2 hour training sessions for long MTB race - my experience

On the podcast I’ve heard it said several times that doing 2 hour training sessions preps you for long race / ride efforts. My own experience has not been the same and I thought I’d share my experience.

First, you should know that I’m 47 and have only been racing the last few years, but I’ve been riding consistently for over 10.

While training for a 55 mile MTB race with over 7000 ft of climbing (some long and sustained and some short and punchy) I did sweet spot base, short power build, and XC marathon specialty - all at low volume. Mixed in with this were roughly weekly outdoor rides, including several 30 - 40 mile MTB rides.

This would be the longest I’ve ever ridden miles and time-wise.

In the race I felt good up until about mile 35, then started experiencing some cramping. From that point forward, I couldn’t really push too hard without cramps flaring up. My heart rate data showed this - about 10 - 20% lower after that point.

I did try to pace myself, but only through RPE.

I realize there are many reasons for cramping, but I’m wondering if never having done that many miles before I had no “muscle memory” of such a long effort, and my body just wasn’t ready for it? Or maybe I should have done a plan with more sustained power for the long climbs?

I’ve since done some rides in the 50 - 60 mile range and felt pretty good. But they weren’t race pace and weren’t the same profile of the race.

I’m curious what others think or if anyone have taken a similar approach and what their experience is.

Thanks for any input!

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  • That is my first recommendation. Without the course profile or a statement about how you wanted to “race” the event, we are guessing. But a LONG MTB race like this is more about sustaining power. Short Power Build and XC Marathon are pointed towards the shorter/sharper efforts of races from 1-3 hours.
  • For longer events (guessing you were out there for 4-6 hours?), you would be better served with the Sustained Power Build and Century or Climbing Road Race Specialty.

As you mention, the cramps can come from the increase if intensity, duration or the combo. If that was the case, you simply need to apply more intensity or duration in your training. More time may be helpful, but I don’t see it as the only route to a solution.

Some trainer questions:

  • What trainer do you have?
  • What gearing were you using?
  • Did you use ERG or Resistance (assuming you have the option)?
    • I’m looking for other variables that may contribute to your training options or deficiencies.

Then there’s the question of how well you followed the Low Volume plan.

  • Did you nail all the workouts to match the desired effort and training effect?
  • How did you do your outside rides?
  • Were they structured or loose?
  • Did they impact your ability to complete the scheduled trainer workouts.
  • Essentially, how well did you follow the whole plan?

I recently completed a 100 mile gravel race (in under 6 hours) with many Seasonal and All-Time power personal records. I did it purely on inside training only, with the most workouts 2 hours or less. I did have a few Endurance rides on the trainer at 3 hours, but the intensity was far below what I put out in the race. Due to circumstances, I wasn’t even able to ride my gravel bike more than an hour before the race. None of that kept me from hitting the start super hard and then rallying to a strong finish (which started 3 hours into the race).

Point being, just like Nate and his Leadville Trail 100, you can do just fine in an event that is much longer than your trained time on the bike. But that training must be done well and to the fullest effectiveness possible with an eye towards the event.

I am 45yo, with over 20 years cycling experience, but about 6 years of active training mode. In my case, I spend a TON of time with standing efforts. I also do a significant amount of lower cadence work. That is all because those are the tools I need to apply in my events. So, you have to consider how you trained (like the plans you are reconsidering, but also things like cadence, trainer flywheel speed, and other factors) that may be more or less like your planned event. The more you match them, the better your chances of success.

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Given your description of the race profile, like Chad, I do think maybe you may have been better off doing a more sustained power focused build, probably Sustained Power Build but maybe General Build if you felt you needed to target short punchy efforts a little more. I think for a 55 mile XCM race though, XC Marathon Specialty is still what TR seems to recommend (SSBI + II > Sustained Power > XC Marathon). They consider shorter Marathon efforts to be in the 3-7 hours range per this link. They reference the Epic Rides series as an example of shorter XC Marathon races, whose races are all in the 40-50 mile ballpark I believe, so I think this fits.

I also wonder how your pacing and nutrition were. If you went out too hard or if your nutrition strategy wasn’t adequate, I could see that possibly contributing to the struggles you experienced.

I did my first XCM race (42 miles, not a ton of climbing but still some) halfway through Sustained Power Build Mid Volume as I prep for my target XCM race later this summer that does have lots of climbing with a fair bit of it pretty long and sustained. I didn’t do any particularly long MTB rides in the lead up to that race (the longest was around 20 miles, and most were 10 miles or less). I did go out too fast and faded a bit, but I didn’t have cramping issues and all of my lap times were within 5 mins of each other, so I wasn’t too off. Prior to my A race, I do plan to do some longer MTB rides, but mostly to improve on my fueling strategy, which needs some work and I think contributed to my fade. For me personally, I think this will be most easily done outside.

Just my $0.02 to add on to the really good points Chad already brought up. I’m pretty new to this, but that’s been my experience and take on what I’ve read so far.

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It has been my experience and observation of team mates and friends that there is a direct correlation between training volume and fatigue resistance in xcm style racing. Furthermore the long ride seems to be critical as well. Once again my own experience and observation.

How you actually should structure the training? No idea, people seem to do fine with any system as long as they train consistently, progress/overload,and do not dig themselves into holes. And adding volume seems to help always up to 15 to 20 hours per week.

W/r to cramping: when I started xcm racing 15 years ago I would cramp often in the first year. Later only in early season. After a baby break I cramped again early season. This has vanished again. The only time they came back was when I raced a 7hours race only 2 weeks after a 12hours race. For me it’s pretty obvious why I cramp.

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How was your nutrition and hydration during the race? If you did not have any issues riding 30-40mi outdoors prior to race, then I can’t imagine the cramps were due to a lack of training or no “muscle memory”.

How much sodium/calories were you taking in and were you well hydrated prior to race?

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Thanks for all the great responses!

Chad’s questions:

  • I started with a Giant Fluid Cyclotron and used virtual power, then about 3 months from the race I got an Elite Direto and mostly used ERG mode
  • Gearing was 32 tooth up front, and 11 - 42 rear. I definitely had some low cadence due to this, but I’m used to it. For the sustained climbs I was able to keep my preferred cadence (around 90 rpm).
  • I would say I nailed most of the workouts, but there were some VO2 workouts that I struggled with - Bird +2 I failed a couple of intervals, and I replaced Bird +3 with San Joaquin +1 which I did complete
  • Outside rides were unstructured mountain bike rides - some group rides, and some solos where I was training for pace for longer efforts (the 30 - 40 mile rides - 3 of them)
  • When I did the long rides I replaced the weekend ride for the low volume plan, for group ride weekends I typically also did the weekend ride for the plan (but not always)

I have been working in low and high cadence work because I primarily ride MTB.

Nutrition:

  • I worked on nutrition in the long rides I did leading up to the race. I settled on drinking Beta Fuel (in a bottle, 2 in the race) and water (from my camelback). I made sure to drink some Beta Fuel every 30 minutes and water as much as I felt I needed it. I also switched between SIS isotonic gels and Clif Shot Blox (with caffeine) every half hour. I followed this fairly well, but it is a MTB race so can’t always do things on the dot.

Pacing:

  • Basically through RPE. I tried not to crush myself at the beginning, but I did want to get in front of people before we hit single track. There was about a 10 minute fairly steady climb to start and I tried to keep my heart rate around 90%. But I did some small efforts to pass people. This could have been a culprit.

I have a history of cramping in longer efforts - pretty similar to the experience @sryke posted - earlier in the season and on long efforts. I’d hoped all the indoor training helped with that, and I’m sure it did, but not targeting the right kind of training is likely the problem. It sounds like more sustained power work would have been a better choice.

Also having a power meter could have helped as well so I didn’t push too hard, but I understand that for MTB races that can be difficult, particularly here in PA where we have lots of punchy climbs with some longer ones mixed in.

Thanks again to all for the input! :smiley: :smiley: :smiley:

If you have more thoughts or questions let me know.

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Good info. Sounds like you did a good plan execution and had some good thoughts for how to apply your training. It might boil down to the type of stress. It depends on the person, but the slow-steady stuff is often more difficult and grueling on a person than the short-sharp stuff at higher power levels.

On the drinking, I haven’t used the Beta, but that drink rate seems like a large gap to me. I use my mixed drinks every 10 mins or so as I alternate between that in bottles and pure water in a CamelBak. I could be wrong, but I would look closer at that to see if that meets your needs and directions of the mix.

Pacing is tough. MTB is so common for hard starts, that I think you have to plan on them and train for them that way too. If you get a smooth start, great, but that seems to be the exception. My 100 mile gravel race went out stupid hard, but I tried to match it.

I paid a price and had to rebound from a bad 30-40 mile stretch. but the fact is that I came back hard from 50-100 miles, so it may be possible, depending on your training and personal history (I am usually stronger in the 2nd half of any race, especially after 2 hours).

I’d say consider what was your real weakness (not just the cramping, but the stress on you that lead to it) as best you can. It may be the longer sustained efforts from what we’ve read. If so, try to fill that in for your next similar event and see how it goes. Good luck finding the magic sauce :smiley:

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It honestly sounds like your not getting enough sodium/electrolytes. The Beta fuel does not appear to be delivering enough replacement sodium for what you are sweating out. I would recommend starting to use hydration mix in your water.

Lots of great advice in the thread and will add a little from own experiences.

For me Trainroad is so valuable in terms of keeping me on track with training. This year I’m on the Sweet Spot Base, Sustained Power Build and Century Plan to prep for Leadville. However I have made a few tweaks along the way.

The first is I try and get some long steady road rides in on weekends, up to and even a little over 100 miles. I try and keep the effort fairly steady and the rides are flat, so very little break in terms of peddling. They are great opportunities to really fine tune nutrition and because they are typically below threshold efforts, I don’t find them that hard to recover from. Along with all the indoor TR work, I feel these have really helped with not cramping on long rides and being able to finish long rides feeling pretty strong.

I do also mix in some outdoor XC mountain bike rides. These also me to work on bike handling, hit some VO2 max and neuromuscular efforts that I get less of in my training plan, but also work on endurance. I usually make these rides 2.5 - 3.5 hours, so I’m getting endurance benefit as well.

The final change I’ve made is incorporating some longer sweet spot intervals into some of the TR plans. For example, in the Century plan MV, the first Sunday SSB workout is Antelope +5, which is 7 x 10 min. Instead I moved up Galena +3 which is 4 x 20 min, but a similar overall TSS. I plan to increase to 30 and 45 min intervals throughout the plan. There already is some progression of these intervals built into the plan, but for Leadville I figure the longer I can hold these efforts the better.

There are lots of theories regarding cramping, but my own experience is that when you tax your muscles in a way they are not used to, you get the type of cramping you reported. Along with the other training you are doing, I suspect some longer outdoor rides will give you a lot of benefit.

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So there is obviously some great stuff from Chad and others in here. In my experience I did what Chad recommended for you to do. SSB-SPB-Road Century. In saying that I did all Low Volume after SSB2. I either added 2 endurance rides outdoors on my mtb and on the opposite weeks I added a 2.5 hour Sweetspot ride with intervals around 30 minutes long. The TSS on those rides were roughly 140-160. I ditched the 10-15 minute interval workouts. My race was 65 miles and 10,000 ft of elevation. I studied my heart rate during all my workouts and used it during the race. I would venture to say my pace averaged low tempo for most of the day with efforts into z4 and efforts into Z2 when I needed it. Hope some of this helps you. If you take anything away from all this it’s do the long sweetspot intervals. 20min plus. Nothing lower.

Mike

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Oh and I never did a ride on my trainer longer the 2.5 hours and it was only 6 of those total. Everything else was mostly 1-1.5 hours on the trainer.

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one year I rode 12 hour solo the second half of a 24 hour event. I got to watch 2 riders rolling into camp around the 8 hour mark, cramping up. I sprayed magnesium spray on their legs and they went back out and reported no cramping after that. I don’t get cramps while riding myself (touch wood), but I got the spray because I was getting cramp in the bottom of my feet at night time, for several nights, after a long event. My partner read something which linked this to low magnesium and the spray worked for me.
No idea if there is a large placebo effect linked to this or not. (but does it matter?)
Are you doing any strength and conditioning carpmike?

This is the biggest red flag I’d focus on addressing. Aside from that, below is my view.

I’m typically a XCO racer (1 hour - 1:40 min races) but like to do a 100 mile MTB each year. Last year I did the Lumberjack 100, which had 10,000 feet of climbing (90% singletrack) which took me just over 9 hours to complete. This year I have the Marji Gesick with 12,000 feet of climbing (expecting a 12-14 hour event). I only did 2 rides over 3 hours to test nutrition and fueling strategy last year and don’t plan to do more than a couple “big” rides this year either. Mainly because it’s not needed and the recovery from those rides disrupts my training. Those big rides help test nutrition/hydration and get your mind prepared for the efforts, but the training for those efforts can certainly be accomplished by 2 hour trainer rides. Remember, 2 hours of constantly pedaling on the trainer easily equals 3-4 hours outdoors. Outdoor rides have lots of micro breaks that you just don’t get on the relentlessness of the trainer. I’m not so sure about “muscle memory” from long rides, but maybe mental memory of being able to suffer is what is gained. However, for me those long rides are such a big mental drain that it almost does more harm than help. Unless your pace is below race pace but then I’d question its usefulness. What works at sub-race pace MAY not work at higher and longer intensities.

I’m going to disagree with a few point from others suggested above, though their advice is sound in general. I’ll just address the points where my opinion differs from others.

First, if your race is mostly singletrack (unlike Leadville which is more of a gravel race), than I would recommend General Build. Unless you have numerous big fire road climbs over 30 minutes, Sustained Build will not prepare you for a MTB Ultra. I used to think this as well, until I put a power meter on my MTB. Of course this is location and course dependent, so look at the event profile. In Michigan for example, everything is punchy and no climbs are typically over 10-15 minutes. All the singletrack climbs require punchy efforts then back to z2-3 riding and plenty of z1 and coasting. Often little (less than 10%) of effort is found in that sustained effort of sweet spot and threshold. Typically you either need power, lots of it, or you’re at your all day pace. This is what General Build prepares you for and has an amazing blend of both. My recommendation is SSB 1 &2, General Build then Cross Country Marathon (unless your “MTB” race is really a gravel race with some single track thrown in).

Low volume plans MAY be your issue as it’s just not enough proper stress to prepare you, but it’s just as likely to be a fault of pacing and/or nutrition/hydration strategy. Instead of doing LV and adding rides to your plan, I’d recommend doing mid volume and substituting outdoor rides for planned workouts. This way you can see what the TSS progression is intended and attempt to mimic indoor workouts outside, which is much easier now with TR offering outdoor alternatives. Also, once out of the base phase, I’d recommend doing your longer rides (2-3 hours) on singletrack if that is what your event will mainly be. The closer you are to your event the more you need to specialize with your outdoor rides to your event demands. Analyzing my long singletrack rides I’ve found it is near impossible to just ride z2 or anything sustained. I may be doing 150 watts during a trail ride then a section of trail forces me to do over 400 watts for 20-30 seconds in Eagle gear up and over a climb with roots and/or rocks. It is so difficult to do sustained efforts on true singletrack which is why I don’t recommend a sustained TR plan.

I’m not so sure your road group rides are doing you much benefit specifically for your event. Unless you’re pulling in the front and actually getting a proper structured workout in, these tend to be traditional base type mileage. Without seeing a power profile though, it’s hard to draw any conclusions. I’d just make sure your outdoor rides are accomplishing your intended goals.

Lastly, get to the bottom of your history of cramping issues. This is much easier said than done, but start experimenting with different products and strategies. Personally, I’ve found great success with Hammer products and follow their nutrition and hydration recommendations precisely. They have a free book that discusses how, when and what to do for events lasting 1 hour to 24 hours in great detail. I follow that religiously and have had no issues.

Good luck and get to the bottom of your limiters, I just don’t think the 2 hour training rides is one of them.

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The jury is still out on cramping, but there’s general consensus on it being caused by some combination of lack of electrolytes, dehydration and muscles being stressed in a way they are not used to.

The first two can be addressed through appropriate hydration and nutrition. On the last item, it’s helpful to know the conditions under which you cramp. For example:

1 - were you towards the end of a long steady climb?
2 - Was it after you resumed climbing from a long technical descent?
3 - Was it after a quick burst of power to get over a root/rock, or get the bike back into balance?
4 - was it dismounting or remounting your bike for a hike a bike section?

I’ve found when I cramp, it’s usually because I make a quick jerky movement of some sort - eg during #3 or #4 from the above. So I pay particular attention to avoid these types of jerky movements.

I’ve never cramped under conditions #1.

Last year, for the first time I cramped under conditions #2 - same place both times on a 2 lap 6 hr MTB race, and apparently a lot of other people cramp in the same spot also. Lesson learned from this for me is to ease in gradually to putting power down after a long Tech descent.

Once you get cramps, the single best way to recover is to stretch the muscle involved. This can sometimes be done on the bike, but often requires you to stop for a couple of mins. Pickle juice or mustard may also work for you. I’ve never had either available at the specific points when I’ve cramped, so don’t know if they work for me. But stretching does.

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To add to the cramping talk, the pedaling drills seemed to help me here. When I felt a cramp coming on I was tired and my pedaling was sloppy at the time. I went back to concentrating on smoothing my pedal stroke and eased up a bit and this helped tremendously.

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The only time I began to cramp was this, trying to clean a tricky uphill after 5+ hours of “racing”. It was wet and slippery and I had to put in a big effort. I would have been better off walking that section which I did the next time around.

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Yep. Smooth pedaling and avoiding jerks in power really help.

My own experience… up to early this year the furthest I’d ridden was some 120KMs and longest time on the trainer was the disaster day event. Other than that mainly 1-2 hour training sessions indoors and very little out on the road.

My first 400km Audax in April on my road setup MTB, due to mechanical issues, I had to retire at 215km. Did find I’d started to get cramps and looking at the state of my clothing, I had outputted a lot of salts, lots of white tide marks etc. Fuelling was good so decided I’d take action on the sodium/electrolytes front as this was a probably the cause of cramping.

A month later in May I attempted another 400km Audax, successfully completing it with some 21 hours in the saddle. I ensured this time along with my normal refuelling/feeding I would take on some extra electrolytes in my drink mix. I would just add a Dioralyte sachet to my normal ISO energy drink mix.

Never suffered any cramps during that event and looking forward I will continue this method for any long endurance events.

So looking back the training sessions, though no where near the length of my event, did get me in excellent condition for the events. Only actually doing the events do you get the experience required to learn about your body and equipment and adapt it for future events.

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Yeah @Bullseye I’ve been strength training since my mid-teens. Usually 1 -2 x per week now, depending on events going on that week. But I now prioritize cycling training over strength. For the past 6 months or so I’ve been doing more high weight, low rep, low set work to maintain strength, not to grow it.

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So I’m going to summarize the great info in here:

  • Figure out the cause of the cramps
    ** Nutrition? Non-smooth pedaling? Jerky movements?
  • Proper nutrition generally and specifically to deal with cramping issue
    ** There is a good Cycling Tips podcast on Sweat with one of the founders of Skratch
  • Plan and do long rides to get nutrition figured out
  • May need to increase training plan volume to better prepare the body for the longer efforts
  • Pick the right plan based on course profile, particularly if your local trails don’t match the profile of the race and you need to use the trainer to replicate

Thanks to all for the suggestions!

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