The truth may surprise you
Ever since my days dabbling in marathon running, I have known endurance athletes to use the term “junk miles”, usually whilst robustly defending the credibility of their own training regimes. In almost all cases, the junk miles to which these athletes refer are those performed at relatively low intensity as part of longer weekend rides. The insinuation is that rides performed at lower intensities are somehow “junk” and more serious riders need to focus on high intensity or “quality” sets. This blanket, generalistic attitude will mean missing the most productive and valuable part of training.
So, to set the tone, here is my criteria for what constitutes junk miles:
Why slow miles and junk miles are not the same thing.
It is in fact true that cyclists of all levels need both low and high intensity riding in order to reach their potential as an endurance athlete. It is also true that the gains often appear most obviously to come during or after a block of high intensity work. However, these gains WILL be limited and finite and largely determined by how much lower intensity (or “base”) work a cyclist has performed prior to completing the more macho, adrenalin-fuelled fast stuff. The key to success on the bike is in getting the following right:
So there it is; ride too hard too often and aerobic efficiency will suffer, but ride too slow too often and anaerobic capacity will shrink. Because solid endurance performance relies heavily on both, a good training plan will ALWAYS include slower and faster riding. It is just the amount, timing and type that will vary.
By now it should be getting clearer, any riding session may be junk, just as any may be productive, which it is most certainly not determined solely by intensity.
A very wise lecturer that helped to shape my training and coaching philosophy once said: “if your training session does not have a purpose, it is simply NOT a training session”. Later I made this a more cyclo-centric thing that goes something like this; “If your ride has no purpose, it is no longer training, it just a ride”.
Purpose, of course, does not have to mean structure. Sometimes the purpose is to completely switch off, relax and enjoy the scenery and these rides can often be the best rides of the year, by no means junk.
Here are some tips for creating purpose in your rides that have nothing to do with intensity:
De-junking your riding is not about avoiding low intensity endurance rides (all pro riders do plenty of this). It is about knowing what /how much to do and when.
Do yourself a favour, get a well-devised plan and STICK to it and please stop pretending you know what junk miles are, until you actually do.
Enjoy the ride
You may have heard professional cyclists speak of needing to accumulate “racing miles” or “race days” in order to reach their best form. It may also seem a foreign idea for cyclists used to plugging away on training rides as a way of building form for a race or event.
So what it is about racing that seems to have the potential of lifting cycling performance to a new level and is it something that may work for the average rider? Well the answers can be a little bit complicated of course, so it first may be useful to look at how racing is a little unique in comparison to most other forms of cycling:
Of course, some riders are uniquely capable of simulating most of these characteristics in training. It is also possible to simulate some of these things using group riding sessions. In recent times Team Sky have developed a reputation for dosing in “race-like” training sessions at training camps and Sky riders have been known to say that “racing is easy after being at camp”.
I would encourage all cyclists to try some racing and/or incorporate some “race-like” intensity into their training plans. The key is to know how and when to do it, because although racing can be of enormous benefit, too much emphasis on this type of riding can erode aerobic fitness and endurance, which inevitably leads to a dip in performance over the medium to long term.
So, you may want to try some of the following strategies:
Enjoy the ride (race).