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  Latest update: 6/2/2023

Training for Endurance Riding.

As you increase your training for longer events - tours, multi-day self supported rides, a century - you need to pay particular attention to:

  1. Eating enough calories (especially carbohydrates) to fuel the ride. A good nutrition plan will include:
  2. Logging time on the bike, saddle time, to train your body for the stresses on the back and shoulders that comes with longer rides. All riding time counts - long slow distance rides, weekend rides being challenged by your riding group, and dedicated days of interval training.

  3. Cardiovascular conditioning - to improve your VO2max. Here, long slow miles will not be effective. You will need focused interval training.

Interval Training Will Improve Your Endurance.

The studies on the benefits of interval training provide a wide range of results as the studied groups are so diverse - from untrained riders to elite athletes. In regular riders, a 5 to 10% improvement in total time to exhaustion at an endurance pace (60 - 80% VO2max)was not unusual after adding intervals to a training program. And studying sedentary individuals produced even more impressive results.

First article: (abstract, full article) - approximately 15 min of intense exercise over 2 wk (a pretty short time) DOUBLED endurance capacity (exercise at ~ 80% VO2max) in active individuals.

Second study: (abstract, full article) - in well trained competitive cyclists rather than recreationally active adults. Endurance performance in a 40 km time trial improved after interval training (a minute off of a 57 minute result). The improvement appeared to be from the muscles increased ability to buffer the acidic products of metabolism rather than any change in the riders' VO2max.

A third study, a review, supported an improvement in endurance performance without a change in VO2max. The authors indicated an increased "tolerance" for fatigue from an increase in the efficiency (using less energy per unit of distance covered).

And finally, In this study, the group assigned to 30 minutes of steady riding 3 times a week increased their time to exhaustion by 64%. But training with intervals, 3 times a week, doubled the benefit with a 129% improvement in time to exhaustion! Twice as much physiologic improvement for the same amount of training time.

For those interested, this is a great summary article on the physiology of interval training with a short section on the physiology behind improving endurance performance.


Training for all sports is based on the concept that physical stress initiates an adaptive response. An example we all know well is resistance training. Go to the gym, stress a muscle group (made of individual cells and connective tissue) and the muscle and tendons will adapt (strengthen) and you can lift greater amounts of weight over time. The same adaptation is seen in tissues throughout the body. The same concept underpins interval training. Stress the cardiovascular system (heart, lungs, capillaries) with anaerobic riding and over time a rider's VO2max increases.

It would seem logical to assume the same principle applies to an individual cell's metabolic pathways. If you are an endurance rider looking to get more miles per gram of stored glycogen, then stress the system by training on a carbohydrate deficient diet. Those interested in more detail on the concept of training on a low carbohydrate diet to improve cellular metabolic functioning (carbohydrate periodization) are referred to this article.

Although it sounds logical, the data is lacking. What works at a tissue and system level does not seem to apply to molecular metabolic pathways in the cell. You get the same results training with enough carbs to meet your caloric needs as you do training carb depleted (basically in a "bonked" state). And for those of you who have tried to push it when bonked, it is a painful experience. Which does raise the possibility that part of improved performance with carbohydrate periodization is learning to ride more effectively in a bonked state at the end of a long ride.

As this recent study points out (all quotes):

The same conclusions were drawn from this meta analysis done 2021: "Based on the available literature, we therefore conclude that periodized CHO restriction does not per se enhance performance in endurance-trained athletes."

Stress does improve some physiologic performance (intervals = improved VO2max) but to maximize your training you need adequate carbohydrates. Limiting them to accelerate improvement or reach a higher performance plateau does not work. Instead you risk your personal maximal improvement for no potential benefit. It is "risk without reward".

FATmax - Why Slowing Down Will Extend the Range of an Endurance Ride.

The relative contribution of fat and carbohydrates calories to provide the energy for our muscle cells varies with the level of exertion. The specifics are outlined in this article and presented in this illustration. The number of fat calories utilized per hour is a bit higher at approximately 60% VO2 max, but are essentially stable (per hour) at all levels of exertion up to 85% VO2max. This graph from an article in is the same data presented in a way that more clearly demonstrates the absolute number of fat and carbohydrate calories expended as the level of exertion increases and again highlights the fact that fat provides a relatively flat and stable amount of calories per minute across all levels of exertion while the carbohydrate contribution continues to increase with greater exertion.

This graph from My Coach Cycling shows the relationship a third way. The only problem I have with this graph is the implication that the abolute number of fat calories per hour falls off rapidly above moderate levels of exertion which misrepresents the original findings from 1993 of a stable hourly fat calorie utilization up to at least to 85% VO2max. It is only as exercise approaches 100% VO2max (with metabolism largely anaerobic) that fat is no longer a significant energy source for the muscle cell.

The term FATmax, an exercise intensity at which peak fat oxidation occurs, was coined by Jeukendrup and Achten in 2001. As the contribution of carbohydrate calories continues to increase with exercise intensity, it is also the exercise intensity (%VO2max) at which the ratio of carbohydrate calories to fat calories shifts to carbohydrates as the predominant fuel for the muscle.

Why is FATmax important? In endurance sports using the maximum amount of as a fuel delays depletion of stored glycogen and the onset of performance limiting fatigue (the bonk) which occurs when stored glycogen calories have been depleted.

FATmax varies from individual to individual but is approximately 63%VO2max which is equivalent to Zone 2 (of a 7 zone training program) or a a perceived exertion of 3 to 4 (10 point scale) or 60-70% MHR.

It was originally suggested that exercising at FATmax would maximize the fat loss benefits of exercise when minimal exercise time was available. But as you can see from this table (also from the article) this is not the case. Let’s say you had 2 hours to exercise and chose to exercise at a FATmax 65%VO2max. You would use 850 fat calories in the two hours. If you instead pushed up to 85%VO2max, you would increase total calories used in the two hours but the number of fat calories used over the two hours would remain unchanged. The extra calories are all from glycogen storage. If you were on a calorically stable diet, the increased exertion would cause a daily caloric deficit and you would ultimately use fat to resynthesize glycogen stores. BUT it was not the rate of exertion that made a difference, rather it was the total calories used for the two hours of exercise. If your goal is to actually burn fat calories at the time of exercising, any moderate level of activity will get you the same per hour result. But if the goal is weight loss, a higher level of activity gets you more weight loss per hour of exercise time.

The concept of FATmax explains why slowing down extends riding time (assuming no snacks or energy drinks) for long distance and multi hour events. These calculations use assumptions on power output from ChatGPT (it is a time saver) and calculations from Both assume no oral glucose or caloric supplements.

From Chat GPT:

Now from bike calculator:

Just a little slowing makes a big difference in endurance capacity.

A Vegetarian Diet May Give You An Edge.

Meat is not a requirement for the training table. In fact, a plant based diet may provide an extra edge, a "secret sauce" for better endurance performance.

Two articles:

  1. Article 1
  2. Article 2
Both studies support the performance advantage of a vegetarian diet. Why? Perhaps an added factor in the plant based foods (anti oxidants?) or the absence of a negative factor in the omnivore diet (fats perhaps?)

Don't forget about hydration.

On a long ride, especially if it is hot, it is easy to focus on your calories and miss the real reason you have bonked - inadequate fluid replacement. You do not want to lose more than 2% of your body weight on a ride. If you are not certain you are doing an adequate job, weigh yourself before and after a ride. This article emphasizes the point.

All questions and suggestions are appreciated and will be answered.

Cycling Performance Tips
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