Gravel Training

There are 4 key elements to gravel training that I will describe in this training tip. Many athletes will be relieved to learn that they don't need to hammer out VO2's and Tabatas 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. They 4 key aspects of gravel grinder training are:
  1. Sweet Spot Training
  2. Simulation Rides, Dress Rehearsals for Distance, Equipment & Nutrition
  3. Raising your Chronic Training Load
  4. Tapering


Sweet Spot Training

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. 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, 2 hours, 4 hours or the whole race? Read about How Much Sweet Spot Training You Should Do. 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 spottin'™ !

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 one hour climbs (at altitude) and being able to roll the sweet spot watts in-between and after the Col de Crusher for 5-6 hours.

Often times when I'm analyzing gravel grinder power data its 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 key element # 2:

Grinder 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 ft 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 2 one hour climbs. Therefore my simulation rides consisted of 5-6 hour rides in the mountains at altitude with an hour long climb at the beginning and an hour long climb at the end of the 5 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. Finally the ultimate simulation ride is actually riding the course. Here's one of my Strava simulation rides that I affectionately titled "Crushar in What Tushar" This was as close to the actual Crushar that I could find in Colorado. If you have a question about your gravel grinder and simulation rides, email me:

Raise Your Chronic Training Load (CTL)

Training day in, day out, staying consistent is the single greatest 'training technique' masters cyclists can benefit from. By riding alot (sweet spot style) and staying consist, you should strive to push your CTL as high as possible right up until two weeks prior to your gravel grinder. If you are behind in training and feeling good, go ahead an push your CTL as high as you can get 1 week prior. Then take a rest week to be as fresh as possible come race day.

Below is a great, real world example of an athlete who rose his CTL from 40 to 113 (by sweet spottin' up the whazoo™ ) two weeks prior to his grinder, took a 2 week taper and achieved a true physiological peak on race day (as evidenced by reported feel and lifetime high power output). Race day CTL/ATL/TSB was 99/73/+25.

All of our coaching and training plans use TSS (Training Stress Score) to measure CTL and project future CTL (as in our 6 week training plans) using the Performance Manager Chart in Training Peaks.

Overload > Taper > Peak

As mentioned above 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. What is significant? That is a 'whole nuthar' training tip but generally values greater than 80/90/100 can elicit a peak. One of the greatest benefits from the Performance Manger Chart in Training Peaks is that you can plan your training and rest in TSS and the PMC will calculate your Training Stress Balance (TSB) on race day. What is a good TSB? I'll add that to the 'whole nuthar' training tip mentioned 3 sentences ago. Generally in my 15 years of experience using the PMC (I helped develop it in 2004-5) 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 2 week taper, forget the two week taper, train another week and take an epic rest week leading into your gravel grinder.

Lastly: What you Eat and Drink + Recovery

Now that you are going to put the 4 key elements of gravel grinder training together, the fifth dimension is dialing in your nutrition and hydration for this massive ride. Plus your recovery in the 6 - 18 weeks spent training. The best time to dial in what you eat and drink is during your gravel simulation rides. Practice how you want to play! Personally I have had very good results with Skratch Lab's Rice Cakes. Raspberry and Mint Chocolate Chip to be specific. Make those the day before, eat one per hour and see how you go during your simulation rides. I try to eat my calories and drink my electrolytes, thus I use Skratch Exercise Hydration Mix and I'll even experiment with their Hyper Hydration Mix for the long sections of time inbetween when I when I run out of bottles and the next opp to fill them up with water (remote mountain gravel roads).

Technically that's 5 key elements which is alot to process, so if you'd like a single turnkey six week gravel grinder training solution for only $49, I have designed one (actually three: basic > intermediate > or advanced) for only $49. You get a free TrainingPeaks Premium account with a mobile app so you can use the Performance Manger Chart and always know what to do each and every day for six weeks leading into your grinder. Look to the right of this Page >>>> . and we even have a Crusher in the Tushar specific plan here.

What the Results Look Like:

Go into "Monk Mode" for the next six weeks, train hard, follow our gravel grinder plan, recover harder and this could be you:

Copyright 2020 , FasCat Coaching

Frank is the founder and owner of FasCat Coaching in Boulder, CO. In 2013 Frank uncorked one to win the amateur Crusher in the Tushar and finished 13th overall against the pros. Frank and the FasCat Coaches have been designing training programs to coached athletes for 15 years and have introduced the very same training programs for only $49 in 2017. You can buy FasCat’s six week interval Gravel Grinder training plan that Frank designed here.

About Frank Overton

Frank founded FasCat Coaching in 2002 and has been a full time cycling coach since 2004. His educational background includes a Masters degree in Physiology from North Carolina State University, pre-med from Hampden-Sydney College. Frank raced at a professional level on the road and mountain bike and currently competes as a "masters" level gravel and cyclocrosser. Professionally Frank comes from medical school spinal cord research and molecular biotechnology. However, to this day it is a dream come true for Frank to be able to help cyclists as a coach.

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