Monday, 13 February 2017

Racing The Munga - How to Prepare (Part 2 - Physical Training)

Now that you've landed on this page we need to get a few things clear. If you are a proper athlete then there is nothing of value to be found in these pages. This blog is intended for people like me - ordinary amateur cyclists who face the challenge of trying to shoehorn training into the regular clutter of life with a view to achieving better than ordinary results. And let's face it, if you can finish The Munga you are certainly well above average.

As discussed in the previous post I assume you know how to ride and have a race or two under your belt. If time permits keep up your regular habit of going to the gym, doing spin/Cadence/Wattbike sessions, or doing Pilates. These are all good training. Your challenge is how to translate shorter distance racing into non-stop distance.

Endurance adaptation is as much physical as it is mental. We will deal with the physical aspect first.

It seems the go-to tool for most people considering an endurance race is long slow distance (LSD) training. I have earned my distance stripes over the years so LSD training no longer forms any part of my training regime.

I have mixed feelings about promoting LSD as an effective training tool for endurance racing. LSD, in my humble opinion, is how you start your training season after a lengthy lay off - it's low intensity base training. In Gauteng we have great winter weather so we don't go into training hibernation. That being the case the use of LSD is questionable.

I know a number of people who ride endurance events whose staple training is LSD with a bit of hill work tossed in.

Sounds okay doesn't it. But here's my difficulty. If you train to ride slow you are going to race slow. During endurance events I always race slower than I train.

The most I will ride in training is 5 or 6 hours. Notice that I defined my maximum training effort as time and not distance. That's the first adaptation you need to make - distance in training becomes irrelevant, it's all about time in the saddle. In an endurance race most athletes travel at about the same speed. The biggest difference in how many hours they spend moving forward. When training, the terrain will dictate the distance covered in the time set aside.

I get no added benefit from going over 6 hours during a training ride. I simply end up tired and slow and off my bike for a few days while I recover. Fortunately I know I can ride for a long time during a race. In race conditions I'm good for 36 hours and on occasion have stretched that to 42. Knowing that I can do that takes away the necessity to ride like that in training. On race day I back off on my usual training effort which translates into a massive multiplier effect on the number of hours I can pedal before it's time to sleep.

It's a huge advantage knowing that you can ride forever. However, most people don't know their limit. This is one area where limited LSD will help. For a conditioned athlete a long slow ride is primarily mental training - there's little to no physical benefit - but It's comforting to know that you aren't going to collapse at the end of a 12 hour ride. Go and do at least one long ride. You could hop on your bike and go tackle a 12 hour training ride or you could be a little more methodical and avoid the very real risk of overtraining injuries.

Alex Harris (Mr Munga) understands that riding long distances is the experience of the few. With that in mind he has organised Mini Munga training rides. If you need to get your head and body around the concept of doing big rides then you should tag along on these rides. They start out at around 6 hours and over the course of a few months step up until you bang out a 12 hour ride. They are not particularly challenging or fast and are well within the grasp of a Munga entrant. If you are unable to complete a Mini Munga training ride then you need to rethink either your training programme or your decision to enter the race.

Once you know you can in fact ride for an extended period the next imperative is to start working on your effort and speed remembering that you are going to race well below this effort. I focus on riding shorter distances with an average heart rate of 80% of my max HR. My typical training ride is around 3 hours. The 5 to 6 hour rides are used occasionally as a system check - I ride them hard to see what sort of condition I am in. In general I keep my rides short. The vast majority of them on my mountain bike. No magic there, I simply prefer riding on dirt. A solid road bike session would be equally beneficial, particularly for a race like The Munga which is flat and fast. You need to get used to turning your legs over for hours at a time. Closer to the race it's better to do most of your riding on your mountain bike to get used to the set up and condition your arms and neck, particularly if you are planning on using aero bars which I recommend you do.

I would also recommend a couple of shorter non-stop races to test your endurance adaption under real race conditions and start working endurance into your very fabric. The one thing that you cannot train for is sleep deprivation and it's essential that you figure out how to deal with it. These races are an ideal opportunity to do so. The chances are that the first few times it will be hit and miss. Rather get the big kinks out before you get to The Munga. I've been at this game for 10 years and I'm still refining my techniques.

Among my regular races are the Freedom Challenge pair of Race to Cradock (575 km) and the Race to Rhodes (475 km) These are self navigated (without GPS) which make them particularly tough.

A far better starting point is another pair of races that I do - Durban Dash Down and Durban Dash Up by Massive Adventures. They are races staged between Jhb and Dbn over 615 km. They are GPS guided and are long enough to test your resolve and actually short enough to do non-stop. A great opportunity to get used to a little discomfort, learn the techniques of a power-nap next to the road, and deal with the monotony of cycling through the night into the next day when your brain just wants to shut down and sleep. Last year the Down version took me 28 hours and the Up version 36 hours. They are great races on which to cut your endurance teeth. In fact, they are great conditioning races and I will be doing them again this year. The idea of riding from Johannesburg to Durban or Durban to Johannesburg in one effort is captivating. It's a great story to share at parties as most people have driven between those cities and appreciate the distance involved. If that doesn't tickle your fancy then go look at the other offering at

To round out this post I will briefly mention a few other critical training techniques I use which I believe contribute to my ability to punch above my weight in endurance events.

Firstly, I train dehydrated. For rides of 2 hours or less I ride without water. If I can grab a cup of coffee along the way I will head out for a ride of up to 4 hours without water. Most people will shudder at the thought as we have all been indoctrinated by the twin mantra's of "Drink a bottle every hour" and, "By the time you are thirsty it's too late." Go google the subject and these themes ooze out everywhere. New research pours cold water on that advice (pun intended). I started riding without water years ago and subsequently found a study done Down Under that highlighted the benefits of training into a state of dehydration. I had stumbled onto something and it has proven to be a huge plus for me. Here are a couple of articles on this subject:

It would be irresponsible for me to advocate for anyone else to train into a state of dehydration, so the safe approach is to stick with the old advice of telling everyone to stay hydrated. But give it some thought and decide what works for you. It certainly works for me. The key is to only dehydrate during training. During an extended race you cannot deal with a hydration deficit so I make sure I drink enough from the start to match my losses. One of the added benefits is that I never panic about how much water I have left. I know I can go for a few hours before running into trouble. My plan is to always have sufficient water but in the event that something goes wrong, such as leaving Sutherland without filling my bottles in last year's race, I'm able to put it aside and focus on moving forward.

Secondly, I believe in the benefits of Banting, particularly for endurance athletes. I have been Banting for many years and my race performance has improved in leaps and bounds since I cut down on my carbohydrate intake. Once again, the old adages are no longer relevant. The saying of "Breakfast is the most important meal of the day" is simply not true for me. As a rule I only eat once a day - dinner. I can ride for 4 or 5 hours with nothing more than a cup of unsweetened tea for breakfast. For most people that's very odd as they wouldn't dream of riding that far without breakfast to sustain them through the ride. Banting makes your body efficient at metabolising fat. When you are Banting adapted you aren't dependent on glycogen to fuel your muscles, you have a few weeks supply of muscle fuel stored up as fat. Endurance cycling effort is low enough that your body can metabolise fat at a rate that can match your rate of burn. That said, when racing I put my Banting diet on hold and eat anything that is available or offered. If a chunk of cheese or a huge knob of butter happens to be on offer it is always the food of choice. The most important aspect is that while racing I am never overwhelmed by hungry and therefore am not distracted by the need for food. I simply eat as opportunities arise.

Thirdly, ride without stopping. I mentioned earlier that I stop for coffee during my rides. Apart from the coffee stop I try and move without stopping at all. Maintaining momentum is a key part of endurance racing. If you stop and wait for riding buddies or stop to stretch or eat, or are simply in the habit of putting your foot down every 30 minutes to look around it is going to cost you many hours during the race. Work at being efficient. During the race your transition times are going to become critical. There are 10 official water points and 5 race villages. Assuming you are going to stop and sleep 3 times that leaves 12 transitions that can either work for or against you.

Lastly, know your way around your bike. Some of us are blessed with great mechanical skills and it pays dividends when things go wrong. Experience has taught me that things will go wrong. I know some people who don't know how to plug a puncture, break a chain, or replace and adjust brake pads. I'm not even sure they have the requisite tools to do those tasks. These are essential skills particularly when the distance between some race villages is over 200 kilometres. If you are a mechanical dunce then sacrifice some trail time for some workshop time. Ask your local bike shop or a buddy to teach you the basics of how to keep your bike going while out on the trail.

So nothing amazing about that advise. It's broad brush strokes because I don't think there is a one size fits all approach. Endurance events are fairly new and not particularly well understood. Adventure racers know how to do this stuff and they rise to the top in long distance cycle races simply because they know how to deal with discomfort and that's key because the real challenge of endurance racing takes place between your ears. In the next post I will attempt to unpack the mental challenges as I understand them.

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