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Gale Bernhardt — Training for a Century

Gale Bernhardt cycling trainer and coachGale Bernhard has coached and instructed athletes since 1974. An elite-certified USA Cycling Level I Coach, she has also served as the Chairperson of the USA Triathlon National Coaching Committee for five years. Bernhardt was selected to be the USA Triathlon team coach at the 2004 Olympic Games and has traveled the world as a USA Triathlon World Cup coach. Bernhardt is the bestselling author of Bicycling for Women, Training Plans for Multisport Athletes, Triathlon Training Basics, and Workouts in a Binder®: Swim Workouts for Triathletes.

Recently I had the opportunity to speak with Gale about how recreational cyclists can train for a century ride.

What kind of base level of fitness do you need before starting to train for a century ride (100 miles)? Is this something a beginner recreational cyclist of any age could/should attempt?

The kind of fitness you need before beginning to train for a century ride depends on how much time you have between now and the event. The plan in Bicycling for Women is for people with a bit more fitness than the plan in my book, Training Plans for Cyclists. In the second book, I can have someone ready for a century ride in 12 weeks, beginning with a fitness level of riding only 2-3 days for 30-60 minutes per session. (Typical for spin class people.) Anyone who has the desire can complete a century — no matter your age.

How many weeks ahead of the event should you start training? How many days/hours a week will you need to spend on the bike while training for a century?

The Bicycling for Women (B4W) plan is 12 weeks, ranging from 4:15 to 8:45 hours of training time per week. This plan includes more intensity (speed work) than the 12-week Level I plan in Training Plans for Cyclists (TPC). The Level I plan in TPC ranges from 2:45 to 8:30 hours per week and does not include a lot of speed work. Think comfortable completion. The 12-week Level II plan in TPC ranges from 4:30 to 9:00 hours per week, but contains more interval and speed work than the Level I plan. Those wanting to do high levels of speed work before establishing a base of endurance fitness risk illness and injury.

Why is it important to do time trials while training for non-racing distance events?

Bicycling For Women Gale Bernhardt Velo PressI will often use time trials as benchmarks of fitness. This is a way to let people know that yes, indeed, they are making progress and getting faster for a given metabolic cost. Though some people want to complete a century and aren’t much interested in speed─I find everyone is interested in riding as fast as possible, given his or her current level of fitness.

In your book Bicycling for Women, you have training plans for a variety of events. Your plans are very specific. Why is it better for a recreational cyclist to do a training program like yours, as opposed to just putting in more time and miles/kms on the bike each week until they reach their goal?

Often people are told by certain experts to increase exercise time by 10% per week to gain fitness. What the experts don’t say is that does not mean 10% per week to infinity. They also don’t say what kind of exercise to do—fast, long, add a day of training, etc. People need to change their training and include rest breaks to make progress. Few athletes can do this intuitively and few will write down a plan that enables them to succeed. The lack of any plan leads to random training, which I find leads to an entire summer slipping by and no goals accomplished. A training plan is a way to guide people to success. They don’t have to follow the plan 100% to be successful—but if they can get 80% of it done, they will successfully complete their event.

It’s always tempting to skip strength training once cycling season starts. In your century training program you include two strength workouts per week for the first six weeks. Your book also includes strength training exercises. Many of these are done on gym equipment. For women cyclists who may not be familiar with gyms, or with weight room equipment (or maybe don’t have access to a gym), is it possible to do adequate strength training with an exercise ball, a sit-fit disc, an assortment of Thera-bands and a few small weights? What are your top five favourite strength exercises?

You can do some level of strength training at home. My favorite would be “chair squats” — lowering your fanny towards a chair seat, then back up again. You can hold weights in your hands, or put progressive weights in a backpack. ALL cyclists need to do some sort of weight-bearing exercise to minimize bone mass loss. Strength training complements cycling nicely.

Gale Bernhardt cycling coach and trainerMany women I know jump on their bikes at the beginning of a ride and tear off at top speed. Why is it important to spend some time warming up and cooling down?

The short answer is that proper warm-up prepares the body for work to come and minimizes risk of injury. Proper cool-down speeds recovery from the training session, allowing the athlete to put in another quality session more quickly.

I’ve seen century training schedules that include three 45-minute, easy to moderate rides per week, with one long weekend ride that is increased about 10 percent per week. The only change in the 13 week schedule is the increase in the length of the weekend ride. Besides boredom, what’s wrong with a training program like that?

I like to add some progression of hills, speed work and intensity in all training programs. How much is added depends on the athlete profile and the length of the plan. I like everyone to go as fast as possible, given fitness and time limitations. Who doesn’t like to go fast? Also, an ever-increasing volume program doesn’t allow for recovery. Never including rest weeks means the athlete does not get a chance to recover until the end of the program. That is waaaaay too long to stress the body and not allow it some R&R. Rest is when you recover and improve fitness to go faster and/or longer. No rest drives injury and illness risk up and, as you mentioned, increases boredom. A boring program is one that won’t be followed for very long. The athlete will quit.

Gale Bernhardt's Training Plans for CyclistsAt about the halfway point of the cycling season (after three or four months of cycling) some cyclists start to feel very tired and bored with cycling. Is this because they haven’t varied the pace?

If you’re following a plan where you increase the amount you cycle by 10% a week, after three months of doing that you’re going to be very tired. Fatigue has funny ways of affecting people. You don’t think you’re tired but you start to feel kind of crabby, little things that shouldn’t bother you do bother you, and you don’t feel like getting on your bike anymore. All those are signals that you need a rest. The format of doing two or three weeks of high intensity and volume cycling followed by a rest week gives people a rest goal to look forward to.

When you take a rest week can you do other activities?

It’s okay to replace cycling with swimming or walking as long as you cut back on the volume. With hiking you have to be a little careful depending on how strenuous you make it. You want to recover but you can do what’s called “active recovery”. That means you’re moving around but you’re not doing as much volume or intensity.

In your book you say that one of the biggest mistakes recreational cyclists make is to cycle at the same speed/intensity all the time. Why is this a mistake?

Mono-speed doesn’t allow the athlete to optimize speed, get faster, and at the same time leaves them in a constant state of low-level fatigue. Another no-fun training plan.

Why is it important to vary the pace of training?

It is a strategy to improve fitness. The amount of fitness you can gain by simply riding longer is limiting – both by strategy and by the athlete’s available time.

What happens to the body during rest and recovery?

The body literally repairs the damages done by the stresses of training and gets stronger, fitter. There is a list of specific physiological adaptations I can send you if you’re interested.

I noticed on your website that you mention that you swim and do yoga and other activities. Is it good to cross-train during the cycling season?

Some of that depends on how much time you have. If you only have four or five hours a week, the majority of it should probably be cycling with some weight-bearing exercise because of the concerns with bone-mass issues. People sometimes ask me how much better I would be if I gave up those other sports and my answer is I don’t know, and furthermore I love the other sports. For me, it’s part of keeping fitness interesting and not boring.

Gale Bernhardt cycling trainer and coachIs there any exercise you shouldn’t do during cycling season?

The answer to that depends on how competitive you want to be. For recreational cyclists, they can either do cycling to complement other activities, or do other activities to compliment cycling. In other words, gals who play softball and soccer may want to cycle to bump up their endurance, and minimize the amount of running they do to reduce the risk of injury. In that case they might use cycling as a complement to their primary sport. Or they may cycle just to get out and do fun things with friends—to do events like century rides. Those long rides are really fun to train for and participate in as a group.  You can do the ride with your friends and have a barbeque afterward. That way, not only have you done the century ride but you’ve also had all that fun training together—you might even travel to other places together for events. A training plan is a convenient excuse to do new and fun things. Having fun and staying healthy is the longterm goal.

On long distance rides how much should a cyclist eat/hydrate each hour on the bike?

It depends on the distance of the ride. For rides between 90 minutes and 3 hours, most people can do well by consuming one bottle of fluid and 150-250 calories per hour. Between 3 and 6 hours, I usually bump up the calorie rate to 200-350 per hour for century riders. Some riders will do well over 350 calories per hour.

Gale Bernhardt cycling trianer and coachWhat do you eat and drink on your endurance rides?

If I’m racing I tend to stay on liquid fuels—calorie drinks. I tend not to eat solid foods because I find that liquids work better for me. But during regular training rides, depending how long they are, I try to eat real food as much as I can. Things like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, or pretzels, or baked potato chips, sometimes energy bars but not too many of those. I prefer to eat non-processed preservative-free food. Sometimes on a big training ride we’ll stop at a sandwich shop and I’ll grab a sandwich.

What cycling events are you doing this year? How much time do you spend on your bike every week?

I was lucky enough to get into the Leadville 100 Mountain Bike Race again this year. This will be year #6 for me. My typical training week is atypical for a cyclist and can be found here: http://bit.ly/ayWmJN

Gale Bernhardt’s books are available at Chapters Indigo, Amazon.ca, and Mountain Equipment Co-op.

Photo credit: Don Karle

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