TOOLBOX: While it’s true that fitness is fitness, the best route to running success is to match your training and fitness to the demands of the event. Let’s take a look at some of the dirt races I’ve done to see what is specific to the dirt races.
Let’s first look at the El Bandito event in July 2018, a 68 km race with 1,000 m of elevation distributed fairly evenly. It’s quite a bit of climbing, without a single massive climb but rather continuous rolls throughout. The first 15 minutes or so involved steep climbs around the ski area, a rugged rocky descent, then some simple, slippery trails. The last 15 minutes do it backwards. In between there are road, gravel and sandy forest trails.
The course was identical to the 2017 El Bandito, which makes it a good comparator. My Xert Fitness signature was actually a bit higher in 2017 for all three components, at 1103 W / 21.2 kJ / 256 W for peak power / high intensity energy / threshold power, up from 1023 W / 17.4 kJ / 244 W in 2018. Find out what the Xert Fitness Signature parameters mean.
For racing dynamics, in 2018 my doctoral student Matt Mallette and I purposefully rode together throughout. We spent a large part of the race in a group of about 8 who were doing quite well, although Matt and I certainly did more than our fair share of the work. It was only about 2 hours from the line that we made a 2-minute stop at the refreshment post where we were alone both until the finish.
By comparison, in 2017 I had no teammate before the race and I did most of the race mostly solo.
Lesson 1: The Power of Groups
Despite the poorer physical condition in 2018, my finish time was 6 minutes faster than in 2017 (removing the aid downtime from both events) and the weather and wind were quite similar.
Lesson 1 from the obvious brief: Regardless of your physical form, it’s usually a good strategy to gather a strong group of similar abilities.
You can usually go a lot more distance in a well-matched group with relatively less effort than if you were doing it solo. In 2017, in the first hour, I traveled 26.6 km, doing 698 kJ of work. In contrast, in 2018 I did a similar job of 706 kJ, but drove 27.9 km instead.
The corollary of the lesson above is that it’s worth pushing yourself really hard at the start of a gravel event to stay in a peloton for as long as you can. However, sometimes it can backfire if you push yourself far too early to stick with a group that is realistically faster than you can handle. If this happens, you risk exploding so hard that you will end up riding the latter part of the stroke slower than if you had pulled the chute and dropped earlier.
Gravel races are usually long efforts, so you should know yourself well enough to assess your ability to perform repeated draining efforts. As I wrote earlier, fitness is more than raw fitness numbers – repeatability is just as critical.
The hard part comes first
As I review all of my gravel events, an interesting trend emerges. Most gravel races end up being attrition races. You can and do push yourself pretty hard in the first third of the race, but then whether you’re on your own or in a good group, you tend to get a lot more stable.
In 2017, I did most of the racing solo.
In 2018 Matt and I spent most of the day in a strong group of 6 runners of equal ability. However, the MPA settled about 1/3 in the race.
This can be seen in the way my maximum available power (blue line) fluctuated throughout the early parts of the race and then stabilized after around 45mins (2017) or 60mins (2018).
The same pattern appears in other gravel races. In the Paris-Ancaster 2018, my “A” event for the start of 2018 and where I obtained a better career ranking of 177th overall (the previous one was 263rd), I again spent most of the race in a very well-matched and good group. Again, the first third or so exhibited MPA fluctuations, then settled down again in an effort with minimal MPA drop.
Lesson 2: Gravel races are long, difficult events where, even if you repeatedly exceed your threshold power, they are not necessarily sustained.
In this way, gravel races are similar to cyclocross or mountain biking events. There are a lot of gusts, but you mainly push hard for short periods of time, usually to get over an obstacle or a short incline.
Therefore, in training, the focus does not need to be on exerting yourself to your limit in terms of absolute fatigue. Rather, the emphasis should be on the ability to handle short bursts repeated over and over again for a very prolonged period.
During the build-up period, it’s hard to go wrong with the variations of Hour of Power type workouts, where you spend an hour at sustained, sustained effort, and then every two minutes, throw in about 15s of intense effort and return immediately to this sustained effort.
During the peak period of training, I like to switch to microburst-type efforts which have larger gaps between on and off efforts. One of my favorites is Let the Sparks Fly, with a 20 second on / off switch. This workout takes you to intermediate levels of fatigue, then keeps you there by dynamically adjusting the strength of the on and off efforts. It also simulates gravel events in that even scavenge blocks are not just “easy ride” efforts but require you to maintain a sustained level of fatigue. Finally, all three apply the concept of repeatability of being able to sustain intense efforts late in a gravel event.
Roll hard and have fun!
Our introduction to Pez Goes Gravel
We ride the Niner RLT9RDO.