Gravel for Triathletes
Competitive gravel riding has taken off in the US over the past few years. Endurance athletes are gradually growing more interested in gravel racing. This blog investigates the rise of gravel training and racing from the perspective of triathletes entering the sport for the first time.
I’ve always promoted the idea of training away from TT and road bikes to mountain bikes in the winter. The benefits to upper body strength, bike handling, peak power and fatigue resistance are obvious. Traditional triathletes considering the shift to mountain biking in the off season, however, are frequently reluctant due to a perceived risk of injury. It’s ironic that by making such a decision they’re avoiding exactly the activity that would improve their bike handling!
Gravel biking can be a kind of middle way, as it has many of the same benefits as mountain biking but with a lower level of technical skill required. This means almost any triathlete can pick up a gravel bike and get started kicking up dust.
The ease of entry into the sport coupled with the comparatively low cost of gravel bikes makes for an easy transition for those trying to add freshness to their traditional year-in-year out training schedules.
The most important reason for riding gravel in the off season is that it can dramatically enhance your bike handling skills and riding capacity, leading to greater speed and endurance and lower times.
Traditional triathletes have hit the trainer studios and more recently Zwift and online trainer options when Fall comes around. While trainers have their place they are a double edged sword. They can have a very positive effect on Functional Threshold Power (FTP) while having a subsequently negative effect on your racing Intensity Factor (IF).
If all you race is Sprints with the odd Olympic race then this may be fine. If you’re a 70.3 or IM athlete, however, the results can be less than ideal. The reason for this is that your performance on a bike at Sprint events all the way through to Ironman comes down to the percentage of FTP you can hold for the duration of the race. It’s very possible in longer races for riders with the same FTP and body weight to have vastly different times due to the percentage of FTP they can hold for the duration of the race. The longer the race the more important tthis effect becomes..
It is in its effect on IF that Gravel riding can play a huge role in training — off season and year round. Gravel riding can have a positive effect on your FTP but more importantly it can significantly improve your IF.
IF is affected by factors including road fatigue, muscular endurance, base conditioning, neurological fatigue, nutrition and genetics. Gravel riding has a positive effect on muscular, road and neurological fatigue rates. The positive effects on these areas will have a direct effect on increasing the percentage of FTP you can hold throughout races leading better performance and faster post-race recovery.
Riding gravel also has the added benefit of getting you out the door and back into nature which is mentally refreshing and can help you stay motivated over the winter months. It also makes getting back onto a TT bike in the Spring much easier.
There are other advantages as well. Your moving speed on a gravel bike is 20-25% lower than on a road bike for the same effort. This means you get the same physiological benefits but at slower speeds meaning less convective cooling, which in turn makes it easier to stay warm. And, because you use more of your upper body to control your bike on gravel produce more natural heat so as long as you dress appropriately you can ride in almost any conditions.
Finally, safety, On gravel roads the numbers of cars and distracted drivers is vastly reduced. Also, any cars that are out on the gravel roads are traditionally traveling at a fraction of the usual speed making it safer for all concerned. I personally feel unsafe on paved roads quite often and yet I have never felt unsafe on gravel roads at all.
If you are looking to get stronger, faster and more fatigue-resistant and improve your triathlon-specific riding I strongly suggest getting off your triathlon-specific equipment and hitting the unpaved roads around your local area as soon as possible. And the best part is – it’s fun!