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Junk miles and how to avoid them

At one time or another every cyclists comes across the term ‘junk miles’, but what exactly does this mean?

Putting it simply, the term ‘junk miles’ refers to time spent on the bike that doesn’t provide any benefit to improving your fitness or race performance. 

But how do you know what type of riding this refers to? and,

What if it’s not as easy as just one type of ride?

The most important thing about avoiding junk miles is to have a good understanding of what the purpose of each session is and to understand the benefits achieved from riding at different intensities.  The reason for this is, what may be junk miles for one person may be a perfectly valid and beneficial training session for another rider.  Now this may appear a bit controversial so perhaps an example is in order.

Rider 1 is an elite level racer who is 2 weeks away from their target event, which is a hilly 150km road race.   Rider 2 is a beginner who has only been riding for two weeks, and wants to complete a 50km flat participation event in 3 months time.   Both riders complete a 1hr ride at very low intensity.  For which rider is this session a wasted session?  

Let’s analyse the requirements for each rider to find the answer.

Rider 1

At this stage of their preparation Rider 1 will gain most benefit out of sessions that closely resemble the intensity and terrain of their target race, in this case, fast race like efforts with lots of hills.

Additionally, they will need sufficient recovery time after the hard ‘race preparation’ sessions to make sure they fully adapt to the training.   A 1hr low intensity ride would fit the bill nicely, so for Rider 1 this ride would NOT be junk miles, so long as the purpose of the session was recovery.

Rider 2

With only two weeks riding completed, Rider 2’s primary need is to increase base endurance.    This would normally require riding at a low/moderate intensity to stress the body enough to improve fat metabolism and improve muscular endurance.

Riders at this level still need recovery rides, so very low intensity sessions still have their place, but the durations would normally be shorter, 20-30+ minutes.   So again, if the purpose of this session was recovery then it would not be junk miles.

So, which rider was doing junk miles?  Both, neither, Rider 1 or Rider 2?  Hopefully this example demonstrates the problem with identifying junk miles, this being that any ride can be classed as junk miles if it doesn't provide a specific purpose for the training and development of the rider.

Now let’s look at a few more examples.

Rider 3

is 23 years old and is training for the first event in the national road series.  These races are typically short tours, held over a 2-4 days with one, sometimes two stages per day, ranging from criteriums, to time trials and road races.    Rider 3 has had regular testing and trains using a heart rate monitor.  Their threshold heart rate is 174 bpm and the training zones are: Recovery under 119bpm, Endurance 119-145bpm, Tempo 146-164bpm, Threshold 165-183bpm, O2 over 183bpm.  

Rider 3 completes a 4hr ride with an average heart rate of 110bpm.   Analysis of the file shows that 90% of the ride was in the recovery zone and the remaining 10% was split between Endurance and low Tempo.  The stated purpose of this ride was to increase endurance.

The first thing to note about this scenario is the purpose of the session was to increase endurance.   This should have meant the rider kept their heart rate between 119-145bpm for the vast majority of the session.  Riding at intensities lower than this would not have suitably stressed the riders energy or muscular systems and therefore not provided the desired benefit.   In short, the session was filled with junk miles. 

While this example is probably extreme, its not uncommon.  What is more common is that the makeup of the session sways more towards the endurance intensity but not enough to be fully effective.   For example. lets say Rider 3 completed the same 4hr ride and ended up with an average heart rate of 120bpm, with 45% of the ride spent in recovery and the other 55% spent entirely in the endurance zone.   Did this ride include junk miles?  You bet it did! Nearly 2hrs worth. 

A final, slightly different example that is also quite common but not usually associated with junk miles.

Rider 4

has just been promoted from B grade up to A grade and is generally regarded as a good climber.  The first A grade race is on an 80km undulating to moderately hilly course, with a short but steep climb at 20km.   Rider 4 uses a power meter when training and racing.  Over the first 20km Rider 4 finds the pace uncomfortable and the leaders hit the climb hard.  Rider 4 is dropped about two thirds of the way up and never gets back on the bunch.   Rider 4 analyses the power files and decides that the problem is they need to improve their climbing more so they can keep up on the hill. Over the next three weeks Rider 4 completes four climbing sessions each week.  In the next race on the same course the outcome is the same?   What happened?

This example shows the importance of understanding the demands of races and the resulting training needs.    While the example above is a bit ‘high level’, the first thought should have been to improving the riders ability to handle the pace on the flatter parts of the course so that they arrived at the climb a lot fresher.  With a power meter the rider would have been able to analyse their power for the first 20km and compare it to their previous numbers and test values for that duration.   In this example it would be likely that the average power would have been close to, or over the riders threshold.  As such the emphasis in subsequent training should have been on boosting threshold power and perhaps focusing on enhancing bunch riding skills to gain more benefit from drafting.  So, for this example several of the hill climbing sessions conducting in the three weeks between races would be classed as junk miles and these should have been replaced with rides specifically designed to boost threshold on flatter terrain.

How To Eliminate Junk Miles And Make Your Training More Effective.

There are three key steps in eliminating junk miles from your training:

  1. Have a training plan, which effectively meets the requirements of your target races/events and help you improve in the key areas. 
  2. Use either a heart rate monitor or power meter to monitor and analyse your training and races.  This way you can review the effectiveness of each training session and improve it next time (if required) or more closely identify which areas you need to improve.
  3. Be selective with your group rides and closely match the training session purpose with the ride selected, and if necessary be prepared to add extra interval work in after (or before) the bunch ride.

Training Plans

This is perhaps the trickiest part of avoiding junk miles as any session might appear effective on the surface but a more detailed analysis of a riders abilities and the requirements of a race may reveal that different sessions will provide better results.   This is where a good coach comes in, but at the very least you should analyse your performance in races and try and match your training to improve in the right areas.

NB: A good training plan should also include sufficient recovery time and it should be noted that completing these sessions too hard should be classed as junk miles too.  Excess interval or hard sessions can also be junk miles if they lead to excess fatigue and over training.

Monitoring Intensity

This is the easiest step you can take to avoid junk miles and simply involves using a heart rate monitor or power meter when training.  While the availability of quality, downloadable heart rate monitors is at an all time high, a basic model that just displays real time data and a post ride summary is enough to get your started.   The key here is having accurate training zones and this requires completing a test to identify either maximum heart rate of threshold heart rate or power.  In the case of power meter users – more regular testing is recommended to ensure the zones are updates as your power improves.  Heart rate zones normally stay more stable so while it can be good to do repeat testing, the results will usually be the same – the exception being blood lactate testing which more accurately identifies the endurance training zones.

Once the training zones and plan have been set up then it’s simply matter of using your heart rate monitor or power meter to monitor the intensity during the planned sessions.  You don’t need to watch them constantly. To begin with pay more attention to your heart rate/power when starting to climb or descend a hill (even small ones) and after a while you will develop a better ‘feel’ for what training in each zone feels like on all types of terrain and weather conditions.

If you have a downloadable model, then you can take your analysis even further, however the scope of that analysis is quite broad and beyond the scope of this article.

Group Rides

Group rides form an important and fundamental part of training for cycling.  In the early stages they teach you important bunch skills and they provide a measure of your performance against other riders, which can be useful when selecting initial race grades.  However, as you develop as a rider the purpose and benefit of group rides changes.   Once you have developed good bunch skills the emphasis shifts towards the intensity of these rides and this is where most riders fall into a trap.   To be effective the format and pace of a group ride should closely match your ability and requirements.    Doing a ride that is too fast or slow can compromise the effectiveness of the session.  Even rides that have distinct sections, for example start easy and finish hard, can be poor choices as you may waste a lot of time at the start not working hard enough just to get to the beneficial part.  This is where it is important to understand the purpose of the group ride and to fit it in to a broader training plan which also provides dedicated intervals to facilitate improvements in the key energy systems required to perform well in your target event.

It is worth noting that part of the idea of a group ride is to have the pace harder than what you are comfortable with, but it should not be so hard that you cannot keep up long enough to gain a benefit from the higher intensity.  Getting dropped 60 seconds into the hard section invariably ends up with a rider easing off and then riding at a more comfortable pace.  In these cases the session is clearly junk miles and the rider would have benefited much more from a slower paced group or from completing intervals to improve fitness to the point where they can keep up for longer.

NB: One side note on group rides.  These form an important social part of riding and sometimes the intensity should and does play second fiddle to the group.   That’s perfectly fine, just remember to include suitable intervals in your training at other times so that you can keep improving.

Overall, the most important thing is being aware of what junk miles are so that you can take steps to minimise or eliminate them from your training.  This will lead to more effective training and increased performance.

Jason Mahoney Tuesday 10 September 2013 at 07:42 am | | Tips

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