You can if you time things right. Let me show you how...
A basic endurance ride usually lasts three to four hours. But it's only during the last hour that your metabolism gets challenged to adapt. You spend the first couple of hours getting your body into a glycogen-depleted state. At that point, your body is forced to begin relying on stored fat as its energy source.
But is there a short-cut to that last hour? Yes there is. A short-cut in time, but not in effort.
Get Your Last Hour Of Riding Done First
Ride for one hour shortly after waking in the morning, and before eating anything.
Your body is in a fasting state, with low levels of stored liver glycogen. All your body has left to fuel your workout is the glycogen stored in your muscles. This state is quite like that last hour of your four hour bike ride.
To get the benefits, you need to ride hard enough to recruit your Type IIa muscle fibres. Type I fibres are quite good at accessing stored fat for energy. But your Type IIa fibres need to adapt to using high levels of free fatty acids (FFAs) as a fuel source. FFAs come from stored fat, which is close to an unlimited fuel supply in your body.
Get those Type IIa fibres using more FFAs and your long-term (endurance) power output increases. By riding in a fasting state, those Type IIa fibres blast through your remaining stored muscle glycogen. The IIa fibres then develop the metabolic pathways to burning FFAs.
I call this form of training Free Fatty Acid Stimulation Training, or FFAST for short.
If Type IIa fibres are inefficient using FFAs, they start to break down protein - muscle protein. That's no good. You need those muscles. So take care not to go too hard, or too long.
FFAST Training Described
Use a power meter or heart rate monitor to ensure you're working hard enough to recruit your Type IIa muscle fibres. Warm up at an easy pace for about 5 minutes, 10 at most. Then, you want to be riding at 75-80% of your power at VO2Max, which should be Power Zone 3. Using heart rate, work it into upper Zone 3 to lower Zone 4 (based on the top of Zone 4 being your Lactate Threshold Heart Rate or LTHR). I find this is usually 15 to 20 beats below your LTHR.
It's not an easy pace to maintain for an hour first thing in the morning. I tell my clients it should feel "annoying." You can keep up the pace, but given a chance would rather not. It's effective training, especially this time of year when much of your riding is indoors (at least in Canada where we get snowy cold winters).
The workouts never get easy. If they do, you're not riding hard enough to recruit those Type IIa fibres. The workouts only get easier as you train your body - and your mind. Will-power works wonders to get you through these.
Be careful not to push too hard. Pushing hard can put you in a catabolic state where you begin digesting your own muscle tissue for fuel.
Fuel To Recover Immediately After
To recover and not feel like crap for the rest of the day, you must consume a recovery beverage when you're done. A blend of carbohydrate and protein works well in a 3-4g carb to 1g protein ratio. Within an hour follow that up with a good breakfast of protein and carbohydrate.
It's Not For Everyone — Here Are Some Alternatives
If you have troubles keeping the power output steady for a full hour, there are alternatives you can use. Use these alternatives to build to an hour of steady riding like this.
- Try working in 5 minutes intervals at the goal effort followed by 5 minutes of recovery spinning. Over a few weeks, work up to longer efforts and shorter recoveries.
- Ride 30 minutes at the lower end of the goal effort. Get off the bike and rest completely for 20 minutes. Then ride again for 30 minutes at the goal effort. Studies have shown higher FFA levels in the second 30 minute interval, more than a single 60 minute ride at the same effort.
Any way you do this, while you ride do not eat anything. Only drink water, or water mixed with some Branch Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs). Sports nutrition stores carry BCAAs in a powder form that allow you to mix it into your water bottle. BCAAs are a protein, and can be insurance against catabolizing your own muscle protein if you do go too hard.
Throughout the winter, you can ride like this 2 days each week — Tuesday and Thursday mornings. Lift weights Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
If you've got the time, and the weather is cooperating, go for an occasional four hour ride. It's great getting out for a big loop once in a while. But realize it isn't always necessary. FFAST workouts are effective, and time-efficient.
Fire me an email if you'd like help incorporating some FFAST riding into your training.
Reference: N.K. Vollestad and P.C. Blom. 1985. Effect of varying exercise intensity on glycogen depletion in human muscle fibres. Acta Physiologica Scandinavia 125, 3 (November):395-405.