running, often follow what’s called ‘polarised training’ or ‘80/20’ training. This is where they train 80% of the time at really low intensities where it’s pretty easy to chat and 20% hard. Really hard.
But when it comes to off-season long rides, generally you’ll be keeping things in zone two. And that’s important because of a ‘cell-signalling’ compound called interleukin-6 (IL-6).
It’s been shown that well-trained endurance athletes produce less IL-6, which is one reason why they’re more fatigue resistant. The theory goes that exposure to large amounts of IL-6 during cycling is the key trigger of physiological adaptations that ultimately reduce IL-6 during future rides and, in turn, elevate endurance.
This trigger’s been identified as glycogen depletion (your energy stores are low). Long, relatively slow rides cause much higher levels of glycogen depletion – and subsequently IL-6 release – than short, fast rides.
This glycogen depletion also cranks up your fat metabolism and provides a great platform for you to raise something called your ‘FatMax’ zone (around 70-75% of your maximum heart rate).
There’s evidence that the higher a rider’s FatMax, the more they can reserve glycogen levels for important parts of their event, like a steep climb or sprint.
This is why many riders often train in a glycogen-depleted state.
The idea is that a long ride before breakfast enhances mitochondrial volume in your muscles.
The phenomenon is known as mitochondrial biogenesis, and as a result of these changes, you become more efficient at using fat for fuel at a given exercise intensity (and as calories from fat are near limitless, even in world-class riders, you’ll ride longer and stronger).
One session a week in a fasted state could improve aerobic capacity and your ability to burn fat.
This is ideally longer than an hour, at an intensity no greater than around 75% of your maximum heart rate. However, be aware that this stresses your immune system, so overdoing this form of riding could leave you highly fatigued and could lead to burnout.
If you’re new to the long ride, stick with a long ride accompanied by energy products and well-fed before.
Beyond the physiological adaptations, long periods in the saddle simply means you physically acclimatise to being on a bike in a bent-over position. It’s also a time for your nether regions to harden up to riding for hours on end!
The weekly long ride also gives you the chance to play around with hydration, fuelling and pacing strategies.
How will you know, for instance, how many calories you need to perform to your best over 120km if you only train to 20km in practice? Finally, these long rides give you time to clear your head from the stresses of the week.
And no one sleeps better than a Campag cyclist who’s been out for three hours!