Building Your Gran Fondo Engine

In my last post I talked about the 4 most important components of fitness you need for a Gran Fondo/Sportive. If you missed it, check that out first here. In this post I’m going to build on that and give you a few pointers on how you can go about developing each of the 4 key areas.

Creating Threshold Building Sessions

Increasing threshold is actually extremely simple, the difficult part is putting the work in! Sessions designed to increase threshold need to spend the majority of time either just below threshold, at threshold, just above threshold, or a combination of these (over/under). When I say below, I mean approx. 90-95% and above I mean 101-105%. An important thing to remember is your threshold is a level of work, not a fixed power value, your power value will vary from one day to the next depending on fatigue, if you missed it, check out my post which covered this here.

It’s important to mix up your sessions, too much time spent focussing on just below threshold effort will cause you to plateau, whilst too much time spend focussing on above threshold effort will bring so much fatigue that your training sessions soon become impossible. Any type of threshold training is very energy costly and therefore it’s really important to not do more than a couple of threshold building sessions per week.

In terms of how long threshold building training efforts should be, everyone’s needs and training responses are different but here are some very general rules of thumb:

Just Below Threshold (90-95% FTP): Intervals of 20-40min in length, 1 or 2 intervals, with 4-8min recovery.

Just Above Threshold (101-105%): Intervals of 5-8min in length, 4-6 intervals with 3-5min recovery.

Mixed (Over/Under): Intervals of 9-16min in length, split between 2/3 under, 1/3 over to start with, progressing to ½ under ½ over. Eg. 2min under, 1min over, progressing to 2min over, 2min under. 2-4 intervals with 3-5min recovery.

Tips for Threshold Building Sessions:

  • Include varied cadence in some of your threshold sessions, especially if riding on an indoor trainer, the demands of the changing gradients of the open road require constant gear changes and cadence adjustments.
  • Avoid threshold sessions on consecutive days.
  • Limit specific threshold building sessions to 1 or 2 per week.
  • Where possible, have a rest day before a threshold building session.
  • Alternate your threshold building sessions between just below, just above and mixed (over/under).
  • Remember your Threshold is a level of work, not a fixed power value.

Creating Strength Building Sessions

Sessions that will build strength need to contain over-geared work which will require you to produce high torque. In Gran Fondo training this is done at low cadence and for prolonged periods. This is because when riding a Gran Fondo, negotiating steep and sometimes prolonged climbs is very likely to be necessary, having a strong sprint is just not going to be relevant in these events.

This blog post is aimed at adults, but to avoid any misinterpretation I need to mention a really important point regarding youth riders and developing strength. It’s really important that strength development training for youth riders is carefully managed. Putting too high a force through limbs which are experiencing rapid growth and that are not fully developed presents very high injury risk and has the potential to cause injuries which will inhibit the child’s long-term development. That doesn’t mean that youth riders can’t do any over-geared work but it does mean we need to be very careful with it, we need to limit the amount, frequency and level of high torque work they do. Following the same level of strength development session I may write for a senior rider would be completely inappropriate, in the same way I would never have a youth rider go anywhere near heavy weights in the gym, (technique work and body weight resistance can be beneficial but that’s a whole new topic so I’ll leave that for another day).

Back to adults and those training specifically for Gran Fondos/Sportives. High Torque efforts can either be ridden in isolation or as part of a bigger effort which includes sections of over-geared work.

Tips for Strength Building Sessions:

  • Be gradually progressive with your high torque efforts, don’t jump straight in to 40rpm slogs where you can only just turn the pedals over and keep the bike moving, start at 70-80rpm and focus on holding a good posture on the bike.
  • Mix it up, don’t do all your strength efforts at a constant cadence, vary the level of torque and the cadence you are using, just like the gradient of a climb will vary.
  • Just as Threshold building efforts put a large stress on the body, so do Strength building efforts (though in a different way), so it’s important not to do too much of this type of training, avoid back to back days of strength work and limit it to 1 or 2 sessions per week.
  • Vary the duration of your efforts, a 10km climb at 10-15% gradient is a very different type of effort to a 500m climb at 20-25% gradient.
  • Include standing pedalling as well as seated, this will be especially useful when you find yourself clicking for another gear which isn’t there. Make sure you keep your back straight when doing standing pedalling.
  • As well as riding specific strength sessions in isolation. Incorporate some strength work at the end of endurance rides (more on that later).

Aerobic Efficiency

The 2 components of Gran Fondo fitness I’ve touched on so far involve some really hard work, now things get a lot easier. But don’t confuse easier for unimportant. Aerobic efficiency rides are an integral part of Gran Fondo training. These rides are social pace and going easier is actually really important. It can be very easy to get dragged in to pushing the pace on and whilst doing so will provide you with a good workout, it will have a very different benefit to that which we are pursuing here. You want to encourage your body to burn fat as fuel during the ride and to do that you need to keep it easy, it takes time to convert fat into energy and if your effort level is too high, your fat stores won’t get much of a look in. Although the intensity is light, these rides need to be pretty long to be effective, a 30 min easy ride isn’t going to cut it, that would be an active recovery ride and something very different. It’s important to build up gradually though, if you’ve not ridden for more than 2 hours in the last year, don’t go out and try and ride for 6 hours straight away, gradually build it up.

Tips for Developing Aerobic Efficiency:

  • Try to keep it consistent, avoid big surges of effort.
  • It’s the polar opposite to strength work, so try to maintain a high cadence (90rpm+) as much as possible during the ride. If you’re not a naturally high cadence peddler then this will take some getting used to but it’s worth working on to help you increase fuel economy.
  • If high cadence isn’t coming naturally to you then try to include some fixed time intervals within your ride when you aim to hold a high cadence, it would also be worth spending some time riding on the rollers, even if just for 10-15min to start with, gradually building up to 1 hour. If you can maintain a high cadence on the rollers for an hour then it’s going to be a big help to you on your long rides. Keep the intensity low though, this will become easier as you get used to it.
  • Try to include at least one Aerobic Efficiency ride per week, weekend club runs can be perfect for this, and also a great place to learn group riding skills.
  • You should be pretty comfortable for the whole ride, if your hanging on then it’s not an Aerobic Efficiency ride!
  • Keep well fuelled and hydrated during your ride (that’s a separate topic for another day).

Developing Cycling Specific Muscular Endurance

There are 2 sub-components you need to develop within this for Gran Fondos, firstly the ability to sustain a reasonable effort for the duration of the event, to enable you to complete the course within a specific time frame. Secondly, the ability to cope with high torque efforts when already fatigued, so when you come up against that 20% climb with 80 miles already in your legs, you embrace the challenge and don’t sit at the road side sobbing.

So, to develop these areas you need to include some 2-3 hour rides (beginners should start at 1.5 hours) but at a higher intensity than the aerobic efficiency rides, this sort of ride is not so social, you should be able to engage in light and infrequent conversation, but if you’re chatting all the way round then you need to be pushing a bit harder to put a tick in the box for this one. Fuelling becomes really important in this type of ride as you will be burning fuel pretty quickly. Providing you’ve fuelled well beforehand you should be good to go for the first hour or so but after that it’s really important you’re snacking little and often. Nutrition for training is another topic entirely so I’m going to cover that in one of my future posts.

It’s also important to introduce some high torque work whilst in a fatigued state, so at the end of some of these rides it would be useful to include some high torque efforts, to simulate those steep climbs, this sort of work could be done on an indoor trainer immediately after your ride but if you’ve got access to steep climbs on your door step then what are you waiting for?! The reason the climb needs to be close to home is simple, if you’ve completed your ride and post-ride efforts at the right sort of intensity, anything more than a 15 min easy spin home afterwards is going to be too much.

Tips for Developing Cycling Specific Muscular Endurance:

  • Just like all training sessions, start small and gradually build, 90 min will be enough to start with but gradually build up to approx. 3hours.
  • Remember the intensity is a lot less social than the Aerobic Efficiency rides, you should be capable of more than a grunt and a nod, but if you’re discussing your next bike purchase or ranting about that guy from work then you need to be pressing on a bit harder.
  • Include some high torque work at the end of the ride, ideally on a steep climb but it can be recreated on an indoor trainer. Aim for 10-15min of high torque efforts in total, this could be made up of 1 or 2 longer efforts, or many more shorter efforts. The shorter the effort, the higher the effort level needs to be.
  • The post-ride high torque work is supposed to be ridden in a fatigued state, but not a starved state, so make sure you’re putting fuel in the tank regularly during your ride.
  • Don’t fall in to the trap of making all your long rides endurance rides, Aerobic efficiency rides are of equal importance and one is not a replacement for the other.

If you would like a greater level of detail I’ve created a 12-week Winter Grand Fondo training programme to address these 4 areas. The programme is specifically designed for the winter months and for people with limited time to train. Most of the sessions are therefore indoor sessions to maximise your limited training time and ideal for dark nights and poor weather conditions. A longer weekend ride is included every week but if that’s not going to be possible for you there is always a shorter indoor option included. If using the indoor weekend option. You only need 5 hours per week and the programme can be purchased through my training peaks store here.

I hope you’ve found this useful, to ensure you don’t miss a post, you can subscribe for free by putting your email address in the “Connect With Us” box, at the bottom of this page.

Dan Small, Mountain Goat Coaching.