So, recently I’ve been thinking about various things that you could do if you were trying to train your endurance if you were significantly limited in some way or another. Basically, the question is, how can I hack better endurance?
Plenty of people don’t have enough time to ride as long as they would ideally want because of their school or work, or they have weather to contend with for a large part of the year that limits their ability to ride outdoors. I have similar challenges, because I coach and work a part-time job outside of racing and usually the winters where I live are pretty rainy and cool for a good portion of the year. Anyway, here are a few of strategies I employ and ideas I’ve had to help enhance endurance if you can’t ride as much or as long as you might want.
1. Follow more intense rides with medium, steady to high-endurance rides. Presumably, you planned your more intense workout on a day that you would be recovered, so there’s no compromise there because you got in the intensity that you planned for. The day after your intense ride, you’re still likely to be a bit low on glycogen, and so your body will react more strongly to an endurance stimulus and produce more aerobic enzymes as a result.
2. Limit your carbohydrate intake at times. Again, training when your glycogen stores aren’t at their full capacity helps enhance your body’s production of aerobic enzymes when you do endurance training. For example, if you’re just fitting in some short workouts during the week and longer rides on the weekend, consider doing a short ride or cross training activity on Friday, but then limit your carbohydrate intake to moderate levels and focus on low glycemic index foods with a good mix of fat and protein, then followed by a long ride on Saturday. If you’re snacking on vegetables, nuts, beans, lentils, avocado, salads, maybe some light meats, and avoid refined carbohydrates on Friday afternoon and evening after your pre-work ride, then you’ll probably start Saturday’s ride after a light breakfast and some tea or coffee, and you’ll be burning a bit more fat and you’ll deplete your glycogen stores during the ride more thoroughly, giving yourself the net effect of a higher mileage ride or week.
3. Ride lots of high-endurance and tempo. High-endurance and tempo riding is great for a coupe of reasons. Compared with natrual-paced, conversational riding, high-endurance and tempo riding burns both glycogen and fat at a higher rate, result in a higher HR, and put more stress on your neurological system. Basically, you’ll finish your rides more glycogen depleted and burning more fat (causing more of an endurance adaptation), you’ll stress your heart and lungs a bit more (making them more efficient), you’ll help your lactate threshold improve (because you’ll naturally be floating near or above your LT on-and-off, especially on hills or windy sections in your ride), and you’ll get more of a muscular endurance workout (your muscles will learn to better tolerate stronger contractions). Mixing in lots of high-endurance and tempo riding basically creates a much greater stress to your body’s endurance systems, so it’s great for enhancing endurance. The only downside is just that, it’s more stressful. For someone who has all the time in the world to train, this won’t work as well, because you generally can’t keep up 3-5h ride every day or two with this increased stress. That’s why pro cyclists spend more time at a conversational pace. But, for people who are forced to recover more between training rides (i.e. normal working stiffs with severely limited training time), it can be good to make use of that recovery to focus on slightly increasing the aerobic intensity of their weekend long-ride.
4. Ride long when you can, and consider doubling up on long rides sometimes. Clearly, high-volume weeks and high-volume rides are going to give some of the best opportunities for enhancing endurance, but if you can’t manage to do that all of the time, don’t worry about it. Just do it when you can. Even if you can only get in a 3h ride each weekend, but every 2-3 weeks, you can go out for a 5-6h group ride with your buddies, then go for it. Doing that longer ride when you can will make a world of difference compared to just keeping a steady training diet of 3h rides (although you can do well with 3h rides if you mix in lots of tempo, plan an interval workout the day before your 3h ride, or double up with two 3h rides back-to-back on the weekends, for example).
I remember in past years trying to do 5-6.5h rides every week for a month before going out to do the Everest Challenge (200 mi, 29000 ft of climbing in 2 days). The EC is a race I’ve done every year since I started racing, and I love it, but it’s really long and hard, so it’s daunting if you feel like you haven’t had enough endurance training. I used to think I had to do 5-plus hour rides every week for 5-6 weeks to build up to the intense endurance that the race requires of its participants. But in recent years, I’ve found that I can get all the endurance I really need in just 3 rides in that 6h range if they’re mixed in with some other quality training that follows some of the above rules/suggestions (i.e. lots of tempo and high-endurance on 4-5h rides, plus good intensity on other rides with VO2 max and threshold efforts).
6. Ride hard, lift weights, and run. If you’re on a tight schedule, it’s really key to increase the higher-end capacities of your heart and lungs (oxygen delivery), your neuromuscular systems (force production), and your metabolism effectively (burning fat and carbohydrate to do mechanical work), so that the sub-maximal stresses of endurance riding can be tolerated for longer. Some of the best ways to do those things are to simply ride hard. Whether that’s intervals on the road during your mid-week 2h rides, or hard efforts on a trainer during 1h weekday rides, they’ll be much better than just cruising around. Likewise, strength training is an excellent way to increase neurological recruitment (i.e. the number of muscle fibers you can use to generate force) and to increase muscular endurance (i.e. how long it takes for those muscles to fatigue when engaged in sub-maximal contractions). And, of course, running is a highly effective way to increase aerobic fitness, and can often put as much stress on your heart and lungs as a solid bike ride, but in half the time or less.
Clearly, doing longer workouts on a regular basis will be the best way to get better endurance fitness, because it’s the most specific stimulus to get that result. But, not everyone has the time and availability for that. That’s the whole point of this article, to address the issue of how to try to get around to the same result with an alternative approach.