Looking to go the distance and improve your endurance on the bike? Whether you’ve been inspired by the recent Chase the Sun events, in awe of the Tour de France riders as they take on big day after big day in the saddle… or you’re just looking to top the leader board in your Strava club (join the Stolen Goat one here!) there’s something quite satisfying about being able to travel longer distances on two wheels.
But getting to that level of cycling fitness where a big day on the bike feels like no big deal can be a bit overwhelming. Where do you start with training? And how can you make sure that you can take on the miles without getting completely exhausted? We caught up with Josh Brandwene – who alongside taking care of US operations for Stolen Goat USA, is also a cycling coach – to get his top tips on boosting your cycling endurance.
Check out his insights below, and if you’re after a bit of inspiration make sure you check out our videocast with Josh and his coaching client Leonie as we heard about Leonie’s journey to taking on her first ever century at Ride London.
Top tips for improving your cycling endurance from Josh Brandwene
If you want to go long, you’ve got to ditch the ‘go hard or go home’ approach
Improving your cycling endurance and being able to ride longer distances involves patience, gradual progression and adaptation. When it comes to endurance riding, you’ll hear a lot about ‘building a base’ or ‘zone 2 training’ – what we’re actually talking about here comes down to metabolics. We’re all hardwired with two types of muscles fibres: slow twitch and fast twitch. Those fast twitch fibres are the ones we call upon when we want to blast up a short, intense climb or put in a surge to sprint for the finish line (or to grab a Strava segment). These higher intensity efforts utilise glycogen – the fuel in your body – and as a byproduct, they’re creating lactic acid. Lactic acid creates that burn we all know far too well in our legs after a hard effort. Our slow twitch fibres, on the other hand, are not only vital for our long endurance efforts: they actually utilise lactic acid as a minor source of fuel and, more importantly, they help to clear lactic acid. When it comes to going long, you need to spend the bulk of your training time working at the appropriate intensity to engage that slow twitch energy system, so that you’re training your muscle fibres to become super-efficient at clearing lactic acid. This is what’s going to help you to be able to ride longer distances, without burning out.
When we insist on using the ‘go hard or go home’ approach – doing all of our rides and training sessions at max effort – we neglect our slow twitch muscle fibres. For cyclists, this means you’ll be able to ride maybe an hour or so pretty fast… but then you’re going to feel exhausted. Your capacity to stay in the saddle any longer will become limited.
It takes patience and to some extent, a bit of restraint, but putting the time and effort into training your slow twitch fibres really can be a game changer if you want to go the distance. But instead of thinking of it as ‘building a zone 2 base’ which let’s face it, can sound a little boring, think of it as training your muscles to become a lactic acid clearing machine. That sounds way more motivating.
Have a methodical approach to training
If you’re just getting started with building up your mileage on the bike, it’s important to accept that being able to ride those longer distances comfortably isn’t something that’s going to happen overnight. Alongside patience, it’s important to take a methodical approach to your training that will see you making progress.
Every cyclist is different, and what your training looks like will come down to your current ability, your individual goals and the time you have available to train. But essentially you want to be spending the bulk of your time working in that high end Zone 2 as mentioned above, while also mixing in a little bit of higher intensity work to keep things fun and to make sure you’re not totally neglecting those fast twitch muscle fibres – just because a ride is long doesn’t mean you won’t have any sharp climbs to scale along the way! This slightly higher intensity training might involve adding a few short ‘pick up’ intervals into your longer endurance rides to keep things interesting. Or building in what we call ‘threshold’ or Zone 4 training – typically shorter sessions with intervals where you’re going hard, but not at max effort.
The key takeaway here is that when you’re looking to go long, your training isn’t about crushing yourself day in, day out. Taking a methodical approach, learning about the science behind the training and taking a patient approach to progress will have you making solid gains in a reasonable period of time. It’s not about one or two weeks – it’s trusting the process and committing to the long haul. Get it right, and you’ll have that awesome experience of setting off on a long ride and feeling better and better as the miles clock up. Train smart, fuel well, stay hydrated and you’re going to be able to enjoy the experience.
How to go further, faster
Maybe you’ve completed your first century ride or you’ve been solidly getting those long days in the saddle ticked off and now you want to step things up a notch and layer some speed on top of your endurance. If you want to go further, faster, there are a few things you can do. The first thing is to start bumping your Zone 2 a little higher. Improving your Zone 2 capacity means you’ll be able to push higher power, and go faster, for the same “easy endurance” heart rate (or perceived exertion). The specific training will be individual to every cyclist, but broadly speaking, you’ll want to look at your power and your heart rate in tandem. Experiment with pushing that top end Zone 2 power – without going too hard – and over several sessions you’ll see that your body adapts and you’ll be able to put out higher power in Zone 2 for the same heart rate.
Another element of improving your speed over long distances is to incorporate some higher intensity Zone 4 and VO2 max interval sessions into your training. These will help to build your strength, aerobic capacity and develop your fast twitch fibres – which in turn will translate to your Zone 2 endurance pace being that bit quicker. It’s really important, though, that you spend an appropriate percentage of your training in this higher intensity zone. This is about quality, not quantity. Even professional cyclists are typically only spending a maximum of 8 or 9% of their total weekly training time in those higher intensity zones. So as amateur riders, trying to do more than that is just mismanaging our training time and putting us at higher risk of fatigue, injury and burnout. Incorporating the appropriate amount of high intensity work will allow you to become faster and more efficient without getting exhausted.
Finally, speed over longer distances really comes down to honing your riding tactics and techniques. For example, getting familiar with your own personal optimal riding cadence, being able to climb more efficiently and feel stronger on the hills without burning too many matches. Practicing your bike handling skills so you can take a better line on the corners and lose a little less time there. Once you’ve got a science-based, methodical approach to training nailed it’s also going to come down to finding those marginal gains out on the roads.
A big thank you to Josh for sharing his insights! Make sure you follow him on Instagram for regular training tips, and if you’re interested in taking a deeper dive into the science behind endurance training or getting a more personalised plan to help you ride further – and enjoy it – check out Josh’s coaching website.