The gravel grinder is exploding in popularity all over the United States for good reason; they are a ton of fun!  And with the right training and skills work, they can become even more enjoyable.  This post will discuss the areas of training the gravel grinder athlete should focus on, as well as give a few workouts I like to prescribe to the athletes I work with to prepare them for anything race day can throw at them!  As always, be sure to consult with your physician before embarking on any new exercise routine.

Area #1: Endurance

Having a solid cardiovascular foundation and a strong aerobic system is crucial to accomplishing gravel grinders.  The events are purposely made to be very challenging to the competitor and range from 50 to 150 miles, feature mixed terrain that can include single track and sections that are impassable by bike, as well as a decent amount of climbing.  All of these factors add-up to WAY more time in the saddle than most people think.  A common mistake I have seen with gravel grinder newbies is doing all of their training on their road bikes; riding 50 miles on the road is vastly different from riding 50 miles over gravel, mud, sand, grass, etc.  With that being said, I would add at least 25-33% of your total time to complete the event distance on your road bike to give you an idea of how long it will actually take you on race day.  If you can get some wider tires onto your road bike, or if you have a cycl0-cross or even gravel grinder specific bike, get out on some fire-roads and secondary roads to get an idea of how much slower you actually go when not riding on silky-smooth tarmac.

Endurance Booster – Sweet Spot Intervals

  • Be sure you warm up for at least 15 minutes before starting these intervals.
  • Start with 3 sets of 5 minutes at your sweet spot zone with the goal of building up to 2 sets of 20 minutes, or longer if your event is >75 miles and/or features a lot of elevation gain.
  • Rest for 50% of the active interval length between.

Further Reading: What is sweet spot?

Area #2: Being able to grind it out

Since gravel grinders are done on mixed terrain, it is important to be able to stay seated, with your weight back on the bike, and be able to grind it out at a low cadence to maintain traction and keep moving the bike forward.  So, you must practice either climbing while over-geared or utilizing a trainer in a massive gear at a slow cadence to mimic this.

Strength Booster – Muscle Tension Efforts

  • Be sure you warm up for at least 15 minutes before starting these intervals, and if you have any joint pain stop immediately.
  • Start with 3 sets of 6 minutes with the goal of being able to perform 3 sets of 15 minutes.  It is crucial for these that you keep your cadence between 40-55 RPM and you push a really big gear.  I usually don’t give my athletes any power or heart rate zone goal and instead advise them to focus on the “push, scrape, pull” of the pedal stroke to keep a constant force on the pedal which will help maintain traction when you need to do it for real.
  • Rest for 50% of the active interval length between.

Area #3: Bike handling and driving

Some events feature more difficult terrain than others, but all gravel grinders will feature some unstable surfaces where you need to let the bike do what it wants to keep it upright.  So…

  • Never use a white-knuckled death-grip and let the bike bounce and move as it wants.  The more you try to over correct it, the slower you will go and the more you risk ending up on the ground.
    • Improve this skill by riding 1 handed at first, then progressing to no hands.  You should have the majority of your weight going through your hips normally and these drills help you learn to shift your weight back.  Start on the road before trying it on the dirt.
  • Practice bunny hopping to clear sticks, holes, and other unforeseen things in the road.  You never know what a dirt road will present you with.
    • Improve this skill by first popping your front tire and then rear tire onto a curb to get the feeling of lifting the front tire with your arms and your rear tire with your feet.  Once you can do this, grab a piece of foam or plastic bottle and practice clearing it with both tires at the same time.  Once you get the hang of this, gradually increase the height of the object.
  • Practice leaning the bike into turns instead of turning your handlebars and steering the bike into them.
    • Improve this skill by finding a car-free and safe place that features a 90 degree turn.  Practice entering the turn at the middle of the road, hitting the apex of the turn, and then exiting while drifting back out to the middle of the turn again.  Remember to keep your inner pedal up!  Start off slowly and gradually increase the speed at which you enter.  Start off on the road before trying on the dirt.
  • Practice stopping suddenly in case you need to avoid a hazard, or another cyclist.
    • Improve this skill by learning to shift your weight backwards while simultaneously squeezing the brake levers.  The further back your weight is, the less chance there is of you endoing.

Stay tuned next week when I will talk about the gear and equipment to consider when participating in a gravel grinder!

Are you thinking of participating in a gravel grinder event this summer?  Let GC Coaching help you get race ready!  For more information on GC Coaching and how we can help you improve your fitness, get in touch with us!

About the Author Shayne Gaffney

Shayne holds a bachelors degree in biology, is a USA Cycling Level 2 Certified Coach, USA Olympic Committee Safe Sport Certified, and a Category 3 road and cyclocross racer. He is the owner of GC Coaching and the creator and director of P2 Cycling. He can be contacted directly via info@gaffneycyclingcoaching.com

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