All about that gravel endurance training…

When Neil Shirley and I started discussing his 2018 goals I did most of the listening.  When a legend such as Neil takes his time to reach out and discuss his goals and ask for guidance to meet those goals it means a few things: Neil is focused and no longer satisfied with just finishing, through our work with other clients Neil trusts us enough to help him take on these goals, and I should definitely be taking careful notes.  Not surprising to any of us is that Neil wants to give the Unbound Gravel a proper go this year.  We’ve laid out a periodization model for Neil and there are a few very important pillars of this model.  Neil’s given us permission to divulge this information to you but make sure you don’t share it with anyone, except the internet.  Deal?
Volume for Neil is a key component for his success (or even comfort level) at Unbound Gravel.  Following retirement from road racing, his work schedule and family life taking precedence, the era of him training 6-8 hours daily are behind him.  However, at Unbound Gravel (fomerly DK 200) Neil can expect to burn 7500kJ- 9000kJ over +11 hours on the day. For those wanting to geek out over Training Stress Score (TSS), +500 should be about right.  The only way to thrive on such an epic day is to train.  That sounds easy enough to map out.  However, the true challenge is not the training but managing a full-time job, full time fatherhood, and being a full-time husband while building to this fitness all on 10- 14 hours of training per week.
There are a number of different paths one can take but we’re working with Neil to make sure he’s taking the one that allows him to stay sane, happy, employed and fit.  Neil will mix semi-rare “epic” training days at home with the occasional event such as Rock Cobbler (~4000kJ), SPNDX Stampede or Belgian Waffle Ride (~6000kJ) to prepare for Unbound Gravel.  The goal with this approach is to work on his day of event nutrition and build the fitness to where Neil sees very little drop off in his Power Duration Curve as the kilojoules burn off (see “ideal” v “current” below).  This approach allows him to build at home and take his fitness on the road to measure his progress both objectively and subjectively with his peers.

Current power curve with fatigue.

Ideal power curve with fatigue.

With Neil’s history as a premier road professional in North America, he’s a threshold machine so we’ll want to bring that ability to the forefront.  Looking at his history and integrating that with evidence-based practice of working with a number of clients at these epic events, and with a number of elite athletes, we can make some accurate predictions of what Neil should expect to produce on Unbound Gravel day.  Typically, 60-70 minutes will be a large dose of exposure time to threshold power at a road race.  Unbound Gravel should see Neil stomping out 2 hours or more at his threshold power.  That sort of volume at threshold takes a lot of work and a lot of nutrition/ hydration just to enable it as a possibility.
Not to be forgotten is the importance of high intensity interval training (HIIT). The take home here is that HIIT lets you resist muscle damage and fatigue while allowing you to make the selection and ride in a faster group. Dr. Andrew Coggan has generated this chart showing using data from elite athletes using Training Peaks.  From this data, he has been able to show us how incredibly variable an athlete’s short term power is relative to their threshold ability.  This being true, it would be optimal for Neil to work on his short-term power to make the splits that allow him to stay in the front group. Training Peaks calls this concept “Functional Reserve Capacity” or FRC. In essence, it qualifies and quantifies those HIIT efforts we all hate doing and usually it tells us to give more of them, and at higher intensity than athletes want to do.  However, investing into this training is like investing in Bitcoin if you did it this summer: a little pays off exponentially.  But if you throttle it too long and too hard, it all comes crashing down.

Finally, let’s discuss the role of bike handling.  Consider that any sort of split happens in any sort of competitive speed event in one of two conditions: Climbing or at high speed.  Then, bike driving or handling is another key component of any mixed surface event.  While the term “gravel grinder” invokes a romantic view of bike riders slogging away at slow speeds on an abandoned dirt road, the truth is that gravel roads are fast and fit athletes make gravel bikes go really fast.  Tire selection can help make you feel more comfortable with your equipment.  But in the end, you will want to practice going fast on those knobby tires.  Neil has ridden countless miles on uneven surfaced roads and while he may not possess the insane skills of a Red Bull Rampage downhill rider, he can definitely go fast on gravel.  Even still, we make it a point to have Neil push it, ever so slightly when the speed goes up.
I hope this was able to keep you interested as you plot your “beat Neil Shirley” game plan. Generating Neil’s training seems complex and to say otherwise would be doing Neil and the entire exercise physiology community an enormous disservice. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention that I have help from the other coaches at Source Endurance with Neil’s training and data analysis. If you’re interested in how we can help you beat Neil Shirley, or just have a good time on your adventures, reach out to us, or visit us on the world wide web.
If you haven’t yet, check out this article Neil wrote recently about equipment choice and the Unbound Gravel.
About the Author: 
Adam Mills is currently the Performance Director of the Elevate- KHS Pro Cycling Team. He has raced at the elite level since 2002 and graduated with a Masters in Exercise Physiology from the University of Kansas in 2005. His true talent comes with his ability to combine his vast experience with his knowledge of sport. He is indeed a student of science, sport, athletic performance, strategy, and tactics. He continuously educates himself by keeping up to date with current trends and methods in sport and his clients have reaped the benefits from this work with over 13 national championships in 8 disciplines on two continents. Adam is able to incorporate these attributes on a daily basis to help his clients reach and exceed their goals whether they are a beginner or a seasoned professional. Learn more about Adam and Source Endurance here.