Almaden Cycle Touring Club
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Training for the Big Climb

by Franz Kelsch from Ultra Distance Cycling

Two Riding

So you have completed a few double century rides in the past and wondered what is the next level. Or maybe you have done one of the events with a lot of climbing like Climb to Kaiser or the Death Ride and want a greater challenge. There are events that combine the two challenges, the miles of a double century and the climbing of the Death Ride. Two notable examples in the Northern California area are the Devil Mountain Double and the Terrible Two.

Such an event is not for all long distance riders. It WILL require significantly more time training than for a flatter double century. Your training program should be more sophisticated because it is usually not sufficient to just "ride a lot". If you are a slower rider it will mean riding in the dark for long periods and trying to meet cut-off times. In particular the Terrible Two has a difficult cut off times. Even the faster riders will need lights. If you are still interested, please read on.

This is article is for advanced training and are only for those who are in good physical condition. Check with your doctor before embarking on any training program.

The Mental Challenge

Any very difficult ultra distance event will challenge you not only physically but also mentally. When things do not go quite as expected, such as warmer weather than you trained for, overcoming the mental challenge will make the difference between two riders, who who decides to DNF (did not finish) and one who finishes the event. Of course there are times when the smart thing is to stop, but when things get rough it is a great temptation to say the smart thing is to quit when we have the ability to go on.

I once had trained for a marathon that was known for his long downhills. Unlike cycling where the downhill is a chance to rest and recovery, in running it gives your legs a real pounding. I thought I had trained for the event properly, including some long downhill training runs.

At about mile 6 of 26.2, I felt my legs starting to cry for mercy. I was frighten on what to do since in my training runs I never had such an issue so early in the run. How could I possibly run another 20 miles like this? The thought came to me that I had worked too long and too hard to stop now. I had to decide between letting the situation cause me such grief that I would slow down or stop, or I could decide to just ignore the legs and hold the pace. I choose the later and was able to not only run strong but have a very strong finish. The difference for me for this marathon was overcoming the mental challenge. During your training you will have some chances to practice overcoming the mental challenge. If you find yourself quitting during uncomfortable training sessions, you might question what you will do when you face a significantly greater mental challenge. If you are not prepared to overcome the mental challenge, then the Big Climb may not be the right event for you.

Still ready to go forward? Then let's start with a disciplined approach.

Lose Weight

If you are significantly overweight you should try to lose weight before you tackle a double century with a lot of climbing. Losing weight will significantly improve your climbing speed and greatly reduce the stress on your body. Where a heavy rider can finish a flat double century, and maybe finish it fast, that same rider will have a disadvantage when it comes to a ultra distance event with a lot of climbing. Although the training program below will help you lose weight you should not plan on doing any dieting during the training. You need to develop your endurance and strength and that is enough of a challenge so lose the bulk of any weight before you get started. See this article on Weight Control.

First Complete Both Flatter Double Centuries and Climbing Events

A tough double century should not be your first double century. Start with something easier like the Solvang Spring Double and maybe some other doubles. Get in a few years of ultra distance events before tackling the hardest doubles. In addition, it is best if the tough double is not your first double for the season. The training program outlined below includes a 200 mile training ride and you should consider using a flatter double century to do that.

Also try to complete at least one of the events that have a lot of climbing but not the miles of a double century, such as Climb to Kaiser and the Death Ride. You need to test your body doing upwards of 15,000 feet of climbing in one day.

Pick Your Event

See the list of Ultra Distance Events to see the climbing for each. If you are a slow rider you might wish to avoid the Terrible Two. It has difficult cut off times and unless you can maintain a good pace you may not successfully finish. The Devil Mount Double has more climbing but you can take longer to finish. These two are probably the most difficult double centuries in our area. There are other double centuries that will also provide a major challenge for even the seasons ultra distance rider.

Avoid Junk Miles

Not all miles on a bike have the same value in terms of training. When I first started to run marathons my training program was to "just run a lot". I would run as many as 11 miles a day, sometimes getting up to as high as 80 miles a week. There was not a lot of variation between days in terms of distance or pace. When it came time for the marathon I did not do as well as I expected and often ended up with major cramping in the last 5 miles.

What I learned was that with the proper training approach I was able to run fewer miles than before and yet run the marathon faster, with greater ease and with a stronger finish. I call any miles you cycle with the only intention to get your weekly total up as junk miles. You may be getting in more weekly miles but they may be doing little to aid with your training and may result in injury due to over training. It is better to have quality workouts with an intended purpose. Those could be long distance rides to improve your endurance, rides with a lot of climbing to improve your climbing, speed workouts to increase your endurance and your lactate threshold and recovery rides.

Four Phases of Training

BASE PHASE

During this phase you work on increasing your base miles. Before you start to add 100+ mile long rides and speed workouts, first build your base miles and climbing. This can be done through several rides during the week or on a bike trainer. You need to condition your muscles for the load you will be adding.
BUILD PHASE
During this phase you increase your weekly miles and weekly climbing. You should include long distance rides and some speed workouts. You need to train for not only the physical portion but also the mental trial you will face. Your training should be a combination of cycling miles, climbing, speed workouts and recovery rides. It will not be sufficient for most people to just "ride a lot".
PEAK PHASE
Here you want to continue with long rides with significant climbing (10,000 feet or more) and weekly speed workouts. If possible do a flatter double century with a good pace during this phase. As in other things, timing is everything. You want to plan your training so you are peaking in terms of distance of your long training ride, speed workouts and climbing, around 2 or 3 weeks before the final event. If you peak too early you will have a difficult time to retain the level of conditioning. If you peak too late you will not have sufficient time for proper tapering.
TAPER PHASE
Read the article on Tapering. During the week of the event you should have plenty of rest.

 

A Typical Training Program

The following training program can help you prepare for a tough double century. This program should be started AFTER you get your weekly miles above 125 miles. "Easy" means a leisurely ride in the Recovery zone (see Zone Training). "Pace" means the pace you plan to ride the entire double century, in the Aerobic zone. "Brisk" means riding faster than your double-century pace, including some effort that takes you into your Anaerobic zone. Also add in some speed workouts.

Week
Mon
Easy
Tues
Pace
Wed
Brisk
Thurs
Fri
Pace
Sat
Pace
Sun
Pace
Weekly
Mileage
Weekly
Climb
1
12
18
20
Off
18
60
22
150
4,000
2
13
19
23
Off
19
65
24
163
6,000
3
14
20
25
Off
20
70
26
175
8,000
4
16
20
27
Off
20
75
29
187
10,000
5
17
20
30
Off
20
75
32
194
12,000
6
20
24
30
Off
24
85
32
215
14,000
7
23
26
33
Off
26
90
25
223
16,000
8
25
28
35
Off
28
100
28
244
18,000
9
28
31
38
Off
31
115
42
285
12,000
10
31
34
41
Off
34
125
47
312
18,000
11
34
38
45+ Hill Repeats
Off
38
135
51
341
22,000
12
37
42
45 + Intervals
Off
28
125
56
333
18,000
13
38
35
35 pace
Off
10 easy
200
13 easy
331
8,000
14
40
42
40 + Hill Repeats
Off
35
115
42
314
16,000
15
42
45
45 + Intervals
Off
38
140
47
357
22,000
16
44
48
45 +Hill Repeats
Off
42
125
42
356
10,000
Event Week
Off
45
35 pace
20 easy
Off
200
Off
300
20,000

 

Tapering

Proper tapering before the event is important to not only help you get the best performance, but also to increase your chances of actually finishing. See this article on tapering. For the week of the event, try to limit your mileage to about 100 miles and no more than 10,000 feet of climbing before the actual event. That way when you complete the tough double, your total for the week, for both mileage and climbing, will be similar to what you ahve been doing for training. You should have one or two rest days in that week, one of which should be the day before the event. Two days before the event should be no more than a short and easy day.

Watch Nutrition

To a much greater degree than for a flat double century, you have to be very careful of what you eat and drink. Use the techniques you learned for a a double century and make sure you have enough fluids and electrolytes. Cramping can be from both de-hydration and from muscle fatigue. Your only defense against cramping from muscle fatigue is a combination of the right training and watching your pace during the event. You will burn as many as 10,000 calories, depending on your weight. You must eat and eat often. Most riders will add to their water something to for both calories and electrolytes. Only use something you know works for you. For electrolytes I have personally found Endurolytes tablets from Hammer Nutrition to work for me and easy to take, without any noticeable side effects. Read these articles on how to prevent bonking during a long ride. If the weather is hot, you may need to increase your time at the rest stops to allow your body time to hydrate.

Proper Gearing

Even if you can climb all the hills on the course using a double crankshaft, it may not be smart to try the event with a double. Even the strong riders should go with a compact crank or a triple. When you add in muscle fatigue the hill that you could climb easily before will seem much steeper. You want the lower gearing to use if and when you need it.

Proper Lighting

I recall when doing the DMD last year I was using my lights by the time I reached about 40 miles from the end. I came upon two riders and was surprised only one of them had a front light and the other was trying to ride in his light. I was smart enough to keep a bit behind and was not that surprised when they both went down making a sharp turn where there was some gravel. Most of these events let you drop lights. I recommend you have two front lights. One should be bright enough for descending in total darkness. I feel the best are those that allow some different brightness settings so you can conserve your battery life when you don't need full brightness.

The other front light, which can be an one using AA batteries, can be used for climbing and as a backup. This article show the light I purchased for the Furnace Creek 508 last year. It weighs less than one pound and is plenty bright for descending and can last 9.5 hours when used on half mode, which is bright enough for flat riding. The goal is to get a light system that is bright enough, not too heavy, and last long enough to meet your needs.

Consider using two rear lights also. One might fail and you could be pulled from the course. They are small and light weight enough so having two, even if you only use one, could be important.

Use reflective material on your body and your bike. Check the requirements for the event in advance. The more reflective material the better.

Climbing Economy

The big climbing double centuries not only tax your body with the miles but also with the accumulation of the climbs. Those hills that were easy for you to do on an individual basis can become a challenge when you add them together. Climbing with economy will help to save your energy so you can complete the entire event with the best overall time. It makes no sense to climb a hill too fast to save 5 minutes that will cost you 10 minutes later on.

You will find it very useful to wear a heart rate monitor and make sure you keep your heart rate in the aerobic zone (see Zone Training). While you will want to go anaerobic during your training, for the actual event your best overall performances will come if you climb strongly but avoid both the lactate buildup and rapid expenditure of glycogen stores by pushing too hard on the climbs.

On question that often comes up is should you stand while climbing. There is considerable debate about this and I believe it is somewhat a personal preferences and may also be a function of your body. I have noticed that lighter weight climbers tend to stand more. Most riders will find they use less energy while sitting because their body weight is supported by the bicycle. Most all riders will see an increase in their heart rate when standing, in the range of 5 beats per minute, which may push you closer to your lactate threshold.

Cadence tends to drop when you are standing, which decreases your economy. A number of studies show that for level cycling a pedal cadence in the range of 80-90 allow for the most economical use of your energy while in the aerobic zone. Most cyclists use a much lower cadence when climbing but that is often due to not having a low enough gear (see proper gearing above). That said, a laboratory investigation of climbing demonstrated that a high cadence (80 - 90 rpm) elicited the lowest oxygen consumption (Swain and Wilcox, 1992), just as was previously shown for level cycling. It therefore appears that the use of lower gear ratios on climbs might enhance performance.

While being bent over in the drops may be the most efficient position on level ground, for the hills there is much less aerodynamic resistance. You actually get the most power sitting up as high as you can. Your body and hand position should be what works best for your but for seated climbing, most riders prefer to keep their hands on top of the bars, perhaps 2 or 3 inches from the center stem. A wide grip on the top of the handlebar reduces breathing restriction. And remember to drop your elbows and relax your upper body.

Even if the most efficient position is to sit while climbing, you may want to stand occasionally to get the increased comfort from changing your body position. Standing will shift your body weight forward over the pedals, which will allow for greater force production at the lower speed. It will also shift to using some other muscles, which can help give some rest to those muscles used while sitting. While standing be careful to not lean too far forward because this slows you down from the increased drag on the front tire or the lost of traction on the rear tire. Keep your body centered and let the bike sway several inches from side to side in sync with your pedaling, but don't rock your body back and forth and waste energy. Remember that if you are in a group, you need to be aware of and protect those behind you when you stand to climb. You will get a brief deceleration as you change from sitting to standing, which, relative to other riders has the effect of sending your bike backwards and can cause the following rider's front wheel to hit your rear wheel. So if you are in a tight group, announce before you stand and try to keep your speed up as much as you can during the transition.

Ride Smart

Now the event has arrived. You may find it difficult to sleep the night before due to anticipation but don't get too worried about that. If you had good sleep on the prior nights you will do okay. Be careful to not go out too fast or climb too fast. The goal here is to finish within the time limits. Keep focused on your goal, keep hydrated, keep eating and keep moving.

References

The Complete Book of Long Distance Cycling - Edmund R. Burke and Ed Pavelka, 2000, p. 48-49

Swain DP, Wilcox JP (1992). Effect of cadence on the economy of uphill cycling. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 24, 1123-1127


This page was last updated on April 21, 2008
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