Training for a Gravel Grinder

Gravel Grinding is a relatively new discipline to our world of cycling but the interest in these events have been increasing at an exponential rate.  The sport combines an element of both road and off-road cycling to create its own unique place.  The courses are often done on dirt roads, sometimes rutted, and never flat.  They are painfully long but ultimately rewarding.  Riders are capable of using a mountain bike but it is typically done with a cross style bike that resembles a road bike.   It gets outfitted with knobby tires which are slightly wider.  Each setup is unique to the rider’s taste and style.  A bike choice is often a huge subject of controversy at these events.    “Dude, do you run a 38c or a 40c tire?!” can often be heard amongst the crowd as well as tons of chatter about gearing selection.  It’s new, it’s fresh, it’s on most of our minds!

If you haven’t ventured out yet, do it!  I highly encourage the experience.  Men and women both young and old can participate.  I want to share my thoughts on what it takes to train properly for such an event.   I extend these thoughts to all distances of a gravel race.  No matter how much time you have to train.  

  1. Training and its Specificity:  Many of us have ridden a road bike, we may have raced it, we may have raced mountain bikes, we may be familiar with one, both, or none.  This type of riding and racing combines the two.  It takes us to a new level of technical awareness.  It is practically riding a road bike on dirt and this is exactly what it feels like!  I’m a huge believer that we should be training what we will be racing.  Therefore, your training at least once a week should be done on dirt roads with your gravel bike.  No matter what distance you will train for. 

I believe that training for a gravel grinder can be accomplished very simply with 3 types of workouts.  Anybody can find success if the following workouts are done each week.  Although not required, I prefer them done back to back in order to accumulate fatigue, then allow the body to recover before starting the next 3 workout cycle.   By doing so, we give the body an opportunity to understand how to work under fatigue and distress. 

·       The sweet spot workload day (it’s the range of 83-97% of FTP), working your body for specified durations followed by specified rest.  For example, starting with 3 x 5 minutes of sweet spot by 5 minutes of off sweet spot totaling 15 minutes of work would be a great beginning point for any athlete.   Increasing the duration that we hold the sweet spot and/or the number of intervals we complete by 10-20% throughout the training plan until 2 weeks before the event is ideal.

·       Your muscular endurance day to build strength on the bike.  This is your hill day, specifically working hard steep inclines and/or long duration hills.  Preferably seated in order to play with pedal efficiency under hard workload.  A sample workout here would be 2 to 3 hill repeats lasting 7-10 minutes with a recovery of 2 or 3 minutes between.   The idea is to place load on our legs.   Working at making us efficient by practicing a full fluid pedal stroke.  As the training plan progresses, the hills get steeper, the repeats get longer and/or the number of times you complete the repeat gets larger.  Progress 10-20% throughout the training plan until 2 weeks before the event.

·       Your last training ride is your endurance ride. It is done with the time you have for a long ride day.  Your goal is to be on dirt roads and terrains similar to what you’ll be racing on.  For example, the gravel roads around Prescott are plentiful.  The goal here is to ride at your endurance pace gradually increasing to about 80% of the duration you anticipate it will take you to complete the event.  You’ll want to hit your longest ride about 2 weeks out.  For example, the average Chino Grinder last year was done in around 8 to 9 hours.  Knowing this, I could tell you that about 8 weeks out from the event your long ride should probably be about 2.5 to 3 hours anticipating that you would increase this duration 10% each week to reach a 6.5 to 7-hour ride by 2-3 weeks out.  If you’re time crunched, spending as long as you can on your long ride day is beneficial. 

2.                   Mental attitude:  Things come to people who want it and work for it.  You must give yourself a purpose, the purpose of completing a hard day on hard terrain and sometimes in uncooperative weather conditions.  If you are able to find purpose, then your training has a better chance at being successful, and ultimately, you’ll be standing at the start line ready with a smile on your face.  There will be ups and downs training for an event of such magnitude, and there will be highs and lows during the event.  I always feel that if you have consistently put forth at least 85% of your best effort, success is inevitable.  Don’t get caught making chronic excuses as to why you can’t do something, instead get caught exercising positive thought as to why you want to accomplish what you’ve set out to accomplish.

3.                   Nutrition:  Your body will be accumulating fatigue and stress and burning a lot of energy.  Treat it right by putting the right things in it and you’ll feel optimal through your training plan and in life.  Not only are you making sure to consume the number of calories you burn on a daily basis, but you are pre-planning your training days with what you will need for the duration of the workload ahead of you.  Plan and play with your fuel source you will use during the event in your training.  This is the best way to make sure that your body will digest effectively what you give it.  For example, are you lactose intolerant?  Don’t fill your bottle with powders containing whey products!  Do you know how much water and electrolytes you will need per hour? Good things to understand so you can train and race to your maximal potential.  Quite simply, the body just cannot work for you if it’s not properly fueled.  This is an endurance sport, you’re out there for long periods of time, be nice and take care because this body needs to last you a lifetime, not just this race. 

4.                   Active Recovery and Sleep:  My last piece of advice is to always manage your recovery cycles.  No matter how hard you push your body, you will not experience fitness gains without pulling back and allowing for rest.  The body enjoys full days of rest combined with active easier days.   Spinning casually, going for a walk, or jumping into the pool.  Clients that work with me that have a background of different sports find themselves being asked to do these on their active recovery days.  The gains we see are incredible. The body also needs a certain amount of sleep to fully allow for fitness gains.   How much rest the body needs, whether active recovery, full days off, or sleeping, is particular to each athlete.   Be true to yourself and take rest when you feel is necessary.

Last year, while I was training for the BC Bike Race, which is a 7-day stage race in Canada, I used the Chino Grinder Gravel 110 mile event and trainings leading up to it to prepare the endurance aspect of this race.  I fully believe that if you adhere, understand, and incorporate the above points of discussion, you too will find success in your gravel grinding adventures.  As did I by finishing 5th overall female and 1st overall female duo at BC Bike.  If you have any questions relating to training for Chino Grinder, please do not hesitate to reach out.

Safe trainings!

Kata Skaggs