Two short or one long course: which is better for training?

“Which is more beneficial, taking a 6-hour outing on one day and resting the next day, or taking two consecutive outings of 3 hours each? Clearly, a cyclist can push himself harder for 3 hours each day, but if the goal is to stay in the middle endurance zone and can be sustained for 6 hours, is there any difference in the benefits gained?

Question asked in the Gure Ultra channel

There are many aspects of training that we could discuss in this brief paragraph alone. The central question is whether it is better to pedal with more power for two shorter rides, or with less power for a longer and more stable ride. The short answer is that both scenarios are useful in your training, but for different reasons. This is what I want to explain:

NOTE: This specific question deals with 3 and 6 hour departures. "Short" and "long" are relative terms that depend on your fitness and experience level. For simplicity, I will refer to the example of 3 and 6 hours. It is also important to keep in mind that these are general recommendations intended for amateur cyclists in moderate physical condition. Ideally, all training should be designed specifically for the demands of your target event, your current training load, your level of experience and your fitness level..

Two consecutive “shorter” outings

Generally speaking, you can pedal at a higher average power and at a higher normalized power during a 3-hour ride compared to a 6-hour ride. Even if your goal is to stay in an endurance training zone, you will still have a higher surplus power for 3 hours compared to 6 because fatigue will cause you to slow down in the last few hours of the longer ride. But what does that mean for your training?

Resistance is rarely your limiting factor

Even if you are training for a Gran Fondo race, aerobic endurance is rarely a limiting factor. A moderately trained cyclist can make it to the finish line of almost any endurance event. Your training will affect how fast you finish and how much fun the test is, but anyone reading this has the endurance to finish. More generalized endurance will not improve your performance; specific energy system work (particularly increasing functional threshold power) will. This means that I prefer to focus training on maximizing the quality of training (higher power output, longer intensity time) so that you can get to the finish line faster, more comfortably and reach your performance goals.

Shorter outings are easier to recover

Although you will work harder during a shorter ride, you will be able to recover more quickly from that session compared to a much longer ride. Your total kilojoule count will be lower. You’ll be able to replenish your hydration status and caloric expenditure more easily, and you’ll be more functional for the rest of the day (a valid concern for recreational cyclists who have a long list of things to do on weekend days).

Of course, this is not always the case. You could push yourself to the max for 3 hours and come back as exhausted as you might be after a more moderate 6-hour ride. You could also suffer from heat stress and hydration problems in an intense 3-hour session. But in most cases, it is easier to recover from shorter outings. This means that your next day’s outing can also be a high-quality training session.

Shorter outings progressively increase the stress of training.

Frequency of training is also key. Cycling outings generate stress during training, and rest allows for adaptation. However, fitness also decreases during rest, making the interval between training sessions crucial. For the cyclist who has the choice of one long ride per week or two shorter rides, the two rides per week are generally more beneficial. Despite the intense training load that a long Sunday ride, for example, can represent, there will come a time when the decline in your fitness during the 6 days of rest will compensate for or exceed the training stimulus of your last ride. Your fitness will either stagnate or be maintained. Increasing the frequency of outings (with adequate rest days in between) allows you to add stimuli progressively.

Shorter runs are effective in improving power and speed.

If your goal is to prepare for a big race in a target event or in pursuit of a personal goal (time in the QH for example), work only as hard as you need to. Additional work at ineffective intensities only adds fatigue, from which you have to recover before you can train effectively again. It has been demonstrated time and again that improvements in aerobic power, lactate threshold and VO 2 max can be achieved with relatively short runs that include intervals to build up intensity time.

For high intensities (lactate threshold and above), the maximum time a cyclist can ride effectively at a given level of effort is limited, and once the maximum of that time has been reached, the training objective is achieved and can be terminated. Improving lactate threshold power will improve your performance in long distance events, including ultra-distance events.

As I will explain below, long training sessions are necessary, but for a different reason.

Long outings

Just because you can develop the fitness for great performances over long distances with shorter rides doesn’t mean you should avoid long rides. Pedaling all day long is not only a big part of the reason we love cycling, but it’s also a necessary component of training for big events. It’s just that, while there are some physiological benefits of the longer rides, they are similar to those of the shorter rides and are not the most important training benefits of those 6-hour rides anyway.

Nutrition/hydration strategies

One of the greatest benefits of your 6-hour ride is the opportunity to test and refine your nutrition and hydration strategies. You can make some pretty big mistakes in a 3-hour (or one-hour) run and nothing happens. These errors will be much more noticeable and detrimental when you make a long run. If you are preparing for a really long goal (a MTB race like 10,000 del soplao, a long course triathlon, a gran fondo, a gravel race, etc.), it is crucial that you learn what foods work for you after several hours. You need to learn to eat and drink in the first 3 hours when you’re going to be on the bike for another 3 to 6 hours after that! You can’t learn that in the shortest training sessions.

Mental work

To be 100% prepared for your goal you have to train both your mind and your body. Can you stay focused 6 hours later? 12 hours? Long training sessions, especially solo training sessions, are essential to develop the mental toughness needed to overcome difficult moments in endurance events.

So, what do I do?

The best solution is not to choose between short and long routes, but a combination of both. For example, you could dedicate some weekends to consecutive 3-hour walks and focus on developing your fitness (power and speed). Other weekends commit to a long, big trip and focus on the skills, techniques and habits that make long trips successful. Your goal is to finish those long rides tired but not so shattered that the last hour is a death march. The important thing to remember is that it’s not the individual comparison between two short trips and one long trip that matters; it’s how the two scenarios impact your long-term fitness and performance.

And, of course, it is always better to have a professional guide you: you really make the most of your time and save on dissatisfaction. Try Gure

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