One of the new hot topics in training is a concept dubbed ‘durability.’ It’s being talked about by World Tour coaches and being written about in cycling media.
But what is durability really? Is it a new concept? Is it a metric? And most importantly, how do you train durability? Let’s dig into it!
What is durability?
Durability is being used to refer to an athlete’s ability to put out power after fatiguing efforts. The idea is simple (and logical): many bike races are won with efforts done in fatigued states. Winning a Tour de France mountain top finish requires an elite 30-60 minute w/kg AFTER 4-5 or more hours of racing. Winning a major classic can require highly explosive efforts after 250 km of racing. So in many cases, an athlete’s ability to put out power while fatigued is more important than their ability to put out power while fresh.
Is this a new concept? Not at all! This is just good old common sense. Cyclists have understood the idea of durability for decades even if the term didn’t exist, and in fact, any difference between ‘durability’ and ‘endurance’ is subtle at best. But, there’s an increased focus on durability and an attempt to develop new solutions both to measure and train it.
In fact, durability reminds me of other re-brands, like when Team Sky famously came up with ‘marginal gains.’ The ideas they were posing were nothing new; cyclists had been optimizing performance via better equipment and training for years. Team Sky rebranded the pursuit of small advantages to generate hype and publicity: but it wasn’t all hype and publicity, because they really did pour time, money and effort into every small advantage they could find. They didn’t invent the concept, but they did maximize the use of it (and used it for marketing in the process).
I feel like durability is in a similar place: there’s some hype behind it, and a desire to repackage something we’ve known for years as a new concept. But, on the other hand, a renewed focus on durability will lead to positive results for athletes. The improvements made over the last years in data analysis, training, nutrition, and other important factors will let us improve performance.
Durability: Concept? Metric? Both?
Is durability a defined metric or just a general concept? I prefer to think of it as a general concept, because there's not an agreed upon test (nor do I think there will be anytime soon, for reasons I mention below).
The practical benefit of durability is clear: being able to perform at the end of a hard race is key to success in many cycling disciplines. As I mentioned before, this isn’t a new though, but it's nice that we're trying to use data to talk about it in different ways, to quantify it, and to train it (better).
I think it's very hard to devise a single test for durabiliy. Why? Because I don't think we should assume durability is a quality or ability that can be measured in the way we can measure, say, FTP. Is durability after 2500 kjs of Z2 riding the same as durability after 6 hours at the Tour of Flanders, with the numerous explosive efforts it entails? Is durability on a mountain stage of the Tour the same as durability after 10 hours at Unbound? I doubt it.
Some have proposed doing something like 2500 kjs of riding followed by a max 20 minute effort. I think that is a good starting point, but that it’s also got some flaws: for one, like I just mentioned, 2500 kjs of endurance riding may have very little in common with your event. Secondly, it will favor riders with higher FTPs: if my FTP is 400 watts, I’ll have a lot easier time doing 2500 kjs than if my FTP is 300 watts.
So how do you test for durability? Again, I don't think it's a metric (at least not yet) but rather more of a concept. If you want to test it, though, don't expect to compare it to other people or across populations. Just find a way to test it for yourself and see how you improve. Design a test or find a data set that's specific to your goals.
Introductory Test: Ride 1000 kJs, then do a 5-minute max effort. Compare this to a 5-minute max effort done fresh (a true max effort, not just cherry-picked from ride data). If you have more than 3-5% difference in value, your durability needs work!
Intermediate Durability Test:
Step 1:Warm up for 30 minutes in Zone 2
Step 2: Do a 5-minute max effort
Step 3: Ride for 1,000kJ's
Step 4: Do a 5-minute max effort
Compare your power output from steps 2 & 4 💥
Advanced Durability Test:
Perform a 5 minute Max Effort at the beginning and end of a 5 hour training session (~ 2,500kJ's) if you are training for long gravel, fondo, or haute route style events. Be sure to eat and drink well because how well your fuel your body will determine your fatigued 5 minutes power - just like a race!
How to Train Durability?
First, don't throw out the importance of FTP under fresh conditions. Continue to develop that ability every chance you get. If you read some articles written recently you might have gotten the idea that these numbers don't matter, but I think that's a pretty big exaggeration. There's plenty of research showing values like LT2/MLSS (closely related to FTP) correlate well with level of success in cycling, especially for amateur athletes.
Or, on a practical note: if durability and fresh power are so different, why are so many riders so good at both? Many of the best one-day TT riders (Remco, Roglic, Van Aert) are also among the best in 6+ hour classics or 3 week stage races. Mathieu Van der Poel is nearly unbeatable in 20 minute MTB short track races and 60 minute CX races, yet also can win 250-300 km classics. Pauline Ferrand-Prevot was world champion in short track MTB and Marathon MTB only weeks apart. Lotte Kopecky won the Tour of Flanders and the World Road Race while also dominating the elimination and points race on the track at world and European level. At some point aerobic is aerobic, and having a really high FTP should lead to good durability.
Secondly, train a lot, or at least do a lot of long rides: long rides will build durability. How specifically to train durability is a bit of a coaching question, but I think it's fair to say a mix of long Z2 rides combined with harder endurance rides where you do hard efforts late in the ride while already fatigued are a good idea. Also, train specifically and keep in mind the demands of your event: again, don’t assume durability for a mountainous gravel race is the same as durability for a road race that will end in a sprint.
Finally, keep in mind the importance of nutrition and being prepared for environmental factors. Good nutrition, 'training the gut' to tolerate your race-day nutrition plan, and being prepared for heat/cold/altitude/etc are all massively important for good durability.
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Christian Parrett is a professional CyclingCoach and former professional road cyclist. To speak with Coach Christian about improving your durability please fill out our new athlete questionnaire to have a free coaching consultation with him.