The Comprehensive Guide to Gravel Training and Racing

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It’s no secret that Gravel Bike Racing is the new shazam and events are popping up all over the world to take advantage of the craze. There are so many different types of gravel grinder events from charity rides to grand fondos to full-blown races and they come in all shapes and sizes.

Here are a few tips that can make your GROAD (gravel road) experience the best it can be. I’m going to highlight some broad categories that you will want to take into consideration whether you are a seasoned road racing veteran trying to escape the traffic or a total beginner looking for a new adventure. It can be easy to get swept up in the excitement and adrenaline rush as you imagine yourself flying through the countryside in your neon spandex with cows giving an encouraging nod at your impressive speed. Before you go grinding up the muck, have a look below to see if you can find a nugget for your saddlebag. It could be the difference between a majestic experience and putting your machine out at the next garage sale. Ok, so let’s dive in.


Choosing the Course


There are sooooo many options for gravel riding now. It is fantastic! You have everything from the short 50k “smooth like butter” country roads that are not much more than brown tarmac to full-blown 200 mile plus moonscape adventures with mixed sections of dirt, sand, chunky flint rock, rutted farm paths, gnarly climbs, and creek crossings.

A couple quick things to consider, in general, you will spend more time on the bike than you normally would if you were covering the distance on pavement. Pretty obvious but worth stating. If you are used to cruising along at an 18-20 mph average, get used to dropping that speed by 20-30% straight off the bat. A more upright position, beefier tires, and greater rolling resistance will slow you down even the biggest engines. Consider adding a minimum of 30% to your normal time for covering a specific distance on pavement when choosing your event, even if the elevation is similar. So if you are one of those folks that can crank out a 5 hour century on the pavement; you’re looking at about 6 ½ hours or more for the same distance on the gravel. You will want to take this time difference into consideration as you choose your gravel race and make your plan.

Also, depending on your location, your course is likely to have a lot of ups and downs. Generally speaking, gravel roads follow the terrain much more than paved roads, which means more curves, dips, and rollers than on the pavement. Not to mention, event organizers like to throw in some “features” in order to make your event special. This is part of what makes these events interesting and unique. You just need to plan for these demands.


Physical Preparation


This is obvious, right?  But let’s look at a few ideas that might not always be obvious in order to help you maximize your enjoyment and performance.

At the end of the day, you are pedaling a bike. So, let’s start there. If you are a seasoned rider you will only have to make a few adjustments to your training plan to maximize your gravel performance and experience.

First, you’ll need a training plan.  A periodized plan that takes into account your starting point, the demands of your event, as well as your schedule so that you get the training and recovery you need. If you already have a plan, great, if not we have training plans available here. If you are set on doing your own training here are a few things to consider including.

 Core and upper body strength

Often the first thing to go on a long gravel ride is your neck and shoulders. If you are on loose surfaces or washboards your upper body takes a beating. Regardless of what kind of suspension or tire pressure you run, it is definitely worth incorporating posture, core, and upper body strength work into your plan. 

The main areas you want to focus on are core stability and posture. Maintaining a good position on your bike is essential to combat fatigue and optimize energy output. If your structural integrity breaks down everything else will follow. It may seem trivial but just some simple posture exercises that focus on pulling your shoulders back, lifting your chest, and keeping your head neutral can be a game-changer at the end of a long day. Better yet, go a step further and add a strength plan that incorporates full-body strength and yoga to your plan. You can find strength training and Yoga options here.

You don’t need to become a full-on cross fit junky but incorporating strength a couple of times a week will make your experience much better. You might even be able to fill out that oversize t-shirt you got in your swag bag.

Bike Handling

Depending on where you are riding it’s likely that you will have some stretches of GROAD that leave you questioning whether you need to schedule a trip to the dentist or wishing you had a fat bike. Some of this can be addressed with equipment choices. No matter what bike you choose you need to learn how to handle that machine in all kinds of conditions. The answer to this is simple…

Go practice! 

Find some gravel or sand near you and get out and practice. Practice riding through it, practice finding a line around it, and practice being relaxed as you do. A lot of energy can be lost or saved in these sections, and it is much safer to know you can handle yourself when you are in the depths of the fire swamp. Practice these things on a regular basis. Then practice some more.

  1. Turning, one-handed riding, looking over your shoulder, avoiding obstacles, holding a straight and predictable line- a quick note on this. LOOK WHERE YOU WANT TO GO! As opposed to where you do not.
  2. The gravel can be loose and unpredictable and generally, the shoulders (or edges of the road) can be soft and easily drop you off into the ditch. If you do find yourself sliding off into the ditch DO NOT try to come back out. Slow down and make sure it is safe to come back. Avoid turning in loose gravel and avoid making sudden or jerky movements, especially when you are in a group. 
  3. Stay to the inside of the crown on the road in loose turns when possible – especially if you are descending. 
  4. Get used to riding in a group. The best position to be when you are in a group is in the drops with soft elbows. This gives you better stability and allows you to protect your front wheel. 
  5. Practice hitting sandy or loose gravel with speed and looking for a new line…gradually. Again, avoid sudden or jerky movements.
  6. Practice eating and drinking. You have to be able to reach for your food, open it and eat it. KEEP at least one hand on the bars at all times.
  7. If you are fairly new to this, find a soft grassy area and start there. The consequences are much more forgiving than gravel. 

Neuromuscular Power and Strength

This may seem counterintuitive for a long endurance gravel event. Nonetheless, this is one of the areas that gets overlooked. When gravel riding you are more likely to have to tap into your neuromuscular strength with high torque efforts and frequent accelerations. Again, it depends on your landscape and terrain but gravel roads tend to have more frequent rollers and event organizers love to throw a spanner in the mix with some crazy obstacle. Every time you drill down into the pedals for a high torque effort you are chipping away at your muscular strength reserves (burning a match). Doing this for hours on end can take a toll and can lead to cramping. The most common cause of cramping is muscular fatigue. Incorporating neuromuscular training into your training can go a long way to mitigating this. The best recipe is to add in some strength training. Ideally, you already have strength in your program or you are a few months away from your big event. But even as little as 6 weeks of strength training can go a long way to slowing the rate of muscular fatigue and breakdown associated with gravel riding. You can look at some progressive strength training plan options here.  

Training Stimulus

Outside of the 4DP metrics that you will want to incorporate into your training here are some types of training rides that are important to include:

  1. Long, heart rate-driven base rides that build your aerobic base.
  2. Neuromuscular endurance efforts that prepare you for the accelerations and short climbs.
  3. Mixed interval endurance rides that build endurance and repeatability.
  4. High cadence and high torque (low cadence) efforts that train outside of your optimal cadence range. This is helpful in adapting to riding a variety of terrain.
  5. Recovery is the key to the training mix. Getting the right adaptations requires proper recovery. Recovery is one area that nearly every athlete struggles with. It is tricky to know when it is time to back off. Training plans take recovery into account at the end of every two or three-week block of training. It is recommended that you adopt a sports science-driven approach to your training and recovery.

Mental Training


What? I’m doing this for fun, why do I need to practice mental training? Well, you know the phrase, “it seemed like a good idea at the time?” Often things are not what they seem. And if you chew off a bit more than you can chew you’ll be glad to have the mental training feather in your cap.

Mental preparation is a good idea no matter what event you choose. Sure, you can probably get by in a short event without having a good look at where you are and where you’re headed… But why?

Why would you not want to take the opportunity to have a look in the mirror, truly see who is looking back at you, and make a plan? This piece could quite literally be the single most important choice you make in training. This is what will help you keep the train on the tracks when things are not going your way. Not just in the middle of a 200 km gravel race but a good mental training plan can help to keep yourself balanced in work, life, and training. If you need a simple, proven guided approach to tackling your biggest challenges you can find a plan here. Why not have every advantage that you can have. 


Fueling


Having a meal/nutrition plan can be the difference between smiling so hard you come back with bugs in your teeth and relying on finding those bugs for a snack. 

Every rider is different in their needs and tolerances for fueling on the bike. The longer your event, the more important constant fueling, and hydration are. Real food is good. Yes, you have to chew it but that is part of what makes it better. Chewing helps you digest and increase nutrient absorption. It is also less likely to cause stomach issues when compared to sugar-based gels or drinks. However, you simply cannot replace all of the calories that you are expanding during an event but if you can consume around 30-50% of what you expend per hour you should be in good shape. 

Depending on your size and power output this could be anywhere from 100-500+ calories per hour. Some of this you can get from drinking a good electrolyte mix but be careful of trying to drink too many calories as it can be a recipe for stomach issues that lead to, well you know what they lead to. For events lasting more than two hours, you will definitely need something more substantial than sugary drinks and gels. If your event has drop bags, consider wrapping a sandwich or some type of snack that won’t melt in the heat. A can of pringles at mile 80 can be a godsend. Practice eating on your training rides, experimenting with different foods. And it goes without saying that hydration is KEY.

Start drinking early and keep drinking. 


Pacing and Strategy


The trend seems to be making events longer and harder. Having a plan of attack about how you will pace yourself is key. Will you sell out in the start to stay with the group only to be left on your own as you burned all your matches in the first 45 mins?… you’ll likely be doing a lot more riding on your own than you are used to. It will be important to manage your energy resources and take advantage of these energy-saving tactics. 

Look at the course profile. Get an estimate of how long you will be out and how you would fare if you were riding solo. Plan stops at aid stations or checkpoints. Find out where the biggest challenges will be and make sure that you will have the resources you need to get through them. These could be a big climb, sandy section, or a timed section that you want to do well on. Also, take a look at the weather and wind direction. What will happen if you have to ride the last 45 miles into a headwind? Some of these challenges can be planned out ahead of time but the weather is not generally one of them. So when event day comes you need to have a plan.

Another consideration is will you try to stay with a “group” This is a great way to share the load and increase your speed but be sure that you are not expending too much energy to stay with a group that is above your pace. Know what kind of efforts you can handle and how these will impact you later. If you are a seasoned rider that is used to group dynamics and the shuffling that goes along with being at the front then by all means go for it. If not, I’d leave that for another time.

Your plan does not have to be elaborate, but it should be premeditated and intentional.


Equipment


Yee Haw! You got your new gravel crushing machine and are ready to rip. But how to dial that baby in to maximize your safety, enjoyment, and performance. Ever heard of washboards? Riding through sand pits, rutted ranches, sharp rocks, and unfamiliar terrain can dramatically impact your experience. Adjust your equipment set up based on the requirements of the event. Most race organizers list suggested equipment and it never hurts to reach out to others on forums about what they plan to use on the big day. 

The bare minimum is a machine that can handle wide tires. It really depends on the terrain you are riding but at the narrowest, your bike should be able to handle 35mm tires. Generally speaking, the sweet spot is 38-43mm. The looser and rougher your course, the wider you want to go. Tread pattern is course-dependent but unless you are riding on buttery smooth roads a bit of tread is a good idea. More importantly, you should be running tubeless tires. This is a game-changer.

Tire pressure is key. Too high and you’ll bounce all over the place, too low and you risk smashing a rim if you hit a hidden rock. There are pressure charts out there that will tell you the “optimal” pressure. Here is a trick, put a finger over the tire, put your other hand on top and push down hard. Use this as a guide for how your tire will bounce off a rock or other obstacle. If you can hit the rim with your finger you are way too low. The best way to figure out your optimal tire pressure is to go find some washboards and hit them at speed. Practice.

Handlebar and saddle type is more of a personal preference. Slightly wider bars are a good choice for most as these provide a bit more control in loose sections, turns, and downhills. As for your saddle, it should support you and be able to accommodate changes in riding positions (Tops, hoods, and drops). 

Most gravel events cover long distances across landscapes that are rural and lack course markings. This means that having the correct navigation tools is critical to not only finishing the gravel bike racing event but reaching your goals. No one puts “getting lost” into their strategy for the event. GPS bike computers like the ELEMNT provide turn-by-turn notifications and can even reroute you back to the course should you ignore the map and wander off course. Plan ahead and prepare.


Ready to tackle the open GROAD? 


Jeff Hoobler is an elite strength and endurance coach with over 30 years of experience coaching athletes of all levels, from beginners to world champions in a variety of sports. He has a degree in Sports Psychology and Exercise Science from the University of Kansas and is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist through the National Strength and Conditioning Association. He is a USAC Cycling coach, MAT (Muscle Activation Techniques) therapist, professional bike fitter, and Foundations Training Instructor. In addition to coaching, Jeff is a competitive racer on the road, mountain bike, and cyclocross.

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