Longer or harder? Is intensity or endurance the key to cycling fitness?

This is an article that Hunter wrote for Cyclist Magazine based in the United Kingdom. The author of the column Michael Donlevy also asked Hunter what he likes to call “quickes”, which are just some quick random questions.

Is there a best time of day to train?
I’m a morning person, but I have many clients who ride better in the afternoon. Best time of the day to train: when it’s best for you.

What’s the first thing I should do after getting off the bike following a training session?
Stretch! Stretch those quads, hamstrings, calves and shoulders, and open up the chest with some back bends or ‘up-dogs’.

Does a lot of sweat signal I’m unfit? Not at all. It just means you have an efficient cooling system.

Longer or harder? This is the million-dollar question and the answer, of course, is both. First off, you have to define the demands of your event. Is it five hours plus? Is it a short one-hour race? This is where you start to determine which is more important. Riding harder with more intensity close to or at and above your FTP will make you faster, period. FTP – functional threshold power, the maximum average power you can maintain for around one hour – is the most important physiological determinant of performance, so if you improve your FTP by 30 watts doing intervals, you’ll be faster.

When I coached the winning solo woman for the Race Across America, Janice Sheufelt, she did FTP intervals. I wanted her FTP as high as possible so she would be fitter, but she also did some huge 40-hour rides to make sure she had the endurance. So my answer is always to do your intensity first, increase your FTP, then work on the longer rides as you get closer to your event.

Endurance rides help to increase your aerobic ability, which helps to bolster your FTP and also increases your stamina, which is the ability to maintain as close to your FTP power for as long as possible. ‘Endurance’ is the ability to complete a long ride. Most of us can do that. ‘Stamina’ is the ability to hold close to your FTP for a long time, like six hours. Many events require more stamina than endurance.

Everyone has a ‘bathtub’, or level of fitness. Some bathtubs are small with tall walls and a small drain, like a track sprinter’s. Others are wide with short walls and a big drain, like a randonneurs. What most of us want is a large bathtub with tall walls and a big drain. The height of the walls represent your FTP, the size of your drain represents your aerobic
efficiency and the taps are the watts of resistance. The water represents the lactate and other byproducts of hard work, and the total volume of the bathtub is your overall fitness. To increase the height of your walls (FTP), you fill the bathtub up to the edge and hold the water there, just before it spills. To increase your aerobic efficiency, you fill the tub three-quarters of the way up and keep it there – water in equals water draining out – by ‘firehosing’ the bathtub for 30 seconds and then turning off the firehose just before the water spills over. This increases the size of your drain and the height of the walls. This is basically what intervals do.

In terms of a plan, do at least two days of work on your FTP each week and one long ride per week. Twice a month, your long ride should be at least 15% longer than your longest ride from the previous month until you reach 20% more than your target race/event time.

You can focus on one or the other, but ‘training stagnation’ is the enemy of improvement, and this is where intervals are so important. If you work on increasing your endurance for six months but all of your long rides are five hours, you’ll be adapted to that five hours and you’ll no longer see improvements. If you do 6×10 minutes at FTP
four times a week, your FTP will increase to a certain ceiling and no higher. By combining a long ride with hard intervals you’ll break out of that stagnation and challenge the body to adapt to the new higher level of training stress.
Continual improvement means continually increasing your total volume and intensity.
And rest helps too.

Training only one energy system will give you one-dimensional ability. Almost all cycling requires being good in all the physiological energy systems, so you need a good blend.

Hunter Allen is a USA Cycling Level 1 coach and former Professional Cyclist. He is the co-author of “Training and Racing with a Power Meter, co-developer of TrainingPeaks Software, and is the CEO and Founder of the Peaks Coaching Group. This has been the 25th year that he has conducted training camps in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains.