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Preparing for a Sportive

Sportive camaraderie, Etape Du Tour July 2013, near Annecy.

Preparing for a Sportive 03/16 2014 by Pieter Van Pietersen

To be successful at a sportive you need to complete the route in your best time. You don't need to be first across the line. There isn't the need to surge as in racing. However the distance and time on the bike are usually longer than the average race.

Your greatest concern is to avoid running out of glycogen, also known as blowing up or bonking. If this happens, you will be tens of minutes, if not hours slower. You may not even finish at all. The way to avoid this is with training and diet.

Training for a sportive
A typical sportive might be 100 miles, or 160km, which is quite a long way to ride. It'll probably take at least 6 hours. If you do not train then you will suffer and will probably not complete the course. There is no need to suffer unnecessarily.

Effects of riding your bike in training
- Your backside will toughen. The first few rides can invoke a bruised feeling to the sit bones which goes away after 3-4 rides. You can even end up losing skin in this area. You don't want this to happen on the day.

- Your neck muscles will get stronger. The cycling position is not a natural one. You will be bent over while holding your head up and wearing a helmet. This provokes sore neck muscles. After some hours of training your neck will become accustomed to this position and the ache will subside. You may also decide to adjust your bike position. Raising the handlebars usually helps the neck and hands, but can put more strain on your backside.

- You will teach your body to burn fat. Riding for a few hours at any intensity will teach your body to burn a higher percentage of fat to glycogen. This will spare your glycogen reserves and help to keep you from hitting the wall. If you don't train at all, it is likely that your body will burn through its sugar reserves within an hour, resulting in hitting the wall/ bonking.

- You will practice riding your bike and everything that goes with it, such as repairing a puncture, wearing the correct clothes, cornering and riding in a group.

- Last but not least, you will get fitter and may also lose fat.

How to train
There is no need to practice killer sprints or do hill reps for a sportive. You don't need explosive power, you need the ability to diesel along at a good pace for 4-5 hours.

Having said that, there is a current trend for High Intensity Training (HIIT or Tabata intervals). These very high intensity intervals of only a few minutes can provide the same fitness gains as many hours of working out. This is a dream for anyone looking for a 'shortcut'. Why spend hours on the bike when you can get it all done in 15 minutes?

Nothing will replicate riding for 6 hours than to spend hours riding your bike. For example, HIIT won't harden up your backside or help you cope with bad weather. I advocate a more tried and tested form of training as described below. However, HIIT experimentation is still ongoing and you may prefer to go down that route. There's nothing to lose by experimenting with different training regimes.

I recommend the following sort of riding, which I can guarantee will work.

Saturday - 2 hours, steady. No hard efforts such as hill sprints. Very important to keep it steady to avoid burning yourself out.

Sunday - 2-4 hours, steady. Alternate 2 and 4 hour rides each week.

2 weekdays (e.g. Tuesday and Thursday) do 2 x 20 intervals, as described below.

10-12 weeks of this regime would be enough to get you comfortably through a hilly 100 mile sportive. You are riding between 6-8 hours a week over 4 days per week.

In the middle of the 12 weeks, take 4-5 days off to let your body rest and absorb everything you've done. It is also advisable to start gently, so don't do the 2 x 20 too hard in the first fortnight or you will get fatigued by week 3. Be gentle on your body - it takes time to recover and heal from each session. Think of the healing rate as similar to a hair growing or a scab healing. It takes time. Don't feel bad about missing a day if too tired. Perhaps you can do the session the following morning instead.

You can't cram for fitness, so doing more workouts nearer to the event will only tire you out.

There is no need to 'taper' prior to this event, i.e. no need to take a rest week before it. To do so will just lower your fitness. Maintain the 2x20 for the final week.

Once you've done the first 100 miler, you can look into more complicated training regimes, but for now this is enough riding and will create the adaptions you need to get round the course beautifully.

The 2 x 20 interval
This is known as a threshold interval. First warm up for 20 minutes. Next, ride 'hard' for 20 minutes. Rest for 5-10 minutes then ride 'hard' for another 20 minutes. Warm down for 10 minutes and you are done.

The pace during the hard sections is the same as what could maintain for 1 hour flat out. This is also known as your 'Functional Threshold Power' (FTP). Your heart rate would be around 80-90% of its maximum. So for a maximum HR of 190bpm, your FTP would be about 150-170bpm.

Without a heart rate monitor or powermeter, this is quite hard to gauge. The best way to do it would be to start fairly gently for the first 3-5 minutes then gradually build up the pace until you are close to your limit after 20 minutes. You will be sweating and breathing hard, and should have to will yourself to continue. It is best done on a flat road so your power can stay constant. If you are in a hillier area, resist the urge to rest on the downhills or surge hard on the uphills. The effort needs to stay constant throughout. It is also best done alone, as you need to be able to ride at your own pace.

The 2 x 20 interval will build your ability to maintain a high cruising speed for an extended period of time. The longer weekend rides will allow you to build endurance and get used to time in the saddle.

As you get fitter, you will be able to complete the 2 x 20 at a higher speed. You will also find yourself completing the 4 hour endurance rides in a fairly normal state of mind, instead of being wrecked for the rest of the day afterwards.

This is obviously a large topic and some basics are outlined here. Correct diet is vital to help your body to recover after training and to teach your body to use fat as a fuel.

If you get your diet right, it will allow you to stay strong, lose weight and avoid hitting the wall during your event.

You should perform some of your own research before modifying your diet and if in doubt, obtain blood tests before and after the change to confirm the effects and consult with a dietician.

Don't try to lose weight by going hungry
By weight I mean excess body fat rather than muscle. Many of us are carrying a too much fat and hope to lose weight by cycling.

You can burn a lot of Calories by cycling. The 2x20 session could burn about 800kcal. A 5 hour ride could burn about 3500kcal.

I advise against losing weight by restricting Calorie intake. You are better off by making good food choices (see below) and giving your body the nutrients it requires. The reason we get fat is due to the type of food we eat rather than simply the quantity. Calorie restriction will make you lose muscle rather than fat, will make you miserable, will affect your strength on the bike and will only result in temporary weight loss as you will gain it back and more a few months ahead.

Reduce sugar from your diet
Avoid eating foods with added sugar (sucrose), such as cake, biscuits, bread with added sugar (HFCS), beer (maltose), sodas (HFCS), fruit juice (fructose) and smoothies (fructose).

You may eat whole fruit, e.g. an orange, but it is important to avoid juices. With juice, the fibre has been removed or pulped and you will end up consuming a high load of fructose. This will drive your body towards storing fat and is a disaster for your liver and hormone function.

Sugar will also allow you to eat more of a food. You can't eat a lot of cream on its own, but once you add sugar you could eat a whole tub (of ice cream). The most sought after ratio of sugar to fat is 50-50, which happens to be the exact composition of a standard Kispy Kreme donut. (white flour being the equivalent of sugar.

It may seem healthy to drink juice, after all fruit is healthy, right? It is best only drunk in small quantities and straight after exercising. If you drink a carton of juice, the fructose load on your liver will be high which will lead to health issues such as insulin resistance of the liver and fatty liver disease.

There is a similar effect when drinking soda or eating cake. Note that carrot juice also contains quite a lot of fructose.

The only caveat to that it is ok to eat sugar during or immediately after exercise. At this time you will burn the sugar or use it to replenish depleted stores. If the session is less than 2 hours, I still recommend only drinking water. Do not rely on sports drinks - they are only needed for long endurance activity, not for an hour in the gym.

Reducing sugar in your diet will allow your body to learn to use fat as an energy source. Your excess fat will melt away.

Reduce the amount of refined carbs in your diet
Refined carbs such as white bread, rice and pasta should be consumed in small quantities. These foods are high GI foods and will also affect your body's ability to burn fat for energy. High GI foods will cause insulin spikes which are damaging to health.

It is also fine to eat these foods during or immediately after training, as they will rapidly restore energy stores as the starch is rapidly broken down to glucose.

Just avoid sitting watching TV whilst eating pizza and drinking a litre of juice or cola. Foods like that cause mayhem to your body.

Do note, however, that carbs are required for high intensity exercise. Try to eat complex carbs which burn more slowly. If you cut out sugar and carbs too drastically, your performance will suffer. However you will lose fat most quickly that way. That's what body builders do to get so lean.

Consume more fat
We have been told for years to eat less fat as it was thought to cause heart disease and weight gain. Recent research is showing that consummation of fat does not lead to either of these conditions. It is the sugar and high GI foods that appear to be causing ill health and obesity.

The reduction in calories from sugar and processed grains should be replaced with fat.

Avoid transfats, i.e. margarine and cakes and chocolates where it has been added.
Eat 'good fats' such as from fish, olive oil, nuts, meat, eggs, coconuts and avocados. Lard is great. Butter, cream and cheese are fine, although try to find organic sources. There is a difference in fats from grass fed (organic) and grain fed (cheaper) bovine foods (beef, butter, milk, cream).

Avoid fat sugar combinations
The great danger to weight loss is snacking on fat and sugar combinations. A little bit of snacking through the day on things like:
1) a donut
2) a chocolate bar
3) a bag of crisps
4) a slice of cheese cake
5) a scoop of icecream
6) a slice of cake
will make you get fat quickly.

These foods make you feel good when you eat them, and you can continue eating them when you are full. This sort of food combination should be avoided when you are trying to lose weight.

Eat vegetables and fruit
These contain vital nutrients and fiber. Lean towards vegetables rather than fruit if you are trying to reduce your body fat. Remember that the fiber has been pulped in smoothies, so will not limiting absorption of the fructose in your gut, so they are to be avoided.

I'm not a fan of supplements as if you are eating well they are not necessary. It will be one less thing to buy and I also suspect that they contribute to making me sick if I do take them. For example if I drink a well-known fizzy multivitamin tablet for a few days, I will come down with a cold soon after.

Do eat fish and meat I believe that we are designed to eat animal and fish protein and fat, so should consume it in moderation to enhance recovery and performance.

If you are vegetarian or vegan, you'll be aware of different sources of protein. You will have to pay special attention to this area of your diet.

You will need eat during a 100 mile ride as you might burn say 4000kcal. Your body will only hold about 1200-2000kcal of glycogen, so the rest needs to come from your own fat reserves or ingested food.

Energy products such as High 5, Gatorade, Powerbars etc work very well for this time. Just ensure you test them before the big day or you may find yourself vomiting them up or unable to eat them on the move.

Home made jam sandwiches work well. There's no need to buy expensive commercial products. In my mind they are too expensive for a sachet of sugar solution.

Remember to take your litter home with you. In South Africa there is a Sportive called the Cape Argus. Thousands of riders were dropping half eaten packets of gel on the roads. The local baboon population discovered these delicacies and soon became addicted to the sugar. They began attacking cyclists and picnickers to obtain more gel. Unfortunately the dangerous baboons needed to be culled. Inadvertently, a cycling event caused the death of quite a few baboons.

Carb loading
I do not think there is any need or benefit to carb loading the night before an event. Eat what you're used to. If your diet is good and your body is burning fat well, then loading on carbs won't help you during the event.

Prepare your equipment
A week or two before your event, double check your bike. Clean it, then look for anything that is worn out, such as tires or brake pads. Look for cracks in the frame. If you spot anything, you will have time to rectify it. If you notice things the night before the event you will be up late fiddling with something and might not even get it working by the morning.

Don't replace your tires the night before either, as there's a chance you won't have installed the inner tube correctly which will result in a blowout. Do it all 2 weeks before your event so it has time to bed in.

Do check your tires for flints. These can sit in the tire for weeks, slowly working themselves into your inner tube. Inspect and clean the tread regularly.

If you maintain your bike then no special action is needed. If you need to drop it to a bike shop for service, then get it booked in.

Avoid using a borrowed bike unless you have had at least 2 weeks of training on it. To use a different bike will undoubtedly result in knee, neck bum and/or hand pain. It isn't worth it just to be on something lighter or flasher.

I also recommend not using a shopping bike, BMX or mountain bike for your 100 miles. Choose the correct tool for the job. Why make life harder for yourself than you have to? If you want a challenge, then just ride faster.

Pack a small saddle bag. When buying one, go for a small one. There's no need for a massive pack flapping around behind your seat. It needs to contain: 1 inner tube, some money, some ID, 2 tyre levers, a CO2 pump. Some riders may prefer to carry a mini pump as a single CO2 canister can run out, but I don't like the thing flapping around in my back pocket.

Specialized Saddle Bag - small
Although this is the smallest saddle bag made by Specialized, it is still massive. You could fit 2 tubes, a phone, 2 x CO2 canisters, tire levers and Allen keys in there. Big, ugly and quite unnecessary.

Prepare clothing
Check the weather forecast for the day of the event and pack accordingly. Even if you think that shorts and short sleeves will be fine, pack arm and leg warmers just in case.

When packing gear, I follow a system as follows:
Starting from the feet, work your way upwards to the head, packing as I go. E.g. shoes, socks, shorts, vest, jersey, gloves, sunglasses, helmet. A large shopping bag works well, as does any big holdall.

Pack everything the night before so you will have time to find any lost items (or clean any dirty ones).

Don't forget pins (although these are often supplied), food for during and after the event, water, entry details (such as number or slip to pick up entry pack).

Plan your route to the event so you know how long it'll take to get there and which roads you will take. These events are usually held on Sunday mornings, so traffic should be quiet.

Ensure the car has enough fuel to get you to the event. A 10 minute fuel stop at 6am is not what you need when you are in a rush.

Do also pack a few tools. Normally a multi-tool will be enough. Bring a pump.
Bring some pliers, as the handlebar numbers come with zip ties or wire ties which need to be trimmed.

The main thing with this preparation is to avoid panic. Flapping around while late at 6am is not conducive to a good performance. You need to stay calm and relaxed. Get there in good time without getting lost, then sit in your car having a sip of water as you wait for the start.

Know the course
Now your packing is all done, get familiar with the course. Look at the map. Learn where the big climbs are based. It is a great advantage to know where you are on the course and how long the climbs are.

Set your alarm and get a good night's sleep If you sleep badly the night before the event, it won't affect your performance. Do try to get to bed early the following night though.

On the ride
Don't start too fast. When fresh it is always tempting to gun it. Bike is clean, clothes are clean, the sun is shining, you are surrounded by riders and your subconscious says 'GO!' Avoid this by starting gently. Think how you'll feel in 4 hours' time.

Having said that, there may be some advantage to joining a fast group. You can sit on the back of it and get a fast free ride all the way to the finish. Just ensure you don't do any work on the front and try to avoid going into the red zone on the hills.

Note that if you have done this, it is not gentlemanly to then surge past the group on the last climb, as if to say 'come on slow coaches look how fresh I am'. If you want to do that then do your share of work at the front during the event or enter a proper race.

Remember to keep eating. Nibble something every 30 minutes, such as half an energy bar. Don't rely on food stations, as they are often either empty or not stocked. Events in Europe (Italy, France, Belgium) tend to have excellent feed stations, but if you are a slower rider behind the locust swarm you may find that not much is left except some fly covered, melting salami and sweaty cheese.

Do stop when asked by the organizers and for traffic lights. Often the front group will be escorted by police outriders so going through reds will be permitted as the traffic will be stopped. That's a big advantage to being in the front group.

If you are fit and want to do a fast time, then consider not starting with the first wave of riders. (Sportives usually start riders off in waves leaving every 5 minutes or so). Either start with a fast looking group or if the event is small (<200 riders) leave 10 minutes after the first group. You will be able to catch them, then finish the ride with them, so getting a good time.

Don't get distracted by riders receiving medical attention at the side of the road. It is unfortunate, but at some point on the course you are likely to see an ambulance tending to a felled rider. The rider may be unconscious and covered in blood. Usually they turn out to be OK (after all this is only cycling, not motorsport). Just don't get distracted or unnerved. Concentrate on your own ride.

If you lose your friends, forget about it and plow on to the finish. You'll see them then or in the pub afterwards. If the event is big, it can easily happen, so your friends all need to be aware of this.

If the event is hilly, as they often are, you will need to dig deep to finish. Concentrate on keeping the pedals going round. If you are struggling, mentally fixate on the next point, e.g. a tree 100m ahead or the next town. Once you are there, fix on another point until you are at the finish.

Try to avoid stopping. Time gets eaten up if you stop. Just keep moving. It'll be over sooner that way.

I have often seen riders stopping less than 1/2mile/1km from a mountain top finish. They got this far so this is clearly a psychological phenomenon where the end seems to be in sight and the brain instructs the body to give up. Before the ride, tell yourself that it won't be over until your wheel crosses the line.

Completing the ride
Well done, you have completed your ride, possibly raised money for charity and can now collect your medal. Your next priority is to get food and water down you as quickly as possible. You can enjoy high GI foods right now!

Remember that the time counts from start to end. You can't deduct time for stops.

Upload your ride to Strava, then brag about your good time, although it isn't a race. Racing is a different ball game.

If you say 'Never again', you will find yourself re-evaluating that within an hour. Such is the power of the mind to forget discomfort.

Joe Friel's blog advice on how to calculate your FTP Functional Threshold Power
Kurt Kinetic's advice on setting training zones
The Etape du Tour - the King of Sportives.

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