Since most of the participants of the Haute Route, the self-described “Highest and Toughest Cyclosportive In The World” do not live anywhere near the Alps, the Dolomites or the Pyrenees how does one get ready for such an event?

The Haute Route is a series of three “seven day events” where 500 participants ride over 800 kilometers per week, climb over 22,000 meters in the world’s most challenging cycling event offered to serious amateur cyclists. This massive biking event takes place in the highest mountains of Europe each year from mid-August to early September.

So you have now paid the entry fee for 2014, you had your doctor sign the medical certificate and you are now making training plans. Unfortunately, like me, you do not live in either the Dolomites, Swiss Alps, French Alps or the Pyrenees. Maybe even worst, like me, you live where it is mostly flat. I have to drive to get to a decent hill as the longest local hill is 1.5 kilometer long, hardly a Tour de France or Giro d’Italia type climb.

Ideally, to get ready for the Haute Route you would – like the pros – recon most of the big climbs and put in large training blocks in the high mountains replicating the typical Haute Route stage. Most riders can’t ride the route ahead of the event. For those (unlike me and so many others) who live close to big mountains with long climbs you can get close to the daily distance and climbing required to complete a stage but for most riders that is just not the case.

If all of this resonates with you, I assume you are wondering how to get ready for your event. DON’T PANIC, I have the answer. Let me suggest this: “The best way to get ready for the Haute Route is to ride the equivalent of it in a seven to nine day period sometime before mid-July”.

Why? Because it will give you a huge boost of fitness ahead of the event and it will give you a huge mental boost as you will find out exactly what it feels like to ride the Highest and Toughest Cyclosportive In The World.

How? I rode the Haute Route in 2013 and I know exactly what is required as an effort to get through that week. This post is designed to give you an idea of what is in store for you! My message is clear: “Get as close as riding the equivalent of the Haute Route as you can before you ride the Haute Route.”

Yes but HOW? What do you mean by riding the “equivalent” of the Haute Route?

If you cannot replicate the distance and the elevation required to ride the Haute Route because you live on the Southern Coast of England or in Saskatchewan, Canada or in Texas, USA, how are you supposed to define “equivalent”? I know, I know, most people will throw out “mileage”, “time” or “feet climbed”. So to that I answer: miles are irrelevant, time is almost as irrelevant as mileage and feet climbed might be key but unattainable for most.

Distance

What do you think “equivalent” means? For most cyclists who register for the Haute Route for the first time I am convinced that “equivalent” will first and foremost mean distance.

Most riders I know have a fascination – which I do not share – for distance. I was recently training in Tucson, Arizona with some friends. After each ride a buddy of mine would always ask me what distance we have ridden that day and was proudly posting those statistics on his Facebook as if they were relevant to evaluate our training. I kept reminding him that every kilometer is different (uphill, downhill, tailwind, headwind, in a peloton, riding alone etc etc) but he just wasn’t ready to discuss a real measure of effort.

My question about what “equivalent” means refers specifically to the “effort” required to complete the Haute Route. He who talks about effort needs to quantify effort. Kilometers are somewhat irrelevant to quantifying effort. Going up the 21.4 kilometers from Bedoin to the top of Mont Ventoux has nothing in common with the 21.4 kilometers from the top of Mont Ventoux to Bedoin (except for geography). You can get down from the top of Mont Ventoux to the bottom without pedaling but the reverse just isn’t is not true. So using this extreme example, you can easily understand that the effort to get through that 21.4 kilometers of climbing (or descending) is very different than the effort required to get through 21.4 kilometer of flat roads. So to all cyclists who are registered to the Haute Route in 2014, PLEASE get miles (or kilometers) out of your vocabulary. It is rather meaningless. So if you won’t track miles (or kilometers), then what are you left with to measure the “equivalent”?

TIME

For some others, riding the “equivalent” of the Haute Route might mean looking at the past results and estimating how much time is required to complete the event. The problem with this approach is that we do not all climb or descend at the same speed, we don’t know the weight or the fitness of the riders whose results we are looking at and we don’t know the weather conditions of the prior event. So let’s put this one in the same “irrelevant” category as mileage.

FEET CLIMBED

Now we are getting closer to some logical answer, but one that is not possible for most of us. Since the Haute Route is held in the mountains, I advise that your preparation includes some form of climbing (hopefully for you!). So spend as much time as you can climbing. Just like you don’t spend time playing football to become a good hockey player, you don’t ride on the flats to get ready for a cycling event that takes place through some of the most iconic bike climbs in the world.

My recommendation to spend time on the climbs addresses mainly the specificity of training as we have already concluded that you are like me and do not live in the high mountains of Europe and you will not be able to do 90 minutes climbs or ascend 3,500 meters day in, day out. Specificity of training will help you develop the right pedal stroke going up the hill as well as the right climbing and descending techniques. Climbing short hills will not address the issue of “equivalency”. Other than the obvious that you train to climb by climbing if you don’t have access to very long climbs then we still haven’t found the right way to ride the “equivalent” of the Haute Route.

SO THEN WHAT?

So if time and distance are not a good gauge of what kind of effort it takes to complete a week of the Haute Route and if elevation alone is not sufficient (or even attainable for most flat landers like me) then what is a good gauge of the effort required? Having had the pleasure of riding the Haute Route Alps in August 2013 with a power meter, I know exactly how big an effort it is to ride from Geneva to Nice and therefore I know exactly how to define “equivalent”.

KILOJOULES

Kilojoules. You are left with kilojoules. A kilojoule is a thousand joules. A joule is a derived unit of energy or work. It is equal to the energy expended or work done in applying a force of one newton through a distance of one metre (1 newton metre or N·m). Kilojoules are a simple, mathematic and objective measure of effort. A joule can also be defined as work required to produce one watt of power for one second, or one “watt second” (W·s), hence the calculation of effort on a power meter in “watts”.

joule

The beauty of calculating effort based on kilojoules is that a kilojoule is ALWAYS the same amount of effort: against the wind, with a tailwind, uphill, downhill at 20 km/hr or at 40 km/hr, a kilojoule is always a kilojoule. No more, no less.

Having ridden the Haute Route Alps in August 2013, I know precisely the amount of effort I need to expend (as someone who weighs 147 pounds) to get through the week and that is 20,754 kilojoules. Since the Haute Route is a seven day event which has an “easier” day called the “time trial” and since the time trial is more or less 90 minutes maximum effort of about 1,350 kilojoules then the rest of the event is an average of 3,234 kilojoules per day. So get ready to ride an average of 3,234 kilojoules per day.

If you go to the Haute Route from riding an average of say 5,000 kilojoules per week to 3,234 kilojoules per day you will be in trouble. If prior to the Haute Route you ride a 20,000 kilojoule week you will know exactly what the Haute Route feels like. You will not only find out how it feels but you will prepare your body for it. It is all about adaptation.

Do yourself a favour, go to your favorite bike shop, buy a power meter and start tracking kilojoules. If you ride an average of 3,234 kilojoules per day in your training on rather flat roads you will miss the specificity of training on the climbs but you will know exactly what expending that amount of energy per day feels like and cause your body to get ready for the Haute Route.

I recently went back to my power files for the seven stages of the 2013 Haute Route Alps and calculated that it took 20,754 kilojoules to cover the 876.2 kilometers in 37 hours and 45 minutes. I therefore now know EXACTLY what it takes to get through the week in terms of effort. For those who live where the landscape is flatter than the Alps like me, you are bound to ride faster than in the Alps so therefore you will need more distance than at the Haute Route to achieve the same energy expenditure.

Let’s say it takes an energy expenditure of 700 kilojoules/hour on an 8.2 % hill to go at 11 kilometers/hour, to achieve the same energy expenditure on a flat road you may need to go at 33 kilometers/hours. In other words, you will need to cover three times the distance on a flat road to expend the same amount of energy AKA effort. So PLEASE, get miles (or kilometers) out of your vocabulary.

HOW I APPLY THE EQUIVALENCY STANDARD

Heading into my first training camp of 2014 which took place from March 7 to 19 in Tucson, Arizona, my plan was to replicate last’s summer’s effort at Haute Route. I didn’t have miles or feet climbed in mind, I had kilojoules in mind. Of course I wanted to climb as much as possible but my true test given the geography was to match the true energy expenditure (kilojoules). I pretty much met my objective and rode for 36 hours and 30 minutes, covered 897.6 kilometers and ended the camp with an energy expenditure of 19,940 kilojoules.

Don’t get me wrong, you don’t have to ride the “equivalent” of the Haute Route in March to be ready to ride the real thing in August (although that was my plan). My point is that you should try to match the effort require to get through the Haute Route before you get to the Haute Route.

But before you do, there are important notions about fitness that are essential to a good preparation. Here’s my own experience about this.

Last year I had a completely different approach to my preparation as the one I have this year. At the end of 2012, I was coming off a pretty big season which included riding the whole Tour of California and USA Pro Cycling Challenge as well as riding the Etape du Tour. I was tired and I had less motivation to train than usual so I decided to “take it easy” in the winter months and to recover both physically and mentally. I therefore spent most of the winter months riding easy indoors and cross-training outside (skiing and snowshoeing). I shot down the last season in October 2013 and then started training for the Haute Route 2014 back in December 2013.

In spite of only ramping up my training for last year’s Haute Route in March of 2013, I had a pretty good event and I feel I had plenty of time to get ready (March to August). Any good coach or any good training program can get you fitter than before. If you ride more and more as you get closer to a specific cycling event you can assume that your fitness level and your ability to get through the event will increase. The real challenge is to be as fit as possible given the time available to train and also plan your “peak fitness” at the right time. Whether you start your preparation in December – the year before your Haute Route – or in March of that year, there are principles that don’t change with the most important one being your level of fitness going into the event.

Let’s start by defining fitness. Fitness is a response to training stress. A dose of training is given to an athlete, and then the athlete adapts and responds positively to that dose, which create improvements and efficiencies in the body. These improvements are cumulatively called an improvement in fitness. So, fitness is the creation from a training stress or a load of training. This load of training has to be more intense or more volume than before, or both, in order to create a greater adaptation, hence my earlier statement that riding more and more should get you fitter.

One can take the “old school training approach” of using a heart rate monitor and keeping track of kilometers ridden. As mentioned above, all kilometers were not born equal since going up the 13.5 kilometers of Alpe D’Huez is not the same as going down the same 13.5 kilometers. A heart rate monitor measures the physiological response to an effort, not the effort itself. The heart rate is very susceptible to factors such as hydration, heat, fatigue, stress and illness – to name a few. So buy a power meter, not a heart rate monitor.

One can take the new and scientific approach to training and keep track of kilojoules and TSS (as defined below). By using modern tools such as TrainingPeaks WKO+ software and a power meter, a cyclist can now quantity every second of every ride, track progression in their fitness level and also predict when they will find the right balance between fitness and rest so as to maximize their performance in a given event. The choice is now between “knowing” and “guessing”.

By using a power meter, experts have come up with a way to give cyclists a ‘score’ based on the work that they did during each ride. This is called the “Training Stress Score™”(TSS™) and it is the creation of Dr. Andrew R. Coggan. The wonderful thing about using a power meter is that you have the actual complete record of your training, second by second. Because a power meter quantitatively measures training load in watts, each ride can be categorized in a numerical fashion by giving it a “Training Stress Score”.

Once you have a single metric (number) for each ‘dose’ of training, or training load, then you can begin to see the levels of training that are needed for improvements in fitness and apply those specific ‘doses’ as you need. This is the key to this system and now we can exactly quantify your training load based on the Training Stress Score for each workout.

Training Load can come in many ways, but let’s categorize them based on duration to begin with. We call the cumulative affect or impact of training that has been done as long as six weeks ago, the ‘Chronic Training Load™’ (CTL™). CTL can be shorter than six weeks or it may be longer, that is up for debate, however let’s just consider the fact that the workouts that you did six weeks ago are without a doubt impacting your performance today. The workouts that you did three weeks ago are impacting you as well and most likely with a slightly higher impact than those done six weeks ago.

What about the workouts that you did this past weekend? Or yesterday? We call these the ‘Acute Training Load™’ (ATL™) and these too impact your performance today and into the future. Let’s consider the more ‘near term’ workouts as all the workouts you have done in the last seven days up to yesterday which will consist in your ATL.

  • CTL = Long term effects – workouts done eight days ago and older
  • ATL = Short term effects- workouts done in the last seven days

Athletes often talk about form in addition to talking about fitness. When you talk with athletes about ‘form’, they describe it as, “a ‘no-chain’ day”, “a day when the legs just didn’t hurt”, “a day to ‘rip the cranks off'”, “a day when I was just ‘ON’ “, and “a day when I just felt absolutely super”. These are all ways of describing ‘form’. So, what exactly is ‘form’? Dr. Coggan, I think, has defined it best. Dr. Coggan defines it as: “Fitness plus Freshness”. So, Form = Fitness + Freshness. A rider can be fit at the end of the Tour De France, but he is very tired, so not ‘fresh’ enough to have form. On the other side of the coin, you might have ridden your bike for 2 months, and are very ‘fresh’, but not very ‘fit’. So, the correct balance of fitness and freshness will create ‘form’.

Now that we have defined the concepts of CTL and ATL and form, let’s bring it all together. Form is the proper balance of fitness and freshness. Fitness is based on training stress or training load, so based on this simple equation, we can rename ‘form’, “Training Stress Balance” (TSB).

  • Form = Fitness + Freshness
  • Fitness is result of Training Stress
  • Freshness is the result of rest

So, in this equation TSB represents the balance of training stress or how well you have been juggling your training load and your rest periods. If we consider that if your TSB is a numerical value and it is ‘positive’ number, then this would mean you would have a good chance of riding well on during those ‘positive’ days, and would suggest that you are both fit and fresh. While if your TSB was a ‘negative’ number, then you it would mean that you are most likely tired from a high training load, which could possibly consist of both your CTL and your ATL being high.

Once you have created your own Performance Manager Chart (PMC) with the TrainingPeaks software, you need to interpret it correctly, so that you can learn from your data and also make plans for the future. Just as every picture invokes a thousand words, behind every set of data is a thousand stories making up that data. So, especially with the PMC, the story behind the data is critical to your interpretation of it. The trick once you will be set up, will be to get the highest level of fitness before the Haute Route while not overdoing it. Here are a few final thoughts on the PMC:

  • Everyone has a different ‘breaking’ point and that is most likely something you will have to discover for yourself. TrainingPeaks is gathering general CTL guidelines for each of the levels of riders, but the by no means have a definitive answer to helping you with finding that CTL which makes you completely explode.
  • The rate of increase in CTL is also important to watch. If CTL increases too rapidly, then this could bring on the dreaded ‘over-training’ effect.
  • How positive does your TSB need to be and for how long? That’s a great question and one that everyone will answer differently. Some people will need just to reach a +10 TSB for only 3-4 days before they crack out some of their best numbers for the year. Others will need to reach a +30 TSB for 3-4 days before they are ‘fresh’ enough to create a peak performance.

Are you convinced? As in convinced that the preparation to ride the Haute Route is attainable, mathematical and quantifiable? If you are then buy that power meter, get riding on the hills and replicate those kilojoules!!!

Source: Part of the discussion related to CTL, ATL and TSB was inspired by this article from TrainingPeaks. I highly recommend their products.

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