Ultra-distance cycling: can it improve your performance?

In my cycling coaching practice, I’m fortunate to work with a diverse group of athletes with a wide range of goals. Recently I had the pleasure of measuring the change in fitness of a cyclist, Jim, who spent 3 months riding solo across the U.S.

Jim’s case study has some unusual aspects, and when compared to a more standard cycling program, gives cyclists some important insights, including:

1. Riding at a relatively easy pace for extended periods of time can lead to BIG gains in fitness

2. Structured training (coaching program) yields the same or better improvements in fitness in much less time

What was unusual about Jim’s ride compared to the 1,000+ other cases in my professional experience is that he rode without:

·      A structured approach either in training or during his ride

·      Support

·      Power meter

·      Heart rate monitor

Our questions were: 

1. What would 3 months of unstructured ultra-distance cycling produce in fitness benefits?

2. How would that compare to results achieved by structured, non-ultra-distance training programs?

To find out, we conducted pre- and post-ride Lactate Threshold Tests; this article is about what we learned from those results.

About Jim and His Ride Across America

Jim is a 53-year-old serious recreational cyclist, who works as a mechanical engineer in the green energy field.  Jim has been riding strongly for many years, doing a variety of recreational bike events. This ambitious Ride Across America was to be his first foray into long-distance riding: a three-month, unsupported ride starting in Maine and ending in San Francisco.

Keeping the ride unstructured was key for Jim. The points of the ride were to raise awareness of climate change, and to live a simpler, less-technological existence during the ride. Therefore, Jim brought no technology to monitor his ride (no power meter, no heart rate monitor), only his iPhone to take pictures and to capture his ride on Strava. Each day he chose to ride as easy or hard as he wished, take as many breaks as he wanted, and stopping frequently to take pictures to document his journey. (For more, check out Jim’s excellent blog: http://druther-bike.com). 

About the Testing

I primarily use Lactate Threshold Testing as a key component to my athlete’s coaching programs to accomplish multiple goals:

·  Get baseline fitness data

·  Determine Power and Heart Rate training zones

·  Provide objective information on fitness relative to peers

·  Monitor improvement over time

Jim’s unusual ride – unstructured, ultra-distance – provides a unique look at how fitness can change with sustained riding.  In contrast to Jim’s approach, most of the athletes I coach purposely ride within fairly tight heart rate or wattage-based training zones, and it is this “structure” that elicits the physiological responses that allow them to improve. So, in addition to riding a very long distance in a condensed amount of time, Jim was also doing something atypical compared to most of my athletes, and something we were both eager to learn its impact.

Lactate Threshold Testing – an overview

The metric:  “Watts per Kilogram (of body weight) at Lactate Threshold” is the gold standard metric to compare a cyclist’s fitness to every other cyclist, and to compare their own fitness gains over time.

The test is a “ramped step test” done on the athlete’s own bike, on a trainer that allows me (the tester) to precisely control the wattage.

The test starts at low watts, with power raised at a pre-determined amount (usually 25-30 watts) every three minutes until a lactate threshold is surpassed.

Lactate threshold is the hardest we can ride for an extended period of time, up to an hour (related to, but different from Functional Threshold Power “FTP”).

During the test, I sample a drop of blood from the athlete’s earlobe which is run through a portable lactate analyzer. I also check HR at the end of each step, and gather subjective RPE data (“rate of perceived exertion”).

From the “wattage and heart rate at Lactate Threshold” measurement, I calculate the athlete’s “Watts per Kilogram (of body weight) at LT.”

The Results:

With thanks to Jim for his generosity in sharing this information for all our benefit, here are Jim’s results:

Test date           Weight   Watts @ LT   W/kg @ LT   Body Fat %

Pre ride                 165          267w              3.56             15.1%

Post ride (3mo)    155          298w              4.22             11.4%

Pct. Improvement 6%           12%                19%              25%

At the start of the ride, Jim was already performing at a strong level, as 3.56 w/kg put him in the middle of the Cat 4 racing category. Three months (and 3,000 miles later), he improved to 4.22 w/kg, which puts him solidly in the Cat 2 racing category. Both these results are a big showing for a 53 year old. His improvement in raw watts@threshold is roughly in line with the improvement my coached athletes achieve in 3 months (it is typical for my first-year athletes to see anywhere between a 5-15% improvement in 3 months in wattage output at threshold). The fact that Jim accomplished this while riding completely unstructured shows the impact of LOTS of time on the bike over a few months: Jim averaged approximately 28 hours/week on the bike during his trip.

Conclusions and takeaways:  Well-known exercise physiologist Dr. Phil Maffetone, through research and practice, has shown that riding at a relatively easy pace (RPE of 3 or 4 out of 10) for extended periods of time can lead to big gains in fitness. In my experience, the Maffetone method does work, IF the athlete can ride a MINIMUM of 12 hours every week (more is better). Jim was able to more than double this amount of hours, and showed that at relatively low intensity, big performance gains are possible with that time and distance on the bike.

However, for the vast majority of athletes I’ve coached, 12 hours per week is the MAXIMUM amount of time they can ride……and that might be their one “long” week during a two-month training block! For these athletes, structured training at a variety of intensity levels yields the same or better improvements in fitness, at 7 to 10 hours per week.  This sort of schedule is usually more viable for most riders.

Jim made a big life change to take 3 months off of his “regular” routine, and if you read his blog, you will see this experience was a profoundly positive one. As a cycling coach, I’m pleased he both had such an amazing time on this bike adventure, and that he achieved significant fitness gains too.

I’m appreciative to Jim for sharing these results with you. Not all of us, however, are able to spend extended amounts of time dedicated to riding our bikes. For us, a structured training plan created by a competent coach will enable similar gains in a lot less time. And whether you are a recreational rider, occasional triathlete,  bike racer, or full on hammerhead, you owe it to yourself to get a performance test from an experienced coach, to understand your current fitness level, and set your next goals.

As always, I welcome your questions or comments; please share here or contact me directly at matt@propelbikecoaching.com or 510-915-5510.

Happy riding!