Girl's this one's for you - Training for the Fred Whitton

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Girls this one is for you. Training smart for the Fred Whitton

There is a lot of information out there about training programmes for cycling events – not much for girls with grit though. I am training for the Fred this year and thought that it might be useful to compare notes and share experiences over a series of blogs.

My first big discovery: train by staying in zone 2 and don’t be tempted to push up the hills.

How did I find this out?

Like you, my time is valuable and however much I love being on my bike there are only so many hours that I can spend riding it. So I needed to train smart for the event.

A lot has already been written about cycling programmes based around heart rate training zones. The theory is well established but it is the correct use of the zones that count and that depends on who you are and what event you are training for. So how do you find out what’s best for you? Here’s what I did.

My starting point was to establish my training zones by first determining my maximum heart rate.

There’s a few ways of doing this. You can use one of the plethora of formulae available to make an estimate, you can sprint as hard as possible on your bike and take your heart rate or you can take yourself along to a lab and get it accurately measured.

I started off my using one of the formulae and estimating my maximum heart rate.

Doubt started to trickle in after week two though. Life has taught me that for most of what I do I usually appear in different places on the bell-shaped curve to the norm. I am a scientist and a bit of a geek and started to wonder how it was possible that a formulae based on a population would accurately predict my HR max on my bike, particularly when most of the formulae are based on the results of people running and not cycling.

Really what I was after was some certainty that my training was going to get me up 3800m over 112 miles and some justification that the water hosing I was getting from my front wheel on a rainy February morning was all adding up to a bigger picture. For this there is only one thing to do.

Being of the breed where curiosity kills the cat I booked myself in for a test with The Human Performance & Fitness Centre at the University of Bath.

Here's what I found:

  • After about 90 minutes of work in the lab you will know your HRmax, lactate threshold, individual anaerobic threshold velocity, VO2 max, power to weight ratio and be able to develop a bespoke training programme for you and your specific event.
  • What did the test entail? A few pricks to the finger, wearing a mask and a heart rate belt and cycling like a demon for the last few minutes of the test. The professionalism and friendliness of the staff at Bath make it pain-free though. It's a bit like eating your greens - you know it's good for you.
  • Cost? A fraction of the price of most of your bikes, the entrance to a sportive and the costs of accommodation whilst you are there. A no-brainer if you want to get serious about your performance.

Comparing the various estimates of HRmax I found inaccuracies of between 3% to 10% compared to my actual HRmax. All were underestimates. Whilst I would still have benefited from using the estimated training zones I now have a much deeper knowledge of my lactate production in response to cycling effort and how to train for greater efficiency. You can't estimate this you have to get it measured.

The surprise for me was the recommendation that most of my training needed to be in Zone 2 with a smaller amount in Zone 3. What this means on the road is that I am upping my 'effort' on the flat and slowing down up the hills to keep my heart rate in the right zones. In the weeks that I have been using this approach I am now seeing much faster speeds on the flat and hills - at the same heart rate. My body has already become much more efficient.  

Going slower to speed up is not for anyone hiding a big ego in their lycra though. You’ll have to be prepared to swallow your pride. In my first week I was burnt uphill by a kid on a BMX who thought the whole thing was hilarious. I kept looking at my heart rate watch to make the point that I was actually training in zone 2 (thankfully it wasn't a recovery ride) and hoping that he would understand but in retrospect he must have thought that I was checking the time and myself wondering just how long it was taking to climb this moderate hill.  Go slow, be proud of how fast you are going to be in your race. I’m thinking of designing a tee-shirt to explain!

Overall, I guess there is no real surprise in my findings. Endurance cycling is almost entirely an aerobic activity so it’s important to train in the zone that coaches your body to cycle faster at a lower heart rate. What works for me is the knowledge that all of my effort is the right effort and that I am training smart.

If you genuinely want to see improvements in your performance I can't recommend going through the fitness tests enough.

I am off for another test in a couple of months and will report back on how the training has benefited my performance. I'll also be blogging some more about training the different energy systems in the body and why this is the route to smarter training and sharing more of the programme.

You will also need higher intensity training in your programme but that will be the subject of a future blog too, as will nutrition on a big ride and other bits and bobs that might be useful. Please get in touch if you want to swap notes.


Written by: Lisa Drewe on 17 Mar 2015, 21:35 PM



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