What is endurance? In the simplest possible terms, it is your ability to ‘last the distance’ in your chosen event. Track pursuit riders need endurance for their sub-5-minute race, as much as a hundred-mile sportive rider will need to be strong and comfortable in the saddle for five hours, often more. As with all training before you start a program you need to define your goals.
Endurance training is often thought of as simply ‘getting the miles in’, focusing on accumulating time in the saddle at an easy, constant pace. As fitness develops the time spent in the saddle is increased. How long your longest ride needs to be depends on your goal race or distance. You don’t necessarily have to cover the full distance of your target event in training, but you should feel comfortable with riding up to 80% of it.
A good endurance ride needs to be controlled and can often feel uncomfortably slow, particularly on the hills. If you are using heart rate or power, you will really have to back off to stay in your training zone which can be hard if you are riding with others who are eager to push on. (Endurance training takes place at 60-70% of your max heart rate or 55-75% of your functional threshold power.) If you don’t have a Wattbike, power meter or heart rate monitor the simplest gauge is how much you can talk. You should be able to chat comfortably throughout the ride, if you start to gasp you are going too hard.
Long endurance rides are a good opportunity to practice your nutrition strategy for events and experiment with different foods and drinks. A word of warning; easy steady pace riding can really rev up your appetite and it's very tempting to over eat when you get in! Fuel your ride well and make sure that you have a healthy snack with protein and carbs or a recovery drink as soon as you finish. Aim to be drinking 500-750ml of fluids an hour and eating around 60g of carbohydrate, starting in the first 40 minutes of your ride.
Whilst traditional steady endurance rides are fun and sociable they are also time intensive with minimal reward for your investment, you need to do a lot of hours at this pace to see your fitness progress, and remember time spent in the café doesn’t count! Professional riders might spend as much as 80% of their week riding in their endurance zone in the early part of their season but they will be training 30 hours or more with plenty of time for recovery. If you have a limited amount of time to train, then there are ways of getting more benefits out of the time you put in.
It is well documented that high intensity interval training benefits endurance, doing short but very intense intervals can increase your body’s ability to use oxygen during exercise, one of the markers of endurance.
If you only have an hour or less to spare doing a constant steady paced ride (unless it is for recovery) will not greatly enhance your endurance. Instead a HIIT session will develop your cardiovascular endurance and increase your power. Double win. If you can’t go long, go short and hard.
Creating a balance of training is a challenge for every busy person. If you can get one long, constant pace ride and a mix of shorter and harder rides on days when you have less time available then you will be able to develop your endurance whilst making the best possible use of the time you have available.