What to do on long slow rides - Alpine-Cols


What to do on long slow rides

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Perhaps the most challenging part of adopting a Polarised training plan is getting used to the long slow rides. Riding for three, four and eventually up to seven or eight hours at a slow and steady pace just isn’t enough fun for many people. And yet… the research strongly suggests these rides to be the most effective way to build the strong aerobic base you need to be competitive.

I’m not going to go back over the research here, still less to resort to exhortations like Rule #5 (or even Rule #6). My goal is simply to suggest different ways you can make a long slow ride more interesting, more fun and more beneficial. Alpine Cols coaches Olivier, Silas and myself put our heads together to come up with the following 17 things you can do to pass the time profitably on your next long slow ride.

Beware, some of these exercises are only appropriate in a traffic-free environment or on very quiet roads. Stay safe!

In no particular order:

Ride With A Partner

So long as you have a similar level and share the same goal for the ride, the time will go by much more quickly riding two-abreast and chatting to a ride partner. Choose quiet, safe roads, keep an eye on the intensity and don’t half-wheel each other! Stay away from group rides which always push too hard on the climbs and not enough on the descents (see the next point).

Make It A Game

Ride from start to finish at the same steady intensity, whether going uphill, downhill or on the flat, so that when you look at your ride file your power and heart rate curves are as flat as possible. You will be going uphill at what may feel like a ridiculously slow speed, and you will have to pedal quite hard going downhill (without taking any silly risks, of course). The target intensity is 70%-75% of your FTP or your maximum heart rate.

Improve Your Pedalling Skills

Long slow rides are a great opportunity to focus on smooth pedalling. If you have a reliable power meter (such as the InfoCrank®) that can measure both Left-Right balance and Torque Effectiveness (TE) accurately you can get bio-feedback in real time and see the numbers approach 50/50 (for L/R balance) and 100% (for TE) as you improve your stroke.

Pedal With One Leg At A Time

This exercise is very beneficial for a smooth pedal stroke. Unclip one foot and hold it to the side while pedalling with the other leg. Choose a gear that allows you to pedal without undue effort and practice on keeping positive pressure on the crank for the full 360°. Change leg after one minute. This is a tough exercise so don’t overdo it to start with. It is guaranteed to increase your respect for amputee cyclists.

Increase Your Average Cadence

Winter is the best time to improve your ability to cycle at a high cadence, and you can do this while still keeping the overall intensity low. If you habitually measure and record your cadence, look at the average over the past few rides and set yourself the objective of pushing it up by 10rpm.


Another good way to increase your ability to pedal at high cadence is to do two or three spin-outs at the end of your initial warm-up, and then repeat them every 20 minutes. A spin-out means simply selecting a very easy gear and spinning up to the highest possible cadence for 2-3 seconds. Aim at 150 rpm+, and with practice you should get to 170 or even 180rpm!

Vary Your Cadence

On a flat road, alternate between low and high cadence every 5 minutes. Use your highest gear for the low cadence work (45-60 rpm), and choose a lower gear so that the high cadence interval will be around 110rpm, paying attention to the intensity so it always remains at or below 70-75% of FTP or HRmax.

Enjoy the Scenery

The autumn and winter scenes are often breath-taking in their beauty for those who have eyes to see. Riding at a steady endurance pace gives you plenty of opportunity to look around and enjoy the scenery. Even on a grey and misty day there are still stunning sights to see!

Improve Your Breathing

Many of us “just breathe” on the bike, without giving it any thought. It’s possible to control your heart rate through conscious breathing control (if in doubt try breathing fast for a couple of minutes to see the effect). On the bike, try consciously slowing down your breathing and breathing more deeply. You will take in more oxygen and your heart rate will fall.

Strengthen Your Upper Body Position

We all know that the most aerodynamic position on a road bike is to get down low in the drops, but how often do we practice riding in this position to strengthen our core? The more you ride in the drops through the winter, the stronger you will be in the summer.

Sharpen Your Bike Handling Skills

A great way to add some fun to your long rides is to throw in some occasional skills practice. Only practice these drills in safe situations, on traffic-free roads. For example, you might try:

  • Drink and eat with your “other” hand (the one you don’t normally use)
  • Keep pedalling constantly while taking the bottle, drinking, and putting it back
  • Riding hands-free
  • While riding hands-free, swap things around in your pockets
  • While riding hands-free, take off your gloves and put them back on, then progress to taking off/putting back on your gilet or jacket
  • On a suitable circuit, practice taking corners faster and faster, braking later or not at all and carrying your speed through the corner.

Dance On The Pedals

The French call standing on the pedals “dancing” and when you watch an expert it is easy to see why! Change to a low gear and pedal while standing up, without increasing the intensity. Practice rocking the bike gently from side to side with your wrists while your upper body remains perfectly still. Keep looking straight ahead during this exercise. Watch Olivier on the video below:

Improve Your Descending

If the weather and road conditions are favourable, an endurance ride can be a great opportunity to practice descending. In fact if you keep pedalling at 70% of your FTP in the descents, you may soon find yourself with more speed than you want!

Explore New Roads

When the goal is simply to spend several hours in the saddle at endurance pace almost any road will do, so why not try some new ones? Get the map out, look at the Strava heat-map, ask around and try some new roads this winter!

Ride With Less Experienced Riders

If you are a member of a large club, why not join a group that is slower than your normal group for the occasional ride? You’ll make some new friends and perhaps pass on some tips to the less experienced riders while still getting a good work-out at your endurance pace.

Test New Equipment

Long endurance rides are a great way to test new equipment, whether it be wheels, tyres, pedals, saddles, shoes, items of clothing or even a new position on the bike. If it remains comfortable after 5 or 6 hours, it is probably good to go!

Last But Not Least: Obey Rule #71 (Train Properly)

This one is worth quoting in full: “Know how to train properly and stick to your training plan. Ignore other cyclists with whom you are not intentionally riding. The time for being competitive is not during your training rides, but during competition.” You can read the rest of the Rules here.

What else can you do to enliven a long endurance ride? Add your tips in the comments section below!


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