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Road Training

VeloNews’ Everyman Racer Jason Sumner says sometimes you need to just ride.

Don’t take this the wrong way, but there is a lot more to riding bikes than just training for the next race. And while I know that might sound obvious, for me anyway, that simple truth got lost for a little while. During the last year, I’ve been willingly immersed in an exciting new world of power meters, intervals, thresholds and watts. I trained indoors on powder days, bailed on friendly group rides so I could stick to my workout plan, and skipped a few Friday night bacchanals so I’d be fresh for Saturday’s ’cross race.

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By Jason Sumner

Don’t take this the wrong way, but there is a lot more to riding bikes than just training for the next race. And while I know that might sound obvious, for me anyway, that simple truth got lost for a little while.

During the last year, I’ve been willingly immersed in an exciting new world of power meters, intervals, thresholds and watts. I trained indoors on powder days, bailed on friendly group rides so I could stick to my workout plan, and skipped a few Friday night bacchanals so I’d be fresh for Saturday’s ’cross race.

Along the way I learned a lot about how the human body works (and sometimes doesn’t), gained a little fitness, and realized an immense appreciation for what the pros do — and endure. Make no mistake, I love bike racing and racing bikes.

But competitive focus can come with a cost. Worry too much about the numbers on your power meter display, and you’re in jeopardy of sucking the fun out of what is basically a kid’s game. Don’t get me wrong. I love my power meter. I love race-specific training. Yes, I love being a bike dork.

But sometimes you’ve got to take a little break from the serious side.

Enter a ten-day mountain biking odyssey in Peru. Thanks to a little serendipity, a mileage ticket on Delta, and my generous hosts at British Columbia-based Big Mountain Adventures who organized the trip, I spent the first week of May ripping mostly downhill in the precipitous Peruvian Andes.

Now, I won’t blather too much about what an epic, amazing, even life-changing experience it was. But suffice to say, if you like riding fat tires, put Peru on the life list and make sure you check it off. All those trails the Incas built five millennia ago are still there, and holy shit they are fun. And the country’s slice of the Andes, well, it includes 33 peaks above 19,500 feet.

Exhibit A: On day 2 of the trip, we drove from sea-level-located Lima up a crazy array of paved and dirt roads to 12,000 feet, then hopped on bikes and rode all the way back to the Pacific Ocean — most of the way on singletrack. It was bar-none one of the best days I’ve ever had on a bike, yet the only fitness gained was via forearm pump and excessive grinning.

Point of all this — besides that you need to figure out a way to get your butt to Peru — is keep it fun. We’re just riding bikes after all.

That said, there’s nothing like a little down time to reignite the competitive drive. I’m ready to start racing again, and this coming weekend brings a pair of divergent tests. First it’s Saturday’s Sunshine Hill Climb, a 9-plus mile uphill slog that includes 3200 feet of climbing. Even worse, the last 3.5 miles are on dirt, the average grade is above 7 percent and there are a few ramps above 23-percent. Call it payback for all the downhilling.

A day later it’s the North Boulder Park Criterium. I’m not a huge fan of crits, but this one’s been around since the Coors Classic heydays, and it’s in a neighborhood, not an office park, which is always a bonus.

To get in gear for all this fun, Coach Neal has me on a steady diet of what I’ll call re-acclimatization rides. Work-out No. 1 was an easy 90-minute spin save for a few 5-10-second sprint efforts just to remind the body of what pain feels like. Day No. 2 included five, 5-minute intervals at just below threshold. Finally over the weekend he sent me out on the mountain bike with the simple instructions to, “enjoy the ride.”

Words to live by.

Sorry to some for the long delay, but lots of questions and answers this go round. If you would like to ask Coach Neal Henderson a question please send e-mail to Questions may be edited for content and clarity.

Hey Coach,

I’ve been reading about mitochondria and their role in endurance as “aerobic engines” and also about the body’s ability to produce growth hormone. My questions are how can we increase our concentration of mitochondria? And how can we (legally) increase or production of growth hormone? For example, I’ve read both long slow distance rides and intervals at VO2 max will increase mitochondria. And that sleep and glutamine will increase growth hormone. Thoughts?

from Vancouver, B.C. but writing from China


Mitochondria are indeed improved through endurance training over long periods, months and years. On the other hand some things like strength training can decrease mitochondria. So you want to do strength training that doesn’t make muscles bigger.

As for growth hormone, doing short recovery rides at extremely easy intensity can give GH boost. Also proper post-training nutrition is really important. A good amount of carbs and quality protein shows increase relative to an all-carbs meal.

Coach Neal,

I’m an experienced cyclist with a good spring base. I am training for the Brasstown Bald Buster Century. I have a busy job and try to train 7-8 hrs a week. Any suggestions on my next two months of training? More miles or long climbs or power/interval work?



I’d recommend a different training program. For a week, focus on higher intensity, basically above threshold for 5-10 minutes on one day, then do a day of sprint and anaerobic work and then a third day doing VO2-type intervals. That’s for one week, say Monday, Thursday and Saturday. Then we’d move out to longer riding second week, two quality days, Monday and Thursday at more tempo for 10-30 minutes just below threshold, and then Saturday or Sunday doing a big ride, longer in duration than the century will take. In between doing recovery work. Then a third week of recovery rides and rest days with maybe one hard weekend day. So instead of standard mix of everything in one week, do three separate weeks. Do that cycle twice, then the last two weeks taper down a bit.

Good luck,

Hello Coach Neal,

I’m a long time distance runner trying out competitive cycling for variety and excitement. I have never had much top running speed — I top out in a 5k at about 17-18 minutes — but do well in 8k and 10k competitions. I think that I’d do even better in longer runs. My fast twitch muscle fibers are about as plentiful as Armstrong fans in Paris.

I focus most of my intense training three days a week building speed and strength. I do lactic acid intervals of around 5-6 minutes up a 6 percent grade, 20-30-second all out sprints, and weight training, mostly squats. Over the past year I can definitely tell I’m getting faster based on my usual training rides, but then the next Cat 5 race, I get spit out the back as soon as the accelerations and sprints begin. I’m comfortable holding 20mph for an hour, but I can’t sprint past 30mph without someone’s wheel. I tend to favor higher cadences (90-100rpm) because my legs burn out quickly in higher gears. Should I focus on the peak strength building, lactic acid threshold or something else?

Bethlehem, Pensylvania


Couple things here.

First off 20-30 second sprints are really long. Sprints should be more like 5-10 seconds. So decrease duration and make sure to have good rest between so you can generate high output with 2-4 minutes rest in between.

Then, LT intervals should be more varied and longer – 8-10-12 minute intervals as well as doing a steady tempo effort of 20-30 minutes. That will help your body clear lactate more rapidly.

Next, cut out the squats during race season. Just do maintenance now focusing on core. The other critical thing is adequate aerobic-based fitness. If your aerobic system under-developed ability to do sustained efforts is lessened.

Dear Coach Neal,

After beginning racing in the States, then the UK, and ultimately France, where I now reside, I’ve steadily moved up to Cat 2. My strengths lie in climbing, particularly in the mountains or on hills longer than 3k, however I sometimes find that I lack the ‘punch’ on shorter sharp climbs and top-end accelerations on the flat. I’ve begun a regime of hill climbs of 10 reps, 5 times in the 53-11, and 5 times in the 39-23, in alternation. Will this be of benefit, if not, what might you suggest for improvement?

Bordeaux, France


I need to know duration to give an accurate answer, but it’s not a bad idea what you are doing. Though I also think it would help to do some efforts in the middle. Use the extreme ends for those type efforts. Do low cadence that is 40-50 rpm and high that is up to 120, and then a more realistic effort that is 90-100 rpm. Also do some VO2 max efforts that are 1-3 minutes above LT with equal rest time.


Hi Neal,

I’m 37 and have just spent the last three years off the bike due to breaking my hip in a cycling accident. I had a dynamic hip screw inserted instead of a replacement hip. During that time I’ve piled on the weight due to forced inactivity. I have gone from 178 pounds to 214. I’m 5-foot-11 so am on the borderline of being obese. Previously I was a Cat. 3 road rider and a multi-distance TT champion. I began to ride the bike again on March 1, this year and currently only have the time to ride for two hours on Sundays, and two one hour trainer sessions a week. All trainer sessions have been done at or below 120bpm, and so far my weight has come down eight pounds. I am now able to maintain a 20 mph average speed over the two hour Sunday morning ride, riding solo on a medium rolling course.

My question to you is would it be beneficial to me to begin time trailing this year, even though I would be riding well below my previous level, or should I continue to build up my general fitness for this year and race again next year? Also, if I did race this year, would my weight come down at the same rate as if I just maintained lower level fat burning sessions?

T. Brown
Nottingham, England

T. Brown,

Overall I think entering some races would be good just to give you a target. Just don’t expect to be where you were in the past right away. But having a target will help. Most people do better when they have specific goals and are working toward something. Don’t sweat your weight too much because you may have lost muscle mass and now are increasing muscle mass. It’s easier to gain than to lose, just like fitness.
Good luck,

Coach Neal,

I know you’ve addressed this topic in other responses but I wanted to get a bit more detailed. I’m a 38-year-old masters racer. I race crits but really love road races. My question surround interval duration below V02Max effort. I train mostly at lunch so my time per ride is limited. In order to maximize time, I ride right from the office and hit the local hills. For an interval at or just above threshold I typically do 8 to 10 minute efforts with 4 to 5 minutes rest in between. Doing a longer intervals is not an option since finding a road that allows for a consistent effort for anything longer than 10 minutes right from the office is almost impossible. Can I get the same or similar benefit from doing more intervals as opposed to longer intervals? For example 6 intervals at 10 minutes as opposed to 4 at 15 minutes?

Los Gatos, California


No matter how you break it up, 60 minutes worth of intervals is a long time, probably too long. I would suggest that most riders do not do that kind of intensity. Instead I’d probably go with a total of 30 minutes unless you are an elite pro. And typically they will even stay a little below that. Also, you get similar benefit when at or just above LT, but I usually have people start at 10 minutes’ worth of intervals and then move up.


Hello Coach Neal,

I used to race in adventure races exclusively but have since moved to 24-hour mountain bike racing because I find it less complicated, not having to deal with all the logistics for an adventure race. I have never been professionally coached and have no idea if what I’m doing in preparation for 24 hour races is the proper way to train. As of now, I’ve decided to do most of my endurance training on road using my hardtail MTB (including front suspension) but with 26×1.38 tires, hitting the trails only for improving my off-road handling technique. I ride everyday, alternating between speed drills on a 2km x 8 laps circuit and a 68+ kilometer distance/road ride which is mostly uphill. Am I approaching my training the right way, or should I throw everything out the window and start from scratch? I’ve been doing this for two years now. Many thanks and more power!



No. 1: Rest is not a bad thing, so don’t ride every day. That said, I’d have to say I’d suggest you start over because you can’t do the same thing over and over and expect different results.

Occasionally do longer work outs, but also some more-specific intervals rather than just doing circuits. There are much more fun ways to get fit, but with no variance in training it’s easy to get over trained. Bottom line, I’ve never coached high-end athletes who do not effectively rest.

Good luck,


I am really into mountain biking and want to get better. I did a few races last year and am looking to do more this year. What tips can you give me to become a better rider? Recently my quads have been really sore midway through a ride. I can’t figure out exactly why. Do you know what it might be? I need be stronger with my endurance for sure. Any suggestions would be great. Thanks!



Start with the basics and make sure your bike fits you. After that, think about having purpose in your training. Do some endurance and interval work, and stay strong in the offseason with strength training. Mountain bike skills and technique are also important, but also make sure you do some training on the road. The road will allow for more consistent pedaling for longer periods, while trails are typically all up or down. Most of all have fun.


Dear Coach,

I really liked the “Finding Time” article of March 12th. Now I have a simple question: Now that the snow is melting here in Finland, I am planning to go to work cycling as part of my short time to train. It is an hour trip (22km) at a soft pace. I wonder how can I benefit from this two daily hours of cycling that’s divided in two parts.

Thank you in advance,
Sipoo, Finland


Yes, there will be benefit. In fact a lot of times I have people do two-a-days for recovery and endurance. Trying varying the days, some intensity, some days just steady. Just remember to have some purpose to your commute and you’ll definitely make some gains.


Hey Coach,

My goal is to do a fast 45-minute time trial on a dead flat coarse. The catch is I ride only 2-3 times a week, usually only Saturday and Sunday. I lift weights three days a week. The rides are usually solo for 90 minutes, 75/25 flat with hills one day and the other steep hills. It’s not too hard for me to keep the intensity up. Weights workouts are basic, alternating triceps/chest, biceps/lats, shoulder/traps and legs with usually two movement per muscle, six sets pyramiding from 15 reps down to 6 with a drop set thrown in (to failure) at the end.

Legs are a little different, as I’ll do squats, leg extensions, hamstring curls and maybe hack squats, perhaps 5 sets per movement pyramiding up in weight from 12 to 8 reps. Weight workouts start with 25 minute warm up on the life cycle with a little life cycle cool down at the end.

I like cycling much more than weights but don’t have the daylight. I’m 46 years old 5-foot-11, 188 pounds. I’m very conscious of overtraining and look for tell tale signs like soreness to the touch (particularly my legs) and elevated heart rate. At a glance this might seem like a lot but I rarely feel taxed, just hungry. The last thing, I’d like to keep it fun. I get enough of the drudgery with the weights.

Thanks for any and all advice,
Los Angeles, California


First off, back off the weights. You are plenty big for a competitive cyclist. Many riders that are 5-11 are under 170. Even on a flat TT course where you think it’s all power, less weight will help. Look at a guy like Levi Leipheimer, who is small but can produce large amounts of aerobic power. Aerobic power comes from time spent training you aerobic system, not lifting weights. In turn that will give you two more hours a week to ride.


Editor’s Note: Jason Sumner is a 38-year-old, 170-pound freelance writer and Cat. 4 bike racer who last year worked with a cycling coach — and trained with a Power Tap power meter — for the first time. Sumner underwent a full battery of lab tests at the beginning of the 2008 season, producing a 250-watt lactate threshold, a 3.2 watts per kilogram score and a VO2 max of 51.5. Sumner was retested in mid-November 2008, and produced a 275-watt LT, a 3.6 watts per kilogram, and a VO2 max of 59.6. In 2009, he’s continuing to train, hoping to up those numbers further — and maybe win a race. He is documenting his experiences for is this occasional column.

His coach, Neal Henderson, is sports science manager at the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine and a well-regarded elite-level coach. Henderson’s clients include 2008 Olympian and individual pursuit world champion Taylor Phinney. Henderson is also the winter triathlon coach for the U.S. national triathlon team, and was named 2008 USA Cycling National Development Coach of the Year. Henderson is working with Sumner on a pro bono basis.