printed in Ultra Cycling Magazine
As ultra races become more and more popular there are many cyclists wondering how to get ready for their first randonneur, ultra mountain biking race, or their first Race Across America.
I have found that since competing in the Race Across America in 1990, I use several of the same training techniques today in races like the Vail Ultra 100 and the 24-hour mountain bike race, Montezuma’s Revenge.
My shorter races, leading up to these ultra events, have always helped me to be successful. I have been faster in my long races because I have used my short races of two hours to eight hours to get me ready to race events longer than the shorter events. This is no coincidence.
There are scientific reasons for this because our bodies adapt to training through something called Periodization or Training Cycles.
Periodization is the training concept of breaking the year into several different training periods of performance. Progressive performance is achieved through varying the stresses or training loads on the body within each of these training periods. Each of these periods should build on the previous one by starting the training more general and becoming more specific. Each training period has a specific goal that works towards a major goal or race event within the competitor’s racing season.
The whole idea is that the body will continue to improve if an appropriate amount of stress or load is placed on it followed by a period of rest or recovery.
This brings about adaptation with the ability to go on to the next higher or harder load cycle. The key is to continue to do this while maintaining the previous phase of adaptation at each level.
The drawback can be if the training loads are increased too much and too soon the body cannot adapt and grow stronger. This could cause the body to weaken and bring about the results of overuse and overtraining.
An example of this would be picking a 24 hour race very early in the Spring well before you have done the proper volume and intensity of training. You may very well get through the race but it would be unlikely that you would not have injury or severe fatigue after the event. This would require so much recovery time that you lose a large amount of fitness and have to start over with all of your early season training from scratch.
A better way to do this would be to pick several races that are a third or one half of your 24 hour race and use them to train for the longer race later that season. You could then see where you needed more volume or intensity and use them to fine tune the longest race.
In Periodization Training you use each phase to get your body ready for the next harder phase. The end result being that you will have enough miles, strength, power and speed to race efficiently and successfully in your important ultra event or race.
The training cycles or phases in Periodization are broken down throughout the race season and are labeled as the Base Phase, the Build Intensity Phase, the Peak Phase and the Race Phase.
The Base Phase is an important phase because this phase improves oxygen transport and energy use at the cellular level. It is a phase where the rider puts in many miles of training or high volume levels. This is increased over several weeks allowing for increased volume work loads each week, as well as, volume increases in a single training day. There should be several training days where the volume is one third to one half of the volume of the distance of your ultra race.
The Base Phase increases your aerobic foundation and teaches your body to endure many hours of training and thus allows you to go on to other phases of higher intensity training later in the season.
This phase typically lasts from 12-16 weeks, sometimes longer if your race is exceptionally long or very late in your race season. The longer your Base Phase generally means you will be able to hold your Race Phase or racing fitness longer throughout the season. Ultra racers must build great amounts of endurance to teach the muscles to use fat as a main fuel source and conserve the carbohydrate-based fuels.
This is now a good time to include local events and races such as time trials and medium length races of about 2-3 hours. These local races mixed in with your endurance rides will help train your lactate threshold and increase your speed.
Your lactate threshold is the point in exercise where the muscles begin to produce lactic acid that cause muscle soreness and eventually slow you down to a near crawl in races.
During the second half of the Base Phase, which is usually in April, you should do several long rides with sustained climbing which will get your body used to long hours in the saddle with increased power loads due to the climbing. These rides should be in the range of five to eight hours long and at a very moderate intensity or pace. These long rides should be done at least two times per week and if you have limited time during the week or you are planning an ultra race 24 hours or longer, you can do two back-to-back long rides on the weekend.
By now you have been adding races into your training at least every other weekend. Sometime I will ride for four to five hours after a short race to get in the added benefit of speed work followed by an endurance ride at a moderate pace.
After the Base Phase you will have the Build Intensity Phase, lasting about four to six weeks. This phase is as important to the ultra racer as is the Base Phase because along with the large amount of volume in training there is now the increase of more intensity during the endurance training.
This is the phase that is used so extensively during ultra races of about 8-12 hours in length. There is a great need for the body to learn to contract repeatedly with force (movement of pedals) and quickness throughout the race without too much buildup of lactic acid in the muscles. If the muscles can increase greater loads or stress while maintaining a faster pace at aerobic levels, you can spare glycogen and glucose levels at the same time decreasing the amount of lactic acid in those muscles.
Decreasing lactic acid is what ultra racing is all about. It is decreasing lactic acid in the muscles while increasing volume and intensity through training techniques of muscular endurance, which teaches the muscles to sustain higher and higher levels of intensity for very long periods of time. Training your body to lower levels or get rid of lactate in your blood will allow you to offset muscle soreness and fatigue for longer periods of time. The ultra racer that can hold off this fatigue can most likely win the race.
Typically, lactate threshold can be sustained for up to 90 minutes for top level athletes. As your fitness improves so does your lactate threshold which means your speed at lactate threshold also goes up. You are then able to push larger forces over longer periods of time thus, becoming more efficient during your race. The more efficient you are, the more you can push and the faster you can go without building up the soreness and fatigue.
So the key to successful ultra distance racing is training your lactate threshold to get closer to your maximum heartrate. Training your lactate threshold will help you increase your power at your lactate threshold and your speed during endurance events.
In order to teach your body to increase the pace over an ultra distance, you must add threshold training and speed training into your training plan. This is where I believe the consistency of mid-season races of any where from three hours to eight hours are very valuable to the ultra distance racer and all of this is done while maintaining the volume or endurance you will need to do the ultra distances.
These races are used to teach the body to learn pace and then gradually the coordinated movement at faster speeds or strokes all the while teaching the body to flush lactic acid. We develop the tolerances of high intensity while maintaining control and the ability to handle the bike efficiently and effectively over the long periods of time. This means you can keep the pace high pushing the gears needed at sub lactate threshold levels or just at your low lactate threshold heart rate level.
Now, when you reach the end of the Build Phase at about 6 weeks out from your ultra race you want to pick a race that is about half the length of your priority ultra race or pick a stage race as doing a moderate length race for several days in a row will also be of benefit. This will allow plenty of time of recovery leading up to your priority race.
By now you are adding a week of very high volume, a week of moderate volume with a race or two about 2-3 hours long, a week of only high intensity and low volume and a week of low volume and low intensity to recover and adapt to all of the previous weeks of training.
There is another benefit to these shorter races because it helps to race several times throughout the season to become comfortable with racing and having other races push you past your own comfort levels and maximum limits.
Another skill developed in racers but not as crucial to the ultra racer is anaerobic endurance. This training is also added to the Build Intensity Phase. Having the ability to resist fatigue at extremely high levels of effort allows the body to hold off the high levels of lactic acid. This training method is used for shorter events where sprinting and chasing are critical for winning events such as criterium races. But because the ultra racer races at sub and low lactate threshold levels, training the anaerobic system at such high levels can lead to over training.
The next phase is the Peak Phase and is used to sharpen skills and begin the taper towards the ultra event. This phase is generally two to three weeks prior to your ultra race.
This is the time when you feel you have done the correct training or “home work” as I like to call it. You can add some fine tuning to your training and work on short speed drills to keep your legs feeling race ready. Generally you keep a little intensity going as you near your race event but you need to make sure you have plenty of recovery in this phase to restore and replenish all of your energy systems.
I like to have the Peak Phase start 21 to 15 days prior to the major ultra event, usually, with the last big mileage day about 21 days to the ultra race. Then, begin the taper but do not taper completely off of your training because you want to keep your mind and body alert and fresh. Add moderate volume and only two or three very short races into your training. You want to keep up with the short intensity training because it will be the training most easily lost with too many days off the bike. Remember, now is not the time to try to cram in high volume. You have done that already and you do not want to use up precious reserves that you will need in your ultra race.
I think it is important to have very low volume rides the week of the ultra event but to keep interval and sprint training part of the training until the last two days prior to the race.
Some racers like to take the day off the bike two days before they race and do a short day of riding the day before the event. I find this is usually effective and helps to keep the muscles feeling fresh.
The day of the event it is important to get in a good warm up with several jumps of maximal effort and to take this time to realize you are ready and the event is what you have trained so hard for. Keep your mind on the positive and focus on the present. You’ve earned it. Good luck!