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How to train and prepare for your best gravel race performance

Whether you're a seasoned cyclist or just discovering your love for two wheels, gravel racing offers a thrilling challenge that will push your limits and leave you craving more. 

But before you hit those dusty trails, it's crucial to understand what sets gravel racing apart from other cycling disciplines and how to train effectively for this unique endurance test.

before you hit those dusty trails, it's crucial to understand what sets gravel racing apart from other cycling disciplines and how to train effectively for this unique endurance test.

What is gravel racing?

Gravel racing, also known as gravel grinding or adventure racing, is a thrilling and challenging cycling discipline that takes riders off the paved roads and onto unpaved terrain. 

Unlike road cycling which primarily focuses on smooth tarmac, gravel races are set on rough and unpredictable surfaces such as dirt roads, gravel paths, and even singletrack trails.

What sets gravel racing apart is the element of exploration it brings to the sport. 

Riders navigate through breathtaking landscapes, immersing themselves in nature's beauty while battling against both their competitors and the natural obstacles along the way. 

The diversity of terrains encountered during a gravel race adds an exciting twist to the experience - from dusty desert plains to lush forests and everything in between.

The allure of gravel racing lies not only in its physical demands but also in its sense of camaraderie. 

Gravel events often foster a strong community spirit among participants who share a passion for pushing boundaries and embracing challenges together. 

It's about forging new connections with fellow riders, swapping stories of triumphs and struggles over post-race celebrations.

In terms of race formats, there is no one-size-fits-all approach in gravel racing

Additionally, distances can vary greatly ranging from shorter 30-mile or less races all the way up to epic 200-mile endurance tests that push riders' limits beyond imagination.


How are cyclocross and gravel different?

Cyclocross and gravel racing may seem similar to the untrained eye, but they have distinct differences. 

Cyclocross is a form of off-road cycling that takes place on a closed loop course with various obstacles such as barriers and steep run-ups.

It's a high-intensity, fast-paced discipline that requires quick accelerations and bike handling skills.

On the other hand, gravel racing involves riding long distances on unpaved roads or trails. 

The terrain can vary from smooth dirt paths to rough rocky sections. 

Unlike cyclocross, there are no artificial obstacles or barriers in gravel races.

In terms of equipment, gravel and cross bikes can be similar and are often used interchangeably. I use my gravel bike as my pit bike for cross races, for example. 

Cyclocross bikes typically have more aggressive geometry, narrower tires with knobby tread for better traction in muddy conditions, and disc brakes for improved stopping power. 

Gravel bikes are typically designed for endurance and comfort with wider tires for stability on loose surfaces and hydraulic disc brakes for reliable stopping in all weather conditions.

The nature of the events also differs between cyclocross and gravel racing. Cyclocross races are usually shorter (around 60 minutes) with multiple laps around a circuit, while gravel races can range from several hours to multi-day events covering hundreds of miles.


How are gravel and road cycling different?

Gravel and road cycling may seem similar on the surface, but there are some key differences that set them apart.

Let's talk about the terrain. Road cycling is typically done on smooth pavement, while gravel cycling involves riding on unpaved surfaces such as dirt roads or gravel paths. 

This means that gravel cyclists need to be prepared for uneven terrain and potentially challenging conditions.

Another difference is the type of bike used. Road bikes are built for speed and efficiency, with lightweight frames and thin tires designed to glide smoothly over pavement. 

In contrast, gravel bikes have wider tires with more traction to handle rougher surfaces. 

They also feature disc brakes for better stopping power in muddy or wet conditions.

The mindset required for each discipline can also differ. 

Road cycling tends to focus more on speed and competition, with riders aiming to achieve personal bests or win races. 

Gravel cycling, on the other hand, often emphasizes adventure and exploration rather than pure speed.

While both disciplines involve pedaling a bicycle, gravel and road cycling offer unique experiences and challenges that cater to different preferences and goals. 

Whether you prefer the thrill of racing against others on smooth roads or embarking on an off-road adventure through scenic landscapes, there's something out there for every cyclist!


What should you carry on a 100 mile cycling gravel race?

When it comes to long endurance events like this, being prepared is key. 

One of the most important things to consider is nutrition and hydration. 

Make sure you have enough water bottles or a hydration pack to keep yourself hydrated throughout the race. 

Don't forget to bring energy gels or bars to fuel your body during those long miles.

I typically have a hydration pack filled with water and bottles filled with electrolytes and carbohydrates, plus a top tube bag filled with snacks, especially Embark Maple Syrup!

Another essential item to pack is a repair kit. 

Gravel races can be tough on your bike, so having plugs for tubeless tires, spare tubes, tire levers, and a mini pump will come in handy if you get a flat tire. 

It's also wise to carry a multi-tool for any other repairs that may arise along the way.

Bring some cash or cards in case of emergencies or if there are any rest stops along the route where you can refuel with food and drinks.

Remember, each rider has their own preferences when it comes to what they need for a race. It's essential to practice carrying these items during your training rides so that you're comfortable with them on race day. 

Being prepared with the right gear will give you peace of mind and set yourself up for success in your 100-mile gravel race adventure!


What skills do you need for a gravel race?

Gravel racing requires a unique set of skills that differ from traditional road cycling. 

First and foremost, you need to be comfortable riding on unpredictable terrain. 

Gravel roads can be rough, sandy, or even muddy, so having good bike handling skills is crucial.

Balance and stability are key when navigating loose gravel and uneven surfaces. 

You must be able to maintain control of your bike while keeping an eye out for potential obstacles such as rocks or potholes.

In addition to technical skills, endurance is essential in gravel racing. 

These races can range from 50 to 200 miles in length, demanding both physical and mental stamina

Building up your cardiovascular fitness through long rides and interval training will help prepare you for the demands of the race.

Gravel races often take place in remote areas with limited support, so self-sufficiency is vital. You should know how to fix basic mechanical issues like flat tires or chain problems.

Don't forget about navigation! Many gravel races involve navigating unpaved roads through rural areas where GPS signal may not always be reliable.

Familiarize yourself with cue sheets or learn how to use a GPS device effectively.


What training should you do before your gravel race?

Training for a gravel race requires a combination of endurance, strength, and skill. 

To prepare yourself for the demands of racing on rough terrain, it's important to incorporate specific training into your routine.

First and foremost, you'll need to focus on building up your endurance. 

Gravel races can range anywhere from 50 to 200 miles or more, so it's crucial to have a solid cardiovascular base. This means logging plenty of long rides at an aerobic intensity.

In addition to endurance training, you should also include strength work in your program. 

Gravel racing often involves steep climbs and challenging terrain, so having strong legs will be beneficial. 

Incorporate hill repeats and strength exercises like squats and lunges into your routine.

Another key aspect of gravel race preparation is practicing your bike handling skills. 

Unlike road cycling, gravel riding requires navigating uneven surfaces and loose gravel. 

Spend time riding off-road trails or on gravel roads to get comfortable with the different feel of the bike.

Don't forget about recovery! Training for a gravel race can be intense on both physical and mental levels. 

Make sure to prioritize rest days and include regular stretching or foam rolling sessions to aid in muscle recovery.


How long do you need to prepare for a gravel race?

It's a question that many cyclists ask themselves when considering taking on this challenging and exhilarating event. 

While there is no one-size-fits-all answer, the general consensus among experienced riders is that you should give yourself at least 12 weeks of dedicated training before your race day.

This timeframe allows for proper conditioning of both your body and mind. 

Gravel racing requires not only endurance but also technical skills, as the terrain can be unpredictable and demanding. 

By gradually increasing your mileage and incorporating specific workouts into your training plan, you'll develop the necessary physical fitness to tackle the distance.

In addition to time on the bike, it's important to consider other aspects of preparation. 

Nutrition plays a crucial role in fueling your body for long hours in the saddle, so take the time to dial in your eating habits and hydration strategies during training.

Furthermore, don't underestimate the importance of rest and recovery. 

Adequate sleep and allowing for active recovery days will help prevent burnout or overtraining injuries.

Remember that everyone's journey is unique, so listen to your body throughout the process. 

If you're new to cycling or have limited experience with endurance events, it may be wise to give yourself even more time than 12 weeks.


What does the research say about training for a long endurance event?

Research indicates that training for a long endurance event, such as a gravel race, requires a specific approach to achieve optimal performance. 

One of the key findings is the importance of incorporating both aerobic and anaerobic workouts into your training regimen.

Aerobic exercises, such as long rides at a moderate intensity, help build cardiovascular endurance and improve your body's ability to utilize oxygen efficiently. 

These types of workouts should make up the majority of your training sessions.

On the other hand, anaerobic exercises focus on short bursts of high-intensity efforts. 

This type of training helps improve muscular strength and power, which are essential for navigating challenging terrain during a gravel race. 

Intervals or hill repeats can be effective ways to incorporate anaerobic workouts into your routine.

In addition to these two types of exercise, research suggests that including strength training in your program can also benefit overall performance.

Strengthening key muscle groups used while cycling can enhance stability and power output on rough surfaces.

It's worth noting that adequate rest and recovery are just as crucial as physical exertion in preparing for an endurance event. Research shows that allowing sufficient time for rest periods allows the body to repair itself and adapt to increased training loads more effectively.


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Paul Warloski is a:

  • USA Cycling Level 2 Coach
  • RRCA Running Coach
  • Training Peaks Level 2 Coach
  • RYT-200 Yoga Instructor
  • Certified Personal Trainer
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  1. […] business), and I’m currently following the program as closely as possible to prepare for some gravel racing next […]

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