Improving Fatigue Resistance

By Kent Woermann

It’s mile 10 and your legs are screaming for mercy as you try to hang with the lead pack. The pace has been hot since the beginning, but the first big climb is coming shortly and you‘re determined to make the first selection.

At mile 12 the group approaches a long, steep climb and things get spicy. Two riders jump out of the saddle and smash the pedals at the base of the climb. Your legs are hurting, but there’s still snap left and you begrudgingly respond by shifting into a bigger gear and match the attacker’s pace.

You possibly blacked out for part of that climb, called your fellow racers mean names, and puked up breakfast, but you’ve made it over the top with a group of 20 riders.

You’ve made the first selection, now just another 95 miles to the finish line…

After a short period of rest, it’s time for the group to get organized and keep their lead over the big group behind them. Every rider will need to take their turn on the front driving the pace–time to eat and refocus.

For the next 80 miles, the group works together reasonably well. Besides the occasional “soft“ attack, the group does a great job sharing the workload.

As you near the end of the race you can sense the tension in the pack building. Everybody is getting tired, but it’s obvious many of the riders are on the verge of cracking, including yourself.

With 10 miles left to the finish you hear the “click, click, click” of rapid-fire shifting and a rider attacks off the front, catching you off guard. You knew this was coming, but in your fatigued state, you hoped everybody would play nice until the finish line was in site — yeah right!

You jump out of the saddle, but your legs are trashed and you at once realize your podium chances are gone unless every one of the 10 riders flying up the road takes a wrong turn or flats.

That was the final selection of the day and you missed it.

Those final 10 miles go painfully slow as you try to decipher what happened. Was it a lack of nutrition? Did you work too hard early in the race? Do you need more power to hang with that front group? Back to the drawing board.

Determining What’s Wrong

A lot of these longer endurance gravel races still have multiple high power, dynamic moments that define the race. When you miss a selection, it’s easy to blame a lack of power, and this could well be the case. More often than not if a rider can make the first high-powered selection, but not the second or third, it’s usually an issue of fatigue resistance.

In the story above the rider could make the first selection by gritting their teeth and holding on for dear life. When looking at the power file we can see the first selection took 5 minutes and requires the rider to produce 90% of their best power for that time range. It was a hard effort but totally within this riders’ capabilities.

The second key moment came with 10 miles to go. An attack went, and the rider responded by giving it everything they had for 2 minutes before giving up and settling into damage control mode. When looking at that 2-minute period on the power file you can see the rider only managed to hit 65% of their personal best power for that time range.

Summarizing the race:

• Rider showed adequate strength by hitting 90% of their potential during the first key moment of the race and made the selection.
• Rider maintained a steady pace for the next 80 miles.
• The rider could not hold their normal power capabilities during the final key moment of the race.

As a coach, this tells me we likely have an issue with race nutrition, pacing strategy, a lack of general fitness, or a lack of training specificity.

We go through the list and find the rider ate/drank well throughout the entire race, did an excellent job of staying out of the wind, and avoided unnecessary power surges.

This is becoming a clear issue with fatigue resistance and it’s time to dive into the athlete’s training data and create solutions to this problem.

Improving Fatigue Resistance

When reviewing an athlete’s data, I’m looking for a few key issues while also keeping in mind the characteristics of their goal event. For this scenario, we’re talking a 100-110-mile gravel race with a handful of 2-5-minute climbs at the beginning and end of the race, along with gentle rollers throughout the middle.

Items to review:

  • What are the athlete’s general training loads over the past 12-16 weeks?
  • How many rides have they completed in the 4+ hour range?
  • What is the power drop off when comparing best-recorded power to power after riding X-number of kilojoules? (‘X’ will be different for every athlete, but usually in the 2000-3000 range for 100+ mile events)
  • Are they performing focused tempo/threshold sessions and what is the typical dosage at this intensity range during the session?

There’s a typical pattern that pops up with athletes who suffer from premature race fatigue. They’ll only ride longer than 4 hours once a month or less, and often these rides are way too easy (too much time coasting or piddling around in Zone 1). If they’re performing focused tempo/threshold rides there’s a good chance the dosage is too small and/or never progresses.

So much information, an easy solution:

  1. Prioritize long, steady endurance rides in the 4+ hour range. The importance of always pedaling, both uphill and downhill at a steady rate (AKA proper endurance pacing) is a skill that needs training.
  2. Once the athlete has shown they can hold steady power for a 4+ hour ride, incorporate high-intensity intervals towards the end of the ride to simulate races, test improvements in fatigue resistance, and improve mental toughness.
  3. Increase the time spent at tempo/threshold intensities.

Conclusion

Being able to put out big power is an important part of bike racing, but your ability to resist fatigue and still hit those big numbers towards the end of a long race separates the winners from the almost winners.