Unfortunately, doing well at any endurance race is not as simple as training for hours and hours. This is especially true for the grueling, Leadville 100-mile MTB race, which takes place at over 10,000 feet of elevation and involves longer climbs and more climbing than most people have easy access to.
Luckily, most of us are limited in how much we could ever pedal in a week anyway, so the fact that success at these races involves something more than simply training for hours is a GOOD THING! Our fitness is a big part of the equation but what FITNESS is and how we apply our fitness through preparation, equipment, position and other methods will determine how well our big day goes.
My focus in this article is on everything *except* the training (although I do make plans to help you with that), because for most people with desk jobs, kids, 2 dogs and a mortgage Leadville is a different challenge than it is for a pro who can take already high fitness and adapt to high altitudes to roll across the line in under 7 hours.
Be A Student of the Race
The Leadville 100 MTB Trail race or other Endurance Bike Races tend to have huge followings and so there is a lot of content out there. When I signed up in 2011, I was looking for every resource (Leadville Pictures, Leadville video, race stories, etc) to help guide my preparation. Leadville is an event with many years of video, data and race-reports. Experience the race before you get there via media and then simulate the event as best you can in training and by attending ‘B-Priority’ races that are similar terrain, distances (50k-100k) and start-times.
Be Specific: Get Better at Riding Fast Up and Down Gravel Hills
So many people sign up for races but don’t think about whether they can (or want to) prepare for the goal they have set. Leadville is largely on gravel roads and double-track paths that climb very large climbs on an out and back route. If the idea of riding a mountain bike on gravel and climbing a lot doesn’t seem fun or possible given your current location and the confines of your time this is worth considering. It is possible to get ready on an indoor trainer or in a flat-urban environment but it might be frustrating.
Consider if you can get to better terrain by driving 30-60 minutes. I take clients on some of the best hills we have in Ontario during guided rides and camps. This area features 1-200 meter climbs that are on gravel roads and paths and allows you to accumulate a ton of climbing in a short period of time. It is a superb area to train for events like Leadville and Dirty Kanza. But many people will not drive to train. The question is if some of your training time is better spent getting to a specific area to increase the specificity of your training.
Eat Enough, But Not Too Much
Minimize the digestive work your stomach has to do. Save that energy for pedaling. Many athletes make the mistake of eating too many solids and overwhelming their stomachs with foods/fuel that they have not GamePlayed over distances, at specific intensities and/or while not at altitude. For athletes closer to ‘elite’ paces <9 hours there will likely be more liquid sources of fuel. As the day gets longer and pushes towards finishing in under 12 hours there is a bit more freedom to eat solid food. Regardless of the day that you are planning on having you want to make sure you prepare for that specific pacing strategy and the fueling strategy that works for you.
Rules of thumb: On these big days the general starting place is around 2-300kcal/hr (e.g. 2 gels, 1 Clif-bar etc). Maltodextrin-based mixes/gels seem to be most digestible, possibly with some fructose or simple sugar to allow for higher amounts to be digested by dividing the types of sugars you are consuming. Solids earlier in the race might be easier to digest while you are well hydrated and the temperatures are lower. Many distance athletes (e.g. RAAM and 24 hour Solo) will use products like Ensure to get a digestible calorie source; at Leadville, having an Ensure at the top or bottom of Columbine could work well.
As always, you should be practicing race day nutrition long before your race. How to Fuel an Ironman (Video)
Hone Your Mechanical Skill
Many a race is ruined, if not lost, based on little fixes on the trail. You should be able to take your bike apart on the course and reassemble. Make a list and start practicing. A good and patient local coach or friend should be able to help you through sticking points. (Read this for some tips on how to Organize Your Equipment)
Do. Not. Stop.
It is very important that, within reason, we never go 0 km/hr. Leadville and many similar races are about average speed. Keep rolling steady. You should not stop in the feed-zone, or to eat or to transition to a hike-a-bike. Situations may arise, such as nature breaks (although some may find ways to do this on the bike) but generally, try to plan and train for minimal stops to preserve that goal pace. The feed bag pickup is a place I messed up in 2011 and actually fell (so pro!) Having a spare hydration pack (chilled?) is a great strategy to restock water/food, tools/parts, warm clothing (as needed) for the altitude/weather on Columbine.
The details of your aid station and feed/drop bags are things that save minutes (or longer if you crash like I did!)
Pacing is Imperative
While on our bikes, we can add benefit to our training by making sure we learn what a sustainable pace is and how to hold it over varying terrain. I believe heart rate is still relevant to optimal pace even at altitude, but we also need to use our brains and experiences to inform when it is time to go or if HR won’t be used on a given day. My goal during my 2011 prep at sea level was to see my pace on hilly terrain (Miles/HR) come up to 1 mile faster/hour than my goal Leadville pace (14.7mph for ~7hrs over 103mi ).
Be Able to Function Off Your Bike and Avoid Cramps/Tightness/Back Pain
Be able to walk/hike uphill efficiently and dismount/remount easily, even uphill. Walking can be an optimal pacing strategy. Be efficient in mount/dismount and walking/jogging. Avoid getting stopped at zero miles per hour pace. Plan spots you will likely walk (top of Columbine and power-line on the return for many). Have daily mobility practice including standing often and walking a ton (i.e. on breaks at work and before-after meals). Bike fit and mobility are big causes of time off-bike so make sure these items are very well Game Played before the race. ( Check out this post on Mobility )
Get Ready for the Altitude, But Don’t Freak Out
Getting into the nitty-gritty of training, altitude will be a factor at Leadville, but don’t make it your sole focus. If you can go to a few camps to simulate your race pace at even moderate altitude, that will help. If you accept that it will be a bit harder and not exactly the same as home, it is part of the challenge and many people do no altitude adaptation and do fine thanks to good fitness and great pacing.
Altitude tents and respiratory training devices can be an asset in maximizing your adaptation to altitude and enhancing your respiratory system to help you be more comfortable with the increased breathing requirements at altitude, and while racing/riding/existing. Both devices can be rented from many companies. (Note that if you have a partner who prefers to NOT sleep in an altitude tent, his or her feelings should trump your desire for marginal gains. -from Peter’s wife / Consummate Athlete co-founder.)
I also like getting clients to practice breathing through their noses during their day and while on rides (start slow and breathe deep with BELLY). You should find you can eventually build your wattage while nose breathing towards ‘tempo’ (about Leadville pace) AND (in my opinion) this first experience with restricted breathing helps you be psychologically ready in Leadville.
Beta-Alanine and Sodium Phosphate-loading are two potentially beneficial supplements to help maximize Oxygen-dependent performance (under ‘threshold’), which is important at altitude. Ensure you have used both appropriately in training prior to Leadville and make sure you take care of all the (CHEAPER) basics first, such as fueling, sleep, mobility and bike skills. A special tip is to try to stay lower than Leadville the week off. There are many cool towns at a slightly lower elevation and I think it is worth getting better sleep, with a few rides in Leadville vs. Being in Leadville all week.
Maximize Aerodynamics, Position, Efficiency
Leadville is a mountain bike race but a lot of time can be saved by drafting and having a reasonable position on the bike (that you can pedal well in). Looking to optimize clothing (i.e. no garbage bag coats) and spend some time on the road in an aero position of some type (narrow hand position and maybe forearms on the bar). Elite Leadville times are becoming so fast that much effort is put into Aero (see 2016 winner’s bike/gear here). Recently, a bike company tested hairstyles and found that braided hair was more efficient than a bun or ponytail and also found some interesting gains from shaved legs and arms (but not face!). So there are some little wins you can get for low cost or a bit of skill practice.
While these concepts may sound basic and optimistic at times, I do believe that there is a ton of time to be gained for almost anyone looking at Leadville and similar races without even touching on fitness. We want to maximize the work we can do (fitness) and minimize the work we have to do with preparation, planning, health, nutrition, and equipment creating our best performance on THE big day.
Want these tips scheduled to fit 100% for your schedule, YOUR ability, and YOUR goals? We’ve found that most people training for Leadville benefit from a custom plan that works around their other commitments to maximize training time and capabilities. The 100% MADE FOR YOU 3-Month Plans will prepare you for Leadville or any other big adventures you have planned.
I would love to hear your feedback on these ideas, any questions they might spark or suggestions on ways to squeeze every last second out of your next big Endurance Race.