Four key elements to gravel training

How to train now for a gravel race.

Photo: Catherine Fegan-Kim

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There are four key elements to training for a gravel race. Many athletes will be relieved to learn that they don’t need to hammer out VO2 and Tabata interval workouts to prepare for a gravel grinder. This could explain their rise in popularity! The strategy and tactics are different from road races and therefore so is the training.

There are four key aspects to training for a gravel race:

  1. Sweet spot training
  2. Doing simulation rides
  3. Raising your Chronic Training Load
  4. Tapering

Sweet spot training for gravel racing

Sweet spot training is specific to gravel grinder racing. These races are true tests of endurance and there is no better way to build a hemi-powered aerobic engine than with sweet spot training.

What is sweet spot, you ask? If you train with a power meter, it is between 84 and 97 percent of your Functional Threshold Power. If you don’t have a power meter, I call sweet spot ‘medium hard’.

If you look at a power file from just about any gravel grinder you’ll see that the majority of time the athlete spends ‘going hard’ is in the sweet spot. Therefore, the limiting factor in one’s performance becomes how much time the athlete can spend in their sweet spot. Is it 60 minutes, two hours, four hours or the whole race? Overall take the amount of climbing or hard sections from the gravel grinder course in minutes and train to be able to do that much sweet spotting!

The power data below is from the 2016 Crusher in the Tushar. There was 134 minutes worth of sweet spot climbing and honestly I could have used 200 minutes of sweet spot. The Crusher in the Tushar is all about being able to do two 1-hour climbs and being able to roll the sweet spot watts in between and after the Col de Crusher for five to six hours.

Sweet spot training is all about maximizing training time, and it translates well to gravel as much of the racing is done at that ‘medium hard’ level of intensity.

Often times when I’m analyzing gravel grinder power data it’s easy to pinpoint the moment the athlete just didn’t have anymore sweet spot watts in them and has to slow down. For me, in this race it was up the final climb the Col de Crusher. Thus I achieved 134 minutes of sweet spot climbing and after that I was running on tempo and high zone 2 fumes. The training conclusion is to match the power demands of the gravel grinder to your training. Thus the next key element…

Gravel-race simulation rides

This is the type of training where your better half tells their non-cycling friends that you are crazy. Doing a race that is 200 miles long and/or has 10,000 feet of climbing? Guess what? You should ride that long and climb that much in training. Thus the grinder simulation ride. These rides are as diabolical as they are common sense and that’s what makes us crazy.

For the Crusher in the Tushar you face two 1-hour climbs. Therefore my simulation rides consisted of 5- to 6-hour rides in the mountains at altitude with an hourlong climb at the beginning and an hourlong climb at the end of the five hours, just like the Crusher. A ‘next level’ addition to these rides is to find climbs that are as steep as what you’ll face in the race. If possible, the ultimate simulation ride is riding the actual course.

Raise your Chronic Training Load

Training day in, day out, and staying consistent is the single greatest ‘training technique’ masters cyclists can benefit from. By riding a lot and staying consist, you should strive to push your Chronic Training Load (CTL) as high as possible right up until two weeks prior to your gravel grinder.

CTL is tracked by training software like TrainingPeaks and Today’s Plan. It is a measurement of the cumulative workload over the past few weeks. TrainingPeaks calculates it as a rolling 42-day average. Strava has a similar measurement it calls Fitness.

If you are behind in training and feeling good, go ahead and push your CTL as high as you can get one week prior. Then take a rest week to be as fresh as possible come race day.

Training involves stress (the work) and recovery (the benefit). This graph shows Chronic Training Load in blue, Acute Training Load in pink, and Training Stress Balance in yellow. A peak comes when you overload on training (CTL and ATL), then rest to let your form (TSB) rise for race day. CTL – ATL = TSB.

Tapering to peak

If you have been raising your CTL for 12 weeks or more to levels that you haven’t been to before, you are eligible for a ‘taper’. I say eligible because athletes can’t peak from a taper unless they’ve put in a significant overload. One of the greatest benefits of using a training software (or a coach who uses it) like TrainingPeaks is that you can plan your training and rest, and the software will calculate your Training Stress Balance (TSB) on race day.

What is a good TSB? That is the subject of another training column. But generally in my 15 years of experience (I helped develop TrainingPeaks’ Performance Manager Chart in 2004-05) I have seen peak performances from TSB’s ranging from 20-50. If you cannot get your projected TSB to be +20 or greater with a two-week taper, forget the two-week taper, train another week and take an epic rest week leading into your gravel grinder.

What to eat and drink

Now that you are going to put the four key elements of gravel grinder training together, the fifth dimension is dialing in your nutrition and hydration for this massive ride. The best time to dial in what you eat and drink is during your gravel simulation rides. Practice how you want to play! I treat my gravel simulation rides and therefore races like a rolling buffet: eating every 30 minutes and trying to drink as much as possible. Whether using a hydration pack, neutral feeds or both, I try to down the equivalent of two 16oz bottles per hour.


Frank Overton is a longtime cycling coach and bike racer. He is the founder of FasCat Coaching, whose mission is to help athletes ride their bikes faster. 


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