Haute Route Training Interview

imagesWelcome to Part Two of my interview with a couple of Haute Route vets:

  • Consistent top-ten finisher ‘Rich Vélo
  • ‘Iron Man’ and cycling journalist, Jim Cotton, who has a wealth of informative Haute Route articles on his cycling blog: The Mountain Mutton

In this installment we get to the meat of any discussion of Haute Route – training. I found the answers below very helpful, both in terms of reaffirming what I already thought (and try to implement), with some new bits and pieces to add to the season…if I find the courage to do so.

VC: You do HR events every year. Do you follow a training program each time? When does it start? Have you found a ‘system’ that works well for you or are you still tweaking things each season?

RS: Every year I try slightly different things to keep things interesting, but also to hopefully improve – so yes I am tweaking each season.  But the general training for Haute Route remains pretty similar.  Some years I’ve had very detailed programs and others I go more by feel each week, but with a general plan in mind.  In all cases I start no later than December, after generally taking November as a break, with some light rides but nothing hard and nothing that planned.

JC: I don’t follow any particular build programme. You can try to follow the same practice year-on-year, but that’s nearly impossible as you inevitably miss training time through work or illness, or book in last-minute camps. And how do you know if what you did last year was ‘correct’? That said, I do train in a structured manner, week on week. But as a general practice, I just try to make sure I’m getting the right balance of volume and intensity. You need to build that endurance with lots of slow steady miles, adapting your body for the 4-5 hour days of Haute Route, and building your ‘base’ of fitness. But there’s a lot more to it than just time in the saddle, and you need to incorporate some more ‘unpleasant’ elements into your training to build power. It’s all well and good being able to ride for 4-5 hours, but without that added intensity, you ain’t gonna do well on the GC – if that’s your aim.

VC: You also do an awful lot of riding each year, and from what I can tell, mostly long-ish rides with plenty of climbing. What do you think of the new-ish school of thought that says short, high-intensity interval training trump long rides? Is Haute Route so off the charts in terms of ‘effort’ that this kind of training has less value? Should it have a prominent place in a training program?

RS: I ride about 15000 km each year – I suppose everything is relative, but vs most in the front bunch this would be below average or average.  In terms of the types of rides, I actually do some type of interval training on around half the rides, and more than half of the ones when I’m riding alone.

Intervals can be used to improve everything from endurance, tempo, lactic threshold, VO2Max, Anaerobic, and sprinting.  The duration/intensity/rest determines what zone/system you are trying to improve.  Someone with a good threshold may still want to improve anaerobic systems for those race situations where a great 1 min effort will keep you on a group’s wheels during an attack.  The more general your racing / types of races, the more well rounded you need to be in each zone.

Your performance will be dominated in large part by your ability to ride hour long efforts 3 to 4 times per day as close to your threshold as possible. 

As for Haute Route, this is probably a race which is the least well rounded, as it is pure climbing with not a lot of tactics, nor a strong need to handle attacks, or be able to sprint.  Your performance will be dominated in large part by your ability to ride hour long efforts (plus or minus 30 mins) 3 to 4 times per day as close to your threshold as possible.  Additionally, you will need to repeat this for 7 days.  In my experience, of the 20 plus long climbs during the HR, the closer I can be to my threshold, the better I do.

Given this, I pick intervals targeted at threshold (effort you can maintain all out for an hour) and tempo the most and to a lesser extent PMA (effort you can maintain for 5 mins).  Some examples:

  • Tempo: 2 x 1hour w/20min rest.   I typically start the first sessions of the season at 80% FTP and keep trying to move them up as the season progress with a goal to get above 90%.
  • Threshold: 2x20m w/15 min rest – try to target FTP, but may have to start lower earlier in the season.  Also try to ultimately get to 3x20m.  After getting to 2x20m will try 3x12m, then 3x15m before getting to 3x20m
  • PMA: 6x5min w/5 min rest – try to target 110-115% FTP
  • Mix: – My favoirite is the Gimenez method.  9 x (1min 100%  PMA, 4 min 70% PMA)   You do the 9 reps without a rest – i.e. your “rest” is the 4 min 70% PMA effort.  Very tough but really improves your ability to stay in a group when someone accelerates on a climb.

At some point in the May/June time frame you have to start ramping the distances, the back to back days, and maximizing your threshold.  He who has the best threshold to weight ratio will finish ahead of anyone with a lower one at HR – it’s as simple as that.

I did some of that in June last year by doing the Tour de Metropole Nice, a 7 day HR like event, but not so much in July and August, and I think that was not smart.  And I think I need specific threshold sessions to best improve, rather than just using a 7 day race as training. Inevitably in a race where you’re not at your top at the start, means you will get weaker as the days pass, meaning you can’t really do the appropriate threshold training, and instead you just build fatigue.

You can be fit, but if you fade on day five of a seven-day event, those last days will be tough.

Lastly, you need to be used to doing back to back to back hard days.  I find that doing a 7-9 day super long and hard training block followed by ~10 days of reduced volume, but including some shorter intense sessions (all just before the start) is key to making you strong in the last half of the Haute Route.  I also like to take the last 3 days before the start pretty easy to be fresh day 1.

JC: I do a lot of ‘big’ rides, yes, particularly over the winter and early spring – it’s about building that base. However, as I move through into spring and summer I try to get a lot of quality work in, doing intervals etc. Sometimes, they may just be one hour of particular efforts on the turbo trainer – and sessions like that are invaluable for building a ’top end’, which you do need to some extent at Haute Route. For some types of rider, intervals can trump long and steady – if you’re riding Time Trials or Road Races for instance –  but for events like Haute Route, you’ve just gotta be able to sit in the saddle and churn for four or five hours, and that takes practice – mentally and physically. You don’t need to do an awful lot of it though. One good long ride a week is enough. And it’s good to try to get at least one block of consecutive long rides in as you build for the event – maybe three or four days of riding long every day. It’s good to test your resilience and recovery – and those things are essential on Haute Route, if not as important as your fitness. You can be fit, but if you fade on day five of a seven-day event, those last days will be tough.

VC: Do you train differently now than you did, say, when you rode your first couple of HRs? Have you found age presenting particular challenges? 

RS: I think in general, my overriding training principles haven’t changed, but some things have.

  1. I know what to expect in both the training and the event, so I’m more confident in the preparation
  2. With age I do see a need to listen more to my body and take a day off if I don’t think I can achieve the goal of the workout.  Riding for sake of racking up km while your legs are dead serves little purpose and only makes you more tired the next day.
  3. Also with age, the weight at 52 years old  is much more difficult to lose than even at age 45.  As I’ve never dieted, I have been struggling the last few years to get to a decent race weight, and each year I have to do more effort to eat right and drink less in order to get there (and the last couple of years weren’t that successful).  Right now, I have about 5 more kilos than I’d like – so I better start getting serious now!

Thanks again Rich and Jim for finding the time to give us this insight. Readers, if you have anything to add, you know where the Comments section is. Now if you’ll excuse me, I suddenly feel the need to get out on the bike…

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